By September 6, 2017

The Holy Trinity of Productivity

Yep. Another online productivity article. But before you click to something else, just hear me out.

I had absolutely horrendous productivity growing up, dragging out work that should’ve taken me only two hours for five or more by mindlessly watching YouTube videos, reading online articles completely unrelated to what I was doing, and overall just wasting time in la-la land. I’d go as far as saying I may have had some form of undiagnosed ADHD. If they ever make a Ph.D. for procrastination, I think I’ve legitimately earned an honorary one.

Increasing productivity is something that I’ve been obsessively working on. There’s a lot of productivity articles out there, both on Simple Programmer and elsewhere. They’re all great, but it’s hard to know where exactly to start. You could learn lucid dreaming, you could start using mind-training techniques, you could work like it matters. It can all get a little overwhelming.

This article will narrow down some basic starting points for your productivity-boosting. After writing an entire eBook about the subject, I’ve narrowed down these three fundamentals—what I consider the holy trinity of productivity.

Productivity Commandment #1: Sleep Better

Sleep is a necessary part of life that our modern-day, high-speed, instant-gratification, go-go-go culture seems to despise. It’s almost become a mark of pride and accomplishment to sleep very little. I basically pulled an all-nighter nearly once a week for about 10 months back in college. Sleeping less is a sign of a hard-working attitude, dedication, and resilience I believed this for awhile.

Unfortunately, that’s not true.

The fact of the matter is, sleep is necessary to maintain good physical condition, a healthy outlook on life, and sharp mental faculties. Let’s be honest: if you’re sleep-deprived in an attempt to get more work done, you’re not going to be all that productive.

Sure, you could drink an ungodly amount of coffee. But that’s like building up a house of cards higher and higher. You will crash. The higher that house of cards is built up, the longer and harder that crash will be. It’s not worth it.

Here are tips guaranteed to help you get better quality sleep, especially as a programmer:

First, drink chamomile or valerian teas about an hour before bed. These herbal teas are caffeine-free and have been used for centuries as mild sedatives. Valerian is actually used to treat insomnia.

Second, consider taking an L-theanine supplement. L-theanine is an amino acid naturally found in green and black teas. It promotes clearer, sharper thinking and eases anxiety. At higher dosages of 400 mg, which is usually two full supplement tablets, L-theanine exerts a sedative effect. L-theanine can also treat insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Third, take advantage of apps and features on computers, smartphones, and tablets that reduce blue light. Blue light is high-frequency light emitted by electronic devices like computers and smartphones. This light is similar in wavelength to sunlight. Exposure to blue light confuses your body and makes it think that it’s morning and time to wake up and start the day, even though it’s nighttime and you desperately want some shut-eye.

This is especially important for software developers working on side projects. You’re most likely coding late into the night. These apps and features let you do that without shooting yourself in the foot in terms of getting restful sleep.

For computers, there is a free-for-download app called “f.lux” that drastically reduces the amount of blue light emitted. Smartphones and tablets have a feature built into them called “night shift mode” that also reduces the blue light emitted.

Fourth, take a warm shower or bath an hour before bed. Now, there’s a lot of information out there that says cold showers help you sleep. Here’s an excerpt from one of Tim Ferriss’ posts about getting better sleep:

“I decided to test the effect of combining 10-minute ice baths, timed with a countdown kitchen timer, one hour prior to bed (closer to bed and the adrenergic response of noradrenaline, etc. won’t allow you to sleep) with low-dose melatonin (1.5 – 3 mg) on regulating both sleep regularity and speed to sleep. […] The result: it’s like getting hit with an elephant tranquilizer. Don’t expect it to be pleasant at first.”

Studies have proven that cold water will actually wake you up by activating your sympathetic nervous system, essentially putting you in a state of high stress. How will that help you sleep?

But to be fair, there is another study that shows cold water exposure does help you relax. But the subjects in the study had to be in cold water FOR TWO HOURS before that happened. So unless you’re willing to take a two+ hour ice bath/cold shower, you’re far better off sticking with warm water.

If you take melatonin, the ideal dose is actually about 0.3 mg. Any more, and you’ll feel groggy and lethargic the next day. Unfortunately, the smallest melatonin tablets come in 3 mg, so just try to take as small a dose as possible. I found cutting the tablet in half helps.

Fifth, wake up at a consistent time every single day, including the weekend. Your body works on a schedule called the circadian rhythm. It’s responsible for regulating most of your day-to-day biological processes, including your sleep/wake cycle. The circadian rhythm is regulated mainly by sunlight: You’re up and at ’em when the sun is up, and you go to sleep once the sun goes down at night.

But thanks to our indoor culture, we’re not exposed to enough sunlight for the circadian rhythm to work properly. Our bodies are confused as to when we should be going to bed. Irregular sleep and wake-up times further confuse your body.

Having a rigid wake-up time every single day brings much-needed structure and consistency to the circadian rhythm.

Lastly, if all of this still doesn’t help you, try Anesthetized by Blackstone Labs. It’s arguably the most comprehensive and complete sleep supplement that’s ever been made as of this writing. It has near universally positive reviews, with everyone who takes it raving about how helpful it is.

From my experience, less is more with this supplement. A half scoop two to three days a week always does the trick for me. Any more than that, and I feel groggy the next day.

But keep in mind, I’m not a doctor or medical professional. Make sure you consult your physician or other licensed medical professional before trying Anesthetized or any of the supplements I’ve recommended.

