Note: this is a translation of the original post in Russian.
Hi there! It’s yo boy Nikita, serial procrastinator and the creator of projects used by over 20 000 000 people (real-time stats are here). Today I’m going to tell you how I red over 20 self-improvement books, developed a system to fight procrastination and launched 7 more or less successful services on the Internet in 1 year. I’ll try to keep it short so that you could consume this post with your morning coffee.
It all started in January 2019 when I subscribed to one of the audiobook apps and started my own book club “Booka” (it has over 2000 subscribers at the moment). Taking into account that I spend around 3 hours a week on sport and 7–8 hours on the commute, I calculated that I could “swallow” 1–3 books a month, which is exactly what I started doing. The whole list of books I read is available on the “Booka” channel, but I’d like to point out Willpower, Getting Things Done and Eat That Frog as the most relevant to this post.
All three of these books describe various psychological tricks to make our brain doing things. Some of the ideas turned out to be too over-complicated to implement, some still don’t have enough supporting research (e.g. willpower depletion) — but I tried them all within a year, combined them, simplified and derived a simple set of rules which, when being followed, can trick your brain into working efficiently.
Using these rules I can work on my projects at least 1 hour every day without any signs of burnout. I believe that the habit to always learn new technologies and seek programming tools with the least required code to achieve the set goals with a bit of self-discipline allowed me to improve my level of launching products one after another. So what are the rules?
- As soon as you think of a task (e.g. you get an email) you should add it to your task list — and then archive this email away from the inbox.
This rule allows your subconscious to free itself from thinking of a few uncompleted tasks. “Should I file taxes?”, “I should not forget to respond to John, he sent me an email recently”, “What was that hot deal on that vacation package?”, “Oh, I should probably count my money across the banks and start tracking my expenses” — and other thoughts that clutter your brain when you have trouble sleeping.
Personal experience: I always keep my inbox and head empty — as soon as I get a task, I add it to my todo list. I don’t forget anything anymore. I always add all the necessary relevant document links, email links or Telegram links to the tasks.
- If you are going to spend less than 2 minutes completing a task — do it right away
This rule will help you to avoid tons of tasks that get to your todo list and never get done because there are more important things to do or “I’ll reply later, I don’t feel like doing it now”.
Personal experience: my colleagues are always amazed by how fast I reply to emails. Other people take hours or days to answer. But my method is simple: most of the time replying to an email takes less than 2 minutes so I do it right away. If I see that it would take more than 2 minutes — I put it in the todo list.
- Tasks should be simple, clear, short, specific, actionable.
No more “Go to Mexico for New Years”, “Clean the house” and “Create a service to gather user feedback”. Our brain is resistant to doing stuff. “Go to Mexico” sounds too complicated and vague — you’ll deal with it “next Monday”, right? “Check out the price on round trip tickets to Mexico on [name of your favourite aggregator]” is so easy to do that your brain cannot justify not doing it. Also, completing such tasks boosts your confidence.
Personal experience: some time ago I finally got my car to the dealer for the scheduled check. At first, the task was “Get the car to the shop”. After some thinking, I changed it to “Call car dealer at +123456789 and book an appointment” — and I did it right away, booking the appointment for the next week. This task was hanging out there and dreading me for 3 months until I simplified it.
- Spend a couple of days organizing everything and every thought you own.
This will help you to gain the initial confidence in what you are doing. Every debt, every task, every document in your drawer, every closet, every digital piece you own (cloud drives, social networks, emails) needs to be organized. To get to the empty inbox state you need to categorize everything and add every task to your todo list. It is difficult, it is time-consuming, it is boring — but after you are done you will feel unprecedented clarity of the mind.
Personal experience: yes, all of my documents are in the cloud now, all backups are functioning, laptops are free of garbage, cloud drives are organized, all clothes folded in the drawers, balcony became my working creative space and everything I own has its place. As a result, I even got an extra $50 by returning the fan I forgot about to the shop. $50 for cleaning up. Not bad.
- Every task should either have an exact date or a specific month (but not the current month) to complete; you should not have any tasks without a specific month or date to complete them.
