The problem of behavioral control, or making sure that you do what you want to be doing in any given moment, is a cornerstone of productivity and effectiveness.

I want to describe a lifestyle change that increased my productivity by 4x, going end-to-end in 3 weeks on a project that would normally have taken 4 months. I hired someone to be by my side, physically in person, all throughout work and make sure, in every moment, that I do exactly what I said I should be doing.

Specifically, we ran a productivity tracking system together inside a spreadsheet. Cutting the work session into 1 hour chunks, we would specify:

  1. The set goal or goals for that hour
  2. A run through a checklist blocking potential distractions. Specifically:
    • Earplugs in
    • Headphones over earplugs
    • Phone off and away
    • Wifi off (if possible)
    • Laptop away (if possible, when working on desktop)
  3. The first low-level action steps to take.
  4. Exactly which applications, websites, and tools were allowable for the work session.

An example of one work session on the spreadsheet:

Any deviation from working on the goal, say picking up my phone, wandering around, checking or responding to an email or message, eating / snacking while working, and many others would immediately be met by a hand on my shoulder and the question: is this in line with the goal you set? If the answer was no, the protocol is to immediately redirect my attention to the task at hand.

During the work session, we would track distractions. This was divided into external distractions (messages, people talking nearby, or talking to the low level social accountability / productivity coach) and internal distractions (spontaneously opening a website misaligned from the goal, distracting thoughts about personal life, and other internally generated distractions). Any repeating distraction would lead to the creation of a simple plan to eliminate the possibility of the distraction occuring again.

In 2m after the work session we would reflect on:

  1. Focus intensity (a subjective 1-10 measure of the intensity of my focus)
  2. Time on Task (the fraction of time allocated that I actually spent focused on the task)
  3. Whether the goal was achieved or not.

Layered on top of this was execution on a shortlist of the best hits from the productivity literature.

  1. Run Task Management System (Hierarchical Goals - Yearly - Monthly - Weekly - Daily)
    • Plan each day in advance
    • Schedule on a calendar in addition to a to-do list
  2. Focus Tracking
  3. Time Tracking
  4. Bite off the smallest action step possible
  5. Build streaks / habits / momentum
  6. Single, clear task at a time
  7. Most important task in the morning with focus
  8. Do the most difficult task first
  9. Cut off all distractions
  10. Enter the appropriate mental state
    • Music
    • Visualization
  11. Create Large Chunks of Time
  12. Social Accountability
    • Precommitment
    • Feedback
  13. Many small projects - large projects kill morale
  14. Metrics as a reward system
  15. Set Deadlines

In line with many of these principles, this system works because it creates immense clarity which cuts through ambiguity and allows for decisive decision making, frees mindspace from distractions, and so enables entrance to a deeply focused state of mind.

I experimented with variants of this which involved a remote watcher, both through screen capture and messaging back and forth on the hour. There were gains with these experiments but they weren’t nearly as substantial (my subjective estimates are ~1.5x w/ screen capture and ~1.3x with messaging). The price point was ~$600 / week. For me, this was more than worthwhile.