3 boring ways to be productive

September 29, 2012   

What do President Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg have in common? They both wear basically the same outfit every day. When asked why, both have similar answers, “it’s one less decision I have to make in a day.” [1,2]

Studies have shown that making decisions, even tiny ones, deplete your mental energy for the more important ones [3,4,5]. Even choosing between candy bars takes away from the energy you could have used to solve a crucial problem!

To put as much of my non-career life on autopilot, here are three habits I’ve formed that help me increase my productivity.

No. 1: Pick out your clothes and pack your bag the night before

To follow Obama and Zuckerburg, don’t waste your energy on picking what you put on your body. What matters is that it’s appropriate and that you’re clothed.

Yes, this is something a parent would say to their child, but it works! By the end of the day my brain is usually pretty drained, but doing something semi-mindless like putting my keys and wallet back into my bag is usually fine. I check the weather for the next day and asses my outfit situation. In the morning, I don’t want to be wasting my time thinking about whether my bag is ready or not – I want to go!

In Southern California, this is usually “short sleeves or long?” But when I was in school in Boston, checking tomorrow’s weather answered the more serious question of whether I needed snow boots or not.

No. 2: Exercise (almost) every day, at the same time

While I’m a morning person, exercising in the morning was completely repulsive to me! That’s when my mind is the most fresh and when I can accomplish the most. Exercising in the morning is my body stealing time away from my mind. Until I realized I could work both my mind and body in the morning! The author of this blog post wakes up at 5:50am, works for an hour, then goes to the gym 7am-8am, then comes home, has breakfast, and goes on with his day. (Obama)[] also touts the virtues of daily exercise.

I experimented with this schedule of waking up, working, exercising, then getting on with the day. The difference in productivity on the days I worked out and the days I didn’t was amazing. The days I worked out, I’d get almost 6 hours of serious mental work in. When I didn’t, I’d only truly work for about three hours.

So I decided to keep doing this, and now I’m waking up at 4:50am every weekday, working, then exercising 6am-7am (I started Insanity two weeks ago), then getting ready and off for my day. I hate rushed mornings and it takes me about an hour and a half to eat, make lunch, and get ready, but I’m still in the process of optimizing and parallel-processing my mornings. I’m aiming to get it under an hour, then under 45 minutes so I can catch my bus and get to lab before 8:15.

It’s important to keep your exercise at the same time every day because your body gets used to when it gets physically taxed. It’s also been shown that people who exercise in the morning stick to daily workouts for longer.

No. 3: Minimize your decisions about food

Fortunately for me, I’m getting paid less than $30K a year as a graduate student so I can’t afford to go out for meals every day. So I don’t have to choose what to eat at lunch every day because it’s already been figured out for me.

I love cooking, but I despise cooking every day because I think it’s a waste of time. Last year at Univ. Calif. - Santa Cruz, I would make a large batch of a fried rice or pasta dish each week, and then take those leftovers to lunch with me. I’ve been doing the same thing here at UC-San Diego. Check out this picture from my fridge:

Olga's refrigerator

Yes, my shelf of the fridge is quite stuffed. I went to Costco today and got a bunch of food. I’ve annotated the photo, and here are some further details:

  • Breakfast: I have an amazing rice cooker that has a “porridge” setting and a timer. At night, I pour in my 14 cup oatmeal, 14 sweetened vanilla almond milk, tablespoon of coconut milk, splash of vanilla (I really like vanilla), some salt, and 12 cup water into the rice cooker and set the timer for 7am. When I’m done working out and showering, my food is ready! I also add in a banana, which I cut into the bowl with a spoon, and some walnuts. Very filling.
  • Lunch: This week I made a very spicy and delicious ground beef fried rice that was a combination of these two recipes. I marinated the beef in soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, chili oil, salt, black pepper, and white pepper, for about 15 or so minutes in the fridge. Then I fried that up in a dutch oven, though I should have fried the chopped onion first. Then added 2 square inches of grated ginger, a whole head of minced garlic, and a tablespoon each of red pepper flakes and cayenne powder. Then came the vegetables - about four cups of frozen Normandy Mix vegetables from Costco, a cup of frozen peas, and a can of baby corn. While the vegetables were cooking, I scrambled eight (8) eggs with salt, pepper, and toasted sesame oil, and added that to the mix. Then I added three cups of brown rice and mixed it all together. Turned out quite well! Then I packed the food into several glass tupperware containers.
  • Post-lunch: I like having snacks around but I want them to be pre-portioned out for me. That’s probably why the 100-calorie packs have taken off so well. Costco has gigantic bags of baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and broccoli florets that I packed into individual snack packs. This is great because when I pack my lunch bag in the morning, I know that I just need to grab a tupperware and a veggie bag and I’m set.
  • Dinner: I don’t like eating a lot at night because it makes me feel nauseous when I lie down if I’m full. Using America’s Test Kitchen’s cookbook (highly recommended, especially for less-experienced cooks because their explanations are fabulous) as a guideline, I make a salad for dinner just about every night. My favorite is the “Herb Salad” mix from Trader Joe’s, a handful of blueberries, 14 cup of freshly-toasted almonds (I just toast them in a dry skillet), several strips of parmesan shaved with a vegetable peeler, and some home made balsamic dressing.
  • Dessert: It’s good to indulge. I adore the sweet/salty mix, so there’s some dark chocolate with carmel and sea salt not pictured in the freezer (so it doesn’t get too gooey). Other times I’ll have greek yogurt with honey and blueberries. But I don’t always feel like dessert.

Notes and references

This post was inspired by the article Boring is Productive on the Harvard Business Review.

Cited links:

  1. Lewis, M. Obama’s Way. Vanity Fair (2012). http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2012/10/michael-lewis-profile-barack-obama
  2. Why does Mark Zuckerburg always wear the same shirt? Answered by: Neel Hajare, Facebook Intern ‘11. quora.com (2012). http://www.quora.com/Mark-Zuckerberg-1/Why-does-Mark-Zuckerberg-always-wear-the-same-shirt]
  3. Baumeister RF, Bratslavsky E, Muarven M, Tice DM. Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? J. Personality and Social Psychology. (1998) http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/74/5/1252/
  4. Ariley, D. The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. Harper Books (2012). http://www.amazon.com/Honest-Truth-About-Dishonesty-Everyone-Especially/dp/0062183591
  5. Vohs KD, Baumeister RF, Schmeichel BJ, Twenge JM, Nelson NM, Tice DM. Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. J. Personality and Social Psychology (2008). http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/94/5/883/

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