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Hack your productivity

Sometimes I stay up until 6 am coding because I’m “in the zone.” My biggest challenge is making sure that I’m pushing myself to be as productive as possible. I make a conscious effort to maintain my productivity and there are times when I wonder if I am pushed harder when I have concrete external deadlines or a boss telling me what to do.

After experimenting with a bunch of different techniques, here are the hacks that I have found to be most successful for my work style.


I religiously keep a diary of what I accomplish each day. My goal is to make sure that I’ve accomplished enough to fill at least one full page in my moleskine. If by mid-afternoon I’m less than halfway through the page, I find that I can usually muster an extra boost of productivity.

In many ways it feels odd that I keep a hand-written journal for work I do on my computer. But, I feel that I’m more introspective when I put pen to paper than when I type notes on my Macbook or iPad. My notes remind me why I made certain decisions and of my accomplishments that aren’t in my git log. I also enjoy sketching pictures and drawing arrows between ideas without being bothered with how to input them digitally.

So this is all well and good, but why am I spending $20 on a notebook when I could go to an office supply store and buy an equivalent spiral notebook for a few dollars? That’s a good question. I think because my moleskine is relatively expensive I find that I end up choosing my words more carefully.

Making sure that all of the insights that I’m recording are important, makes it harder to fill a whole page each day with what I’ve done, meaning that I end up pushing myself to do even more. To me paying a small premium on a notebook once every few months to boost my productivity is a worthwhile investment.

To Do List

Every night before I go to bed I try to make a To Do list of the next 20 things that I’ve decided I need to get done. Each has been distilled down into a small and finite item (any big project can be broken down into multiple smaller projects), so that I can easily know what I’ve done.

Being able to cross items off my list throughout the day is cathartic. Way more satisfying than checking a box on a computer screen!

I’ve found that making the list the night before to be especially important since I’m not a morning person. Knowing exactly what I have planned to get done is a better way to start the day than reacting to e-mail requests. With my To Do list, I’m setting my own agenda and preventing ad hoc tasks from dictating my schedule.


As simple as this sounds, I’ve found it oddly important to have pens that I like using to encourage me to write in my notebook. I’ve found two different types of pens that I enjoy writing with. For most of my writing I use the blue, red, and green Pilot V5s. And for most of my drawing I use the Staedtler 10 color set.

I find that by switching colors regularly I am able to remember where I wrote things down better. I can quickly put my finger on a note I wrote a while ago, by remembering generally what the page looked like based on its color composition and by knowing roughly when I wrote it down.

So while these pens are certainly more expensive than freebie bic or papermate ballpoint pens, I find that I enjoy writing with them, and, as a result, I spend more time reflecting on what I’ve done and what I should be doing going forward. I like to think that this introspection has led to me making better decisions about how to use my time.

Use Your Wall Space

In addition to making To Do lists for short-term goals I also put post-it notes on my wall outlining more long-term goals. Anytime something comes to mind, I write it down on a post-it and stick it up on the wall. I use three different colors of post-it notes.

Yellow for an idea that just hit me. Orange for an overarching idea that connects multiple Yellow post-it notes. And Blue for ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out yet. Over time I have a visual reminder when multiple feature ideas are clustering around the same underlying issue and from there I figure out the best solution to that problem.

The issue with this strategy is that I’m starting to run out of wall space, but it’s great that I’m not confined to the small screen real estate on my Macbook or my notebook, when trying to brainstorm. I’m trying to do my best to remove any possible boundaries. And while it sounds cheesy, it also gives me a chance to step back and look at the “bigger picture.”

Always Be Ready

I’m always ready to write down ideas that pop in my head so that I don’t lose them. While I’m definitely an audio learner, I’ve found the act of writing something down, dramatically increases the probability that I’m going to remember my ideas later. I carry around a small moleskine with me pretty much everywhere I go.

I prefer the sketchbook over the plain notebook because it has stiffer pages, which for some reason makes it easier for me to write while I’m standing up. I often think of ideas while I’m walking somewhere or taking public transportation, so being able to write stuff down on the go is definitely a plus.

I used to try to write these notes on my iPhone, but I found that I would lose some of the ideas that had just hit me in the time it took me to overcome incorrect autocompletions. Plus, I usually end up drawing diagrams of data structures of new design concepts, which are almost impossible to articulate on the tiny iPhone keyboard. This is definitely a case where a picture can be worth a thousand words.

Harness Peer Pressure

The last tip I’d offer you, is to regularly talk with your friends and family about what you’re doing. Having to explain what I’ve been up has not only forced me to clarify what I mean, but has also been a motivator to get more done.

I dread people I respect saying, “That’s all you were able to get done?” I’d much rather hear them say “How’d you manage to get all of that done so quickly?” Be careful to strike the right balance with this – don’t talk so much about your work that your friends and family get fatigued.

Good luck!

Try out some of my techniques and let me know what you think. Best of luck of keeping yourself motivated and productive.

Category Advice