16 October, 2018

Ultimate Productivity Hacking Guide V2 (Part I): Intro & Priority Management

Note: I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I first wrote my productivity hacking guide. I was a freshman at Berkeley when I published that article. Now I work full-time and still juggling various aspects of my life. A lot of productivity methodology has changed, and yet a lot has stayed the same. I’m rewriting this guide from scratch, and organizing the information in a more referential manner. That way, people can reference material that’s relevant to them and ignore everything else. I’m also releasing this guide in 5 parts, as not to overwhelm people too quickly.


Being productive means being effective at getting the things you want. If you have goals or just want to life a bit fuller, then being highly productive is a skill you’ll want to develop.
Most productivity guides and resources focus on a different vertical of productivity, and that’s why they appeal to different groups of people. Because everyone has different obstacles preventing from being more productive, I’ve divided this guide into 5 main sections 1. Feel free to skip to the section most relevant to you and come back if you find yourself stuck in another area. If you have no clue, I suggest you read the guides in the order which they are laid out. I’ll be releasing each of the 5 parts every week for the next 5 weeks, so be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date on the next release.
Priority Management: If you don’t know what your purpose in life is, if you don’t know what being “productive” means for you, if you’re having trouble breaking down vague goals into actionable tasks, if you don’t know what you should be doing right now, this section will dive into managing your goals and priority.
Time Management: If you find yourself strung on time, or always scrambling to complete deadlines, or find yourself unsure of what to do with your time, this section will teach you how to budget your time.
Behavioral Management: If you find yourself getting distracted easily, or if you find yourself unable to “make yourself do things,” this section is going to outline some strategies to producing desired behavior.
Energy Management: If you find yourself getting tired easily. If you find yourself unmotivated or stressed constantly. If you experience brain fog or have trouble exerting self-control, this section will help you live a healthy life.
Efficiency Management: If you find yourself taking longer than most people to do certain tasks, if you feel “dumb” or “inefficient” or “slow”, this section will teach you how 
Implementing the entirety of this guide takes TIME. It took me 7+ years to get to where this guide is, and I still have a long way to go (or rather, there’s still a large upside to capture). My suggestion is to read as much as you’re comfortable with and take one tiny tip (just one!) that resonated with you and try to implement it in your life. If you feel good about it, come back and try another. It’s too easy to read this guide, pat yourself on the back, and go back to behaving how you always have. It’s also too easy to read this guide, think “that’s not me” or “it’s too much work”, and revert back to old habits. This guide is supposed to change your attitude and behavior and has the potential to change your entire life! Read this with the intention that you’ll walk away with a plan to actually do one of these things.

Priority Management

“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything” — David Allen
People can do a lot of things, but they can’t do everything. We are bottlenecked by the resources we have, whether that is time, money, or something else. Because we can’t do everything, we have to choose what matters to us (i.e. goals & priorities), and what doesn’t. Humans are bad at figuring this out, and you can spin your wheel as fast as you want and still go nowhere. This section is to help develop a “productivity map”, which involves developing a rigorous understanding of what you want and understanding which behaviors move you in that direction.

