The Best of The Listserve's Productivity Advice

On May 1st I was given the opportunity to write about myself to 25,000 people on The Listserve.  I chose to write about my struggle finishing things, and the responses have been amazing. Here are some of the best.

From a guy in NYC:

You have a very defeatist and victim mindset...Listen on Audible to autobiographies from people like Arnold Schwartzennegar, Ted Turner, and T. Boone Pickens for inspiration.

-Oh wait. I said I was going to include the best advice. How did this nugget get in the mix? 

Simple, Beautiful Advice:

- Do fewer things simultaneously. Simply. Just pick one project you love and focus on that every day, if only for a few minutes. Keep a journal/notes on ideas you're "rejecting" - because you're not rejecting them, you're just not doing them right now.

- Stop looking at how much others are doing (which probably isn't accurate anyway) and just focus on yourself, being the smallest bit better every day. Might be that you worked a bit longer, or that you didn't have to struggle as much with something or whatever. Celebrate that.

- Not to get too crunchy on you, but there's a quote I ran across from the bhagavad gita that I really love to turn over in my mind. It's basically "You're not entitled to the fruits of your labor, you're only entitled to the labor itself."  Not sure why that resonates so much with me, but it reminds me to concentrate on what I'm doing that day rather than what I think the outcome could or should be.

I'll also recommend reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (but you have to get the Gregory Hays translation). There's a lot of timeless wisdom in there, and the Hays translation is very modern. 

"Tax" Time-wasting activities:

Write down precisely when you start and when you finish distractions.

Before going to Facebook, before checking emails, or before attempting any activities that does not further the project, write down the current time in a (physical) notebook first. Go through with the distraction. And upon finishing the distraction, write the current time down.

Finishing things is a muscle that needs to be exercised.

I think you may have nailed an interesting point without realizing it: you finished this email. That's a thing. That counts. An email to 25,000 people no less! But an email is small -- maybe build on that? Pick small things that you feel confident that you can finish. A wise fellow once told me that finishing things is, in itself, a skill, so consider finishing lots of small things in order to build that muscle so it take on bigger, more ambitious projects.

From a fellow distracted person:

I downloaded some software called self-control when I was writing my dissertation. It doesn't let you away with the incognito mode trick! Maybe it will help.

Maybe you're getting bored because you already understand the problem.

I have also started lot of projects because they give me the chance to learn or figure out something new, and as soon as I think I understand the problem and know what the solution is, it is not that interesting to implement the solution and finish the project (although no project is ever finished, there is always more or better you can do with it, right?).

Listening Recommendations:

Brian Tracy - miracle of self discipline ( - crappy quality but couldn’t find better one) 

David Allen - getting things done -

Back to Work - (Listen from Episode 1, and give it an episode or two)

Overtired - (Awesome, jump in wherever)

Systematic - 

Reading Recommendations:

Read Wait But Why's Post about why procrastinators procrastinate.

Part 2 -

Part 3 -



I recommend 'Understanding Human Design'

If you are into the new age at all check it out. It is a synthesis of a few different things; astrology, Chakra systems, and the I Ching.


Be not deterred by the relatively cheesy title:

"Refuse to Choose: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love"

It re-framed for me my tendency to put a project aside after the first flush was gone.

Read it.

- I had three other recommendations for this book. It's definitely on my list now.

Advice for the unproductive programmer:

- Pick a project. Any project. Work on it until it's finished, no exceptions. Turn off Netflix, turn on your productivity apps. Finish the project, no matter how minor it is, or how little you care to actually finish it. The sense of accomplishment you get from finishing a single project can drive you to complete a handful of others. "Opportunities multiply as they are seized"...

- If you have people you spend time with, it can be extremely detrimental to your projects if they are interrupting your coding flow with normal human things. One of the best ways I have been able to help my friends and family understand what we do is to explain to them how much programming is like dreaming. There's a rather famous essay out there called "Don't wake the programmer", and it will help the people around you to minimize disturbing your flow.

- Speaking of flow, Facebook and the like is my greatest enemy when it comes to flow. It's just muscle memory to alt-tab and F5 Facebook every couple of minutes. This effectively nullifies any flow, or progress towards flow. Still to this day I have to actively work to build up to flow. Headphones are your best bet wherever you code, since there are ways around the productivity-killers (as you mention).

- Every programmer is always fighting yak shaving. Even the most productive programmers spend hours reading the install instructions of some library and fighting their OS and tools. I frequently had anxiety brought on by yak shaving. I always thought to myself how awful it is that other programmers are just banging out code and here I am totally blowing an afternoon on tooling. But the anxiety went away and my life got better when I finally talked to enough of our peers and understood that every one of us shaves yaks for more time than we code.

Shock Yourself.

I was just reading about this productivity tool that electrically shocks you before I got your listserve. A bit more medieval but I wonder how effective it'd be:

Documentation is Key.

It’s a good habit to document ideas, actions and results since it does give a sense of achievement in the long run. It also provides a larger picture a year down the line. Its annoying cause I always thought I could do without spending time on such documentation but that strategy is clearly failing. So for now, I try my best to write it down so that I can at least revisit and complete it when I am lacking ideas.

