by Quincy Larson

I hack time.

Over the years, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on time.

I have to be.

Here are my current day-to-day responsibilities:

  • providing support for the quarter million people who use Free Code Camp each month
  • overseeing the expansion of our open source project and its curriculum
  • editing every single article you read here on this Medium publication
  • raising my baby daughter
Obligatory baby photo: Jocelyn chilling in her running stroller.

I’ve read dozens of productivity books and tried countless time management tactics. Most of these yielded benefits that were marginal at best.

But the three habits I’m sharing with you today are different. I’ve stuck with each of these for years. I attribute much of my success to them.

And the best part is, you don’t need to make any major lifestyle changes. It’s not like I’m telling you to stop drinking alcohol or to start meditating during your lunch break.

You can adopt these three habits immediately, at no cost.

Habit #1: If you can do something in 2 minutes or less, go ahead and do it now.

This “two minute rule” comes from the most famous productivity book of all, David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

If a task comes up — and that task will take less than 2 minutes — go ahead and do it immediately.

Otherwise, add it to your to-do list.

The reason this works is that you can almost always spare two minutes to take care of something. But it takes nearly two minutes to stop what you’re doing, get your phone out, add a task to your to-do list, then resume what you were doing.

On the subject of to-do lists, you should definitely use one. Carrying a list of tasks around in your head all day will sap you of your cognitive reserves.

The simpler your to-do list is, the more likely you will use it. After years of experimenting with fancy productivity apps, I now just use a basic text editor, and sort items from top to bottom in terms of priority.

One thing you won’t find on my to-do list are tasks that take less than 2 minutes. I take care of those immediately, so they never even hit my list.

Habit #2: Always ask yourself — can this conversation happen asynchronously?

I used to run around town, meeting people for coffee or sitting down with them in their offices. I could meet with a dozen people a day, tops.

There’s no substitute for meeting someone face-to-face. Facial expressions and body language convey a lot of information that your brain will pick up subconsciously.

But face-to-face meetings are expensive. You have to block out time on your calendar and commute to a common space. All that investment means meetings tend to be longer: 30-minute coffee dates, one-hour lunches, multi-hour dinner parties.

Video conferences solve the commute issue, but leave you with the scheduling song-and-dance. Phone calls suffer from the same problem, but offer even lower fidelity.

So after you’ve gotten to know someone through an in-person meeting or a video conference, see if you can shift your correspondence to asynchronous tools: email, instant messages, GitHub issues — whatever you fancy.

Here’s why:

  • you won’t need to find times when you’re both available to meet (and deal with calendar invites and time zone math)
  • you get more time to research and respond with confidence
  • interactions are more efficient, because both parties are forced to clearly state their thoughts, and you can cut to the chase without appearing rude

Most importantly, asynchronous communication lets you batch most of your communication into a single sitting. You can throw on some music and jam through dozens — or in my case hundreds — of discussions, without the stress of jumping from one time-boxed meeting to the next.

And Free Code Camp isn’t the only organization that primarily uses asynchronous communication:

  • GitHub has a largely remote team, where asynchronous communication is not only accepted — it’s encouraged.
  • Automattic (the Wordpress company) is famous for interviewing candidates over Skype chat, and hiring them without having even heard their voice. If that’s how you work, why not interview that way?

Next time you’re about to schedule a meeting, ask yourself whether a series of emails or text messages might suffice. Often it will. And this will save both of you time and sanity.

Habit #3: Listen to podcasts and audiobooks while you exercise

Multitasking is a pernicious myth. It’s really just rapid context switching, and is proven to reduce performance.

But then you hear people quip that they can “walk and talk the same time.” And that’s certainly true.

Your brain multitasks all the time. It controls your heart rate and breathing. It regulates your hormone levels. It keeps you from falling out of your chair. And even though it’s busy doing these things, you’re still able to read this sentence just fine.

When you’re exercising, your brain will unconsciously handle most of the decision-making about how to move your body and how to breathe. This leaves your consciousness free to do other things, such as process language.

If you spend a few hours each week exercising — and you should — you can also use this time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks.

Five hours a week times 50 weeks a year equals 250 hours of listening time. That’s enough to absorb around 25 books every year.

And that’s if you listen at normal speed. Most podcast apps let you listen on double speed, and Audible’s app even lets you listen to audiobooks on triple speed.

This may sound like it’s too fast. Can your brain actually process information this quickly?

Well, human speech is only about 150 words per minute. Most people can read about 300 words per minute, and most bookworms can read more than 450 words per minute — the equivalent of a triple speed audiobook.

So yes, it may take a few hours to get accustom to the speed, but pretty much everyone can process information like this.

There are some books that aren’t a good fit for the audio format, such as books with lots of code snippets and mathematical equations. But most nonfiction books work great in audiobook format, and are available on Audible.

If haven’t already signed up for Audible, you can get two audiobooks for free with this link:

Audible Free Trial [Digital Membership]
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And if you’re new to podcasts, here’s an article that covers all the best tools for listening to podcasts. It also includes tons of technology-related podcasts that are worth your time:

The best podcasts for new coders, and the best tools for listening to them
I was a bit surprised by the results of the recent Free Code Camp/CodeNewbie survey. Only around 26% of people learning…medium.freecodecamp.com

Better the habit you can stick with

Extremely productive people do all kinds of eccentric things to save time. Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs wore the exact same outfit every day so they didn’t have to think about what they wanted to wear.

Others make huge sacrifices in the name of productivity. I’m listening to Elon Musk’s biography right now. He works 100 hours a week, and has only taken two weeks off in the past decade.

Most of us aren’t willing to go to such extremes. But all of us can adopt better habits, like the ones I’ve shared here. All of us can use these habits to use our time more productively.

All of us can hack time.

I only write about programming and technology. If you follow me on Twitter I won’t waste your time. 👍