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Everything I know about productivity

Here, I attempt an exhaustive list of my thoughts on productivity. I think I started writing it because I was procrastinating something else.

Most productivity porn focuses on how to do things, so you read it, try and copy the tactics, and sometimes they stick sometimes they don’t. It’s more helpful to understand why to do things. That way, when a tactic doesn’t stick, you can adjust it to suit your needs. So I’ve tried to focus on the principles and strategies instead of the mechanics of productivity.

Treat this like a work in progress.


Nobody needs a generalist

Growing up, one of my greatest fears was forgetting something I learned in class. Everybody worries of misplacing an important formula on an exam, but my fear ran deeper. I worried that my recollection might fail me twenty, thirty, sixty years later.

My memory was like a net for facts. Every day at school, I would try to catch more facts. At some point around middle school I realized that my net was full, and that every time I opened it to add more facts, some would escape. This was a problem. I needed all the facts.


Boredom, my companion

I grew up in Macomb, Illinois, a rural town of fewer than 20,000 people. The town comprised farmland and a university where my parents were computer science professors. Every couple months, we’d take an exciting trip to nearby Peoria, where we would spend a few hours at Chuckie Cheeses and have dinner at Old Country Buffet. Macomb was quaint.

The town offered a simple life and I was happy. There was never much going on, but I do not recall feeling deprived of interest or desire. It was, in retrospect,...

Segregation by social networks

Schelling’s model of residential segregation

My brother graduated from Duke this past weekend (yay Gary!). He whirled around campus exchanging warm embraces, hosted parties for his closest friends, and rejected sleep for several consecutive days to soak in every last remaining minute with his college brothers and sisters. The value of his experience was not symbolized by a leather-bound diploma, but by the texts and hugs and promises exchanged with the people to whom he felt eternally bonded.

Meanwhile, my parents and I sat through several long speeches by old white men who wanted in these final hours...

Science Fiction and Silicon Valley

The Martian

I read books to feel inspiration, but earlier this year, the books I picked up started to feel dull. These were the same kinds of business and nonfiction books that I’d devoured last year, but for some reason I just didn’t like them.

A friend suggested I try reading something less familiar, so I picked up some science fiction. First, I read a story about a man stranded on Mars called The Martian. Then The Three-Body Problem by a popular Chinese writer named Liu Cixin. And finally, Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation....

Predictions for end of life care

I was born and raised in America by Chinese parents, so I’m no stranger to cultural conflict. Why do we take our shoes off in the house? Why do people at school think our food is weird? Why should I study extra if people make fun of me for it? Chinese values would constantly butt heads with the American values of my peers.

Given the option, I preferred traditions that didn’t make me feel like an outsider.

I wavered on most issues growing up (and still do), but there was one value that got buried deep inside of...

Playing video games and avoiding reality

At any given point in my childhood, my strongest desire was probably to play video games.

Growing up, my family enforced strict play limits. My brother and I could not play on school days. On weekends or holidays, we were allowed two thirty-minute sessions. Only on Christmas did our play limit disappear. We would often acquire new games or if we were very lucky, a new console, and spend the entire day gorging ourselves. What a great day.

We mostly played console games. Diehard Nintendo fanboys, we glued ourselves to our Super Nintendo, N64, and eventually Gamecube. When...

Divination and getting unstuck

I was listening to a Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED) interview earlier this week because I follow anything related to that man. His life is a model for how we can have an enormous impact on the world by just following your gut and doing cool things and his work provides clear frameworks for how the creative individual can think about making a living by doing what they love. If you haven’t heard of him, I might start with his essay on 1,000 True Fans.

In this particular interview, Kelly brings up a tool that Brian Eno created...

How to write like Winston Churchill

Nat Farbman / Time & Life Pictures

Winston Churchill’s prolific writing, while present in many an English household, seems to get lost in an American education. Most students, though familiar with his legendary oratory ability, would share my surprise in learning that he produced more words than both Dickens and Shakespeare combined. I recently read Boris Johnson’s biography of the man, The Churchill Factor, and found Churchill’s “fantastically expensive” method of writing a useful study on how to get things done.

Produce first drafts quickly, without inhibitions

Churchill’s first drafts were not written, but dictated. After dinner...

Tell me about something you’ve removed from your life

I’ve started asking a new question of everybody that comes on my podcast and it’s quickly becoming my favorite.

“Tell me about something that you’ve removed from your life”

Their answers always produce great “tape” (material for the show). You usually get a sense of their priorities because they have to explain what problem led them to removing this thing from their life. It almost always comes with a story:

Before I removed this thing I was … Then I realized … So I removed this thing … As a result I …

I usually ask a series...