One of the questions I get asked most often is:
How do you get into your most productive modes?
Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve experimented with a lot of things and have arrived at a “stack” that I use when I need to be at my most productive, so I thought I’d share.
While you need to find a “stack” that works for you, this is how I get into my most productive modes:
Table of Contents
First things first – get rid of the distractions.
Freedom is an app that blocks distracting websites. There are a bunch like this (focus, self control app, etc), but I’ve found Freedom to be the best fit for my work schedule.
Best of all, it works on your iPhone too, so you can forget about being distracted there as well. No cheating!
Morning Brain Download
I spend a lot of time trying to quiet all the things going on in my head.
The best way I’ve found to quiet my head is to write it all down first thing in the morning (or whenever my head starts to get busy). This can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes and can sometimes literally be “blah, blah, blah.” What you write isn’t really as important as the fact that you’re getting it out of your head and onto paper (or screen). Then, you can leave it and come back to it (if you really want to), and don’t have to deal with it bouncing around in your head while you try to get work done.
As for tools, I use DayOne, but you can keep it offline in a notebook as well. I find I write much faster on a computer than I do in an old-school notebook.
Alpha Brain (2 capsules)
I’m not a supplement junkie (and I used to never even touch pills), but Alpha Brain is one of the ones that started to turn me.
The primary ingredient is Alpha GPC
Please do your own research (and ideally experimentation), but I’ve found that it works quite well for me.
Made by Onnit, Alpha Brain turned me into the closest version of a “fan boy” that I could be of their products. If you’re in Austin, Texas, they have an awesome fitness facility you should check out.
New Mood (1 capsule)
I got introduced to New Mood after Alpha Brain to help me sleep better (there’s a whole post coming on this soon).
However, through some experimentation, I found it also helped me chill out a bit throughout the day. While I might take 2 at night, I take 1 before I sit down to work (along with the Alpha Brain) and it helps me bring a better mind to the day’s work and problems.
Iced Coffee (Cold Brew) + Water
It’s the best.
I don’t really enjoy hot coffee (no matter how much patience I have, I always burn my tongue), so Cold Brews are typically my caffeine vehicle of choice. However, if I have more than 2 of these per day, I get jittery and feel terrible at night. Find what works for you.
Also, if I get stuck on a problem, email or article, I reach for a drink. If the beverage next to me is a coffee, I end up drinking way too much. For that reason, I like to have a reasonable amount of water within reach so I don’t end up all jittery.
I’ve written about this before, but the main goal of pomodoro (for me anyways) isn’t necessarily working in just 25 minute increments (sometimes I need much longer time chunks to get quality work done).
However, the best thing that comes out of me from planning work like this is that I force myself to DEFINE what I want to accomplish in a specific amount of time.
When people complain about procrastination or not being productive, it’s often because they haven’t decided what they want to get done in the first place.
Definition is the hard part. Once you’re clear on that, execution is easy.
[email protected] is a website that uses music to help you hypercharge your concentration and focus.
In general, I find mellow beats or music without words works best for me. Another hack here is to find 1 song, play it on repeat, and have it be your “productivity” song. It might sound annoying, but if you do it for a week, the song becomes a little hypnotic and a “trigger” to remind you to dive into your work and get in the “the zone.”
=> Get [email protected] (I like the AlphaChill playlist)
My three favorite Spotify playlists for productivity
Move Every 2 Hours
This might be the biggest thing for me.
Often, if I get stuck in a location, then I get stuck in my work. I’ll get up hours later realizing nothing has gotten done and I got lost in my own mind.
The trick to this is to “wake yourself up” from work more often and check in with how you’re doing. The best way for me to do that is by physically getting up and moving.
Currently, I’m holed up in Chiang Mai for the last week. Here, there’s 2 cafes on every block, so every 2-3 hours, I pack my stuff up, grab some street food and head to the next cafe. I’ve found that this workstation popcorn is my ideal scenario. However, if I’m in a situation where I can’t switch cafes or if I’m working at home, I make a note to get up, get away from the screen, and walk around the block, work on the day’s pushup grid, or do jumping jacks.
