Productivity Tricks

Friday, 17 April 2015

Productivity is an arbitrary metric that (tries to) measure how much work we get done per unit time. To some, it's not even a metric, but a feeling. For example, we could actually be doing a lot of work, but feel as though we're doing nothing at all. On the other hand, we could actually be making a lot of progress in one particular task and feel as though we've been highly productive. In this post, I will try to share a few tips and tricks that have boosted my own productivity in a holistic approach.

Measuring Productivity

In order to "boost" productivity, we must define the standard by which we measure it. For most people (and initially for me), productivity is not measured but rather felt. The consequences of this is that we either feel productive or we don't. As such this feeling is not very helpful in determining what we can do about it. So is there a better way? Short answer, yes. Long answer, probably.

The Checklist

Image of a Checklist

I'm pretty sure that we all have used or attempted to use a checklist at one point in our lives. Its a simple tool and it serves its purpose quite well. Simply planning out what you want to get out in the day can go a long way to boosting your productivity. Instead of having a seemingly infinite list of things, you have a finite list of known tasks that you need to get done. However this poses a very fundamental problem, are all tasks created equal?


Turns out, all tasks are not created equal. Some tasks can take half a day, and some tasks require only half an hour. Its not about how many tasks we complete, but rather how many hours we spend working productively that really matters. This is where time-boxing comes into play. Time-Boxing is essentially allocating a fixed amount of time to work on a task or group of tasks. There are two advantages of doing this:

  • You get a lower and upper limit of how much time you actually end up working in a day
  • You can estimate what tasks are going to take longer, and therefore get a realistic picture of how much you can accomplish in a day.
  • It will allow you to break down large monolithic tasks into smaller sub-tasks and distribute the workload over days instead of trying to do everything in one day and then failing miserably when that doesn't work out.


The pomodoro is a unit of time, and is a specific method of time-boxing. Here's how it works:

  • Get a task that you want to complete
  • Estimate the number of pomodori (plural of a pomodoro) it will take (A pomodoro is 25 minutes of time)
  • After each pomodoro, take a 5 to 10 minute break.
  • After four pomodori, take a longer break (usually 15 to 30 minutes)

Now the above is the standard way of doing things. My own method is to assign 25 minutes to each pomodoro, take 5-minute short breaks and take a longer break (30) minutes after three pomodori. This way, I work 3/4th of the time in a 2-hour time slot. My


Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Alan Lakein

Too much productivity is actually bad for you since you might end up burning out.[1] Its better to prevent burnout than trying to cure it and the best prevention tool at our disposal is planning. The plan does not have to be overly elaborate, but rather makes sure that there are breaks in your work schedule. When it comes to planning, I have a few basic rules.

Don't Work Everyday

There should be one day of the week where you just sit back, relax and read an interesting book or watch a movie. I take a break on Friday, and so throughout the week, if there's something that I wanted to do or something that I wanted to watch, I add that to my "Friday list". What this basically means is that I end up watching tons of movies and finishing blog posts on a Friday.

Two Transition Days

I have two transition days, one before and one after Friday. On a transition day, I do 40% less work than I do on a regular day. On a normal day, I end up doing around 12 pomodori. On a transition day, I work 8 pomodori. This way, there's less anxiety when it comes to getting back to work after a Friday.

Good Estimation

Being able to estimate how long something will take is key to making sure that you don't end up with too little or too much in a day. I try to get this right by making sure that I've broken down a task to atomic levels. So for example, if I have a chapter to write, I'm going to break that chapter down to the features or skills that I want to teach. I further breakdown the features or skills into sub-sections, like why a feature is useful, how to use the feature and gotchas to watch out for. Most tasks can be broken down into pretty small bits that are easier to estimate.

Will Power

Motivation is heavily talked about, and everyone has their own way of motivating themselves. However, I've picked up a few unconventional tips over the years. A lot of these tips come from some of the books and blog posts I've read. The most prominent of these is "The Will Power Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. I highly recommend it as a read, but here are a couple of things that I found very useful.


Have a small bag of peanuts with you on your desk, enough to last you 2 hours and eat them sparingly. As you finish mini tasks within the task,[2] reward yourself with a peanut. The rationale behind this is that, our brains need a steady stream of energy to keep working. Peanuts are ideal since they're small, and provide enough energy. Sugar is not a viable solution since it provides too much energy.

Green Tea

Green Tea helps me concentrate better. Apparently, there's a bit of science backing this too.[3] I generally tend to drink green tea in my long breaks (basically once every two hours). Green tea is great because although it does have caffeine, the content is quite low.[4] This means that you won't have to worry about sleep if you drink green tea at night.


There are plenty of ways to stay productive, but these are the ones I find most useful. I've read a lot about productivity over the years, but the pomodoro, and Green Tea are probably the best tools at my disposal.

[1]Burnout is when we lose interest in the work that we do. This can have terrible consequences and is frequently talked about. Forbes article on burnout
[2]When I write, I reward myself after every paragraph. In code, I reward myself when I finish writing a function or method.