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How I am so productive

September 24, 2018


People regularly ask me how I get so much done. Here's my secret...

I get asked about this at least twice a week, so I thought I'd save myself some time by writing a blog post I can reference instead of answering the same question repeatedly (spoiler, this is one of my secrets).

To help give you context, here are some of the things I do on a fairly regular basis these days:

  • I teach Sunday school to ~6 nine-year-old kids (we're going through the Old Testament this year). In addition to attending 3 hours of church, I also prepare and deliver a one hour lesson for them every other week.
  • On Sundays I generally don't commit any code or do any "work." I have church and family time and responsibilities (though I do enjoy spending the evening with new friends playing Dominion)
  • On Mondays, I publish the blogpost newsletter from two weeks ago to kentcdodds.com/blog, a new one for subscribers. (~1.5 hours of work, depending...)
  • Product tasks (currently helping work on paypal.me) (this is normally where most of my weekday is spent)
  • Attend work meetings
  • Help people on slack/video chat
  • Work on paypal-scripts (among other internal libraries and tools)
  • traveling/training (about once a quarter. I'm on an airplane right now for such an engagement)
  • Research, prepare, and do a DevTips with Kent livestream (~20 minutes... sometimes) (week-daily)
  • Respond to literally dozens of GitHub issues/PRs (daily)
  • Code up or help people code up solutions to the GitHub issues
  • Release ~5 of any of my >100 npm modules multiple times a day
  • Travel to (sometimes) and speak at a conference (about once or twice a month)
  • Travel to (sometimes) and deliver a 1–2 day workshop on one of five topics I regularly train about.
  • Record egghead.io lessons and courses (working on some of this very hard core right now)
  • Research and prepare educational material (for talks/workshops/courses/devtips/etc.)
  • Go out to lunch with a (new) friend in the community about once a week
  • Outline and prepare for writing my novel for NaNoWriMo (which is going to be epic by the way).
  • AMA: Ask Me Anything (currently has 475 questions I've answered).
  • TechChats: livestream video chats with people about tech (about once a month or so).
  • Publish a 3 minute podcast (on 3 minutes with Kent)
  • Be a guest on podcasts (about once a month or so).
  • Respond to literally dozens of questions per day coming from Tweets (mostly), Twitter DMs (several daily), Slack, email, YouTube comments, and pigeon (one of those is a joke).

On top of all that, I'm married, have 4 kids (6 and younger) and a puppy, and have a home and yard/garden to care for.

A typical day

Let me share a fairly general weekday with you:

Normally I wake up at ~7:00 AM and I'm ready for work by ~9:00 AM. I sit at my desk (I work from home) and start with my daily scripture study for a few minutes. Then I power on the computer, and start with my email and twitter (the stuff I hadn't addressed while brushing my teeth etc. 😅). If I'm aware of any pressing work, I'll take care of that first. If it's Monday, I'll make sure my blog post is published, then start working on this week's blogpost newsletter. Then I do the DevTips with Kent livestream.

By this time it's normally ~10:00 AM (or later on Mondays/if there's pressing work I had to do first). It's likely that I've already released one or two new versions of my npm modules, answered a half dozen questions, and responded/reviewed several GitHub issues/PRs. Now I start on whatever PayPal product work I'm working on (as I mentioned, I'm helping with paypal.me right now). I meet with my co-workers and decide the highest priority tasks and get to work on them.

At ~12:00 PM (often later if I'm really involved in something), I go up and have lunch with my family. If he's not already in bed, I read a book to one of my boys and put him down for a nap (working from home is the best). My lunch break is normally ~30 minutes.

I spend the afternoon working on more PayPal stuff, meetings, helping answer questions from all the various channels (and sadly ignoring many of them as I have work to do), and releasing more versions of various OSS libraries/tools.

I wrap up the day between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM and head upstairs. It's family time. Often I'll hang out with my wife after the kids are in bed. Sometimes though, if I'm working on a big course for egghead.io or something, I'll go back to my office and start working on that. Normally I'll go to bed before 11:00 PM.

Saturdays are mostly yard work and family time. I don't normally do much coding on Saturdays. Sundays are family and church time. I very rarely do any work on Sundays (occasionally I'll merge simple PRs from my phone or get a head start on this newsletter).

If this schedule sounds set in stone or a solid routine, let me assure you it's not. What I've written is a pretty general schedule that wasn't really planned and is just what kinda happened. In any case, I hope it helps to frame the rest of my advice in a way that's relatable and helpful to you.

