I get some version of this email every day:
“How many hours do you work, Ramit? What tool do you use to manage your social media? Do you actually read 2,000 emails/day?”
All right, you want to know how I actually stay productive? Fine, I’ll show you exactly what I do. No pandering, no hiding the truth. You might think I’m over-the-top, or that my approach is weird or won’t work for you…but I don’t care if people think it’s “too much.” I care about making an impact.
Introducing the 3 Tiers of Productivity
Listen to the way most people talk about productivity.
- “I just need to buckle down.”
- “I need to find my ‘Why’… THEN everything will fall into place.”
- “I guess I’m just not motivated enough.”
Look, productivity isn’t about “motivation.” If you think it is, you’ve already lost.
Productivity is about understanding what you really want to do, then building systems to make it work for you. The goal isn’t Inbox Zero. (Who gives a shit?) Your goal is to enable yourself to perform at your very best, every day, and over the course of weeks and months and years.
This is how you make a huge impact. Sure, you might slip up a few times. Some days you just won’t feel it — and that’s fine. Real productivity gives you freedom and flexibility because you’re consistent 95% of the time.
Think of productivity like a pyramid.
At the bottom — the foundation — are your fundamentals. Things like your environment, your sleep, and knowing what you’re going to work on every morning. Everybody ignores these because they’re not sexy. But if you don’t get these right, nothing else matters.
In the middle is your psychology, like the ability to set boundaries, handle setbacks, and be positive and resilient.
At the very top — the least important part — are the details. The things like “Which app do you use?” Everybody wastes their time focusing on this stuff. (Get a life.)
But I know you productivity nutjobs want to know all my favorite little life hacks, so I’ll show you what I use and exactly how I use it. Let’s start at the base of the pyramid, the foundation.
Tier 1: Fundamentals
In our culture, it’s a virtue to make your success seem effortless. But in reality, real success takes real effort. Most will lie to you about how easy it comes. I won’t.
This is precisely why the most important part of the productivity pyramid is the fundamentals: sleep, a clean environment, and knowing exactly what you’re going to do.
These aren’t “easy.” You can’t download an app on your phone to solve them. But they are the secret to permanently increasing your productivity.
Fundamental #1: 8 hours of sleep. Every. Night.
As a culture, we see sleep as a weakness — something that can be powered through and caffeinated over. The data shows this is not true. In fact, a lack of sleep is as harmful as being drunk.
And the celebrities who tell you they “hardly” sleep? Lies. (Just like they lie about rarely working out, when in reality they have nutritionists, trainers, and chefs.)
My fundamental “80% Win” here is that I sleep 7.5 to 8 hours almost every night.
It’s not sexy. But as I’m writing this at 9:34am, I slept 8 hours last night and I woke up knowing I was going to have a productive day.
Here’s what you might not know about sleeping 8 hours/night:
- The truth about sleep makes us feel guilty. People hate hearing the reality of what celebrities eat, because the truth is not sexy. It’s the same for sleep. Because if he can sleep 8 hours and still get a ton done, what does that say about me?
- Sleep-tracking devices are a complete waste of money. Your sleep will not be improved with an app. It will be improved with you doing the hard work of digging into the psychological stories you tell yourself about sleep, then setting up a system to drive the behavior of sleeping on time, then honoring it. Apps and devices are irrelevant.
- Lack of sleep makes you physically weak. On days where I’ve slept less, the most immediate and quantifiable measure is during my workouts. My stamina is down and my lifts are horrible. Nothing as stark as seeing a ~25% reduction in your dumbbell weights to realize sleep has a huge impact.
Interestingly, the hardest part is often our emotional resistance to reminding ourselves to go to sleep. We find it “weird” to set a time to go to sleep (yet we don’t find it weird to set an alarm to wake up). Get over it.
My phone reminds me every night when it’s time to sleep
Fundamental #2: I hire someone to clean my apartment
I’m inspired by beauty. I love clean lines and thoughtful decoration. And I keep my apartment so clean that if I went blind, I would know exactly where the wooden spoon, my tongue cleaner, and my Windex are.
My mantra: A place for everything, and everything in its place!
To help, I hire someone to clean my apartment. I found them through a friend and went through the typical questions to myself:
“Can’t I just do this myself? Will people think I’m a show off? My mom didn’t have someone to clean our house and she had 4 kids…”
But then I remembered that being productive is about enabling yourself to perform at your very best, every day, and over the course of weeks and months and years. I could afford it, and it helped me be productive — so I decided it was the right thing to do.
To go even further, my real sign of abundance was moving this cleaning from once a month…to once a week.
Now I know that every Monday morning, I’ll start the day off with a perfectly clean apartment so I can get to work productively.
Fundamental #3: I have a consistent meal plan, and stick to it
I hired a chef to prepare food for me based on my fitness goals. So now, every single day I know exactly what my meal plan is. It’s one decision every week and not 21 decisions across the week. More on how I set this food system up.
