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.


My worst days as a kid gave me the most valuable productivity hack

Radiolab, one of my favourite things on the internet, ran an episode on morality a few years ago. The main question they asked was whether our sense of morality is something we are born with or something we learn. If it is the latter, then how? The one-hour story is worth your time, but there is one aspect of the three-part story that I want to discuss.

In the first part, they observed chimps to find that even among our primate cousins there exists a rudimentary system of morality. Their example comes from how these chimps share the food that is given to a group. Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that each one of us has this rudimentary level of morality that we have inherited through millions of years of evolution—this is the “inner chimp” hypothesis as one scientist puts it.

In humans this inner chimp starts acting when we are two or three years old. And then we refine it as we go through the experience of life. Most of this refinement, not surprisingly, happens when we are kids, as we see in the second part in the episode, which involved an example from the school life of Amy O’Leary, now a New York Times reporter.

In grade four, one of Amy’s teacher got the kids to play a game that would help them learn some history. The game was called Homestead and it was something like Monopoly where each student received certain resources and had to play by simple rules to win. The main rule of the game was: “Do what you think is right.”

Amy cheated. She looted some of her classmates who wanted to be part of an in-group and even flooded the market with fake money. The teacher who ran the game realised what was happening and called a meeting of those who were involved. He asked Amy, who had become a leader by now, “What are you going to do?”

When she said “nothing”, the teacher used it as one of those “teachable” moments and showed his disappointment in her without directly intervening in the game. That look on her teacher’s face has stuck with Amy for all her life.

Just as she finished telling the story, I was flooded with memories of the many guilty moments that have left such moral lessons in my life.

These moments are painful. Most of them involve a scene at the end where my mum is tired of reprimanding me, or my dad is about to get angry, which happened on rare occasions and terrified the hell out of me. Some are absolutely clear, as if the expressions on people’s faces were recorded on a photographic plate in my head. Others are vague, with the characteristic fog that blurs the details leaving only a strong sense of shame.

This I’m sure has happened to many of us. I asked a few of my friends and all seemed to share anecdotes of times they remember when they did something wrong, but only realised that it in hindsight. A painful lesson was learnt and they carried it for all their life.

One such lesson that I have etched into me has helped me tremendously. It involves mischief and feedback.

Beat me to it

As a naughty child I may have done wrong things, but mostly I did annoying things. Of course, in my head, I was only having fun and that was no crime. But people around me seemed to have low tolerance, and I was told off too many times. I hated it. Mostly because I wasn’t given a proper reason for why my actions were annoying. Of course, if I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, I wasn’t going to learn to do the right thing.

That is why the annual school open day was the worst day of the year. It gave the teachers an opportunity to complain to my parents and get the guilt off their chest. They did this in a polite manner, which I always thought was wrong. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk to me in a polite manner in the first place?

All that admonishment left scars. It might have taught me something about morality, but more importantly it gave me a really useful hack.

In hindsight, I realise that I didn’t understand the reason for stopping me because my natural empathy levels were low. I had that realisation partly because even as an adult I sometimes struggle with it. And to counter my lack of empathy, I developed a system of wanting a constant stream of feedback. I want to know as often and as early as possible if I’m going wrong somewhere.

But I also needed to develop a thick skin. When you are open to feedback, some would be constructive and much hurtful. This is the reason, as the thinker Seth Godin puts it, adults don’t seek feedback as often as they should.

When you can get this system to work, however, it’s absolutely fantastic. It is the best productivity hack I know for becoming better at something quickly: ride the cycle of practice and feedback. It has been a painful but useful lesson.

Image credit: Zen

Why memorising matters and what I’m doing about it

I hate rote learning as much as anyone can. My high school exams were a nightmare to prepare for. I detested the process of memorising facts, just so to vomit them out on an exam paper. So much so that I did not feature in the top few of my class till class 10. My teachers’ regular complain to my mum on open days at school was: “He has so much potential. He just needs to put in some efforts.”

The Indian education system made the words memorising and learning synonyms. Even during my days at one of the best engineering schools in India, I found that there were many who did much better than me because of their sheer ability to “maro ratta” (commit to memory). Ask them a critical question, one that doesn’t usually feature in an exam paper, and they would be clueless.

The UK school system is much less focused on memorising. A good portion of assessment is based on assignments done through the year. The US system, I get the impression from reading Moonwalking with Einstein, is quite opposed to memorising. I know that open-book university exams are quite common there. In the age of the Internet, it makes sense that rote learning is given as little attention as possible.

But memorising facts has an important role to play in almost all professions. For instance the more writing I do, the more I feel the need to be able to remember all the wonderful things that I read, just so that I am able to either cite them or use their ideas to develop new ones. Invention is a product of inventorying, as Joshua Foer explains.

To that end, I’ve decided that I need to take memorising seriously. So far I’ve been committing to memory without paying attention to how I do it. But as we know, to get good at something requires deliberate practice. So here is how I plan to do it henceforth.


I’ve created my own private version of Wikipedia. It’s a google doc where I store all the information that I know related to a thing or an idea. I call it conceptopedia because, even though it’s mostly full of facts, it is a place where I externalise the memories that helped me understand a concept (hoping of course that in time I will internalise them enough to delete them from there). Example of how an entry looks: 


– Science writer Mark Lynas delivered a speech in which he admitted that he made a mistake by starting the anti-GM movement. Apparently he had changed his mind much prior to the speech. He even wrote a book called The God Species praising GM in 2010.
– 1st traceable genetic modification is that from 10,000 years ago when Turkish farmers mutated the Q gene on chromosome 5A of wheat. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– 50 years ago scientists irradiated the barley to create a high-yielding, low-sodium variety called “Golden Promise”. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– 20 years ago scientists inserted specific sequences into rice plants to create a version that synthesises more vitamin A. They knew what letters to insert but no idea where they went. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– Now precise, multiple editing of DNA is here claims Ridley. And it is being done by a private enterprise. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)

Wherever possible, they are hyperlinked to where I got that piece of information from if I need to refer to it again. I know that this is going to be an exercise that might take quite a bit of my time, and I’m trying to build tools to make it easy. One way is to use Evernote’s Clipper add-on in Chrome (there is even an iPhone app, EverClip) to save important pieces of information with the right tags. Then once a week or so I go through the clipped bits and add them to the conceptopedia.