One of the largest productivity issues is planning and work overload. It’s bad when your brain is in a constant state of anxiety about the hanging list of what else needs to be done. Even worse when someone requires you to complete “this, this, this and that right now” and you reply “sure, will do it today”. You pick up 10–15 of these “sures” and the next day you break 14 out of 15 given promises. If you add the exact date or month to a task you will clearly see whether you will be capable of completing everything on a specific date and when each task will be completed.
Personal experience: one of the music streaming services has this deal 2–3 times a year — you can get 3 months of premium for $1. They are trying to hook up people — some of them might even forget and pay full price for the fourth month. I was one of them — I kept cancelling my old premium, registering new accounts, signing up for $1 deal… and forgetting to cancel it, paying full price afterwards. Now I save at least $10 a month because when I activate the $1 deal, I add a task “Unsubscribe from music streaming” dated in 3 months.
- Do day planning every morning. Do week planning every Monday morning. Do month planning every first day of the month morning.
If you followed the previous rules — you already have a list of tasks for today, this week and this month. In the morning wake up, look at the list of tasks for today and decide — whether you can complete everything today or not. If not — move the tasks you can’t complete today to a later date.
Personal experience: after planning tasks in the morning I can always tell everyone who depends on me completing the tasks when and what will be done. And in 99% of cases, I’m right.
- Don’t feel ashamed and add completed tasks to the todo list marked completed.
Every time you complete a task, crossing it off in the notebook or touching the “done” button, your brain gets a dose of positive hormones — you should not undervalue these sensations as they are required to support the positive feedback loop. You first support this feedback loop with the positive hormones completing small tasks — and then your brain starts to crave tasks completion, supporting your flow.
Personal experience: at first I wasn’t paying attention to completing the small tasks that weren’t on my todo list. But after a while when I started doing it I noticed that sometimes I start working simply because my brain craves positive feelings derived from task completion. Trust me, this feeling is extremely good — puts a smile on your face and productivity in the mind.
- Complete unpleasant tasks (frogs) in the morning.
Believe it or not — but you have higher decision quality in the morning rather than in the evening. And you don’t have the willpower to complete dreadful tasks postponed to the evening — so you postpone it till tomorrow. On the other hand, your willpower peaks in the morning! And even if you spend 50% of the daily the willpower on one unpleasant task in the morning, you can cope with the rest of the tasks with only half of willpower. It’s simply pleasant to complete the most “difficult” (more often unpleasant) task in the morning to not think about it all day.
Personal experience: I had a task to send a couple of forms to the government. Nothing urgent, so as expected it was on my list for 7 months until I marked it as a frog and completed it in 15 minutes the next morning. 15 minutes!
- Focus on only one task at a time.
Another bad habit is to do everything at the same time. You will be way more productive if you focus on just one task. Our brain, even though made for multitasking, cannot deal efficiently with multitasking not required for survival.
Personal experience: I had issues with focus and getting into the flow state until I started to only care about one task at a time. Now I am extremely focused every minute of my day after I plan everything!
Is it all?
Yes, these are all the rules that improve one’s productivity. All three books above contain concepts that are either ineffective or not beneficial enough when compared to the effort to support a good habit. For instance, there is literally no need to have a concept of “projects” as described in GTD — projects “self-improvement” and “sport” that hasn’t been looked at for months sent their regards. Or repeating tasks which, left undone, accumulate over time as dead weight simply because you “didn’t have time to go to the gym yesterday”.
Of course, I might have forgotten some rules when focusing on the ones that matter the most and can be followed on autopilot everyday. These are the 20% that give you 80% of the result. Remember that everyday improvement of your life — no matter how small they are — accumulate with compound interest. But so do bad habits.
Also, I’ve recently launched my own todo list app — Todorant (web, iOS, Android) — that automates there rules for you and adds more cognitive tricks to make you complete the tasks and achieve goals. I use it every day. It’s free for 30 days with no strings attached, so go give it a shot if you want to improve your productivity. It helped me — it can help you as well!
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And try out Todorant. It's my main project — a smart todo list that tricks the primitive part of the brain to get things done. It is the only thing that helped me to become as productive as I am right now.