Passive productivity: Get more done, by default

So I was reading about passive income.

Set it up once, after which money comes in with minimal to no effort.

“What else works this way?”

Here I coin the term “passive productivity”: ongoing productivity gains that take little to no effort to maintain.

As opposed to “active productivity”, which requires constant effort, passive productivity is a system you set up or a skill you develop once, after which it will benefit you for eternity. 

If I were to visualize productivity advice, it’d look like this:

Focus, active productivity, passive productivity

Focus is the direction. Are you going forward or reverse? Sounds simple but 80% of “productivity” is just focusing on the right things.

If focus is direction, productivity is speed. The standard productivity advice - to do lists and time blocking and daily agendas - will get you up to gear 4. 

Once you’re maxing out there, what’s next? 

Passive productivity unlocks gears 5 and 6. Your fastest will be faster, and your default will be more productive than before.

Before we go into examples, here are the criteria for something that leads to passive productivity:

  1. It must be easy to maintain
  • If it’s a skill, you should get continuous practice with minimal effort, so reinforcement is frequent enough for skill decay not to happen
  • If it’s a system, it should be autonomous so you don’t need to maintain it
  1. It must lead to continual improvements in productivity
  • There’s a learning period for skills and a setting up period for systems, and that must be compensated for by your increase in productivity


Key point: You learn or set up once, get a higher default level of productivity for eternity.

Let’s first look at skills, then systems.


Skills that lead to passive productivity

Typing faster

Typing faster is one of the purest forms of passive productivity. Once you’ve developed the skill, you don’t need to dedicate any time to maintaining it: you reinforce the skill whenever you’re typing, which most of us do daily.

Taking some 20-40 hours to improve your typing will set you back in the short term, but will make you passively more productive for the rest of your life (more than enough to compensate for the training period).

Let’s divide your typical tasks into two rough categories:

1. Speed tasks. These don’t require conscious thought - you just need to type it out. 

Here, typing faster is the only way you can be more productive, because that is the bottleneck.

Examples: Messaging a friend or colleague, searching Google, responding to emails, taking notes.

2. Thinking tasks. These tasks are more deliberate and require time to think.

Here, typing fast will increase your productivity up to a certain level, after which your thought needs to catch up. Imagine getting an idea, typing it down, then taking a small break to think of the next idea.

Examples: Writing a blog post or essay, brainstorming.

(I’d also argue typing faster improves your thinking and maintains your state of flow. The less you need to think of typing or materializing the idea on paper, the more you can concentrate on the idea itself.)

In both, typing faster can make you more productive, though more so in the speed tasks.

To quantify the productivity gains here, all you need to consider are two factors:

  1. Your typing speed (average is around 40 words per minute, WPM). You can test yours here
  2. How many words you type each day

It’s very realistic to reach 80 WPM, an intermediate level, with maybe 20 hours of conscious practice. So that could already double your productivity with all things text.

If you write 900 words a day (a modest amount if you take all typing into account), that doubling could translate to a 10-minute saving, every day. It may not sound like much, but it compounds every single day for the rest of your working life. And obviously, the more you write, or the more your speed improves, the more time you gain back. 

This article approximates you could gain days of your life back, every year, just by improving your typing. 

How to become a faster typist:

You won’t improve your speed by typing more.

You need deliberate practice, because to type faster than you do, you probably need to type differently (such as by using the “touch typing” style).

So find a free typing website and follow their learning plan. I’ve personally used Typing.com but there are many others.

Note: use the system they teach you, without errors, right from the start. It’s easier to learn the right movements than to unlearn wrong movements.

For example, it was faster for me in the short term to use my left index for the “c” letter, but now it’s limiting my speed and I need to unlearn the practice. Which is hard to do since I’ve reinforced that movement for the past 5 years, every day, as I’m typing away. 

Get it right from the beginning, complete the learning plan, and you’ll be amazed at how much more productive you get, by default.


Speed reading

Like typing, reading is something we do every day. A small improvement is likely to become your new default, making you passively more productive for eternity.

Before we begin, it’s good to state the limits of speed reading (because there’s a lot of too-good-to-be-true writing around this):

  • Speed decreases comprehension and recall
  • Speed isn’t always the goal. For example, with a good book, you want to go slower rather than faster.
  • There is a limit to how fast you can read, and if someone claims they can do 1000s words a minute, with full comprehension, assume it doesn’t apply to you or that they are fooling themselves

So speed reading won’t give you the power to glance at a page and recall it perfectly, but it can give you some “beginner gains” quite realistically if you’ve never practiced it.

