On Productivity

Published in Personal Development - 8 mins to read

I’m not the most productive person I know, but I have improved my productivity a lot, particularly in the last year. This post is going to outline some of the ways that I’ve done that.1


If there is a secret to productivity, it’s that productivity is primarily an emotional problem. It clicked for me when I read this tweet from Dan Luu:2

I find it funny that, looking at writing that’s “about” productivity, there’s overwhelmingly more written about tech/tooling choices than about emotional management (seems like at least 100:1) when emotional management dominates tech choices at typical margins in industry.

Before reading this, I attributed my own lack of productivity to not having the perfect Zettelkasten setup or not having figured out the optimal pomodoro timing interval. In fact, I beat myself up for being lazy, because I wasn’t as productive as those around me. I discovered that I’m not lazy, and also that specific tools aren’t important. As Dan says above; in order to be productive I have to be in a narrow range of emotional states, ones that I rarely found myself in before I began to deliberately cultivate them. This is my first key idea; learn what emotional state you are most productive in, and then work out how to spend as much time as possible in that state.

The next thing I learned was to experiment and iterate. I have tried many tools, frameworks, systems, hacks, and whatever else you might want to call them. Some of them I still use today, and I think contribute to my productivity; others I have abandoned long ago, even though I had invested significant time and effort into them. I think implementing some kind of periodic review of your overall approach to productivity is useful. There are many ways you could do this, and you could also approach the problem at varying levels of abstraction. To give you an idea of what I do, I have a handful of Beeminder goals that encourage me to review my setups for RescueTime (to track how I spend my time), Notion (where I write my thoughts and try to organise my life) and Neovim (where I write all my code, which is what I get paid for). I’m trying to apply the kaizen philosophy to myself, which has borne fruit now, but there is a graveyard of failed mechanisms which didn’t help me.

This section is titled Mindset and not Grindset. I think grinding has all sorts of negative connotations, and if this is how I viewed my work, I don’t think I’d be very productive, and I’m sure that I’d burn out. It’s far easier to be productive when I’m working on something that I’m enjoying, rather than working for work’s sake. I’ve grown to enjoy the work I do more as I have become more competent - if you don’t enjoy your work, ask yourself what you could do to nudge things in a more enjoyable direction.

Environment & Routine

I have found common-sense advice to work extremely well for me; work in an environment that minimises distractions. Keep your phone off or in another room, keep things quiet (or if you’re in a shared space, use sound-cancelling headphones with some kind of neutral sound playing, like rain noises), and make sure it’s bright and clean.

Working around others can add a sense of accountability, but if I need accountability to work, I’m probably not enjoying it. This is a sign to try to either find a way to make this kind of work more enjoyable, or to find a way to do less of it.

Having a routine helps me stay in the right emotional state, and work at times when I am the most motivated. I get up and go to sleep at the same time every day, I meditate and exercise in the morning, and then I usually work between 11am and 7pm. If I do something particularly stimulating (eg scroll on Twitter, watch a YouTube video etc) before I start work at 11, I find it difficult to get any work done for the whole day. Naturally, once I realised this, I avoided doing those things in the morning; I learned that my emotional state is particularly fragile. Again, experimentation and iteration were key here.


There are innumerable productivity tools available, and you have probably already used several of them. I couldn’t get on with with many that others swear by, such as Obsidian, Todoist, and several website blockers. Most of the tools on the market today are slick good at what they claim they do, but that doesn’t mean that they are right for you.

No single tool is a magic bullet for productivity; instead I am trying to combine several tools into a highly functioning system that ultimately enables me to be productive. I wouldn’t expect a blacksmith to only use a hammer or a surgeon to only use a scalpel, so why would it be that if I have the perfect to-do list app then I will be maximally productive? Again, I am a firm believer in periodic reviews, experimentation and iterative improvements here.

To give an example of what I mean by a productivity system (albeit at the expense of talking about tools, which potentially distracts from the importance of emotions), my current one revolves around 5 tools in particular;

My usage of these tools has changed a lot since I began playing with them. My Notion workspace started as a digital journal, but now it’s where I write blog posts, plan how I’m going to complete tasks at work, take notes in meetings, store my tattoo ideas in a spreadsheet, keep track of the coffee that I drink, plan running races, and more. Similarly I used to only use the terminal to run git commands, but now I try to do as much as I can through my terminal, including writing code in Neovim, deploying infrastructure using the AWS CLI and transforming data using tools like jq, awk and sed. Some tools are powerful but have a steep learning curve; it’s up to you to decide how to make that trade-off, and when to re-evaluate in future.

Final Thoughts and Further Reading

To reiterate, I have found that improving my productivity has boiled down to two things;

  1. Understanding that there is a specific emotional state in which I am most productive and then cultivating that state;
  2. Iterating on and optimising my personal productivity system with curiosity and experimentation.

There is room for my productivity to improve, and I think I will continue to see progress by focusing on the two principles above. I’ve only started using RescueTime recently, but for now I plan on sticking with it, and it would be interesting to track month-on-month or even year-on-year trends of “productive” time (Goodhart’s Law notwithstanding).

There are many resources online that have influenced and inspired me. I would highly recommend Michael Malis on improving productivity as a programmer, Dan Luu on improving productivity and velocity and Marius Hobbhahn’s guide to productivity, which I think does an excellent job of laying out the fundamentals of productivity without trying to force any particular tool or paradigm upon the reader.

  1. I want to offer a disclaimer on the nature of striving to be more productive. Our culture places a lot of emphasis on productivity, with the implication being that improved productivity will result in improved wellbeing. I think that can be true, but I don’t think it’s true by default, and would advise anyone to examine whether improving their productivity is going to have the effect on their wellbeing that they’re hoping for. ↩︎

  2. I still included some discussion of specific tools in this post as I still want people to read it - but ultimately, the other sections are far more important! ↩︎