Understanding Your Priorities

People often don’t know what makes them happy. To get a taste of this, watch this TED talk by Dan Gilbert that talks some interesting scientific studies on happiness. Priorities made without rigorous consideration and research will often lead to sorrow.
Mitigating this bias requires two changes. The first is a mindset change. We often intuit happiness as something we acquire and have forever, but it’s often something that requires constant vigilance and effort.
Look at this pyramid that’s called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
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2 out of the 3 bottom rungs of the pyramid (Physiological needs and belonging and love needs) require constant time and energy to maintain (anywhere from 13 – 21 hrs of your day). Before thinking about what the purpose of your life is, or pondering on what you find meaning, you should be addressing problematic issues in these areas of life first. The research is overwhelmingly unambiguous on how to address these needs. It’s not strategic decision making, it’s execution. Eat healthy foods and drink enough water, get 8 hours of sleep a day, and develop friends and relationships with those people around you. Build and grow a lifestyle that supports these needs.
No, you don’t have to solve needs, but these needs should be examined first whenever you feel unsatisfied or unhappy. When people are unhappy, they rationalize that emotion looking at the upper rungs of the pyramid when they should be looking near the bottom. Instead of asking “why am I sad?” they should start with asking, “Am I hungry, tired, or lonely?”. More often than not, the base aspects are more often neglected.
Once you think you’ve developed the habits that take care of the basic needs, we’ll start talking about the more abstract needs. Unlike the other needs, these needs are vague, ambiguous, and highly variable across individuals.
Many of us fall into the trap of not critically thinking about how we can find happiness and meaning and end up expending our time and energy on things that don’t do that. We lose track of ourselves, leading to neglecting our basic needs, and eventually ending up unhappier. You want to invest some time carefully examining and reflecting on what makes you happy.
Consider one of my favorite quotes from the book The Inner Game of Tennis, in which Timothy Gallwey talks about the tragedy of children who were raised to become competitive tennis players:
“Children who have been taught to measure themselves [in comparison to others] often become adults driven by a compulsion to succeed which overshadows all else. The tragedy of this belief is not that they will fail to find the success they seek, but that they will not discover the love or even the self-respect they were led to believe will come with it. Furthermore, in their single-minded pursuit of measurable success, the development of many other human potentialities is sadly neglected. Some never find the time or inclination to appreciate the beauties of nature, to express their deepest feelings and thoughts to a loved one, or to wonder about the ultimate purpose of their existence” — Timothy Gallwey
It’s okay to not have a crystal clear picture of where you want your future to be. I’ve met a large enough number of people who are happy to go with the flow. However, I’ve also met many of those people described by Gallwey such that I would still consider it important to at least explore and challenge what your goals are.
To begin, I recommend examining and exploring your career by reading 8000hours’ career guide, which dives into the science and research of a person’s career and prescribes some recommendations for job satisfaction and career exploration. I also recommend taking inventory of the various verticals of your life via Alex Vermeer’s guide (it’s part 2 of the PDF), which gives you an opportunity to reflect on the current state of life and where you might need more work on.
If you still lack a strong conception of what you want to do in your life, here are some goals that are worth considering that are generally good and serve as good meta-goals (goals that help you accomplish future goals):
  • Achieving financial independence: having financial independence means you generally don’t have to think about money when making decisions. You spend more time doing the things you actually do want to do. More money also means more leverage and resources to achieve the goals you want. More wealth is associated with a deluge of benefits, of which include better health, happier lives, and having more impact in the world.
  • Educating yourself: Obtaining higher education or simply learning more from your current life yields higher aptitude for accomplishing future goals. Higher education is strongly correlated with higher income, more meaningful relationships, lower rates of divorce, and higher life satisfaction.
  • Being healthy and fit: Being healthy means living longer and healthier lives. It contributes to physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s actually hard to achieve goals in general without having a good grasp of this.
  • Developing a healthy social life: People who have a strong network of friends and support group are more robust to stress, anxiety, depression, and all sorts of mental illnesses. People who have stronger networks subjectively report happier and more meaningful lives.
  • Maximizing impact: Having more career capital equates to having more impact. By the time you figure out what you want to do, you’ll already be in a better position to achieving it.
  • Minimizing bullshit & toil: Solving the complement issue of what you want to do by thinking about how to minimize what you don’t want to do. Bullshit is, by definition, stuff not worth wasting your life on. Toil are manual, repetitive work that is similar to bullshit, but often are necessary to your daily living.
  • Figuring out your goals: The journey to figuring out your goals can be very exciting and rewarding. Most lifelong goals are backed by personal experience and periods of reflection, so pursuing this goal means exploring and trying out new lifestyles and seeing what works for you.
Goals are not meant to be final or absolute. Having a goal doesn’t have to mean devoting your all your time and energy to it. Having a map doesn’t mean you have to look at it all the time, it’s a tool to help you orientate yourself whenever you’re lost (and you will be often).

