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Ask HN: Which daily habit has affected your productivity the most?
81 points by read on Dec 4, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments
Some of the most powerful drivers of success are our habits: what we repeatedly do every day. Even the most successful people are defined more by what they do rather than by who they are.

What are these habits? I would like to develop some good ones. And I'm willing to try several out and report back how they work.

Which daily habit has been the hardest for you to pick up (or change) and why?

Absolutely nothing compares with sleep. Having about a full week of 8 hour sleep days behind me is when I'm at my absolute peak productivity. I spent years being sleep deprived (~6 hours/day). When I finally came to appreciate just how important being well rested is it absolutely changed my life.

Clicked in here to say exactly this. The only thing I would add might be obvious, that consistency is extremely important. Just getting enough actually isn't enough, consistent timing is essential.

My second most significant is probably reading in place of momentary distractions.

I'm applying nearly all my "free time" (what's left after the family, work, exercise and sleep that I consider essential) with an attack on my backlog of books.

I wiped my devices and rebuilt them with only the essentials - no more newsreaders or social apps and I've greatly limited my web browsing.

Not only am I working towards a goal and learning new things, I'm spending it on a book or two rather than 100s of throwaway articles and blog posts - all but eliminating "context-switching" as I feel like I can keep 2 or 3 concerns in mental cache and get the full value of the time I spend on each of them.

As someone who can never seem to catch up on his news-feeds or podcast lists (and I've pared those down more than once), this resonates with me. I wonder if I can cut each of those in half.

Reading a book vs. reading news sites trains your brain to focus, a capacity we all seem to have lost in the last decade due to excessive bite-sized-attention-grabbing apps.

My case is exactly the opposite of yours. I used to sleep 8 hours and take naps during the day and always felt exhaust.

But since I started to do at least 1 hour of exercises EVERY DAY (and for me is important to not miss any day), I sleep only 6 hours a day and is when I reach my peak productivity.

I think this is exactly what I needed to hear!

Sleep. The better the previous night sleep, the better. Its not number of hours, its the type. Sometimes a short nap does wonders other times its a long hard sleep after being 'worn out'. Both can refresh you for next day.

Hardest habbit to change is time wasting. Reading HN, Reddit, News and forums where before you know it, that two minutes has morphed into an 45 minutes of mind numbing distraction. Yes I can block those pages but its more the need for a distraction than the site. Its a hard habbit to break. But its a part of my Depression, the lack of concentration.

If you don't track your time, I suggest you do. Knowing there's a record of what I'm _really_ doing each day pushes/inspires me to make that record a good one.

I started out using Harvest, but since I'm less interested in 'what project(s) did I work on today' and more interested in 'how productive was I today?', I've switched to RescueTime.

RescueTime isn't new (YC 08) but they do have an updated interface, so it feels much better than the first time I played with it years back.

Pro-tip: I created a Fluid ssb pointed at my RescueTime dashboard that I then pinned to my menubar, so I can check my stats anytime. Here's the icon that makes it look good: http://bit.ly/1bhewsA

I use a similar program called ManicTime (don't remember the reason RescueTime wasn't an option for me at the time).

It's a great way to know what you're wasting time on.

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

I use a combination of Rescue Time, Asana and Harvest to track things. Probably overkill to use both Rescue Time and Harvest but I find that Rescue Time tracks some of things I don't when using Harvest(which I use for client reporting).

This. Except I like to carry a marble notebook around in my backpack to track my time. It feels less restrictive IMO.

Allow yourself to be less productive at times.

I used to try and force it. If I was just not feeling it, I would suck down caffeine and charge ahead. Work generated from those blitzes always sucked.

I'm not advocating being lazy but sometimes just take some time to goof off and you'll be ready to go again.

I typically go for a run or hit the heavy bag in my garage for an hour or so and after a shower I'm much more productive than if I stayed in front of the monitor.

