Some Productivity Tips

A few people asked me how I maintain my work schedule. This is very flattering, but I can assure you I don’t work that hard. I mean, does it even count as work if I’m mostly drawing dick jokes and complaining?

That said, I want to share  some strategies that have been of use to me in the past.

1. Always have two ways to read

No matter where I go, I always have a few audiobooks loaded on my ipod and a few traditional books. The audiobooks are great for any time you can’t focus on words easily (i.e. driving, walking in traffic, cleaning, laundry, etc.). The traditional books are good for, well, traditional reading, AND are handy if you’re stuck somewhere loud. For example, if you’re at a boring party, you can bust out a pocket size book to read.

2. Writing is reading, and vice versa

If you are a writer, you need to meet deadlines. You can always stare at a blank page until an idea strikes you, but this isn’t usually productive. Some people try to read a little and write a lot. This is a poor use of time because if you read a lot, you will be able to write more readily. So, if you’re having trouble writing, go read. You’ll save time in the long run.

3. Maximize downtime

There are lots of little bits of downtime in a day that eventually add up to a lot of time. For example, take all the time you spend making short walks (say, to the post office, or down your office hall). It’s entirely possible that on a given day that ends up being 30-60 minutes, which is about 7% of your waking time that day. If you’re obeying rule 1, you can easily reclaim a lot of that time.

Also, consider when you’re about to go to sleep. I try to go to sleep with a tricky thought in my mind, such is a philosophical or mathematical question. This isn’t because I’m smart; it’s because it keeps my mind sharp and helps me get to sleep more quickly, which also saves time.

4. Fallow the fields

Don’t slog through 12 hours of one particular thing per day. On a good day, I’ll read some fiction, non-fiction, math, and science. I’ll write fiction, comics, sketches, and blogs. Again, this isn’t because I’m smart or creative or anything else – it’s just easier. After 4 hours of difficult math, try NOT wanting to write random senseless jokes!

5. Don’t drink

I go drinking maybe 2 or 3 times a year, and then only for social reasons. A night drinking costs you both the night of productivity, and the following day of marginal productivity. This is probably true to varying degrees for all drugs, but I’m only familiar with alcohol.

6. Don’t zone out

Thanks to all the media we have access to these days, it’s very very easy to tune out. You can put on a flash game or watch a music video or watch trash TV. These are all enjoyable recreations, but they aren’t valuable to your intellect or productivity. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever do them (after SMBC-T shoots, we usually enjoy a night of junk food and Soul Calibur), but keep it to a minimum, and don’t try to convince yourself that it’s constructive.

7. Music is good, but in moderation

This is probably going to be controversial, but here goes: I try to limit myself to under 30 minutes of listening to music a day. I enjoy music. I recognize it as an important part of human existence. But, I also recognize that it’s an easy way to just turn off your brain. Listening to Rainbow in the Dark for the1,985th time is indeed awesome, but it’s not exactly adding to your reservoir of knowledge.

Music should be used to enhance your mood or inspire your work – not just to kill time.

8. Don’t multitask unless you’re actually multitasking

You may think you’re writing, listening to an audiobook, and sending emails all at once, BUT YOU AREN’T. You’re doing three different things badly and  slowly. Pick a task, complete it, move on.

There are some rare occasions when multitasking is possible, but they are all of the form “one task is mindless and dull, the other is easy.” For example, I can read a book on the crapper. Impressed, right? Anything beyond that, and you’re probably not getting as much done as you imagine.

9. Know yourself

I’m better at math and jokes in the morning, reading and retaining mid-day, and writing long form stuff at night. This isn’t always the case, and may vary day to day, but knowing your daily high points is very useful.

10. It’s a cliche, yes, but… working smart is more important than working hard

Yeah, it’s better to do both. BUT, I’m sure you’ve met plenty of people who put in lots of hours and don’t get ahead. I think the main reason for this is that they don’t think about how they’re working. Here’s a good example: I once lost about 6 hours to stubbornly fighting a single math problem. Later, I finally gave in and looked up the answer. Turns out I had a flawed understanding of the underlying logic. If I’d looked up the answer earlier, I wouldn’t have lost all that time.

Of course, there’s something to be said for intellectual struggle, but there are limits. My rule now is that if I try my best on a problem for 10 minutes and make no headway, I go for help. This notion can be applied to a lot of areas: Trying to write a story and it’s not coming to you? Go read or write something else. Trying to read a dense book but can’t focus? Take 5 and get some coffee, then come back. Learn how you work, recognize patterns, and tweak accordingly.


I could write a lot on this, but here’s the basic idea: Unless something extreme happened to you, it’s your fault if you didn’t get your work done. Everyone has stress, fears, anxieties, concerns, et cetera, but you can’t let it stop you. A piece of advice I always give struggling cartoonists is this: When it’s 2am and you’re out of ideas, you still have to make a comic. It sucks, but you have to do it. It doesn’t matter if [some famous guy] didn’t do it last week, YOU HAVE TO DO IT.

That same goes double for maintaining quality.

