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How to Massively Increase Your Productivity and Happiness in 2 Hours Per Day
43 points by staunch on Aug 6, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments
Go to sleep 2 hours earlier than you normally do!

It's easy to fall into the sleep deprivation trap and think you're getting more out of yourself, even when you're really not. I've always found the need to sleep at all very frustrating, so this lesson is hard-learned for me.

I'm still in love with my 36 hour hackathons, but now most days I'm trying to get enough sleep to feel energetic all day without in assistance from drugs like caffeine and nicotine.




Even during Viaweb I still slept 8 hours a night (roughly 3-11). The most productive people rarely have more than 6 hours or so of really concentrated work per day, except in emergencies. If you can ensure you get that every day, you don't need to economize on sleep.

My way of getting those 6 solid hours was a common hacker solution to the problem: I used the hours between 9 pm and 3 am, when no one could interrupt me.


Why is it that people are most productive (at hacking) during night time hours? Even with no interruptions during the day, I find myself not as engaged as I would be during the night.

Also, I've read that taking short naps for about 20 minutes (any longer would make you groggy) helps improve learning potential and confidence.


I've found I do best hacking at night and in the mornings, but am better and worse at different things in each case.

At night, I'm more likely to keep plugging away at something until it's done. Also, it's often easier to concentrate on only one thing at a time. It's quiet, and there's no nagging idea that there's something else I could be doing. I've also got a whole day's worth of memory and context stored up.

At night, I'm less likely to make intuitive leaps that solve problems, and I'm less likely to want to do things that are mentally difficult. I'm more likely to get frustrated at complicated problems and make stupid mistakes.


I tend to be most productive in the morning - usually around 9:00 AM - 1:00 PM. Then I typically have another productive period before dinner (it'd be 5:00 - 7:00 PM if I didn't have to commute from work), and then one before I get to bed (11:00 PM - 1:00 AM or so, 'cept if I don't have obligations like getting up the next morning it runs till like 3:00 AM, which pushes the next day further by 2 hours). So I guess it varies among people.

It occurs to me that with 6 hours of productive hacking, you could in theory start a startup and still have a day job, except for the interruptions. For example, all three of my most productive periods are bisected by an hour-long commute or the need to go to bed, making them effectively useless. Has anyone tried telecommuting + startup, or consulting + startup? It seems like if I could shift my working hours to 2:00 - 10:00 PM and get rid of commuting time, I'd be able to get all the work for my day job done in the 5:00-7:00 PM timeslot, and have 6 hours of useful time for my own projects.


Wow, you can finish all your work for your day job in 2 hours? Impressive.


Most day jobs don't have much real work. ;-)

Actually, I should probably clarify - when doing active product development, it takes way more than 2 hrs/day of work. At that point, you can basically forget about doing any outside programming projects. But most jobs are very feast-or-famine: once you've written the program, you have little bug reports dribble in, or your boss asks you to reboot the server or something. If you architected the program well, it shouldn't take more than 2 hrs/day to keep up with those.


When I stay up late to hack, my thought is that if I'm not sleeping I'd better be doing something productive. Why stay up until 3 or 4 AM if you're just surfing the web?


This is correct. I work on core technical stuff for about the same number of hours and spend the rest of my time taking care of business -- managing, outsourcing, etc.

And I also manage a 1.5 hour bicycle ride in there and some time with my kids.


Just curious, what did you use 12-8 PM for?


That was when I worked on the business part of the company.


I thought you were going to say: "Put news.ycombinator.com in your firewall's blacklist" ;)

But I agree with your going-to-bed-early idea.

And I'll add: spend the first 30 to 45 minutes after you get up doing some kind of cardio exercise (running, treadmill, cycling).

You'll be much more relaxed and have a ton of energy all morning.


As the saying goes, sleep over your problems and you'll have a solution in the morning.


I always worry about what ideas I may be missing out on, though.


You know your ideas are worthless without the right execution right?

Plus if it's not meant to be for you to have a great idea, it won't come anyway.


Force yourself to sleep and it is most likely not going to happen. What I found helpful is to ACCEPT that you cannot sleep, but you can RELAX. Get your MIND OFF RUBY and think about that HOT WAITRESS you have been dying to ask out on a date. Imagine being on a date with her and start SMILING, I promess you will go to sleep within 15-30 minutes.


Couldn't agree more. I've done all-nighters, but when I'm refreshed I get more done in a couple of hours than I do in a whole day when I'm tired.

Unfortunately I sometimes get bouts of insomnia... anyone have good tips on how to cure that?


Something that always worked for me: start watching a movie that you've already seen. After a lot of work if I try to go to bed I'll find myself thinking about work even more. I found out that watching a movie can easily distract me but it has to be a movie that I've already watch otherwise I'd end up watching the whole movie.


Try some melatonin. You can buy it at any drug store with the vitamins. It comes in 1mg or 3mg size, most doctors only recommend the 1mg size but there's nothing wrong with the 3mg size if you don't make a habit of it.

Even if you do make a habit of it, some anecdotal evidence shows it is good for you.

It also has a side effect of giving you extremely vivid or even lucid dreams.


They don't recommend the 3mg size because it offers no benefit over the 1mg, and it could possibly be bad for you. There's no point. If you get the 3mg size, get a pill cutter and cut them in half.

Making a habit out of it sounds like a bad idea, because there hasn't been much research done into its long term safety.