Find your productive time of day and break that time into manageable chunks.

For me, finding the time of day that I actually find myself productive (regardless of when I want to be) has been helpful. For some reason when I get up early and there's no prepping for something (i.e. showering for work, eating breakfast, etc.), I get stuff done. It's the preparing process that I take my time with and enjoy so much (I will spend a whole Saturday cleaning my apartment) that it ends up taking over the task I'm prepping for. A 4:30 wake-up kills this. I am too early to be hungry, I don't need coffee, it's still dark in my apartment and most importantly it's quiet. Somehow the internet isn't calling to me just yet.

I also limit myself to little ten minute stretches of time where I'll get things done. 10 minutes to pick up my living room, 10 minutes to do dishes, that sort of thing. I find that it's just enough time to get something done and just little enough time that I don't mentally allow myself to get distracted.

I read somewhere that the average person greatly overestimates how much they can get done in a day, but grossly underestimates how much they can get done in a year. I take great solace and comfort in that thought. But then the years pass.

We're very hard on ourselves. But it's hard not to be when we know that we're filled with so much potential. All of us are. But some of us know it more than others. And that in itself can be maddening.

I recently finished my doctorate thesis and it took me longer than others on my course. I finally got it done in the end, but it nearly killed my spirit. I wouldn't have finished it only for the fact that doing it allows me to practice as a clinical psychologist, something that I do enjoy. But I'm not sure I would do it again if I could go back and choose.

So if you feel pressured to finish a project you started, also remember that you don't have to, your happiness and health is more important!

Be Methodical.

Do a 1-pager every morning with an actual pen and paper, first thing, before you even open your computer. Write down:

The top 3-5 things you want done today

Then, within those things, each task that needs to be done in order to finish that thing.

Then, you write a list of people that you might be waiting on in order to complete a task

Then a list of people you need to contact to complete a task.

Final step: go into your calendar and input every single task that you're going to do based on that list.

Notice you only go into your email to either search for an email you were waiting for, or write one. There is no "checking email" slot that goes on for hours.


  1. 7:30-7:35 email Steve re: UI bugs
  2. 7:35-7:40 email Karen re: legal question
  3. 7:40-8:40 draft copy for homepage
  4. 8:40-8:45 break

Etc with reminders at the time and 1 minute before.

For some reason, just having even the simplest of tasks in there with reminders, means you see it flash up and you just DO it. There is no decision to be made of "shall I send that email or write that copy or read that article?"

It's already decided and so you expend zero mental energy and willpower choosing between what to do next.

Trauma and Adrenaline are ADHD Killers.

So I guess my advice would be to take at least a few months and go somewhere actually terrible things are happening in the world, and experience the struggle to improve some of the most basic things in life for people who don't have everything like we do in America. Longer would probably be better, but I know most people aren't willing to sign on for 4 years like I was (3.5 years ago, now. As someone leaving the military, i can't recommend it as an option for this sort of personal journey. Most members of the military that i know don't treat it this way- it's just a job.).

It's definitely not the sort of ADD or ADHD hack you read about on lifehacker. But it's certainly done wonders for me. I'm sure there are other ways to address the problem, but it is a fact that historically there are few cultures which have exhibited anything resembling what we call attention deficit disorders, and they are characterized by a constant detachment from the sorts of traumatic experiences that are very stressful, but perhaps necessary for balanced attention.

Don't Work.
"Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world...."

Focus on Friendship, Not Productivity

After almost ten years working for nonprofits I can tell you that work, regardless of how many you help, will never be as important as the ones you love. It's also true you should work at your friendships. And no, networking event participation does not count.

Friendship is more than bringing a case of beer to the barbecue or standing as a Godparent and failing miserably to even attempt to fill the role. It's being present and contributing to your peoples lives. It's not just making them laugh but also making sure they know you will be there to make them smile when they're too weak to laugh. It's holding their hand through the divorce and helping them get back into the dating pool when they're ready.

If people only wanna hang but completely disappear when sh*t hits the fan and you consider them a friend. You are selling yourself short. Lower the emotional investment you are making into that person and fill that space doing something for a friend that showed up for you.

Some people are meant to be associates and that's fine too. Invite them to the parties and barbecues and have drinks with them on their birthday and have great evening dinners together. But stop expecting more from people than they are willing to give. It's such a waste of time. And for the people who show up, do something BIG. They have earned it after all.

Since I've been out of the country for the past few years I have plans to execute my own personal friend appreciation week this Summer where I will dedicate myself to my friends for a full week, helping them out, sharing my big projects with them and overall showing that now that i'm back in town physically that I am back all those other ways friends are too. The vulnerability makes me anxious, but, hey, that's what drives me.

Thought from and old person

maybe you could just get comfortable with being an "idea person" ?- we need as many of those in the world, as the people that take them forward - productivity is way over-rated - especially when most worthwhile endings in life are really about the journey