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Tell HN: My best productivity hack
125 points by z3t4 on April 16, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments
I bought a CO2 monitor. They are a bit expensive but very worth it ($100 DIY or more for a ready product). Even if you have ventilation, it might not be good enough. My office often goes up to 1000 ppm and I start to feel a bit drowsy. But there's a simple solution, just open a window.

The single thing that has had the largest impact for me has been simply making a list of things I need to do the next day on the night before. In the morning, often the hardest thing to do is just to get going. Having a ready made list takes out a lot of the factors that lead me to procrastinate.

I create two lists: needs and wants. I prioritise them as such:

1 = no harm if not done; 2 = annoying if not done; 3 = disappoint someone if not done; 4 = financial or emotional harm if not done; 5 = financial and emotional harm if not done.

This is applied to both sets of items on each type of list.

Now I know what I NEED to do above all else, and then I can get to what I WANT to do later.


Definitely a great one! You can't buy your way to productivity with fancy tech. Though a nice ergonomic keyboard, standing desk, and eye-level monitor certainly doesn't hurt.

For list making I've found Eisenhower matrixes[0] to be incredibly useful. That eventually morphed into me using a trello board with four columns that line up with the four quadrants, here's an example:


[0]: http://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/

Whenever I pack my bag in the morning, even if I have 4-5 hours before I leave, I forget something. The phone, the wallet, the cash I plan to carry in the wallet, the keys, the pencil case, the books... I just have to make it the night before. And generalising this and what you say, simply preparing for the day ahead is a very very useful thing. Maybe for a certain type of people though, because I've known some of those people which just remember the things when they need to, without any effort nor any notes.

This, and also marking which one is the worst one, so I do that one first without slacking off and then the rest is easy.

The other thing is that I usually leave a context file (which says "you were adding X to function Y and then debugging Z") in whatever directory I'm working in so that I remember what I was doing if I was in the middle of something.

I usually just write "TODO have not done X and Y yet" into the source file that where I was last working. It's deliberately not a comment, so that I can find it by running `make` and looking for the syntax error.

haha I do that too. If I need to leave something as it is but I need to fix it, I just write what I should do but without a "//" so it doesn't compile next day when I press build without thinking.

For me is the opposite. I make a list of things I have done for the day. You know you need to push harder if your list has less than 5 items by lunch time.

A while back I set a goal to have a happy, fulfilling life, and then asked what five elements were individually necessary and collectively sufficient to produce that. Then I went one level deeper, taking care to be strict with the boolean logic. I eventually got to actionable items.

The surprising part was the amount of priorities I had in my life that weren't in that life graph. Stuff that was urgent but not important, and counterintuitively unnecessary when subjected to first-principle analysis. As I started letting those things go, I started to feel more productive since I had more confidence that my actions were aligned with my purpose.

It was tedious and time-consuming, and the closer you get to the leaves, the easier it is for the graph to feel "out of date" as your priorities and circumstances change. But the root of the graph (or the top... for me the actionable stuff was at the bottom) has hardly changed at all since those were my core principles. So I'm still not sure it is worth the time to keep it "accurate", but it was a good exercise to do at least once.

Any chance you'd be willing to share more details on what your life graph ended up including?

Any time you break something down into a collection of "mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive" elements, there's going to be a bunch of different ways you can slice and dice that. What worked for me was something that was kind of like maslow's hierarchy. I think mine broke down into physical environment, financial security, being socially well-rooted, being healthy, and working on "meeting my greatness" (kind of like actualization).

If I were to redo it now, I'd probably collapse being socially well-rooted into being a subcomponent of something else that would include service, giving back, etc. But at the time I created it I was very much invested in developing friendships after moving to a new place for a new romantic relationship.

Don't multitask.

I work a task until blocked, then switch. Work the next one until blocked, then switch again.

You'll be surprised at how much you can deliver when you focus on delivering one thing at a time!

This. I've been a multitasker most of my life, but the moment you organise task one after the other, and keep your focus, you'll just get so much more done. Uni-tasking gets you more done than multi-tasking, no matter how counterintuitive that may sound.

Coffee in the morning, hike in the afternoon, beer in the evening.

That's great for you, but the rest of us have to put "work" somewhere in that list :)

Haha I work during coffee, conference call during hiking, and then work during my first two beers :)


> I bought a CO2 monitor.

We did the same, it's very noticeable, what we sometimes do is cover it and if people are feeling drowsy only then reveal it so we could be sure it wasn't a placebo (it wasn't).

I hacked up (I'm not a programmer!) some code to log the data to CSV, which I then presented to the business as a case to change our aircon system: https://github.com/sammcj/airqualitylogger

In both the OP and your comment I initially interpreted "CO2 monitor" as a computer display that emits CO2. I was wondering how this would boost your productivity for a confusing 10 seconds.

Ha! Never considered that, thanks for the interesting feedback.