Converting Goals into Behavior

The second part of priority management is understanding how you “move” toward your goal. Some goals, like training to run a half marathon, require very little research and planning while others can be extremely confusing, like teaching yourself how to code or finding a romantic partner.
For complex goals, it’s super daunting to just “work” on teaching yourself how to code. Human psychology suggests that this is a psychological barrier preventing people from actually working on those goals. The current literature suggests breaking goals down into projects makes the execution process easier and clearer. For example, you might break down your “learn to code” goal into “finish the Codecademy javascript course” and “build a game of tic-tac-toe in React.js”. Research helps. Googling, reading, and interviewing relevant people helps break down the goal into actionable steps.
To learn a bit more about goal design and project planning, consider reading some of Scott Young’s materials:
How to Start Your Own Ultralearning Project (Part 1, Part 2)
You’ll want to document and keep track of these tasks. You will most likely need a project or task management software. I find kanbans an intuitive project management interface, so I would opt for something like Trello.
You’ll want also want a stereotypical chores/errands to-do list. Kanbans are fine but I personally prefer the more compact view of lists. The golden standard in the industry is Todoist, but Todoist lacks the kanban view while Trello lacks the list view. In order to minimize the number of productivity software I use, I personally use Notion, which supports both views and adds a ton of flexibility for other stuff.

My Notion project board for my blog

My Notion Chores & Errands List

I’ve created public Trello boards for some of the meta-goals listed above that you can copy (click “Show Menu → More → Copy Board”) to jumpstart your own journeys. Make sure to read the descriptions that I wrote in some of the tasks to give some context and motivation towards each task. These boards are incomplete! They mostly cover the research phase of your project and some low hanging fruits tasks. Make sure to build on top of the templates.
When you feel like you’ve broken down your goal into actionable steps that will occupy you for the next month or so, here are some questions that will help you understand whether or not you’ve successfully planned a project:
  1. At any given point, do I know exactly what I need to do to move towards completion in this project?
  2. Would you bet $500 to your friend that you’ll successfully complete this project? If not, why not and how can you mitigate the risk on the completion of the project?

Organizing Desired Behavior

Once you’ve broken down your goals into tasks, you’ll want to put these tasks and goals in the foreground of your mind. Too often people go through these exercises and end up leaving those plans in some dark corner somewhere collecting dust. A big reason why that occurs is because we’re introducing more work into our lives, and our brains aren’t good at keep track of what work we’re supposed to do.
A space in which unprocessed items gather is called a “gathering point.” It is a concept introduced by Dave Crenshaw in his course Time Management Fundamentals and he says most people have 30 – 50 gathering points in their lives. If you have to check your work email every day, then your work email is a gathering point. If you have unpaid bills at your desk, that’s a gathering point too. If you need to check in with a supervisor to figure out what work needs to be done, gathering point. Your brain is probably your most common gathering point, and tons of stuff gets piled up there. How do you make sure you forgot to check your Gmail inbox, or your voicemail in case someone left something there? When’s the last time you needed to respond to those LinkedIn messages, or return the calls from your phone numbers? As you can see, it gets really hectic.
What I found helpful to keep track of my gathering points is to inventory my gathering points, and store that information at an existing gathering point. For me, it would be my personal Notion notebook:

I recommend by jotting this information in an existing gathering point that you already check. This ensures that you actually review this list often. Writing this down will feel like a huge sigh of relief because that’s 30 – 50 fewer things you need to keep track of. This will be your meta-gathering point.


By the end of this section you should have a clear framework for understanding what you want, what behaviors move you toward each goal, and which behaviors are prioritized. This is not a one-and-done exercise and requires occasional revisions. I find myself reviewing the progress of my goals every 3 months and every year.
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  1. this is why this guide is so long

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1 Response

  1. Lucas says:

    oh my god… I never thought this day would come. The sequel to probably the single most influential blog post of my life. Cannot wait to read this.

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