Productivity Commandment #2: Don’t Waste Time on the Internet or in Front of a TV

Our high-speed internet, instant-gratification society is filled with distractions. You can watch countless hours of YouTube videos, and stream most TV shows and movies on Netflix and Hulu. Google can find information and content related to all the questions you could ever conceive of. There are millions of online articles out there that encompass almost every topic that humanity is capable of comprehending.

You’re constantly bombarded with an endless stream of digital stimuli and unending novelty. The biggest problem with this isn’t just the distractions and the utter destruction of your attention span–t also makes everyday life boring and unfulfilling. The more stimulated you are, the harder it is to feel enjoyment from mundane, everyday life.

Not only that, but prolonged time watching TV, YouTube videos, and Netflix/Hulu programs potentially has a negative impact on the brain. You exhibit low alpha brain waves during these kinds of activities, which correspond to low-intensity brain activity. TV may not necessarily rot your brain, but it does noticeably dull it.

This commandment has overlap with the first one. Part of the reason why you may have trouble sleeping is because you love staying up late. During the day, you have no time for yourself. You’re going to school and/or going to work. You’re spending time with friends and family. You don’t have a lot of time to yourself until late at night.

Combine that with the unending novelty and overstimulation of the internet, and it’s no wonder you can’t sleep at night. Night is the best part of your day!

Doing this “internet detoxification” will go a long way towards undoing this bad habit.

Now, I realize that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a software developer to stay off the internet completely. You use the internet to research trends in the tech industry. You’ll often have to go to Stack Overflow to find answers for debugging issues or tips for writing an algorithm. You probably use GitHub on a daily basis.

But you need to be honest with yourself and use the internet only for productive means that are directly related to work. Sure, it’s good that you’re going to YouTube to watch John Sonmez’s tutorial on setting up a blog with Bluehost and WordPress. But are you going to watch that new Justice League trailer right after? Or you might watch some of John’s videos on dating for programmers. Is that directly related to your work? Ideally, you’d stay off the internet completely. But since that’s basically impossible for a software developer, the next best thing is to be very focused and productive with your internet use.

I recommend doing this productivity-focused internet use at least three days a week, from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. You’ll find that you’re more focused and less distracted. You’re also spending time away from the constant stimulation, instant gratification, and unending novelty of the internet, so dull day-to-day tasks will become more enjoyable.

Productivity Commandment #3: Follow the Pomodoro Technique

Most SP subscribers are no doubt familiar with The Pomodoro Technique. John uses it and is a strong advocate for its use. There are three tips that I found help make the Pomodoro Technique more effective:

First, use a Pomodoro app. If you use the timer on your phone, it’s going to be a hassle constantly setting it for 25 minutes, then for five minutes, and repeating ad nauseam. You’re not going to want to even use the technique! A free downloadable app would remove this hassle. Here’s the one I use:


Second, don’t be afraid to stop using the Pomodoro Technique once it’s no longer helpful. I found that there are times when I’m very deeply immersed in work, when I’ve got a lot of momentum going.

Think about it: You’re debugging a stubborn bit of code. You may have finally figured it out. You’re working it out in your head, and then the timer goes off. You take a five-minute break, and just like that, you lose your train of thought.

Instead of taking a five-minute break as per the technique, I just ignore the timer and keep going.

And third, consistent use of the Pomodoro Technique will gradually give you a good idea of how long it’ll take you to do certain things. Moving forward, that’ll help you make more accurate To-Do lists. To help keep track of the time it takes to do certain tasks, I recommend making Done lists, or retrospective lists. You also get to stroke your own ego a little by seeing all the things you’ve accomplished.

This is more important than you’d think. There’s a psychological condition, called the Zeigarnik effect, where you’re more likely to remember and be irritated by incomplete tasks as opposed to remembering and feeling happy about completed ones. Making a Done list will compensate for the Zeigarnik effect and give you some peace of mind.

Bonus: To-Do Lists

Speaking of To-Do lists, here are some quick tips I found to work very well:

  1. Write small To-Do lists of only three items or so. Put the most important and/or difficult list items first.
  2. Since the list is small, you should spend only five to ten minutes making it.
  3. If no unexpected interruptions come up, there’s a great chance you’ll finish all tasks on the list and still have a lot of time left. If that’s the case, make another small To-Do list.
  4. At the end of the day, make a Done list of all the things you accomplished.

This multiple-list method is intended to compensate for both the Zeigarnik effect and unpredictable events that derail set plans, such as long phone calls out of the blue, urgent emails, and fire drills.

I’m not very familiar with To-Do list apps like Wunderlist. I keep things simple and write out To-Do lists on a small sheet of paper or an index card.

You don’t overwhelm yourself with too many tasks at once. You also focus on the hardest tasks first. This way, you’re much more likely to finish all your tasks, and you’re more likely to finish the most important/hardest ones early on in the day while you’re still fresh.

Final Words

These are what I consider the three fundamentals–the holy trinity–of productivity.

Get enough sleep. Drink herbal tea, L-theanine helps, use f.lux on your computer and night shift mode on your phone, cold showers DO NOT help with sleep, less is more with melatonin, and wake up at a consistent time every single day.

Devote at least three days out of the week to using the internet only for productive means. No YouTube. No Netflix. No social media.

Use the Pomodoro Technique and download a Pomodoro app. Don’t be afraid to ditch it when it’s no longer helpful. And use it to help you make more accurate To-Do lists moving forward.

All right, I hope that was helpful. Please leave a comment down below with your thoughts.

About the author

Brandon Chun

Brandon Chun is a mechanical engineer, but has a coding background in C++ and C. He's also completed Free Code Camp’s Front End Development program.