Did your business change its aircon off the back of your research?

Yeah, it didn't need new all new Aircon but we got the Aircon techs in to look at it and they're changing where the inlet vents are located and adding an additional unit of separation into the ducting.

Step 1: sudo nano /etc/hosts

Step 2: Type at bottom: facebook.com youtube.com twitter.com instagram.com

Step 3: ctrl+"O"

You forgot: news.ycombinator.com

There's "noprocrast: yes" for that

I see this kind of thing from time-to-time, and it baffles me. Surely, I know how to restore access. Why not ... just not go there? And if it's a problem (again, this baffles me, but no judgement - I binge drink on weekends which is surely worse), delete your accounts there?

Friction. Friction delays taking an action. This is true for both things we want to do and things we need to do. So you want to reduce the friction involved in your actual goals (learning a subject, deploying a system, updating code), and increase the friction involved for things you want to avoid.

I want to avoid snacks and sodas. I've gotten good at restaurants (order a coke once a month, a dessert about as often). But the office snack bar. So I stopped carrying cash. When I do collect change, I occasionally treat myself to a candy bar or something from that snack bar but since I'm not spending as much cash, this is once every 2-3 months.

At the same time I keep my desk stocked with pistachios (in shells) or similar things that take too long to eat to just eat all at once, but are tasty enough that when I get peckish they still satisfy.

I want to learn more advanced math subjects. So I always keep a notebook on me and either the book I'm working through, or a printout of the chapter (if it's a PDF or something). So when I have downtime I don't have to seek it out, it's already here.

Having to restore access gives you many more seconds of time between impulse and gratification where you can catch yourself in the process and have the internal "the fuck are you doing? Is that video even going to bring you a modicum of happiness? Get back to work and we can do something actually fun later you adhd fuck" talk.

Does that work for you? Do you think it works in general? I do get the impulse to click on a link - and you are claiming that having to activate something (like I would do with uMatrix, I suppose?), makes you cognitively pause?

I guess we're all wired differently. That one doesn't seem to be a challenge to me (although, I can assure you that there are other unhealthy things that I wish I could figure out how to stop doing).

Adding friction doesn't work for me. But I can just say, "I don't facebook anymore. It's not a thing I do." And I stop. Fine, but there's still an itch that needs scratching. I bounce to instagram, reddit, imgur, news sites, then my favorite bloggers, in that order. There's always something. And as for facebook - I can't quit altogether. I manage a page for a small business, I have to test things for work, I want to promote my blog. So I can't do cold turkey, and I keep coming back. Fuck, I hate it so much.

I do that with politics, so I can't point fingers. I don't know why - it's not like I can change anything...

It doesn't work for me. Editing a file isn't nearly enough friction to dissuade me. Even more advanced blocking programs didn't work for me. Instead of spending time browsing the internet, I spent lots of time figuring out how to circumvent the blocker. No work was done either way.

You sound like me. I'm not really very social (but I like people), so just unscribe works for me. I use LinkedIn as a rolodex.

What did (if a anything) work for you?

I'm still working on it. I fear the only viable solution is going to be to drastically change how I interact with computers and the internet.

There was a period of about a week where my home cable internet was down and I had to pair my phone with my computer in order to work. I don't have an unlimited plan and I was constantly afraid of running out of data, so I didn't go to any website I didn't absolutely have to. The fear of not being able to work when I needed to and getting fired was a good motivator. I immediately reverted to old habits when my internet came back for good.

Briefly, then it gets undone and left undone for a good while.

List making is the best option I've found so far but I still have issues with staying on track. It's the middle of my work day right now and here I am.

I give myself 90 minutes (or more, if I am lucky enough to get into "the zone") and then 30 minutes to farf off. Repeat. I don't often go to the office, so this usually continues for well over the 8 hours of work-time they pay me for.

(I also heavily use lists)

It’s easy to fall into the habit of hitting ctrl+t when a browser is open and typing in some website that distracts you from what you should be focused on. That brief cannot-be-opened page is often enough to stop you so that you can reset your focus back to what it was you were supposed to be doing.

That makes sense. My downfall is double-clicking on a phrase, then right-clicking to search and then hours later...

Not quite the same, but it sounds similar...

This can be improved a bit:

Step 1: sudo vim /etc/hosts

Step 2: Go facebook.com youtube.com twitter.com instagram.com

Step 3: ZZ

Get Focus - https://heyfocus.com

What is this supposed to do, is it like a blocking thing?

Yes, it routes requests for those hostnames to your local computer.

It doesn't work though. All of those sites have backup domains that easily allow you to access them. To properly block all of facebook, you have to block something like 30 domains.

It's not an anti-tracking thing.

It's so you can't log in and read stuff, or get sucked down a distracting click-hole of videos, jokes, chit-chat and bullshit. It breaks the reflexive bookmarks, links from other sources and general habitual url visiting.

