Productivity Hacks

A.J. Jacobs has conducted numerous lifestyle experiments, so he has a lot of experience in intentionally building challenging habits. In this talk from Effective Altruism Global 2018: San Francisco, he shares some of his favorite techniques for enhancing productivity. A transcript of AJ's talk is below, including comments from the audience, which we have lightly edited for clarity.

This session is on productivity, efficiency, and motivation, so hopefully, we can do more good in less time, and be more efficient, effective altruists. I only have half an hour, so I'm going to try to be as efficient as possible. I'll give you some quick background on myself: I'm a writer and a journalist, and what I like to do is do experiments on myself, change my lifestyle and see what makes it better, and what makes it more miserable, which is often the case, and then figure out what I can take away.

Perhaps my best-selling book was called The Year of Living Biblically. That one is where I knew nothing about religion, but I decided to learn about it by following all the rules of the Old Testament, so the Ten Commandments. I grew a beard, I stoned adulterers - I used pebbles so that I didn't get arrested - and, by the way, I gave one tenth of my income to widows and orphans as instructed. So, that was a very early version of Giving What We Can, I think. They needed better metrics, but the idea was pretty good.

I got involved in EA a couple of years ago, because I wrote an article for Esquire Magazine, and the premise was if I were to donate my writing fee of a couple thousand dollars so that it could do the maximum good in the world, where would I donate those $2,000? Naturally, delightfully, I ran across EA and Will MacAskill, and Peter Singer, and I've been a huge fan ever since. Amy Labenz asked me to speak today because some of my books and experiments have to do with productivity and efficiency, and motivation, so I'm delighted to share the strategies I've learned over the years.

Experimentation is my unifying theme. That's my big theme, so I encourage you to try these out. Not all of these experiments are going to work for everybody, and some of them you may already be using, but my hope is that we experiment and find some of them helpful. And I'm going to cover, quickly, four themes today. Motivation, how to get yourself to do something you don't really want to do. Outsourcing and crowdsourcing, unitasking, like how to avoid multitasking, and speed, not the drug.

One final note is, one of the strategies I find most helpful in all projects is crowdsourcing. For a couple of years, I wrote an advice column where people would send in a question like, “I'm staying at someone's house and I think they hate me. What should I do?" Then, I would put it out to all of my Facebook friends and followers, and get hundreds of answers, and then take the best of those answers. So, I find crowdsourcing a super effective method. So today, after each one of these four, I'd love to hear from one or two of you of a strategy that you find helpful, especially with apps. I know some apps for productivity, but I'm not an ultimate expert. This is not my full-time job, motivation and productivity.


All right, starting off with motivation. How do you convince yourself to do something? My friend Tim Urban calls it the procrastination monkey. How do you get rid of that procrastination monkey in your brain? And a lot of strategies I picked up when I was doing a book called Drop Dead Healthy, and this was where I tried to be the healthiest person alive. So eat healthy, exercise, sleep healthy, go to the bathroom healthy. I can tell you about that later. We don't have time.

All right, so let me give you a couple of strategies that helped me with that, because I definitely did not want to act in a healthy way, but I forced myself to. First was the idea of egonomics, which is from a Yale professor. The idea that we do have our current self and our future self, and they have different ideas of what we should be doing. The current self wants to sit on the couch and the future self wants to be alive. And there are studies that show the more you think about your future self, the more you will act in a good way, a healthy way, a productive way, a moral way.

So my advice is to treat your older self like you would treat a friend. Be altruists to your older self. And the studies say that the more concrete your older self is, the more likely you are to treat it well. So this, you don't have to do this. But I took a photo of myself, like a selfie and I digitally aged it, and I printed it out, and I put it over my desk. So every time I was procrastinating or not wanting to go on the treadmill, I'd look at my future self and he'd be like, “Come on, do it, do it for me. You want to be around.” Similarly, there's black mailing yourself. This one I found very effective.

During this year, I would eat a lot of these dried mangoes, that's my vice. Which may sound semi healthy, but it's really just candy disguised as fruit. Just a lot of sugar. So I made… again, the same professor at Yale came up with this idea to blackmail yourself. I had my wife write a check for $100 and I said if I eat another mango, then you have to send this check, and the check was to the American Nazi Party and it was so crazy effective. And there are websites that will do this. There's one called, So you make a contract with yourself.

And I was told that the Effective Altruism version of this is called bee-something. Beeminder? Okay. So, I didn't even know that, but I'm delighted. Another effective strategy I found, I think might resonate with this crowd, is appealing to the utilitarian inside of yourself, because there are studies that when you have a clear vision that you're doing good for the world, you are more motivated to act.