Mind maps

I chose to read Moonwalking with Einstein early on in my #100bookschallenge for a good reason. I want to ensure that I retain a lot more than I usually do from reading these fantastic 100 books. Normally, after a few months, I only have a vague idea of what the book was about. This time it has to be better than that.

As I wrote in the review of the book, the book gave me tools on how to remember to-do lists, phone numbers and the order in cards in a deck. Whereas what I was looking for was how to remember ideas. Foer subtly mentions that things that you often remember are things that you paid really careful attention to. If some fact blew your hat off, then you will remember it. You will also want to share it with someone which will only reinforce that memory.


But not all facts are that amazing. So the alternative is to build mind maps. These can really work if done well, and I plan to find ways of making the most effective mind maps. The plan is to make a mind map of every article I write before writing it and of every book as I go along reading it. And of course I am planning to review each one, so that should help me synthesise that information in my head too.

What do you think about memorising? Are there any techniques you use to commit things to memory? Are there any tools for managing your notes that you would recommend?

Image from here.


Do what works and not what’s satisfying

Most of us avoid doing what works, instead we rely on self-made plans which gives us pseudo-satisfaction of working. Looking at patterns of success, Cal Newport of Study Hacks concludes that 

It’s significantly more pleasant to pursue a goal with a plan entirely of our own construction, than to use a plan based on a systematic study of what actually works. The former allows us to pseudo-strive, experiencing the fulfillment of busyness and complex planning while avoiding any of the uncomfortable, deliberate, often harsh difficulties that populate plans of the latter type.

Gladwell’s recommended 10,000 hours will not make people remarkable unless they put in deliberate efforts to become better.

It’s not just about 10,000 hours

Malcolm Gladwell suggested that one needs to put in the 10,000 hours to become exceptional at something. Researchers say that mere number of hours of experience don’t translate into exceptional performance, but what does is deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

1. It is designed to improve performance by attacking weaknesses

2. It involves repetition (so one needs to overcome boredom)

3. It needs feedback to better the routine

4. It is highly demanding mentally (needs lots of focus in efforts)

5. It is hard (doing what you are bad at repeatedly cannot be fun)

6. It requires setting goals about improving the process rather than the outcome

A smart excuse to not put in the effort

At some point in our lives we seem to find ourselves in a kind of ‘flow’ where we find our work effortlessly enjoyable. All the knobs in our heads have been tuned just to the right extent allowing us to feel this rare but satisfying feeling of being in the flow. Unfortunately, despite the amazing feeling that one experiences in this state, it doesn’t really help us get better at what we do, warns Cal Newport of Study Hacks.

Once we experience ‘flow’ we are tempted to seek it out. I have experienced this state of flow a number of times, and I admit to have fallen trap to the temptation. When in flow, it feels that I am on a cognitive high, able to make the connections needed to construct an argument, able to draw on the data that I need to plan my next step, or even to grasp exactly what I want to learn. When in flow, I feel extremely productive, and it is tempting to want to feel like that whenever I work.

When Newport first brought up this issue on his blog, he found there to be a lot of discussion among his readers mostly because of the lack of clarity in the understanding of what, exactly, flow means. To the rescue came Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, who introduced the idea of ‘deliberate practice’ which is what really makes us better at what we do. He says:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (flow) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In short, as Cal Newport puts it, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. There is no avoiding working on our weaknesses if we want to get better at doing something. When in flow, we tend to capitalise on what we are good at and make it work to our advantage. On the other hand, when we need to get better at something by overcoming our weaknesses, we need to put in deliberate effort to improve. This needs to be done in the face of feeling ‘you are not good enough’, which clearly cannot be enjoyable.

No more making smart excuses such as, “I need to hit that plane, and once I’m there I know I can get a lot of work done and get better at doing what I do.” Ericsson’s warning should be given due to attention:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers claimed that what made exceptionally successful people exceptional was that they had put in 10,000 hours of work into bettering themselves at what they do. But Ericsson warns that there is only a weak correlation between the mere number of years (or hours) of experience and the performance.

In other words, putting  in the raw number of hours isn’t enough. Those hours needed to be dedicated to doing the right type of work. Newport claims that understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life.

Newport quotes Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea and surveyed the research literature to expand the definition of deliberate practice:

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

A lot of the studies done on exploring this subject of deliberate practice have, not surprisingly, involved sportsmen and musicians. These professionals have objective measures of success which makes studying them easier. But what about the rest of us who don’t have such clear structures in place? How do we invoke deliberate practice to get better at writing, or marketing, or research?

Calvin argues that in most scenarios the fundamentals of fostering great performance are unrecognized or ignored. If indeed that is the case, the payback of putting in any amount of deliberate effort would be huge. Why? Because, as Newport suggests, unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on deliberate practice.

Most professionals will get better at what they do with experience and will reach an acceptable level of performance. But to become remarkable, there is no other way but to put in the deliberate practice needed to get there. There are no obvious answers to what constitutes deliberate practice in a particular field, and that is probably what differentiates those who lead remarkable lives from those who don’t.