Category: Adventures in Extreme Productivity

How much coffee should you drink to be “productive”?

Warning: the following post includes a discussion on the results of self-experimentation using chemicals to improve my ability to concentrate. As I mention here, you should only mess with your body/mind if you are satisfied that you are doing so in a safe manner and that you are aware of all the risks. Even then, proceed with caution.

The experiment:

When I was in the final, desperate, stages of my PhD, I began to experiment with my psychopharmacology. I wanted to know exactly how much coffee I should be drinking to optimise my ability to put in the long hours required, but at the same time not lose focus. That one simple question led me on a fascinating journey into the world of caffeine and performance. Over the course of a month I experimented with coffee, carbonated caffeine based beverages, caffeine supplements (think: ‘pills’), tea and anything else I could think of that had caffeine in it. As you might well imagine, that particular journey had plenty of highs and lows.

One of the highs was when I stumbled upon this piece of research that looked at the effects of caffeine in Navy SEALS who were subjected to sleep deprivation during the infamous Hell Week training period. Navy SEALS were administered dosages of caffeine that ranged from 100mg to 300mg and they were tested for various effects on their cognitive abilities. Now I’m not suggesting that the final stages of a PhD is as demanding as Hell Week (although it felt like it at the time), but the nights are long and it requires a significant amount of focus on detailed work. One has to be sharp.

It turns out that 200mg of caffeine is the optimum dosage that will sustain alertness and will that still have a positive effect after 8 hours. Now the tricky bit lies in knowing how much caffeine is in any one particular drink (or supplement). It seems that the range can be large indeed depending on a variety of factors (method of extraction, size of beverage etc), so I relied on the USDA stats for coffee that was brewed from grounds with tap water (the most common method I used for making my coffee during this period), which suggests that the dosage is about 95mg per cup. Let’s call it 100mg.

This means that for the best results, I* should slam down two cups of brewed coffee to enjoy sustained, positive cognitive results.

Wilfully ignoring the science:

Of course that all sounds fine in theory, but there are many factors that means that each individual’s response to 200mg of caffeine will be different – not the least of which is whether or not someone believes they have a ‘tolerance’ to caffeine or not. Now, I would suggest that I drink more than the average amount of coffee in a day. I seem to average about four cups per day with most of the doses coming in the early part of the day. Since I drink so much of it, I expected that my tolerance is higher. So I began to dose higher (<– not so smart). Furthermore I began to mix with various forms of caffeine – a mixture of caffeine pills, ‘energy drinks’, flavoured milks, soft drinks… you name it.

While there is research to suggest that there is no material impact in such things as coordination (steadiness of hand) on doses of 200mg whether the participants drink coffee regularly or not, the fact was that I thought I was more immune to the effects due to my ‘higher than average’ consumption levels. So I drank more. And that, dear friends, is where the trouble began.

I can reliably inform you that extremely high doses of caffeine can have an impact on one’s mood, ability to sleep and feelings of general well-being. The effects are particularly pronounced if the dosages are taken in a short period of time – rather than spacing them out. The presence of other compounds other than pure caffeine can also have an impact. Flavoured milks, for example, have high doses of sugar in them – welcome to a cycle of highs and lows that is very, very unpleasant. Let’s not even talk about the impacts of ‘energy drinks’.

The results:

Once I had figured out that I was doing very bad things to my body and mind, I settled back into a routine that more closely resembled that which science suggests. I found that two cups of coffee (not espresso shots – that’s something else entirely), was enough to give me enough of a kick to be able to do the kinds of work that is involved in late-stage thesis writing/editing. I was able to chase down all the issues with my referencing and I was able to make sure that my arguments made sense (Note: this is different to the creative work in arriving at the argument in the first place). I was able to put in the very late nights required to get.it.done. In short, it seemed to work.

I’m not convinced, however, that it was/is sustainable. I now only use this particular technique sparingly. In fact, I can get more done when I deliberately slow down. More rest, longer walks and more frequent breaks seems to have a positive impact on my productivity beyond what messing with my brain with caffeine does.