If the 1mg doesn't cure your insomnia, then the larger dose might work. It's also more likely to induce dreams. Wikipedia mentions a study of individuals given 50mg of Melatonin that experienced measurably enhanced REM sleep time.


News reports a few years ago said that studies had shown that 3mg worked less well than none at all.


Over time you start to need it to sleep. Not hard to break the dependency but worth keeping in mind.


Exercise during the day and your body will be less restless at night.


I already go to the gym for an hour every day at 5am. It's actually not so much a problem of getting to sleep - I can almost always do that. The trouble is more that I'm a very light sleeper and if anything disturbs me at night I can never get back to sleep.


For that you have to either eliminate the disturbance, or make sure the same kind of disturbance is happening at the time you go to sleep.

There's a book called "Solving Your Child's Sleep Problems" by Ferber that is good not just in relation to children. It contains a long explanation of how the sleep process works and what causes anyone (child or adult) to be unable to return to sleep after waking.


drink a cup of hot milk and eat a banana.


I once read that it helps if you go to sleep only when you're exhausted (can't keep your eyes open), but set like 10 alarms to make sure you get up at the same time every single day (7 or 8 AM, whenever you need to). It'll suck forcing yourself to get up in the morning, but over time you'll settle into the schedule.


Best cure for insomnia, is to go to bed.


The longer the brain goes without sleep, the more sleep debt is incurred. So staying awake for long periods at a time is unproductive from a time perspective. I'd advocate the opposite: take naps.


I agree with you. I read in National Geography Magazine that sleep is like managing an account. Sleep will catch up to you and you end up wasting more time by sleeping at odd hours to make up for the sleep debt created by not sleeping enough.

Recently, I read this article that says humans just need 2hrs of sleep, sounds interesting, here's the link to it http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774680,00.h...


I fully agree, I've found that everything pretty much comes back to sleep, whether it's managing stress, work, or just plain getting sick. If there's any other athletes here, one of the key things you know is that you don't get stronger during the workout, you get stronger when you're recovering.

Can't say I've ever pulled an all-nighter hackathon, though. My productivity drops off the cliff after 16+ hours of working.


It definitely works that way with some people. OTOH, I can sometimes (not always) be very productive well into a 30+ hour session. I've found it's most useful to turn off the alarm clock, though, and sleep as long as you need to.


I see late night hacking as a tale of diminishing returns. For an extra hour of wake, how much less productive will I be tomorrow? How much earlier could I get up if I go to sleep earlier, and how does that time's productivity compare to now?

This translates to: if I'm tired I go to sleep. Unless I have a deadline for the next day.


Luckily I seem good on <7 hours of sleep. Exercise helps.


22nd hour in progress...6 pots coffee, two packs of cigarettes, some java monster --> productivity peaked 5 hours back but shitty part is that I have to go for a 8 hour workday in 5 hours! and it has nothing to do with the hackathon..

Miles to go.......


Anyone else ever go to sleep while thinking about the problem you were hacking on, and end up having horrible dreams while you (ineptly) try to solve it in your sleep? I get really bad sleep that way and wake up stressed out.


I've had similar experiences to nostrademons. I often crack hard problems in the groggy netherworld just as I'm going to sleep or just as I'm waking up (or during an afternoon nap). Showers and long walks are also good for this purpose.

I mainly dream about software these days, but I had similar experiences in college and grad school with physics. Freshman year I figured out the orbit in an inverse quartic potential during a nap (warning: you pass through the---bang!---center of force), and in grad school I unlocked the last remaining problem in my Ph.D. thesis during a one-hour random walk around campus.

Incidentally, all this contributes to my conclusion that I'm not well-suited to a normal job. Even if I could get an employer to accept intellectually that they should pay me to take naps and go for long walks, I don't think they could ever really come to terms with it emotionally. Whereas the cofounder of my last startup probably never even noticed I occasionally napped and that I spent half my time walking around town; if he did, he certainly didn't care.


No, but several times I've gone to sleep thinking hard about a problem and then solved it in my sleep. That's why I keep my laptop by my bed.

I tend to get really weird dreams when this happens - not unpleasant, just a little odd. For example, in high school I had a calculus midterm the next day and dreamed that I was sitting on a brick wall at an orphanage solving a volume integral while little kiddies played underneath me and waited for me to have a great fall. I ended up solving the integral in my sleep, then found that there were 3 volume integrals on the test the next day. Ended up scoring about 10-15 points higher than if I had not dreamed about it.

I had similar experiences in college with physics problems and lately with computer programs, but I can't remember the actual dreams. Oftentimes I end up solving them in that time when you're not fully asleep but not fully awake either.


Has anyone run a successful company on a polyphasic sleep schedule?


Steve Pavlina, maybe? Though his company may only be successful to the extent that people believe they will become successful by sleeping polyphasically...


He ran his business on a normal schedule; he stopped the polyphasic experiment after a few months.

Buckminster Fuller might count ( http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774680,00.h... ), but his friends made him give it up.


We're so quick to deprive ourselves of sleep, but that is the one thing we need the most -- more than food, I think. Without sleep, you become depressed, your mind slows, your vocabulary shrinks. You lose IQ points.

I'm the father of a toddler. Needless to say, the last couple of years, I haven't slept well. Finally I gave up and started going to bed a couple of hours early. Amazing, the difference.




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