Whatever it is, getting your body physically moving again can help you refocus your mind keep on task.
There you go – that’s what I’m currently using to stay productive on my best days. It might change over time, but I might do regular updates on what I add or subtract over time.
What’s your current productivity stack?
The idea of taking cold showers came to me by a TED-Talk i listend to half a year ago. It works, it’s one of the simplest and best working things I have ever tried out. And believe me, I have tried out very many things.
LOL. You probably watched Joel’s tedtalk on Cold Showers and you’re telling him about it like a tip. Haha.
You wrote … “Definition is the hard part. Once you’re clear on that, execution is easy”
My favorite saying right now is “Once you make the BIG decision, everything else is just details” … everyone has a tendency to get caught up in the details (and possible “outcome” scenarios) way before they even decide they want to do something. That’s a quick path to wasting time … better to decided the WHAT, before you even start thinking about they HOWs.
You have problems sleeping?
You have written that you drink two coffees a day, what did you expect?
If you have problems sleeping you should firstly lower your coffee intake.
And about falling asleep, you should rather take melatonin which is quite cheap, and is naturally produced in your body to make you sleepy. That “New Mood” thing you take … Stop taking that crap. It’s essentially as taking drugs everyday to help you “chill out” ….
If you want good sleep you should develop good sleeping habits and not take *drugs* every day before sleep. When such things become a habit, they become a drug.
If looked around on onnits side what’s inside this “New mood”
Among other things, they added Valerian Root, which it self would be more then enough to help falling asleep. They would also help you to “chill out” but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The main mechanism of Valerian root is inhibiting the oxidation of mono amines (like dopamine and serotonin which is why you will chill out and fall asleep). It basically just lets more dopamine and serotonin sit in you synapses.
If you miss a day without it, you will probably have sleep paralysis that night!
I have taken a Valerian root extract in pill form some time ago and when I stopped taking it, I had sleep paralysis several nights. It’s not worth it. If you need to induce sleeping, take melatonin and develop good sleeping habits. Don’t buy shitty, expensive products.
As for the “Alpha Brain” thing, It may work … http://examine.com/supplements/alpha-gpc/
As for the [email protected] … I’m not sure about learning with music, I’ve read before that that’s not the best idea. I like this celestial white noise though: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzjWIxXBs_s
It felt right to reply, although I rarely do so.
I came over your blog once and it seemed cool, I subscribed to your email newsletter, but this post mostly smells like bullshit and placebo …
Joel Runyon says
Thanks for the response. The examine article is good – but most of the verdict is on results in respect to longterm cognitive decline – not short term enhanced focus. A lot of the studies on GPC reflect work with alzheimer’s patients. The gap between what I’m using it for & what those studies were on is pretty big.
I don’t know if I “buy” [email protected]’s claims to enhance learning, but their beats are cool & help me focus :).
The coffees are earlier in the day – I typically don’t drink anything after 2pm – and the caffeine is typically out of my system by the evening. My sleep issues tend to come from screen usage and the lack of routine & priority given to it. I’ll share my sleep stack (which includes a couple different habits) soon and you can tear that apart 🙂
I will dive into valerian root ingredient though. Thanks for sharing.
Have you tried using an app like f.lux? It’s quite startling to disable it at 2am after a night of staring at the screen and watching the blue light return to momentarily blind you with it’s ghastliness! The reduction of blue light in favor of warmer red and orange tones certainly makes a huge difference (your sleep and eyes). Just make sure to disable for graphic / color-specific work :).
Dmitri Larionov says
Cool article, great to learn about different productivity strategies. Moving every 2 hours is a great call. People say sitting is bad, and others say standing all day is bad, but truly it’s just bad not to move.
The human body evolved in motion, running from predators, running after prey. Our immune system requires movement to pump lymphatic fluid around our body. Our brain uses lots of energy and oxygen. Great reminder to move around and take breaks.