So there was a study by Adam Grant for fundraisers, they were doing college fundraising. And when he showed them video testimonials from kids who had benefited from the scholarships, they raised three times as much money. So the more concrete and visual you can be about realizing that you're doing good. And I actually, I used this today, 'cause I was like, “I'm not getting paid, no offense, but like should I just phone this in?” and I'm like, “You know what, if I can increase these people's productivity by like 1.5% each, and you guys are all doing amazing work, like I am having a huge impact.”

So that motivated me to actually prepare, whether it seems like it or not. I do this as well when I exercise. I also am not self-motivated to exercise, because I'm married. And unfortunately, I'm not proud of it, but I don't care what I look like, but I do want to see my kids grow up. So I'm motivated to exercise, I focus on them.

Miniature goals, this I found incredibly effective, and Lynette yesterday talked about exploding big goals into little ones, and that's just, I do that all the time and I tell my kids to do that. But I even break it down into the micro goals because, I actually do like to answer emails while walking on the treadmill, but sometimes I just don't feel like it. So I will break it into a micro goal. I'll say, I'll trick myself, I'll be like, “All right, just put on your sneakers. You don't have to do anything else. I'm not saying you have to go on the treadmill, your only goal is to put on your sneakers.” And I put on the sneakers and then I am propelled to the next goal. So micro goals I find very useful.

Delusional optimism, that I find an extremely useful tool because as we know, most ventures worth anything, they have a small chance of succeeding, but you've got to convince yourself that they have a bigger chance, or you will never do it, at least for me. So when I was writing this health book, I remember I woke up filled with despair many days that it's too big a topic, like how am I… I'm not a doctor, how am I going to write a book about all of health? And what I would do is I would act as if I were optimistic and eventually, I became optimistic. It's basic cognitive behavioral therapy.

So I would call up my publisher and I would say, “All right, so when this book comes out, let's have a big party and serve Kale Martinis,” and once you do that for a couple of hours, you become optimistic. All right. If I could pause really quickly for a crowdsourcing moment, is there anyone who has one quick tip on how they motivate themselves that might… yeah.

Audience: Epic music.

Epic music. Like what is that?

Audience: Like you're on an adventure.

I love that. I'm gonna try that. Yeah. Either one.

Audience: Five minute timer. Spending just five minutes.

Interesting. All right. Because I was going to talk about the Pomodoro technique, which some of you might know, where it's you do 25 minutes and then 5 minutes off, but I like that, that's even less time. All right. I definitely want to hear more and hopefully we'll have a little time. I'm talking quickly, but I just wanna to get quickly to the other sections.

Outsourcing and Crowdsourcing

The next is outsourcing and crowdsourcing. This, about 15 years ago now, outsourcing was just starting and I read about it, how these banks or law firms would hire people in India to do their repetitive tasks, like data entry. And I'm just a writer, I didn't have a corporation, but I was like, “That's an interesting idea.”

So I decided what if I outsourced myself, outsourced my life? So, that's what I did. I hired a team of people in Bangalore, India to do everything for me. So they answered my phone, they answered my emails, they argued with my wife for me, it was fantastic. And this came out as an article in Esquire and it was reprinted in Tim Ferriss's book, The Four Hour Workweek. I don't know if you've read that. And just very quickly, he called me. He had never written a book, and he called me out of the blue. He's like, “I'm a first time writer, I don't know what I'm doing. Can you help me be a writer?” And I was like… I gave him whatever wisdom I had, which wasn't much.

And then he said, “I loved your article. Can I reprint it in my book?” And I'm like, “This guy is a first time writer, who I've never heard of. He doesn't know what he's doing.” “Sure. Reprint it. I'm not gonna charge you, being a jerk.” And then like a year later he calls me, he's like, “Yeah, my book is number one on Amazon.” I'm like, “What happened?” But I'm actually happy because he's got a huge cult following. And so it did work for me in the end. And as an effective altruist, hopefully it worked for other people.

But anyway, just a couple of thoughts on outsourcing, because now it's become much more commonplace. There are several places that do it. The one I used and the one that Tim mentions is called And there's another one called that a friend of mine started. I have not used it, but he's very smart, so I'm thinking it'll be good. Of course, there's places like TaskRabbit and Fiverr, and just a couple of notes on when you outsource, one thing I've found is the importance of being very precise in what you ask for. Especially if there's a language barrier, things can get messed up.