(And when I go out to eat, I order anything I want, guilt-free, knowing that I eat on-plan 95% of the time.)
By the way, if you can’t afford to hire a chef (which is maybe my largest extravagance), the second-best option is to meal-prep on Sundays, packing each meal into its own container. Suddenly, you don’t have to think about food, and you can be thoughtful about your nutrition.
Fundamental #4: I optimize my calendar
Show me a man’s calendar and his spending, and I’ll show you what he prioritizes.
I love the stability of knowing exactly what I’m going to do every day. For example, every Monday is the same: An all-team call, a product strategy call, etc. Every Tuesday is the same. Same for Wednesday, my no-meeting strategy day and the day I catch up on reading all of my articles tagged “strategy” in Pinboard and allow myself to actually feel things. (A 14-year-old is cognizant of her feelings every single day, but I only have feelings on Wednesday.)
My Mondays always follow the same structure
I also set up my calendar to take advantage of my creative energy. I have my best ideas in the morning. As the day goes on, I shift from individual writing to team calls.
Writing in the morning, meetings in the afternoon
The theme? I reduce variables so I can be totally present and focused. I’m not wondering, “What am I doing today??” because my weeks always look the same. I don’t wonder, “What am I going to eat tonight?” because my meals are pre-cooked. Psychological switching costs are real and I’d rather save my energy for other things.
All of these are totally un-sexy and most people will skip right over them (I know I did when I was younger). “Yeah, yeah, sleep is important,” I would say. “But what apps do you use???” I was an idiot.
Get these big wins right, and the productivity apps you use are irrelevant.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
□ On average, do you sleep 7-8 hours/night?
□ Do you wake up knowing exactly what you’re going to do every day?
□ Is your workspace clean and organized?
□ Is your calendar arranged to match your energy throughout the day?
□ Do you know exactly what you’re going to eat tomorrow (and does it give you energy)?
Tier 2: Psychology
Why do we feel guilty about time management? Why do we use words like “information detox” when it comes to our work? And why are we so embarrassed about the things we actually need in order to be productive?
For example, when I host a webcast late at night, I always end up going to sleep at 1 or 2am, much later than usual (thanks to caffeine and adrenaline). I used to have my normal meetings scheduled for 9am the next day, and I would be totally out of it all day. One day, it occurred to me that maybe I should push back my 9am meeting by an hour on the rare days when I hold a webinar the night before.
You know the next thing I felt? EMBARRASSMENT.
I “shouldn’t” need to push back the morning meeting. I’m a machine, right? Doesn’t everyone just talk about “powering through it”? Also, isn’t it self-indulgent to give myself an hour extra in the morning?
The answer, of course, is that I was working until 10:30pm the night before…and this only happens once a month. It’s perfectly fine to give myself a little time to catch up.
This is why I spend so much time on the emotional and psychological side of productivity. If I didn’t tackle these deep issues — the feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and “should-itis” — we would just jump right into the third section: tactics.
No productivity app or 7-second solution is ever going to tackle the psychological and emotional barriers we feel. Only you can do that. And it’s hard.
Mind hack #1: Set clear boundaries
100% of the time I hear someone saying they’re “overwhelmed,” when I dig in, I discover someone with an inability to set boundaries.
The biggest skill in combatting overwhelm is learning to set boundaries
Some questions to consider:
- When was the last time you said “no” when someone asked you to help them?
- When was the last time you decided what you want to do on a weekend instead of letting someone else decide for you?
- When was the last time you turned down money or an opportunity because it didn’t fit in with your larger goals?
Mind hack #2: Be unapologetic with what you need
Are you comfortable doing things that seem extremely weird to others in order to be productive?
Now here’s what happens when I click on my meeting:
Let’s drill down even further: See that URL?
See how the URL is on its own line?
It used to look like this:
The URLs used to get mixed into the description
But that meant when I clicked it, I’d have to select it, copy/paste, then open another browser window. Do that 10 times a day, 60+ times a week, and it’s one minor irritation that slows you down.
So I set a rule that when a URL is added to my calendar, it has to be added with a hard return. Now, I can double click, Command-C, Command-T to open a new browser tab, Command-V, and I’m instantly in my document in less than 1 second.
Does this seem weird? OCD? Too picky? Would you be embarrassed to tell someone this is what you want?
Maybe it is. But it’s what I need to be productive. My calendar is FILLED with invites so this minor annoyance snowballs into a huge one quickly. You shouldn’t copy my calendar invite system. But you should be as honest with what causes the little frictions in your day.
Imagine the other ways you could implement this principle of a “pixel-perfect” day:
- You always put your cellphone in the same pocket or area of your purse so you’re never fumbling around for it.
- You always tuck your shoelaces into your shoes so they’re organized and you can avoid wrangling them when you pick your shoes up.