It's an illusion

If you read carefully, you'll notice that I do a bunch of my stuff when I'm on the clock at PayPal. That's because the stuff I do is good for PayPal and my bosses have appreciated that I do it. Just last week I had multiple different engineers within PayPal thank me for the daily DevTips with Kent livestreams and these newsletters. PayPal is happy that I'm sharing my knowledge and so long as what I share is not proprietary/legally concerning/etc, they're happy to let me continue doing that. (You could say this newsletter is sponsored by PayPal! Thanks PayPal!).

PayPal employees also use a bunch of the open source software that I maintain. So when I'm doing work on my open source projects during work hours, 90% of the time it's because we have a problem within PayPal that needs solving and I'm just doing my job to make PayPal engineers more effective. Some of my projects are libraries that I created at PayPal and then open sourced while others are projects I created outside of my time at PayPal and now PayPal engineers use. In either case, working on those projects (and contributing to other projects of which I'm not a maintainer), is all part of my job.

So when people ask me: "HOW DO YOU DO ALL THIS STUFF AND HAVE A JOB AT PAYPAL!?" My answer is: "well... a lot of this stuff is my job at PayPal."

This brings me to my next point:

Increase the impact of your value

We're all constantly creating value in the world. A conversation with your co-worker over lunch about why, what, and how to do a git rebase is creating value. A meetup talk you're delivering is creating value. etc. etc. etc. The secret that I've found is taking the value that you're already creating, and increase its impact by preserving and presenting it to the world.

So turn that conversation into a blog post or have that conversation over Google Hangouts on Air and have it upload to YouTube automatically (which is what my tech chats are). Make sure your meetup talk is recorded (even if that means you're just recording your screen, which I do all the time). Instead of answering your co-worker's slack question about arrow functions on slack, type it out as a quick blog post on medium, a gist, or a 🔥 FIRE 🔥 TWEET 🔥 and send them the link.

As long as your company is cool with you sharing non-proprietary knowledge with the world, then take advantage of that (as a side note, I would have a very hard time being successful at a company which does not value open knowledge sharing like this. I know it's a privilege to work at a company like PayPal. Sorry if you're not in an environment like PayPal in this way.)

In short learn in public (I love you Shawn!). It's likely that if you listed out all the things you do in a week your list would be just as long if not longer than mine. The thing that makes it appear that I am so productive is that I make public as much of what I do as possible.

Automation

If you maintain an npm package, it may surprise you (or you may be skeptical of the fact) that I manage to release multiple versions of multiple packages in a typical day. Believe me though, I release almost every PR made on my open source projects within minutes of my merging them into master, and often I do so from my phone.

This is possible because my open source projects have a solid suite of tests that run in CI and give me confidence things are working followed by an automation script that publishes to npm and generates a GitHub changelog. For years I've been using an awesome tool called semantic-release (shoutout to the team of fantastic humans) to automatically release my packages.

The concept of automation is something I've written about in the past. It's how I got into software development and I feel strongly that automation is the way we can make ourselves more productive (even if it takes longer to develop the automation than the time it would save us). If you find yourself repeatedly doing a task, see if there's a simple way to automate it. (Like what I do for creating my kcd.im/ short urls + shorten 😄, which happens to be another form of automation and productivity boost because short URLs are easier/faster to give to people, and people remember them better).

Enable others

Many of those releases of my open source projects I do are releasing code that I did not write. I put forth an investment of time in helping and teaching other people contribute to my projects and do things to help motivate people to do so. This means that I'm able to do more because other people handle a lot of project maintenance for me so I can do other things.

Don't answer the same question twice

I learned early on that people ask me repeat questions early on. I like to give them answers, but I also found out quickly that I don't have time to answer everyone and it's a bit frustrating to answer the same question multiple times. This is why having an active blog and an AMA are super helpful.

If someone asks me a question, 99% of the time I'll ask them to ask it on my AMA. If I get the same question many times, then I'll make it the subject of a DevTip or blog. Having multiple places/formats I can go to answer people's questions in public does four things:

  1. Allows me to answer their question
  2. Allows others to see that answer (increases the impact of the value I'm creating)
  3. Gives me motivation to give them a higher quality answer.
  4. Gives me a link to share with the next person who asks (which is way faster than writing it out again)

I guess it also contributes to the illusion that I'm doing more and I'm more productive. I'm sure you answer a lot of questions as well, but how does anyone know if you don't share?

Avoiding Burnout

When I tweeted that this would be the subject of today's newsletter, my good friend Mark Dalgleish responded:

Because you haven't burned out yet?

I honestly don't think that I've ever truly burned out. I've only been doing this software thing professionally for ~4 years, so maybe that's why. I've definitely burned out on specific projects or frameworks, but I've generally been able to keep moving and doing things that keep me excited and provide value to the world while taking care of myself and my relationships.