I remember I asked for a wax paper to keep my vegetables and we ended up getting a wax mustache strip remover for women. And my wife was like, “What are you saying?” And it was ugly. So, and this may sound strange, but I honestly think one of my favorite… one of the most effective things I did while outsourcing is I outsourced my worry. I was really stressed out about a family matter, but I knew that worry... problem solving is good, but worrying is a waste of time and energy. So I said to Asha, in Bangalore, I asked her, “Would you please for 10 minutes every day, I will pay you, to worry for me.”

I don't know if it works for everyone, but it was an amazing feeling to know that every time I started to worry, I'd be like, “that's taken care of.” And you don't have to hire someone. I've found what you can do is you can switch worries with a friend and say, “I'll worry for you, and you worry for me,” because you don't have the emotional connection to their worry, so it's not all that unpleasant to worry for them.

Now, moving onto crowdsourcing for a second. Again, I love that, the advice people gave was amazing. I also am a big fan... like, I have a book coming out in November and I was talking to you about that, and I didn't know what the title was. The publisher had a title that I didn't love. So I think I did it on Mechanical Turk on Amazon, where you can do very inexpensive polls or Google ads to figure out what works better, what will get more clicks. And so actually it worked, because I got my title, because I showed them the data. I'm like, “Look, this gets a lot more clicks.” It's called Thanks a Thousand. They wanted to call it Thank You All.

But what I did was instead of a poll, I said, “Buy this book,” which doesn't exist yet. I didn't say that but, “Click on this to buy this book.” And then when they clicked on it, there was like, “You can sign up and get it as soon as it comes out.” But that way I think it's more accurate than... because people don't really necessarily know what they're going to buy, but if they click on that link, then they have intention. So, that's a little tip. And by the way, some of you may know Spencer Greenberg, who is an effective altruist, he's coming here today. That guy is the master of Mechanical Turk and crowdsourcing. So I highly recommend you go to his talk and talk to him about that.

Let's see. Oh, and finally, I don't know what to call this, source sourcing or something sourcing. I have a friend named Charles Duhigg who writes for the New York Times, and he wrote a book on productivity, so he knows what he's doing. And I asked him his interview style, and he said what he does is he doesn't, like most journalists, come up with a list of questions. He goes to the person, he gets them on the phone and said, “You know your topic better than I do. Can you tell me the five things that I should do? What are the most common questions? What are the biggest concerns?” So he totally outsourced his job to the people he's talking to, and I thought it was brilliant, and I've tried to do that a little.

Okay. Oh, so let me pause for a quick crowdsourcing. I don't know if anyone does outsourcing or crowdsourcing, but if they do and they have a tip or a service they like, I would love to hear it. Anyone. Yes.

Audience: For interviews I use something called Do you ever use transcription? I record them on my phone and then I just email them off to somebody in, and 24 hours later, the entire transcription comes. So I never have to transcribe.

I have many friends who use that, I've never used it, but I should. And it's a human. It's not a software program.

Audience: It's a human.

Because there are software programs, but I'm not sure they're quite up to standard.

Audience: About a dollar a minute, but it's pretty worth it, because think about your time.

That's great.


Focus and Unitasking

All right. I love that. Anyone else with an outsourcing or crowdsourcing tip? Okay, next we've got focus and unitasking. This was an article, a chapter of a book I wrote called The Unitasker, where I tried to just spend a month just doing one thing at a time, which is not easy. And, as you probably know, multitasking is not only inefficient, it also doesn't really exist, because you can't do two cognitive tasks at the same time and you're losing energy when you switch from one task to another. You're losing mental energy. You're losing time.

So, how to be a unitasker. One of the most effective strategies which you might've heard of, is called the Odysseus strategy or the Ulysses pact, and it comes from the Odyssey where Odysseus was going on a ship and he was about to go to the sirens, and he knew that if he heard their voices, he would leap into the water. So he had his sailors tie him to the mast and put wax in his ears. So this has become a very successful strategy in work. And I took it far more literally than maybe it was supposed to. I actually did tie myself to my desk chair and it worked. It worked. I was like, “All right, I can't get up,” but you don't have to do that.

There are many apps that use the Ulysses pact idea, like Freedom, where you're cut off from the Internet and you have to reboot your computer, and it's so shameful when you do that, but hopefully you don't do that. There's the Pomodoro technique that I was mentioning earlier and there are several apps on your phone or computer where it will cut you off for 25 minutes, and it'll tell you, “All right, 25 minutes is up. You're allowed to have that five minute break.” I actually found this effective, weirdly: when talking on the phone, I shut my eyes and actually talk on the phone. And it's a revelation. It's like, “Oh, I'm actually having a conversation. I'm learning things instead of just doing my email.” So it really changes the tone of the conversation.