Also,thanks for the app recommendations. I found an app called rescue time that tracks your computer usage and tells you how productive you have been. http://www.rescuetime.com
My current productivity stack looks like this:
– First thing in the morning I take out a blank 3×5 card and write out what I need to do that day. Often this involves copying over items not completed the previous day. It usually ends up being about 5-7 things, with 3 of them being bigger to-dos. I then draw a horizontal line about 3/4″ from the bottom (card in portrait orientation). This is where I will record my pomodoros for the day.
– I’m with Joel on the hot coffee. I don’t like hot drinks at all, so I drink unsweet tea. A LOT of unsweet tea. Probably close to a gallon a day. Combination of brewed at home or I get from a nearby cafe. I have to cut the stuff off around noon or I have problems getting jittery and issues sleeping at night. After that I drink cold water that I keep in a 32oz Hydroflask, which I love. I probably drink 1/2 – 1 gallon of H2O after lunch.
– I work in Pomodoros as well, with 25+5 as intervals. I use a kitchen timer I bought from Target. I also learned about this from Joel’s related article on this site. Every 25 minutes gets an “X” on the index card as noted above. After 4 pomodoros (2 hours) I will take a short walk up/down a couple flights of stairs or do about 20 bodyweight squats. If I’m feeling tired I may even bang out some push ups. I’ve got a foam roller and lacrosse ball nearby if I’m feeling too stiff.
– I use [email protected] as well. Again, having heard about it way back on Joel’s viral “Workstation Popcorn” post. I listen to the Cafe Focus Beta channel on the low energy setting before lunch, then after lunch it’s a switch to the Up Tempo channel on the high energy setting. After reading this post earlier this morning I tried the Alpha Chill channel Joel mentioned as my before lunch sound and liked it.
– A standing desk. I absolutely cannot ever, ever work without this again. The model I use is the StandDesk. Make sure to get a pad to stand on (I use the one StandDesk makes). At home my standing desk consists of a folding laptop and keyboard stand that I put on the dining room table. Here is the one I use at home: http://amzn.com/B00FCFT928
– The Pocket web service/app. During my 5 min breaks, I may view some websites and find some interesting stuff I want to read later, so I save to Pocket. I have their ios app as well which works great. They’ve even got a “recommended” button you can click on that will serve up items based on what you’ve archived in the past and I find great content through this all the time (I’m a paid user, so I don’t know if that is part of their free service or not). In fact, Pocket is probably the reason I haven’t needed a web content blocking tool like Freedom. I save stuff and know it will be around later so I don’t feel pressured to read immediately and get lost in the internet death spiral.
– One last thing…I always make sure to write down things as they pop up in my mind (to-dos, ideas, etc) for later assessment. Again, keeps me from getting too distracted. I do use an electronic calendar and to-do list on my phone. The closest thing I’ve come across to what my system looks like is this: http://zenhabits.net/minimal-ztd-the-simplest-system-possible/
Joel, I’m sure you can tell that you’ve had a huge influence on my work habits and life outlook. I sincerely appreciate it and look forward to more posts and the next podcast series.
Interesting read, I need to concentrate quite often for studies, and I’ve found drinking water, or making tea, will help. Also every morning identifying just one thing you want to accomplish for the day, so that even if you accomplish nothing else, you’ve got that one major task completed. It’s a good feeling.
Justin Gordon says
Hi Joel, thanks for the tips. I just listed my favorite productivity tools here: http://forum.shakacode.com/t/what-are-your-favorite-productivity-tools-with-mac-os/388
I’m pretty obsessive about maximizing productivity.
Hey, I don’t read your stuff often, but I wanted to say thanks for turning me onto the pomodoro method. I tried it for the first time today and my productivity levels have already become somewhat less terrible. Looking forward to trying [email protected] soon 🙂
I find that my most productive days are the ones I plan out a little. The night before I’ll write out everything that’s on my mind and that needs to be done this week, including my action list for the next day. Writing it out by hand works best for me.
This works for 2 reasons:
1) It gets everything out of my head and onto paper, so I can sleep better.
2) I make all the decisions of what I should spend my day doing the night before, so when I wake up I can spend all my energy moving forward and starting to complete those actions. No dilly dallying around with figuring out what to do first.
*Bonus is that I’m more motivated to get up in the morning because I have a visual in my memory of all the things I need to accomplish that day.