The best hack to be productive

Summary: To do more in less time, spend more time doing less. 

The summary is not a paradoxical statement. Given how busy everyone’s life has become and how being busy brings social prestige, to do more in less time people have to multi-task. But multi-tasking is the enemy of getting stuff done and the thief that steals our happiness.

Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, told The Economist, “Multi-tasking is what makes us feel pressed for time. No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity.”

When you feel better doing what you do, you get more stuff done and walk away happier. So if Dunn is right, it is better to do one thing at a time, which may inevitably mean spending more time doing less but still getting more done.

Some of the best friends I made at Oxford are those that are part of the Oxford Ideas Group. Our similar interests brought us close and they keep us close despite going down very different career paths.

One of those common interests was to find hacks to become more productive: to do more in less time. The “more” was not just for greater quantity but also for better quality. So after a few years of real-life experience, when two members of the group arrive at the same idea about productivity, there must be some “truth” to the revelation. For instance, Christo recently wrote that his “new secret for having more time” was to do less. My new year resolution is to gain more time by doing fewer things with greater focus.

This is a post in the best hack series, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: ryantron under CC-BY-ND.

The best hack for a healthy diet

Summary: Eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself.

In less than a century, we have gone from fearing impending famines to worrying about controlling a global obesity crisis. Those most affected by this are urban-dwellers. If experts are asked to choose the biggest cause for the obesity epidemic, they blame the growing demand for processed and packaged food.

It is not hard to understand why. The aim of food corporations is to ensure that they sell as much as they can. To do that, through years of research in the “cravability” department, they have figured out the ingredients that make their products tempting to buyers—salt, sugar and fat—all of which they use in unhealthy amounts.

Given the scale of the problem, people have come up with many solutions to dealing with obesity. Most common among them is to diet. I’m not obese but I wanted to understand how difficult it is to go on a diet, so I tried the slow carb diet recommended by writer Tim Ferriss. I managed to lose 3.5kg in four weeks. Some of my friends have tried the 5:2 diet and have made it work too.

While fasting has benefits beyond keeping you healthy, there are easier ways to maintaining a healthy diet. The best hack I know to achieve this is to eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself.

The rationale is simple: when you choose to cook yourself, you will avoid making foods like french fries or chocolate brownies on an everyday basis, just because of the amount of effort that goes into making them. You will also use salt, sugar and fat in conservative amounts. The result is you will eat healthier food without having to set up strict rules around what you eat and when.

I used to think that cooking for one person is just an inefficient use of my time. But I’ve changed my mind. The amount of time you cook is actually a very good investment given the health benefits.

Implementation: It is impractical to think you will be able to cook every meal. So there are two tricks that might help you cook as many of your meals as possible. First, when you cook, make enough to last you two or three meals. Eating the same tasty food you cooked three times is not boring. Second, allow cheat days for when you have to or you choose to eat out. Relying on my slow carb algorithm, a rule of one cheat day a week is preferable.

Bonus: In 2010, I wrote a series of posts on tasty quick fix recipes. Their aim was to live up to my mum’s words: “There is always something you can make from whatever you have in the kitchen.” Since then I’ve come up with many more such recipes, and it’s time to revive that series.

This is a post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image: chezmichelle, CC-BY-NC

The best hack for a to-do list

Summary: Every morning, put down on a to-do list only the three most important tasks. 

For the office-goer of the 21st century, a to-do list is both a boon and a curse. While it can help get stuff done, it also creates a lot of anxiety. That is because, on most occasions, the list keeps growing without an end in sight.

What is needed is a way to ensure that you get enough stuff done and end the work day on a happy note. The best hack I know to achieve that is to make a simple tweak to building a to-do list. It is not an original idea, but its implementation has completely changed how I work.

Choose the three most important tasks (MITs) that need to be done that day, and put them down on a to-do list. Come what may, decide to do those three things before leaving work. If possible, do those them first in the morning.

Of course I do more than three things every day, but the idea is that I ensure doing the things that matter the most first. I leave work without lingering anxieties of incomplete tasks at hand.

The exercise is not as simple as than you’d think. The prime difficulty is the prioritisation of tasks. But once you start doing it, you realise through trial and error how to find those three MITs. And it is that which really changed how I work.

Bonus: There are two more tweaks that I’m trying to implement to this routine. First is to ensure that I leave work at a certain time. This is to respect Parkinson’s law that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Second is to choose one of those three MITs to be a task towards a long-term goal. On days when I have been able to do that, I feel I’ve accomplished more than what is needed of me at work, and I sleep a little better that night.

This is the first post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: naomi_pincher, CC-BY-NC-ND