I think that social media, of course, and the Internet, no shock there, they have huge downsides, and I really do think reading the news several times a day increases our negativity bias, because you're seeing all the horrible things, and it is just a motivational drain. So I really do try only to read the news once a day at night because what I find is I get really depressed and then I can fall asleep. I also wrote an article on creativity hacks, like what are the best creativity hacks, and I'm happy to talk about those. But one of them had to do with this, which was some creativity is when you're taking a shower. But some of it, I find it very helpful to actually block out 15 minutes a day for brainstorming.

And it could be general brainstorming about anything. It could be specific about a project or a book. But I find if I don't do that, the day just slips away. You've got to really be proactive with your calendar, show your calendar who's boss and actually put in, all right from 2:00 to 2:15, I'm going to brainstorm ideas. And sometimes, even though 98% of those ideas are going to be useless, it really does help keep my brain... I do believe in the analogy, the brain is like a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it is.

So sometimes if I don't have anything, I'll take anything. I'll take a snowman and be like, all right, “What can I do with a snowman?” And I'll just play with it. What about a snow transgender person? Snow nonbinary person? What if instead of a pipe, they're vaping? And I honestly find that, when I am in a situation where I need to think quickly, I feel that I'm more prepared. All right. So, oh, I think there must be some good tips from you guys on focusing. So I'd love to take. Yeah.

Audience: I built my own hackintosh that has no Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth, no audio driver and no video driver. I do my writing on that-

Thank you for reminding me, but I have two computers, one that I write on and one that is connected to the Internet, because I do think that if you're trying to write on the one that's connected to the Internet, it's just nearly impossible. All right. And then finally, and then we can talk your hacks. What is my final one? Speed. This is a short one, appropriately. But I did write an article once on how to do things faster without sacrificing quality.


One hack that I use that I love, and that I'm trying to spread, is I have adopted Skype lunches. So instead of going out to lunch with someone where you lose like 15 minutes, half an hour getting there, you have to wait for the waiter to bring the check. I say to a friend, I'll be like, “You order lunch, I'll order lunch and we'll do it over Skype.” And it is awesome. I highly recommend it. It is so efficient and you do get the face-to-face. You maybe lose a little because you're not in person, but you do get the face and you do get privacy. I have a friend who's very tech savvy and he chooses a background, so we could eat in Paris at a cafe. So Skype lunches, I'm a big fan of.

You guys might already know this, but double speed is a beautiful thing for podcasts, and for videos on YouTube, and for anything. There's a great app that is free. It's a chrome extension called Video Speed Controller. Does anyone use it? Three? Four? Yeah. All right, let's see. Oh man, it is a thing of beauty. Because you can watch anything. You can watch Netflix, you can watch Hulu, you can watch anything as fast or slow as you want.

And I have friends who are in the movie industry and they're not so happy about that. But some movies, like I watched Manchester by the Sea, I watched that on double speed and it was still slow. It was like, “Jesus.” So, yes, I am a big fan of that. And if you do go out to lunch, this is a little hack I learned from my former editor at Esquire. If you're going to have a lunch that you are required to go to but are not excited about, and if it's a nice enough place, you go to the host and say like, “Can you bring me the check in 40 minutes?” And so you set it up. Yeah. It's not the nicest thing, but listen, you're doing it for the greater good. You need to get back there and do your real job.

All right. I'd love to hear any hacks that you guys have for speed, there must be some ideas that you have, any apps or anything.

Audience: The common one that every place I ever walk to, I'm talking on the phone with someone, usually my family, but every single long walk.

Well, you know what I like. I love that. But I also like to come up… I find that I don't trust my brain, because it will wander into dark corners that are not productive to me or anyone else. So I will choose a topic to think about, a problem that I have that I'm going to think about on my walk to work. And then when I get there, I'll have four or five solutions, and maybe one of them will work. So I am a big fan of scheduling my thoughts and I find that very helpful along those lines.

Well, look at that. See, 10:30. Damn, that's good. It would be very embarrassing if I did a productivity efficiency thing and I only got through half and rambled. So 10:30, I got through my little points, but I'm around in office hours if you guys are interested in talking more about this topic. Again, it's more of a conversation, I'd love to learn from you too. So, thank you very much. It was fun.