Notes on “Productivity” by Sam Altman

Here’s the original article on Sam’s blog.

“Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well, and it is magic. A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot.”

What are your productivity gains?

  • make a list of what you need to do in a day
  • cut out distractions and focus for as long as you can on tasks that need it
  • break tasks down into the smallest doable chunks
  • arrange the doable chunks into a compelling picture for a project

What you work on

“Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored.”

“I make sure to leave enough time in my schedule to think about what to work on.”

“I learned that I can’t be very productive working on things I don’t care about or don’t like.”

“Everyone else is also most productive when they’re doing what they like, so do what you’d want other people to do for you [to maximize their productivity]. Try to figure out who likes (and is good at) doing what, and delegate that way”

When you work with someone, ask them “what do you like to work on?” You can’t answer this question for a lot of people you currently and previously worked with. You only have ideas, that could be very wrong.

You can go even deeper on this. Before you start a project, understand what each team member’s interests are. Then craft the project with the qualities that maximize your team’s interest. Building something is deeper than just “here are the requirements, build them”. The second- and third-order qualities of a product and the team that builds it determine their success in the long run. Rather than just “what product do we want to build?” – “what kind of product do we want to build?” – and rather than “what team do we want to build?” – “what kind of team do we want to build?”. There needs to be a balance between focus on the first-order results and focus on the second-order results. Trying to milk out as much first-order results as you can in the short term leaves you without a healthy team in the end, and then without a healthy product.

What do you do if you and your coworker like to work on the same stuff? Collaborate and share. Sometimes you get the fun thing, sometimes they do. Make it explicit that you’re sharing – don’t make it implicitly competitive. Learn and teach. Pitch joint ventures you can deliver together.

What do you do if you and your coworker like to work on different stuff? That’s easier, split the work that way. One problem may be that then both of you think that the stuff you like to do is the most important stuff, and that is an interesting problem. Ideally, both of you understand that you complement each other and fill in for each other’s blind spots. Without that balance and appreciation, problems arise.

“If you find yourself not liking what you’re doing for a long period of time, seriously consider a major job change.” short-term burnout should be resolvable by some time off, otherwise there’s a deeper problem.

“It’s important to learn that you can learn anything you want, and that you can get better quickly.” This is along the lines of a keystone achievement. Some achievements are breakthroughs in what you believe is possible and open up a whole world of possibilities for life. The thing about keystone achievements you’ve seen is that they’re hard to foresee, they come accidentally as the result of overcoming some first-order difficulty.

“Try to be around smart, productive, happy, and positive people that don’t belittle your ambitions. I love being around people who push me and inspire me to be better. To the degree you’re able to, avoid the opposite kind of people.”

“You have to both pick the right problem and do the work. There aren’t many shortcuts.”

Prioritization

“My system has three pillars: get the important shit done, don’t waste time on stupid shit, and make a lot of lists”

“I make lists of what I want to accomplish each year, each month, and each day.” You tried doing this monthly, and only the daily ended up sticking. But this was a 10x improvement in my productivity. Maybe i should try for the monthly again.

“Lists are very focusing, and they help me with multitasking because I don’t have to keep as much in my head. If I’m not in the mood for some particular task, I can always find something else I’m excited to do.” You find this too – as long as you wrote down the task, you will come back to the list and it won’t get lost. That trust is critical in a complex and distracting environment.

“I try to prioritize in a way that generates momentum. The more I get done, the better I feel, and then the more I get done. I like to start and end each day with something I can really make progress on.” The power of positive feedback loops – start your day with the smallest positive feedback loop you can build.

“I am relentless about getting my most important projects done” Imagine the kind of life this statement of self-identification produces.

“I find the best meetings are scheduled for 15-20 minutes, or 2 hours.” This is great.

“I have different times of the day I try to use for different kinds of work. The first few hours of the morning are definitely my most productive time of the day. I try to do meetings in the afternoon. I take a break or switch tasks whenever I feel my attention starting to fade” – you used to focus best in the evenings (because you had trouble shutting out distractions), now you focus best in the mornings and afternoons. I’m not sure exactly yet.

“I don’t think most people value their time enough – I am surprised by the number of people making $100/hr that will spend a couple hours doing something to save them $20”

“productivity porn – chasing productivity for its own sake isn’t helpful” the diminishing returns of recursion

“Sleep seems to be the most important physical factor in productivity for me.” You’ve learned this the hard way as well. And not just in pure performance, but in other factors like emotional stability and enjoyment of work.

“great mattress makes a huge difference. Not eating a lot before sleep helps. Not drinking alcohol helps a lot.”

“I use a full spectrum LED light most mornings for about 10-15 minutes. If you try nothing else on here, this is the thing I’d try.” recommends this one

“Exercise is probably the second most important physical factor” – you see this too, mostly in second order effects

“Eating lots of sguar is the thing that makes me feel worst [and thus least productive]. I don’t have much willpower with sweets, so I mostly just try to keep junk food out of the house” – same with second order effects, but also pure performance in terms of focus

“Here’s what I like in a workspace: natural light, quiet, knowing that I won’t be interrupted if I don’t want to be, long blocks of time, and being comfortable and relaxed”

“Like most people, I sometimes go through periods of aw eek or two where I have just no motivaction to do anything”

“In general, I think it’s good to overcommit a little bit. I find that I generally get done what I take on, and if I have a little too much to do it makes me more efficient at everything.” You’ve learned this recently. Being efficient is the critical skill – valuing your time and learning to earn multiples money for the same amount of time.

“Finally, to repeat one more time: productivity in the wrong direction isn’t worth anything at all. Think more about what you work on.” Also from the four-hour work-week – “doing the wrong thing perfectly doesn’t make it the right thing”. Some of the best advice on productivity.