The hardest habit to pick up for me was to become a morning person ! I was a night owl going to bed at 3-4 am and then wake up in the afternoon. To break this cycle I tried melatonin, f.lux and trying to eat less before sleeping... nothing worked. My solution was to go 24h without sleep and go to bed really early 8-9 pm and put an alarm for 6:30, then I now go to bed before 10 pm and don't have any problem to wake up really early and I find that my productivity level as increased more than ever ! (The coffee help too ;) )

I feel more healthy now instead of waking up to the night, I start my day with a bright sky !

I can tell you which habit affected my productivity the most. Video games. I used to spend 4-8 hours a day, every day, playing games. Back then, my drug of choice was Civilization 4, and I succumbed hard to the "one... more... turn..." effect, occasionally skipping sleep altogether.

No matter what gamers might claim, there's really no benefit in spending 8 hours a day chasing virtual goals. Cutting back on my gaming sessions resulted in me suddenly having a lot more time for things like sleeping and learning, and has truly made me a better person overall. I only regret not killing the habit sooner.

I started doing Pomodoros [1] recently and I noticed a leap in my productivity. It also helps me to refresh my mind regularly and to stay focused on my tasks more easily.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

Seconded on pomodoros.

I can credit it with getting me through seven novel drafts, through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and even with helping me find this new, much better-paying job.

I'll third this.

Best part about pomodoro? How easy it is to begin using it!! You don't need a lengthy book or a long lesson. It is just as simple as using the damn timer.

I don't know why I became lazy and stopped using it. When I tried it for a week I was definitely at a higher bound of productivity for my school work. Totally helped me to gain more time to focus on my own projects. Time to start up again.

Anything you can do to reduce friction could help. I'm going to try this app out today: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=pebble.pomodor....

Have you found a good mac app for this? I've tried a few but haven't gotten a good one yet.

I used this one some time ago


I built a cheesy cross platform app a few years ago: http://jessehouse.com/blog/2010/06/01/pomodoro-timer-applica...

not sure if it qualifies as "a good mac app"

There's some decent Chrome apps for it.

The biggest change I have made is drinking a good amount of water each day. Currently I'm a night owl (which I'm working on changing) and instead of drinking pop, I drink water.

Exercise and staying active makes me feel awesome, but sometimes I don't have time to make it to the gym.


* Sleep ... 7.5 to 8 hrs, no more no less

* Wake up at 8/9 to maximize hours of sunlight

* Lift weights 4+ times per week... the four hrs you spend in the gym will be made up for with 10 hrs of productivity throughout the week

* Healthy diet (high protein, low carbs, low sugar, fresh food)



* Avoid HN

* Start working right when you get up

* Answer emails / do other menial tasks when tired

* Get rid of all notifications: phone silent/vibrate, no Gmail/fb/twitter notifications outside of the platform itself

4 hours of lifting a week? That's a lot of time. I know myself well enough that I won't make goals/commitments that I know I won't keep, like this. I have some simple weights in my living space that are hard to ignore. I typically lift for <5 min/day; when I go to the gym I keep it under 20 min to lower the cognitive commitment. It works for me - I can bench press 250 lbs. You really don't need to spend hours at the gym to stay in shape.

A 1-hr session 4 days a week is a pretty typical lifting regiment. Personally I consider that hour a cognitive release rather than commitment, but to each his own!

"Avoid HN" can you elaborate?

I'll tell you what doesn't help productivity. Being in a toxic relationship. Get out while you still can.

The last three years has been an interesting time for me productivity wise.

I started a new job, and moved from Perl to Python Django. The organization was fairly new and there were two of us in an office, so not much in the way of distractions.

My productivity went up an order of magnitude, and Django made programming more interesting / fun again. There was (and still is) a lot of work to do building and maintaining the database. I generally tried to focus on the 80% that takes 20% of the time.

A year later I get an extra boss (who knows nothing about databases). He likes meetings. He is pedantic, and focuses way to much on the 20% that takes 80% of the time.We now have 4 people in the office (previously 2). I am constantly asked to switch task, and fix Excels (I have been arguing for two years that we shouldn't be using Excel for data uploads as it is so error prone).