I should probably do this subject better justice in another blog post, but I'll just say that in general what I do to avoid burnout is to not do stuff I don't have to do or want to do. I've learned and internalized that I don't owe anyone anything unless I've made an actual commitment of marriage/employment/etc. So while I try to be kind and helpful, at the end of the day if I can't help, then I don't and I don't stress over it.

For example, there are many open issues on my GitHub projects that get no response from me because I've chosen to give my time to other things I'd rather do. I do feel bad I can't do more, but I don't stress over it.

This subject isn't all that simple, but that's all I have time for (and I'm not going to stress over not giving you more because I don't owe you anything 😜 #seewhatididthere).

Hyper-focused

I've listed pretty much everything I do. You may have noticed that I don't have many hobbies. This is true. I have a few things that I do for fun, but it pretty much all boils down to: Family, Religion, and Coding.

Even though this is working out so far, I don't believe this is sustainable. This is one reason why I'm so excited about writing this novel for NaNoWriMo. It'll be a new creative outlet. And hopefully by November I'll be done with most of the HUGE things I'm working on so I can dedicate myself to writing 50,000 words in 30 days :)

That said, I think short bursts of hyper-focus do help me get a lot done. Whether I'm hyper-focused on an egghead.io course, or getting something specific done at work, it helps me get things done. I'm not sure how to explain it, but for me hyper-focus means that I kinda don't think about anything else for a while. When I'm not with my family or fulfilling another commitment, I'm thinking about and working on this thing until it's done.

I didn't explain that well and should probably remove this section, but I'm not gonna. Maybe it'll be helpful for someone.

Continued: Turns out this was helpful to a few people so I thought I'd expound on this a tiny bit (and my wife suggested that I do as well because she thinks this makes a significant impact on who I am (not necessarily that it's a desirable trait).

So this necessarily isn't a short-term kind of thing, it doesn't prevent me from sleeping well at night (though sometimes I do have trouble shutting my brain off, most of the time I sleep fine). This also isn't the same as staying focused an on-task during a period of several hours when I'm trying to get something done (something that I'm typically not very good at doing unless I'm very excited about it).

This hyper-focus is pretty much that I immerse myself in the subject for a period of time. As an example, since I decided that I want to write this novel a few weeks ago, I've found a TON of content online about tools novel writers use to make their books "work" and I've been consuming it at a rapid rate. It's filled my idle mind. I'm still able to turn my attention to my family, my work, or courses that I'm working on, but when I'm doing mundane tasks and my brain is able to think freely, it's consumed by the idea of the novel itself and learning tools that I can apply when I start writing it in November. Ask my wife. If we're not talking about something that's actually important, then I'll inevitably turn the conversation over to the book (and she's been extremely helpful).

I don't have tips of how you can develop this in yourself, and I'm not even sure that I would recommend it. It's just something that I do that my wife and I think may have something to do with my productivity.

Spend more time producing than consuming

I do not spend a lot of time watching other people's courses or reading other people's blogs/newsletters. I definitely will skim blog posts as needed, or I'll sit down and watch a few egghead.io lessons or part of a Frontend Master's course when there's something specific I need to learn. I love Dave Geddes's mastery games on CSS grid and Flexbox, but generally I spend a bunch more time working on producing my own material/projects. I think that makes me more productive as well.

The importance of balance

With all this talk of productivity, I should probably mention that I've learned that it's important to live a balanced life. Like I said, I can get pretty focused on one thing, but I spend a lot of time with my family and that brings me joy. Shutting down for a little bit, taking a step back, and working on your relationships is where you'll get your juice to keep going.

So the fact that I'm married and have four kids and a dog isn't a detriment to my productivity, but really it's an important part of my secret to productivity. They motivate me and recharge me in ways that I couldn't understand before I had them in my life.

Conclusion

So the reasons it appears I'm so productive is multi-facited:

  • Lots of it is an illusion
  • I'm privileged to work at a place that values open knowledge sharing and doesn't limit what I do in my free time
  • I learn in public, thereby increasing the impact of the value that I create.
  • I automate mundane/time consuming/context switching tasks
  • I answer questions in a public forum
  • I spend more time producing that consuming

I should say also that my wife plays a huge role in how I'm so productive. However, she is a pretty private person and asked that I not talk about her much publicly (except she did give me permission to say this). I couldn't do all of the things I do if it weren't for her.

I don't want to give the false impression that I only appear productive either. I really do feel like I'm quite productive. But hopefully this makes my productivity more realistic and attainable in your mind. I hope some of these ideas help inspire you to be more productive and more importantly find more happiness through your relationships. Good luck!

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Kent C. Dodds

Kent C. Dodds is a JavaScript software engineer and teacher. He's taught hundreds of thousands of people how to make the world a better place with quality software development tools and practices. He lives with his wife and four kids in Utah.