12. Garbage in, garbage out

Treat your brain like your body. Want your brain to be healthy? Feed it good stuff. For your body, the occasional candy bar is fine (maybe even good), but you can’t do it all the time. I’m amazed to often meet people who read nothing or read only crappy fiction (science geeks often read pulp sci fi exclusively), then are surprised they have trouble writing. You should read a great variety, and don’t forget: the classics are classics for a reason. Having a great reputation doesn’t guarantee a book will be good, but it ups the percentage a good deal. Plus, if you don’t like it, well, you officially don’t like a cultural touchstone. What could be more empowering than that? Here are some I didn’t like: The Turn of the Screw, Cannery Row, The Green Hills of Africa.


Those are the high points. I could elaborate a bit, but I think this sort of thing is better succinct, no? Of course, nobody can abide all these rules without fail. In fact, due to today’s website hack, I lost a few hours to sheer worry. I consider that to an extent to be an “extreme case,” but nevertheless I could’ve probably used my time more productively if I’d been thinking clearly.

Hope that helps!



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20 Responses to Some Productivity Tips

  1. npgames says:

    Great advice, I need to start following a few

  2. Carolyn K. says:

    I have an insane amount of the trouble with the multi-tasking bit. I know I shouldn’t, but the moment I try to sit down and focus on one thing, some other task pops into my head and I jump to do it. And then I remember I should be focusing on the first thing…

    What a mess.

    In any case, this was a really helpful list.

    • Amy says:

      Just read in “Being Geek” by Michal Lopp that he keeps a sheet of paper next to his computer for the sole purpose of writing down new tasks that appear to him through the day… so he can continue to do what he was doing.

      • Relsqui says:

        Bingo. I do this. I have a massive list of all the stuff I want to get done, and then I *totally ignore* it when I’m actually working on it–I just handpick a few things a day and focus on them. New ideas go back on the big lists to be handpicked at a later date.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Weinerworks » Some Productivity Tips --

  4. John Fartles says:

    Life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value… Why bother?

  5. Chason says:

    Well thanks Granpa Zach! How many miles did you walk to school when you were a kid?!

  6. Robin says:

    This is some really excellent advice, and delivered in an entirely non-patronising way. I’m afraid I recognised myself all too clearly in some of those. Hopefully, my new Kindle should keep me sharp on 1, 6 and 12. Number 7 definitely doesn’t work for me, however. I spend a lot of time every day listening to music, although I am always doing something else at the same time.

  7. Tom says:

    Good stuff, Zach. Just to elaborate on 8, I think a lot of people don’t really realize what their priorities ARE. If you asked me what I intended to accomplish this morning, I would have told you I was planning to find something interesting about the World Series to throw out a quickie blog entry on, give a paper another skim for class at 11, and possibly get caught up with the blogs I read.

    I’ve managed to reread the paper, and I’m commenting at the Weinerworks, but I haven’t managed to update the blog. Going forward, it’s important to remember the revealed preferences when I’m planning work. When I between too long between blog entries, I’ll have to update first to avoid getting caught up with something more productive.

    Just something I’ve picked up on.

  8. Tania says:

    Boy, am I happy that you do the whole no-reading-avoid-music-keep-working thing so I can zone out on the internet reading SMBC or watching the smbc theatre while enjoying a life of music, laziness and mind altering products.

  9. Westicle says:

    Man, I’m glad I’m not the only one who can crap and read at the same time. Except usually I bring my DS into the crapper instead of a book. Very productive, I know. Maybe even reproductive.

    I’m sort of curious, how hard is “hard math”? I’m in the middle of my first semester of college and I consider some of the linear algebra and integral things to be “hard” for me to understand sometimes.

  10. Lisa says:

    Thanks for the helpful advice! I love the irony that I was procrastinating homework by reading this.

  11. Eddie says:

    Love it. To be honest, I do a lot of that already though. Not wanting to sound smug, just pleased that I’m not the only person who is obsessed with productivity.

  12. The thing is you see, once you listen to Rainbow in the Dark 2000 times, you reach parinirvana.

  13. Elithrion says:

    <3 this post. You are rapidly approaching role model status! (Well, in some respects.)

    But anyway, what do you use for audiobooks? I'm trying to find a player that can do variable speed playback, to at least double speed, and preferably up to triple, and preferably with actual detailed speed choices (instead of "normal, fast, faster" or whatever), and hopefully without pitch screwups, and am not having much luck finding one. But audiobooks at 1x speed are boring and seem to lower not only my rate of getting through them and my interest, but even my average comprehension. I have been spoiled by VLC, I think.

  14. Relsqui says:

    I would add: Schedule your goof-off time. Unless you’re constantly and completely focused on work (and if you’re reading this, you’re not), you’re going to spend at least a few minutes of your day screwing around on the internet or whatever else you do when you’re not working. Take that into account when planning a day’s work. If you don’t, goofing off will bump real work off your schedule, and you’ll get behind and not know why.

    A side effect of this is that planning for goofing off requires figuring out how much you do it, which makes it easier to reduce that.

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