Anyway, I think my productivity is around a quarter of what it was two years ago, and my work is a lot less satisfying. And I am on HN right now.

So for me, productivity gains: Working in a quiet office. Getting to use language / framework of my choice. Learning new interesting stuff. Focusing on one task at a time, until it is finished.

Losses: Two managers pulling in opposite directions. One cowboy coder quick fix king. The other pedantic and focusing on spelling mistakes over new functionality. Busy office. Tedious repetitive work (fixing Excels that are used for data uploads) - really kills motivation. Too many meeting. I don't get many full or even half days uninterrupted programming.

Starting the day with a new TODO list. Not only does it give a clear plan for the day, it also keeps me from idling too long with distractions like reddit or HN. Whenever I'm done with a task and find myself chatting or browsing the web, I just refer to the todo list to get me back on track. It takes about 2 minutes and it's well worth it.

Yep I do this everyday. I used to think TODO lists were for people who weren't disciplined enough to get stuff done. But it keeps me concentrated on what task needs to be done instead of reading every blog post in the world.

I know a guy who swears he is more productive by starting his mornings with:

1. drink a cup of coffee

2. take a good shit

3. tackle a big problem

Not a very clean topic, but shitting really does make me more productive! If I'm feeling groggy, tired, lazy it's usually when I haven't taken a shit in a while.

I tried out the trick Jack Dorsey recommended during Startup School 2013: keep a two daily lists of things to do and things not to do. Read it when you wake up, throughout the day, and before you sleep.

Here's what's on my list:

Do: take a cold shower; meditate; throw yourself in; work on hard problems. Don't: be annoyed or upset; lie down unless to rest without computer.

It's working for me pretty well so far. For me the list's main value seems to be in those small, split-second decisions: if I'm choosing between two things to work on, my mind will suddenly remember "work on hard problems," and I'll choose the harder one.

I don't mean to sound rude, but does "Don't: be annoyed or upset" really make a difference? I mean, who objectively and dispassionately decides to be annoyed or upset?

Emotions aren't a choice, but emotional awareness and control can be. When annoyed or upset, stopping to ask yourself why you're annoyed or upset can be very beneficial. The old "stop, take a deep breath, and count to 10" advice from grade school has some merit. (You don't literally have to stop, take a deep breath, and count to ten. But making a conscious effort to be aware of one's emotions is a worthwhile exercise.)

I've found that literally stopping to take a breath is actually a very good practice for this situation. Helps me avoid a lot of bad moods caused by inconsequential things. Process the negative information, realize it's inconsequential, and return to a state of calm.

(I don't count to ten)

This applies for small things, but most things that people get distressed about are small.

It's amazing how well this works, at least for me.

Sometimes I even make an effort to think to myself, "How would X respond to this situation?" Replace "X" with anyone of your choice who would probably be a lot cooler than you under stress: Jesus, Spock, Batman, James Bond, Yoda, Mr. Rogers, or whoever the heck epitomizes "chill" in your worldview.

It sounds cheesy, and it probably is. But it works. Chances are, the "X" of your choice wouldn't react hastily or let small things get to him. Shit happens to everybody, but stopping in mid-emotional-flareup to process an appropriate response is a skill. And skills can be developed.

We don't choose to be annoyed, but we allow ourselves to be. Being annoyed never has a logical reason to it; it's an emotion; so by reminding myself of that I can make sure it doesn't negatively affect me. (Not that emotions are bad, but this one seems to only negatively affect me, so I don't want it.)

For example, when someone insults you in an offensive way. Why be annoyed? If it's true you should fix it; if it's false then he's mistaken. By remembering that, when I see that I'm about to become annoyed, my list reminds me to stay mellow.