No, I mean literally, if I paste those strings into my etc/hosts it won't block any of those sites. It simply doesn't work. You can still load the sites. It takes stronger measures to block them. I have to edit my hosts file all the time for work anyway, so I ended up installing SelfControl and I turn it on when I feel like I need it.

I wonder if that was the problem at my old office. I felt drowsy all the time there. Just figured I wasn't sleeping right or something. Two-three cups of coffee every day. Right now I'm working remotely from my parent's living room. Most days I'm the only one here and it's a decently big, drafty house. There are many things I don't like about it, but I'm always wide awake.

Mind explaining what the significance of CO2 is? I'm unclear how this relates to drowsiness.

It doesn't actually have to be the CO2 per see. It can be used to measure overall air and ventilation. Or how many humans there are in a house/room, and if they are asleep or awake. The drowsiness is probably due to both low oxygen levels and high CO2 levels, and more.

Come on, haven't you heard of photosynthesis, oxygen, and pollution before? Higher than average ambient CO2 levels is basically like sitting in an oxygen deprived chamber. Also, there is a recreational drug called Carbogen that is a mixture of Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen that, although actually fine for breathing biophysically, has a reduced level of oxygen and increased level of CO2 that makes your body believe it's dying. Very interesting. So, even if it's not a lethal difference in composition, higher CO2 levels will definitely affect one's mood adversely.

This is similar to a post back from 2013 titled "Ask HN: Which daily habit has affected your productivity the most?"


I'll repeat my answer from back then:

1. If you're a programmer I recommend looking at http://wakatime.com

2. I know a guy who swears he is more productive by starting his mornings with: coffee, restroom, have something ready to work on

I stopped reading productivity p*rn, optimizing task managers, finessing my setup, and just did the work.

Changed my eating habits to something I never, ever thought I'd do-- - black coffee for breakfast. - no simple carbs for lunch. I feel great and get more done in the morning, and then I also feel great and don't want to fall asleep in the afternoon.

Can you share some more info about your office? Small space, old building, what kind of heating, etc? Hard to know if there’s anything to your hack without more info.

Schedule your todo list on your calendar. Identify the tasks you want to complete for the day or week, and block out time on your calendar for each task.

Getting consistent, good quality sleep.

I'm finding out that using Org mode's clocking combined with recurring tasks for long running tasks that should be done in bits helps me progress on them. I've only recently started using it, and seeing since how many days I haven't read some pages from that 2500 page book which I was supposed to have finished reading a year ago, and how little time I've spent on it than I'd otherwise believe I had, definitely has a positive impact. No revolution, at least in my case, but certainly an improving transformation.

My personal best hack is giving a damn about what I'm working on.

Pomodoro, for sure. Work and play do not mix but are both important.

For me it was taking a very long and very hard look at all the different notifications I was getting, and then cutting them down as much as possible. It sounds like a minor thing to do, but in effect I became more focused, as I spend almost no mental energy on useless distractions. I have only so much mental juice per day to begin with, and not wasting it on unimportant notices allows me to allocate more of it on stuff that actually matters.

Installed a chrome plugin that restricts my access to all social media, Reddit and some news sites between 8am-6pm only allowing a total of ten minutes access through out the day. Massive time sink.

Also, got a whiteboard which I mark out the important tasks for the day. It's a bit messy at the moment though. If everything is important then nothing is important.

I've recently started using http://www.beeminder.com

I'm finding it very helpful for sticking to my goals. Their blog is a wonderland of productivity research and knowledge, as well. I highly recommend checking it out.

There are two things I like to do: 1) Avoid reading the news in the morning -- it's a rabbit hole that can suck you in and crush productivity. And, 2) Move my phone from my pocket to the deep part of my bag -- this helps me avoid the desire to check it every 15 minutes.

My office is an addon, taking the place of some cubicles. The offices are frigid and I've often wondered if the ventilation wasn't corrected for the new layout.

I'm going to pick up a monitor and see what I run in to. Easy fix for now is to get up and walk :P

Started to replace coffee after lunch for a short (from 15 to 30 minutes) nap. I usually would have good energy levels just with coffee, however napping brings me more clarity of mind and focus.

Interesting - I have recently started doing my 20 min meditation roughly after lunch, and that has helped my energy a lot in a way that is slightly akin to napping.

I nap 20 min after lunch and sometimes I don't fall "asleep" at all but still feel energized afterwards. I always wondered how both had kinda the same effect. Now that you mention this, it definitely makes sense that I was meditating in some form.

I Found a job in which I'm not forced to set an alarm to wake up, and can take a nap at any time. I feel a lot more alert and productive all day long this way.

Set up what you're going to work on next before you take a break. So much easier to jump right back into being productive.

Which model? I've looked into a couple of models on Amazon but the reviews were quite mixed regarding their accuracy.

recently, it has been trying to implement GTD with an app. having all your tasks setup in a project context has helped to weed out the stuff that should not be a focus.

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