Most people wish they were more productive. Some buckle down and leverage some rare facet of their personality to force the work out. Some of them talk with friends. Some go on vision quests. There are lots of methods for lots of types of people. Most hackers, I’ve noticed, look for a datasheet. An engineer’s reference. We want to solve the problem like we solve technical problems.
There were three books that gave me the first hints at how to look objectively at my brain and start to hack on it a little. These were The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Flow By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Getting Things Done By David Allen.
I sort of wandered into these books in a haphazard path. The first I encountered was The Power of Habit which I found to be a bit of a revelation. It presented the idea of habits as functions in the great computer program that makes up a person. The brain sees that you’re doing a task over and over again and just learns to do it. It keeps optimizing and optimizing this program over time. All a person needs to do is trigger the habit loop and then it will run.
For example: Typing. At first you either take a course or, if your parents left you alone with a computer for hours on end, hunt-and-peck your way to a decent typing speed. It involves a lot of looking down at the keyboard. Eventually you notice that you don’t actually need to look at the keyboard at all. Depending on your stage you may still be “t-h-i-n-k-i-n-g”, mentally placing each letter as you type. However, eventually your brain begins to abstract this away until it has stored, somewhere, a combination of hand movements for every single word or key combination you typically use. It’s only when you have to spell a new word that you fall back on older programs.
But the more revelatory section of “The Power of Habit” is the scope at which habits are involved in daily life. Everything from deep meaningful conversations with a friend to tying shoe laces could be a program written by you or someone in your past. This also means that new habits can be written. A person can intentionally choose a new way of doing things. So the way we express our sentience is not through our everyday lives but how we program ourselves to behave. If we want to stop a bad habit we just need to understand what triggers it and then either avoid those triggers or have them trigger a new piece of code. This was a concept clearly within a hacker’s reach.
Which brings me to the second book. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Mihaly set out to find what makes people happy. Not the sort of, “I just heard a funny joke,” happy, but the kind where someone describes themselves as content with their lot in the world. Now, this is not a man writing a get-rich-quick self-help book. This is a real scientist publishing a lifetime of research, and he makes a convincing argument. He found a common thread in the way people approach their work. I’m simplifying a great book and a great thesis, but it comes down to gamifying a task and pushing yourself right up to your limit to abstract the tedium away from work and feel a sense of accomplishment.
This also seemed like a positive revelation. Here was an algorithm for work. A way to spread the limited energy left to a single day even further.
The last book was what tied the two disparaging concepts together for me. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is a different sort of book entirely. It’s best described as a productivity formula for the 1980’s power-tie-wearing business person. Most of the concepts are a little dated for the modern workflow, but they can be hammered to fit. However, to me this is a code cookbook. Here is a way a person can apply these concepts of picking new habits, gamifying work, and understanding the underlying principles of doing work to build a system.
In the end these made me feel, at least, like I had the sort of high level understanding of what was going on inside my head. Why did I enjoy some tasks more than others? Why was I more organized and not less on vacations? How does a productive person schedule their day? All these combined into the start of my ability to get real control over my work habits.
I’m far from a master, but I’m making measurable progress. I’m interested to see if any of the readers have had similar revelations or book recommendations.