Emotions are more choice than you're giving credit for. Next time you notice you're feeling annoyed, take a moment to manage your emotional state. Reflect on your day in the broader context; get to the bottom of what's really bothering you (often you just remember that it's mundane and you get over it); think about something you're excited about; consider changing the topic. Often, with ten or fifteen seconds of thought, you can completely transform an unwanted mood.

I don't think it's possible to avoid being annoyed or upset, but it's possible to remind yourself that hanging onto that mood is counterproductive and to move on to thinking about something else.

"Don't let yourself be annoyed by minor things for very long" might be a more realistic take.

You may not be able to prevent yourself from getting annoyed, but you can remember to stop being annoyed.

I think you can learn not to react to the stimulus that makes you annoyed. Its a principle of the Alexander technique. You will also notice than Buddhist monks look very calm. I think it would be pretty difficult to get them annoyed.

It's probably the same as with learning about your cognitive biases: First you start noticing your bias right after you did it, then you start catching yourself in the act, and eventually you're able to stop yourself before even doing it.

Exercise regularly.

Among the countless benefits, one I've noticed is an increased ability to handle roadblocks and detours. If I haven't worked out in a while, when I run into one, I get more upset and hopeless. If I have been working out, I usually just soldier through it easier.

For me exercise giving me a chance to really think about something away from the computer (and sometimes figure it out).

So, my list:

- Sleeping at least 7 hours, 8 is better.

- Waking up earlier - I thought I am a night owl, but I realized that I am not. Morning is the best time frame to be creative and productive for me (and for many people actually).

- Always keeping my stuff ready. This means clean email folders, clean notes, clean desk etc.

- Watching the food what I eat (I am not on a diet, but I do not eat pizza and chinese food every day e.g), the drinks also (tea instead of coffee), and keeping attention to breaks while I am working

I also pay attention to avoid disctractions while I am coding. Every morning when I sit down in front of my monitors I read my RSS feed/twitter/personal mails first. This is good to start my brain at the morning and also keeps me away from checking these at the rest of the day. A psychologist told me once at a training that your mornings should start with something they call 'warm-up'. This is mine. Some people do not need it as they can warm up while they are travelling to their office or just after they get up and yoga for example.

Ah, and one mor thing for the sleep part. I - personally - don't like when I need to fall asleep during watching a film or a part of a TV-series. It is also not the best when I just turn off the computer and jump into the bed. I always go to bed with a book in my hand. This relaxes me and when I feel I can sleep right now, I just turn off the lights (or my ipad). A few minutes of meditation is also very helpful for a good sleep.

Hope I could help!

> A few minutes of meditation is also very helpful for a good sleep.

I'm having trouble falling asleep after going to bed (~2hrs), or waking up during the night or early next day.

Would you please detail more about the meditation part?

If you are really interested I suggest reading some books on articles on this topic as I am not a real professional, haha.

What I do actually: I just close my eyes, try to relax, and concentrate on my breathing only. It is more a relaxation than a mediation maybe. Sometimes I keep thinking nice things which make warm and nice feelings, just to go away from my current state. At first it is very hard to forget the "chaos" in your head (I was always thinking about deadlines, bugs, appointmens, personal problems and stuff like this), but if you practice it will be easy.


Turn off every alert and notification that you can and disable the clock in your menu/task bar. Get in the zone by not letting external things interrupt you all day. Programmers especially need long stretches of uninterrupted time.

Seeing a clock all day brings you out of the present moment - your mind wanders into useless thinking about how many hours until lunch, or until I go home, or even more negatively, "I've been stuck on this problem for x minutes."

If I avoid all my "info junkie" websites (HN, reddit, political news) between 8am and noon, my productivity skyrockets. It's remarkable.

Most importantly, for me, is to avoid those websites even during my "breaks." If I need a quick break, I'll physically get up and away from my computer. Otherwise that "five minutes" usually ends up being closer to an hour or so.

Good for you! I started to do these "physical breaks" also this fall and it's been quite a kick to my productivity. Spending every break on HN / Reddit / FB is not actually a break anymore and it really starts to get tiring to your eyes.