*YRMV – (your results may vary)

My PhD Toolkit

I get this question asked a lot: “What (digital) tools did you use to do your PhD?

So, here’s my very short answer:

  1. Hardware (part 1): Buy a Mac. Seriously. I used a MacBookPro almost exclusively throughout the whole process and I suspect it would still be going strong if I hadn’t dropped it. I’m now using a 13″ MacBook Air. Heaven.
  2. Hardware (part 2): A mobile phone with a good camera. I use an iPhone and I’ve got Genius Scan+ installed as an app. If I need to take a scan of something (e.g. book page) I can whip out my phone, snap, enhance the image, tag and send to Dropbox (see #8 below) for later use.
  3. For writing: Scrivener. Hands down the best writing tool out there for compiling a large and complex document (like a thesis). Also, it’s relatively inexpensive, has awesome tutorials/help and it plays nicely with most citation software. There’s education pricing, too.
  4. For pdf management and referencing software: Papers 2 (NOT Papers 3). Papers 3 is still in beta and has some bugs that I’m just not happy with. The good news is that Papers also has an iPad app which has a clunky but reasonable sync system. If you read and annotate an article on your iPad/Mac, it can sync back to your Mac/iPad with all the notes/highlights etc intact. Nifty.
  5. For keeping notes and random ideas etc: Evernote. Buy the premium version. It has auto back-up and also makes the content of your notes searchable. You can make individual notebooks (e.g. ‘methodology’ or ‘thesis ideas’) and drop your stuff in there. It also has a robust tagging system. Pair with their mobile version for notes on the go.
  6. For thinking: Moleskine notebooks^. I used a combination of blank and lined depending on what I wanted to do/my mood at the time. For added awesomeness, use the Pilot G–2 pen (for words) or something like a Pentel mechanical pencil and a 2B graphite (I prefer the 0.7mm) for drawing/sketching/mapping ideas. Carry everywhere.
  7. For sharing with others (read: supervisors): MS Word. Eventually you are going to have to share your writing with someone who doesn’t have Scrivener installed. Since most people seem to have access to MS Word, it makes sense to export your work from Scrivener into a Word document and then email it to them.
  8. For accessing your stuff everywhere: Dropbox^^. I bought a subscription that allowed me to boost the amount of storage I could access, but the ‘cloud’ storage market is shifting rapidly. Consider if you really need to upgrade. I suspect that soon you’ll be able to use something like Apple’s iCloud service and get plenty of storage for free (see #1 above).

This should be enough to get you going and I’ll write more about each of these tools individually in upcoming posts – including exactly how I used them. Maybe I’ll even do some screencasts. Let me know if you would like me to do that.

^ Technically, not a digital tool. But the Moleskine ‘marketplace’ is expanding significantly to encompass digital workflows. See, for example, the ways in which Evernote and Moleskine work together.
^^ Be careful about storing sensitive data in a place like Dropbox. The service is hosted in the US and your ethics might prevent you transporting data across national borders. Also, be concerned about data security. Don’t store something in an online, for profit, service if you are concerned about the confidentiality and security of your data. These kinds of services can (and do) get hacked.

email: just like normal mail but …

… well, it is just like normal mail and we should treat it the same way.

As far as productivity hacks go, the one thing I did that changed how I work is re-conceptualise email as a process of sending and receiving, you know, actual letters.

When I think about how I deal with the physical mail in my life, it dawned on me that treating email differently works against my goal of being productive and on top of things. Like a lot of people who complain about drowning in the email flood, I seemed always to be at the mercy of incoming email. It always found me at the most inconvenient times and it seemed that if I didn’t deal with it then and there, then I was not getting anywhere.

Of course now I recognise this as idiotic and I try to be smarter about how I deal with email (I have a whole bunch of email ‘hacks’ that I use which I’ll be posting up later), but the one that ties them all together is this:

I now treat email as if it was physical mail. I think about it in the same ways and I action it as if it was a physical letter.

