How to Stay Productive and Work 4 Hours a Day

Let's hope that my boss does not see this, but I have a confession to make. I only work about 4 to 5 hours a day and I am doing just fine. When I tell people about my work habit, they often either “congratulate” me on being in relaxed company culture or warn me that it is slowly killing my performance. But as a software engineer, I have worked at 3 different companies: PayPal, Amazon, and now Google; with different teams; both as a self-taught contractor to a full-time employee. My career advances at a good pace, and I have never felt like needing to work more time to be successful.

In this article, I want to share some of my tricks to stay productive.

Photo by Malvestida on Unsplash

Attend fewer meetings

In my first full-time job with Amazon, my director used to tell us often:

If you can’t get anything out of a meeting anymore and you are not the organizer, just walk out of the door.

Do the following scenarios sound familiar to you:

  • At a weekly meeting, you wait for your turn, talk for about 3 minutes to give an update, and mute yourself until the end.
  • In a group discussion, you were tagged so you attend and give about 2 ideas in the entire discussion.
  • In a large meeting (an all-hand, knowledge sharing, or maybe a town hall) you attend, but quickly lose attention and start to look at other things.

These are meetings you shouldn’t attend in the first place. They are a waste of your time and are a distraction from your workflow. Many of these tasks can be done more efficiently through a quick message exchange, an email update, or an offline review.

Here is my golden rule for meetings. I only attend a meeting if:

  1. I am the organizer of the meeting.
  2. I will stay focused, contribute and listen to 100% of the presentation.

Try doing this. It is likely that people won’t miss out on your absence and you will get more out of the fewer meetings that you actually attend.

Do one thing at a time

It is well studied that multitasking is bad for productivity. At any time during your work, you should be focused on just one task. This is easier said than done and distraction is a big obstacle.

Here are a few tips:

  • Batch process trivial tasks: most notable examples are emails and chat messages. Read and reply to them only once or twice a day, and do not respond to them at any other time (unless they are emergencies).
  • Turns off notifications and silence your phone. Setup your work laptop so that there is no access to any form of distraction (no personal accounts, no messaging apps…).
  • Use the Pomodoro Technique: a technique that trains you to focus on the task at hand.

Maintain mental clarity

You remember the feeling of sitting in a classroom for an afternoon lecture: you are trying to keep your eyes open, but listening to the professor just makes you even more sleepy. This happens when your mental energy is drained and you lose focus.

Working without a clear and focused state of mind is counter-productive. Forcing yourself to carry on under such a state will only extend its duration. Whenever you feel tired or unable to focus, you should refresh your mental state before continuing work.

To regain mental clarity:

  • Meditate: meditation is a great tool to train mindfulness and manage stress. I recommend anyone to try it out. I started by using the App Headspace — it has courses for beginners as well as many many guided meditation to choose from once you are used to it.
  • Take a nap: just a short nap can help reset your mind and energize you. My office location does not have a nap pod, so I usually nap in my car. You just need a sun shield for your car windows, a pillow, and a sleep mask. You can meditate in your car as well.
  • Take a break: walk around the office, do some pushups, or just stare out of the window for a little while.
  • Exercise: if you are someone who exercises at work, do not wait until the end of the day to do it. The best time to exercise is when you lose focus. Physical exercise relaxes your mind while training your body.

Manage your email inbox

How many times a day do you check your email? Checking emails might only take seconds, but it distracts you and break your focus. Even worse, most emails you receive are irrelevant, including:

  • Notifications: from useless news feeds or websites that you will check regularly anyway.
  • Corporate or team announcement emails.
  • Friendly Spams: “try out XXX internal beta product” or “take XXX survey”.
  • FYI Threads: people just like to tag people.

Here is my Gmail setup, that I use to read less than 10 emails a day:

  1. Add filters for incoming emails. You can filter by keyword, sender, or recipient. They should cover most use cases.
  2. Most emails should be automatically marked as read and sent to their corresponding folders just for backup (preferably never to be read by you).
  3. Setup priority inbox, so you only see unread and unfiltered emails AND emails you marked as important. Read emails that require no follow-up action should be hidden from the main inbox.

Are you afraid of missing an important conversation? Well, just remember, if there is something important to know, you will know it in ways other than that filtered email.

These are just some of the things I do to stay productive. If you are reading this, you are probably on your journey of self-improvement, and just like self-improvement, productivity is a mindset. Once you have developed this mindset, it becomes a habit to try to optimize and speed up every little detail of your workflow.

Eventually, you will live and breath efficiency.

Thanks for reading.

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Kayden Sung

Kayden Sung

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Learner, Minimalist, Software Engineer. Writes about personal development.