Working out and getting proper sleep.

I am a coder and I feel like I need to use a lot of my brain during my working hours. Working out (could be lifting weights or even just running or crossfit stuff) helps shift the focus from concentrating on algorithms and design and to just getting from point A to point B or lifting x weight. I know many friends who tried working out and couldnt get themselves to commit. The difference for me is that, I am motivated by an athletic goal that I set for myself and hence work towards it.

Sleep is probably the most important "habit" you should have. I personally find that after a good night of sleep, I am extra productive during the day and get more tasks done. I can think clearer and able to code better/faster. While number of hours of sleep is important...so is quality! An example of quality sleep is sleep where you dont wake up in the middle of the night to hit the washroom or out of panic that you missed something in your code(I used to have many of these haha).

Sleep, exercise, get up at the same time each day, eat more protein in place of carbs, and drink less alcohol.

The biggest moment for me was when I started thinking about productivity (or its absence) as a matter of willpower, and started to think strategically about how to make it easy. It's still a struggle to think that way: it seems like you should be able to grit your teeth, roll up your sleeves, and become productive. But that's not really how our brains work. Not mine, at least. For me, after that mindset shift, the most valuable strategies have been creating early external deadlines, drafting in longhand or into a voice recorder—and, above all and whenever possible, working closely with awesome collaborators rather than alone.

An hour a day of focused work. I'm approaching a hundred straight days of work on a Kickstarter that, as my first, brought in almost a grand last week.

Sleeping more. I remain under-rested, especially since my day-jobs have always frowned on naps, but I'm making slow improvements. You may not realize how much of a difference it makes until you actually get a good night's sleep.

Getting better sleep. Get tested for sleep apnea. Avoid blue lights for at least an hour before bed. Find someone or something you can cuddle with in bed. I'm serious about the latter; we're a gregarious species and sleeping alone is unnatural and stressful.

I'll throw my hat in the ring:

  - Not have young kids
  - Sleep
  - Make a todo list the night before, and give yourself an easy goal to start the day.
  - Consider your brain to be a muscle, and treat it as such: nurture it, exercise it, let it rest. Let it rest can be things like spending time with friends, or doing whatever you want.
  - Mindful meditation.
(Edit: typo, formatting)

Habit Streatk, (or I think Habits for iOS). Do something once a day, everyday. E.g. small chore, commit code, read book for a few mins... etc. This, coupled with "Matt Cutts: Try something new for 30 days | Video on TED.com" had a huge impact on my life over the past 7-8 months and built my self-disciple (though still room for more disciple :) ).

Forget sleep. Sleep less.

Have a nice morning ritual (go have a healthy breakfast outside, read the newspaper).

Start working on the most difficult task after.

Sleep at minimum 7 hours (ideally 8), exercise every morning, drink lots of water.

It's simple. Execution is the hard part.

A few people are saying that they are most productive by starting their day on a big problem.

I am the opposite of this. I try to tackle a small problem or two in the morning in order to improve my mental state. If I'm able to get things done quickly, then it sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Wake up at 5 AM regularly (even on weekends). And go to sleep early as well. Sometimes I do more in first few hours early in the morning than throughout the rest of the day.

sleep enough/well, eat enough/well, exercise enough/well, manage stress & emotional state, stay focused, don't try to do too many things (you must say No to a lot of things in order to preserve time/energy/focus/money to say Yes to the things that are more important for you, give you a higher ROI, etc.)

naps, probably. they make the early afternoon a bit more like the early morning (most efficient part of my day), for me.

Break something before you finish your day. Fix it first thing next morning.

Honestly? Not worrying about my productivity has done wonders.

#1 sleep #2 regularly exercise (weight lifting + cardio)

Reading Hacker News

Ditto. Sleep and reading hacker news.

Hacker News

no procrastinate setting in HN

bipolar disorder

- Watching porn. That distracts me alot. I need to cut down on that.

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