- You set a rule to automatically re-order toilet paper when you get below 2 rolls (or spinach or toothpaste or…).
Mind hack #3: Be positive and resilient
Even though life often seems empty and meaningless, and most of what we do will have absolutely zero impact on anything on this planet, I consider myself an optimist. At least that’s what I tell myself.
The most successful people I know are optimistic. That doesn’t mean they’re bubbly or effusive — some of them seem like they’re one step away from a mental institution.
They’re optimistic in themselves. They have the confidence to know that if something goes wrong, they can bounce back.
They have the confidence to know if they sign up to do something they’ve never tried before, they can figure it out.
And they have the confidence to know that the little habits they’ve built over years and years are more important than one binge, one late night, or one day of blowing it off and going to the movies.
(If you want to go deeper, open our Ultimate Guide to Habits in a new tab and save for later.)
A lot of people look at all these systems and calendars and borderline-nutjob processes I’ve built and wonder how tightly wound I must be. Hey, maybe they’re right.
But in reality, most of these habits don’t take much time at all, because I built them years and years ago. They allow me to be totally present and focused on whatever I’m doing. Counterintuitively, discipline gives me freedom.
Just like a great investor knows any individual stock is not going to make or break his portfolio, I know that one day — even a day where I wake up late, eat an insane amount of food, nap half the day, and watch 15 shows on Netflix — is not going to hurt much. That actually sounds pretty fun.
Because I have the confidence in myself and my systems to know that I’ll bounce back tomorrow and get back into it.
How to handle setbacks with a resilient mindset….
- When something goes wrong — you wake up late, miss a deadline, skip the gym, or overeat — do you beat yourself up? Or do you take it in stride, knowing you have the systems and support to get back on track tomorrow?
- Do you have a system you use if you fall behind? (For example, I build in “catch up time” on Wednesdays for anything I’ve fallen behind on.)
- In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams tells the story of getting a rare disorder that threatened to permanently take away his ability to speak. While in the hospital, he could’ve gotten depressed. But he knew how to keep himself optimistic. He repeated to himself over and over, “I, Scott Adams, will speak perfectly.” Do YOU give yourself this kind of positive reinforcement?
Tier 3: Details
This is where people spend 90% of their time, when in reality, if you’ve tackled the first 2 pillars, you should spend less than 10% here. It’s like writing a college paper: If you master the material and create a detailed outline, the type of pencil you use really doesn’t matter.
Inbox Zero — who gives a shit?
Tactical rules of thumb I use:
- If you can fix something with money, fix it with money. The $100 solution is more powerful than you can imagine, especially when it comes to hiring someone to do something that’s been nagging at you or that you dislike doing. Things like hiring someone to come in and fix some basic thing, pack your clothes, sit down with you and set up email filters, styling, cleaning your closet.
- Automate your repetitive tasks. I have things auto-delivered as much as possible. For example, every week, I get coffee automatically ground and sent to me. Same with toiletries, food, etc. It just shows up and I never worry if I’m going to run out of anything.
- Use systems to help you be proactive about things you want to do. For example, I know the birthdays of all my family members. Instead of just getting reminded about it the day of, I make sure to get reminded 2 weeks before so I can think about gifts and send something to arrive on their birthday.
Apps I use:
You don’t need 10 million apps but I’ll give you a couple to stop the 10,000 emails I get about this.
- TripIt — Puts all of your travel information in a single place. This app automatically updates flight status and displays my confirmation number right when I open it.
- Pinboard & Pocket — Whenever I see something I want to read I bank it for later so I can focus on my current day. Especially on Wednesdays when I read all my items tagged “Strategy.”
- Sanebox — Used for follow-ups to check on people I want to make fun of:
Being disciplined and vindictive is a dangerous combo
- Reminders — For every event on my calendar (Google) I have reminders ping me 5 minutes before on text and my calendar, and my assistant messages me in Slack. That’s 3 points of failure, and sometimes, I need all 3 to save me from letting a meeting slip.
- Google spreadsheet to keep track of contacts — Every year I sit down and ask myself, “Who am I meeting and what’s the quality of those relationships?” I keep a list of every single person I meet all year. If I’ve met 5 people, that’s not good — for me. And with this I can remember to send follow-ups, interesting articles, invitations, etc. I fight to make time for these new relationships.
To recap, this is totally different than the typical “You need this app” approach. Yes, it’s much more challenging at first because you’re forced to interrogate your own psychology. You face your emotional resistance head on, and you take control of your environment.
But once you do this, it becomes much easier. Because you no longer have to rely on willpower or motivation. I set up my systems once, and then I’m finished. Compare this to people who spend YEARS wondering why they aren’t living the life they want.
Now I’m curious. Most productive people don’t care what others think of how they work. What “weird” things do you do to make sure you get things done?