Productivity Hacks Don’t Work (For Me)

I’ve tried many times over the years to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and work on side hustles before going to my main job.

It always works for a few days.

But instead of transitioning my sleep schedule to hit the hay early, I’d still stay up until 1:00 a.m.

After a few days of sleeping four hours each night, I’d crash and sleep for 12. Then I’d go back to side-hustling after work.

I’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique as many times as waking up early, if not more.

Instead of being productive for 25 minutes I stare at my computer screen in silent panic, stressed and terrified that, at the end of the time interval, I’ll have nothing to show for it.

That’s exactly what happens.

This is my relationship with most productivity hacks. It’s not that they don’t work. They obviously work for a lot of people. But the majority of them don’t work for me.1

I tend to experience life in alternating waves of massive productivity and extreme apathy. When the productivity wave crashes and I start riding apathy wave, all of the usual hacks fail.

  • Instead of reminding myself to eat healthy, I have to remind myself to eat anything.
  • Exercise changes from running and lifting weights to walking from my car to the office and back.
  • My to-do list shrinks down to:
    1. Wake up
    2. Go to work
    3. Go to sleep

As a result, I’ve developed my own productivity hacks that last through the lows. Every once in a while someone asks how I manage to work at an agency, go home, then work more for myself. They never like my answer.

I think a part of them wants me to share a secret skill I have that they don’t, like only needing to sleep for a few hours each night, so they can tell themselves it’s not possible for them. If not that, then they want a specific habit they can duplicate for the same results, like picking a certain time of day to respond to emails.

The truth is neither. I just follow two rules that make the rest come naturally.

  1. Minimize your life and commitments.
  2. Make yourself unhappy.

Minimize Your Life and Commitments

Most productivity hacks focus on efficiency. They pander to maximizers — people who want to make the most of their waking hours. Maximizers try to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of every moment, ultimately accomplishing more in less time.

My sister is a maximizer. She’s a full-time doctor, part-time photographer, the wife of a farmer and mother of three kids.

She worked full time through undergrad and received special permission from the dean to exceed the maximum number of allowable credit hours.

She is superhuman.

I am not.

I am a minimizer. I can’t accomplish as much as my sister. Honestly, I struggle with anything in excess of life’s normal expectations.

Hyperbole and a Half Productivity Graph
Productivity and responsibility. Image by Allie Brosh.

The only way I can “hack productivity” is by doing less.

I don’t wake up and think, “How can I accomplish more in less time?”

Instead, I think, “How can I accomplish less in more time?”

How can I free up more time to do only the things that matter? Because I don’t want to do all of the things (I couldn’t even if I wanted). I just want to do the most important things. That means sacrificing the half-assed efforts of some dreams to go all-in on another.

The result is a small life. I make few commitments to other people. I make few commitments to myself and am painfully realistic about what I can manage or complete. My possessions are also few, and I have no kids or pets.

If that sounds depressing, that’s partly because it is (more on that in a second).

But it’s also meaningful, because I’ve deliberately chosen to prioritize what remains in my life.

Make Yourself Unhappy

Some people are motivated when they’re happy. Their lives are great yet they are intrinsically driven to strive for better.

I can’t relate to those people.

I’m motivated when my life sucks — when I’m frustrated and angry.

When I’m forced to confront the true cause of my unhappiness and do something about it — that’s when I’m motivated and productive.

This feeling and situation is hard to trigger because my life is mostly awesome. If I want to be unhappy, it means doing one of two things:

  1. Wait for something to sucky to happen.
  2. Intentionally avoid happy (but unproductive) things.

I choose option #2.

Make no mistake: If I could play Mario Kart all day while drinking chocolate milk and eating powdered sugar donuts, I would.

But I can’t live with myself knowing that, deep down, I would like to accomplish more.

So I don’t own any gaming consoles. I don’t have Netflix. My furniture consists of two chairs, one table, and a bed. This quote from Anthony Bourdain explains the feeling well.

Anthony Bourdain Quote There’s a Guy Inside Me Who Wants to Lay in Bed and Smoke Weed All Day
Quote from an interview with Men’s Journal. Image from Anna Hanks.

1The only productivity hack I use somewhat regularly is the second morning.