This realisation translates into a few basic rules:

writing and sending email

  1. Writing email is a distinct and separate act. I can write email whenever I like – just like a letter – and I don’t have to look at the rest of my unopened mail to do so. Writing email is not dependent on any other task or action.
  2. I don’t have to send email right away. I can send it whenever I like. In fact, if I have a few emails (letters) that I have written, I can send them all at once by gathering them together and taking a walk to the local post box. The digital equivalent of this is drafting an email in something like TextEdit and then saving it, getting back to what I was working on before and waiting until the time arrives that I have set aside to deal with all my email at once (see below).
  3. Since I can’t control when a letter gets delivered and I have no idea when the recipient will get around to reading that letter, I shouldn’t expect an immediate reply. Letter writing and delivery and having the letter read is an asynchronous activity. It can take time and it involves more than one person who autonomously makes decisions about how they work with their letters. Email is also an asynchronous activity that also involves more than one person making decisions about their own workflow.
  4. Which means: I don’t use email for urgent matters. If I need to get in contact with someone else quickly, I use some other method that will reach them then and there. The test for whether it is important or not is this: If it is that urgent that it can’t wait, it had also better be that important that it warrants me deliberately interrupting someone else’s attention. Since I hate other people interrupting me with non-urgent requests, I make sure I don’t do it to others.
  5. I send the least amount of email I possibly can. If I want to ask a colleague something and it can wait, instead of writing an email I’ll jot down the question in a notebook and the next time we bump into each other I’ll ask the question then. Writing the question down gets it out of my head (which has its own benefits) and not sending email in the first place reduces the overall volume I have to deal with.

reading and answering email

  1. Reading email is a distinct and separate act. I can read email whenever I like – just like a letter. It makes sense, then, to be in the right frame of mind and have some dedicated time to reading email. Since I don’t know in advance what my email might contain, I deliberately set aside some time to thoughtfully read and respond. Therefore:
  2. Just like physical mail, I batch process my reading and responding to email.
  3. Since email is an asynchronous method of communication, it is unreasonable for others to expect me to read it as soon as they send it. Just because the act of sending is instantaneous, that doesn’t mean that I open my email client (the equivalent of walking down to the letter box or post office to see if anything has arrived) at the start of the day and then keep getting up from my work to go down and check it multiple times during the day.
  4. I check email once per day. At 2pm. This is known as the #2pmProject. If you are interested in seeing how a few of us use this, you can do a #2pmProject search on Twitter.
  5. To send or respond to email generally means more email comes back towards me so if email doesn’t need a response, I don’t respond. For example, if a departmental email comes around asking for people to volunteer for a particular committee and I can’t accept, I don’t respond with a “Sorry, I can’t do it and here’s my excuse” email, I just simply don’t respond at all. The writing of the excuse email is a waste of my time and the recipient doesn’t want to know why I can’t do it, they just want to know who can do it.

Reconceptualising email as a physical object has helped me to understand how it is that email flows towards me and how it moves away from me. It also highlights the important role that I play in managing, reducing or increasing that flow. By mentally adding ‘timing’ to each stage of the email process I now think about it not as something that is urgent and has to be done right now, but something that can be slotted into my day at a time that is right for me and my workflow.

If you find yourself struggling with email and feel that you are always reacting to email and not getting anything done, take a moment to re-imagine email as a physical object and ask yourself the following question:

What would happen if I waited to deal with email at a time that suited me?

Adventures in Extreme Productivity

Today I’m announcing the next section of this blog: Adventures in Extreme Productivity. My good friend Dr. Inger Mewburn (The Thesiswhisperer Blog) has been at me to write this for a long time. Well, that time has come.

Like all of the posts on this blog, the target audience is mostly academics and students who are interested in working smarter and/or reading a little bit about strategy and pedagogy. My work is set in the Higher Education (university) sector, but a lot of what I will write can be transferred to other contexts. So if you are coming to this blog from outside of academia, bear with me as I describe about some of the quirkiness that is Higher Ed. I’m sure you have a similar level of quirkiness in your industry.

