Productivity Tips for Nerds

by Krishna on July 22, 2007

Everyone wants to be more productive and there are literally thousands of books and web pages to cater to them. In this article, I want to focus on technical people because they exhibit certain special behaviors that get in the way of being productive, even if they want to. Here are some productivity tips for them:

  1. Stop trying to be an early adopter for every product: Technical people go gaga over every new application or consumer electronic product that comes out. They must get a hold of it, even if it means starving for the rest of the month. This is such a waste of time and money. Only 1–2 products truly succeed in any problem domain. Trying out all the possible products consumes enormous amounts of time without much return.
  2. Learn to switch off electronic items: Switch off your TV and your computer. Stop picking up your phone. Most technical people find this impossible to do. One friend told me that the one thing he needed for survival (other than air and water) was an active Internet connection! But if you manage to turn off, suddenly you get this huge slab of free time which you can use to do all sorts of interesting things.
  3. Focus on quality instead of quantity: Don’t try to learn 10 different languages or platforms at the same time. At a time, learn one really well and understand its nuances. Don’t try to swallow hundreds of feeds, articles and books. Instead, select the few that would be really useful. In any case, life is too short for you to consume everything. So be selective and make effective use of your time.
  4. It is okay if you are not busy: Some technical folks treat busy work as a badge of honor. They actually love complaining that they have no time to do anything because it proves that they are doing something important and they are wanted. So much so that they have withdrawal symptoms anytime the work load comes down. Having free time is not something to be ashamed of. Use it to refresh your mind and body. Plan for future work by learning something new or advanced.
  5. New technology is not necessarily more productive: Email and chat can be more time-consuming than phone calls. It takes less time to call someone and resolve a problem than exchange emails all days long. In development work, a newer technology may have some cool feature that saves some effort, but you also waste a lot of time learning how to do the regular mundane work in it. Choose technology for its utility, not its newness.

The addiction to being connected is something all technical people share. Many people don’t switch off because they are afraid of missing an urgent message. But the fact is that if someone sending an email really wanted to get an answer immediately, they would call you. If someone calling you really wanted to talk to you, they would leave a voice message. So most of the time, there is no reason to respond in real time. (This does not mean that you should be a jerk and not pick up the phone at all, just that sometimes you need to be able to get away from the need to be always available.)

Also imagine if you had an accident and were in a hospital bed unable to move. Would you care about calls or emails? You may be worried, but you cannot do anything about it. And your contacts would have to wait until you got better. Most things in life are not really as urgent as you think or as people would like to have you think.

And tell people about when you normally respond. If they expect you to be responding 24 hours a day, they will send emails or call you 24 hours a day. On the other hand, if they know that certain hours are off-limits, your volume of emails and calls will automatically go down. Unless of course, you want to be masochistic.

A final point: Reduce the need to repeat yourself. When 2 people ask you the same question, send the reply to all possible interested parties. Or post it on your website or blog. I have found the last technique quite useful. When people ask me something and I already have an article on it, I just send them the URL. That really saves a lot of time.


Venkk Sastry July 23, 2007 at 6:54 am

"Stop trying to be an early adopter for every product"

-- I disagree. A technical guy is always curious on products or services not just as an user. Its on how its built (or productized) and such curiosity is what spins creativity and innovation.

Fran July 24, 2007 at 1:02 am

It's true about technical people buying new gadgets for the sake of trend. However, I think this behavior is not only limited to technical people but to almost all of us. Technical people are just based on new gadgets while while we are interested in many different things which we also plan on having.

Krishna Kumar July 24, 2007 at 1:05 pm

@venkk sastry

It is true that learning about new things helps in creativity, but there is too much of a good thing. At some point, there is little marginal benefit in learning about a new improvement in a particular domain.

You are right about the love of gadgets not being something restricted to technical people.

Marie July 24, 2007 at 7:57 pm

I agree with the list, especially with number 3. Quantity can sometimes deceive our thoughts. Because we've done many things, it doesn't mean that they are all good.

Krish July 25, 2007 at 11:31 am


You are right in saying that when we do more, we think we are achieving more. But if they are not the right things, we are not progressing.

Pamela July 25, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Great productivity tips. You certainly made a good point on number 5. If we think about it, it's silly that we are making use of something that takes time when we can change it back to the old ways and save time..

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