I remember exactly…

…the moment that kicked off my interest in being more than a little obsessed about becoming ‘productive’ was when I attended one of @thesiswhisperer’s workshops on writing a thesis and she said:

You can write a thesis in about two hours a day”.

Well, at that particular time it felt like I was writing about 15 hours a day and not getting anywhere so to hear her say that really made me sit up and take notice. Inger then went on to outline some of the strategies that she used to write her thesis on time and also win the John Grice Research Prize at Melbourne University. I went up to her afterwards and asked her if she was serious about her statement and she said: “Absolutely”.

Wow.

It was like I had suddenly been given permission to go out and find the best ways possible to get my thesis done in the shortest amount of time possible. Until that time I really didn’t have any idea about what a reasonable amount of time per day was to spend on a thesis and still produce a good one. I’d heard all the stories of people working all sorts of crazy hours – but mostly these were from professors who had done their thesis in the olden days before all of our amazing computer/internet/app/connectivity/majicks worked as well as they do now; or the stories were from other students who were so busy doing their thesis that they didn’t have time to stop and think about how best to go about it. They were trapped in a vicious cycle of their own making.

I decided it was time to take a break from writing words and do some thinking/research/experimentation on how best to construct my daily activities that would lead to words being written in the most efficient/effective way. I quickly realised, however, that even though writing a thesis was my main project, that it was tightly connected to everything else I was doing in my life. I had to look at it holistically.

So I became obsessed with doing all that I could to make the thesis writing process as fast and as pain-free as possible. Like many other students I had to write my thesis while contending with all the other things that were going on in my life:

  • working;
  • managing family commitments (including such things as getting married, moving house, starting a family);
  • trying to remain some semblance of good health; and
  • not going postal.

I had to look at everything I was doing, not just the writing.

In order to manage all this I turned to a range of technologies, hacks, psychology and more than a little self-experimentation* to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Now, of course, a lot of what I did is specific to my situation but there are a lot of lessons that can be gleaned from the process – and I want to share these lessons with you.

Posts written under the category of “Adventures in Extreme Productivity” will fall into one of three main areas:

1. Micro-activities – these are activities that you can undertake that are small, fast and provide an outsized boost to your productivity for minimal effort/cost.

2. Meso-activities – these are activities that you can undertake that begin to form the basis for longer-term changes and productivity boosts. Think of these kinds of activities as being routine-like. Meso comes from the ancient Greek word mésos meaning middle. Think of activities that have this designation as being a bridge bewteen the micro-activities described above and the macro-scale activities explained below. Sometimes these meso-activities might be a combination of micro-activities that build into a small system, sometimes they might be a more complex set of context setting/changing that help you to build routines that free you up for other stuff. Ultimately, they are a bridge between what you do in the moment and what you do as part of your Habitus.

3. Macro-activities – these are activities that require a significant amount of effort and/or time to enact but, at the same time, if you stick with them, provide an outsized result in terms of your ‘productivity life’.

The other thing to mention here is that ‘being productive’ means different things to different people. I’m defining ‘being productive’ as “doing those things that help you to live a fulfilled life”. For some of you, that might mean working 100hrs a week as you build the next big thing, for others, it might mean finding a way to reduce working hours to the absolute minimum so that you can use the time that you have ‘freed up’ to go and hike in the mountains. Whatever floats your boat. The point here is to recognise that you are in charge of your life and there are an awful lot of ways that you can make it work the way you want it to.

Please, PLEASE don’t undertake any self-experimentation unless you’ve thought it ALL THE WAY THROUGH, done ALL THE RESEARCH, and where appropriate, CONSULTED A RESPONSIBLE ADULT/EXPERT/SMART PERSON about whether what you are going to try is likely to hurt/maim/kill you. I survived my self-experiments, but your mileage may vary. Be smart about this.