We probably read a few thousand words a day, and with an average reading speed of about 200 words a minute, even mild increases can save you minutes every day (= entire working days in a year, for the rest of your life). 

And I’m an optimist: if we can realistically double or even triple our typing speed, why couldn’t we do something comparable to our reading speed with deliberate practice?

Here’s how to learn speed reading:

Most importantly, do your own research on the subject - some methods will work better than others for you.

Here’s what I’m trying:

  1. Consciously speed my reading up when I realize I fall back to the lazy default. Over time, my default has become faster.
  2. Compress the text into narrower lines, so my eyes have to travel less distance when switching from one line to another. Easy to do by making your browser window narrower.
  3. Occasionally, some tools like Spreeder

You’ll probably want to start practicing with non-critical, fluffy material where a slight decrease in comprehension won’t lead to negative consequences.

  • Most emails
  • News
  • Social media posts or comments

It’s fine to speed read only non-critical material - that’s a hefty portion of what we read - but if you’re feeling confident about your comprehension, you can gradually speed read the important texts as well.

Practicing speed reading may seem stupid at first, but I recommend giving it a try - as said, small improvements lead to big results because you can employ speed reading daily.


Using Google Search better 

If you use a search engine often, it pays to take an hour to learn how to use it well.

For most, Google is one of those engines but you may be using Reddit, Twitter, some research websites… many things have a search function when you think about it.

I try to write for a living and one of the core questions I ask when researching a topic is this: “Would an average person find this information / example / concept easily?”

If they can get the same experience or value with a quick search, I’m producing a commodity. If they would really need to dig, I’m producing something rare and valuable.

So in my line of business, and in many others, using a search engine better than most is a competitive advantage.

Best yet, it doesn’t take long to learn. Just check this guide or the video version for Google Search.

I personally use these often:

  • “site:www.example.com” to include results from only that domain. Especially useful for Reddit.
  • “-site:www.example.com” to exclude certain domains from the results. The likes of Pinterest have taken over so many keywords that this comes in handy weekly.
  • “intitle:example” to show pages where your keyword is in the title. Good for certain types of research when a standard “keyword”-search doesn’t cut it. For example, I searched intitle:”passive productivity” and couldn’t find anything related to this idea, figured the term hasn’t been explored in depth so far, I can coin it.


Keyboard shortcuts for anything you use frequently

There’s a joke: “How do you know someone sucks at Microsoft Excel?”

“They use the mouse.”

(And yes, the joke isn’t that funny - but what can you expect from people who use Excel)

Anyway, the truth is there: using the keyboard is faster than using the mouse.

The more frequently you use the tool, the more quickly a shortcut becomes second nature, and the bigger the benefit.

Email is probably the most natural tool to start with, followed by calendar, any project management or note-taking apps (Trello, Notion…) or specialized tools you use often like Docs, Sheets, Adobe software...

How to learn keyboard shortcuts:

  1. Nearly every tool meant for frequent use has shortcuts. Look them up.
  2. Figure out the 1-3 most frequent actions you take with the tool and learn the shortcuts for those.
  3. Once those shortcuts are second nature, take up 1-3 further shortcuts. Rinse and repeat until you can perform most actions via a shortcut.

And let’s not overlook the browser and desktop itself. 

Browser: opening, closing and navigating between tabs, reopening a tab you just closed, selecting the navigation bar etc. Here’s a guide.

Desktop: opening programmes from your taskbar, navigating between programmes, touchpad gestures etc. Guides for Windows and Mac.

I use Windows and my personal fav is Windows key + V to open up a clipboard of everything I’ve copied recently (but Windows key + Shift + S isn’t bad either).

How to identify further skills that lead to passive productivity

I’ve only included a few skills above - start with one or two, you can’t practice all of them at the same time effectively. Once you’re on the path, you’ll continue finding more skills to learn.

The main point is that these skills should lead to continual increases in productivity and they must be easy to maintain. Therefore, the easiest place to look is in your daily or weekly schedule: Is there something you do or use but have never explicitly learned? Chances are, you didn’t learn the most productive or efficient method.


Systems or tools leading to passive productivity

Max out your cursor speed

Let’s start with an easy, hacky one. Takes 10 minutes to get used to a fast cursor, shaves 1 second every time you use the mouse. (But again, I think the preservation of flow is more important)

Plus, your friends will think your mouse is on steroids. 

Just search your computer for “Mouse settings” (or “Touchpad” if you use that) and set the cursor speed to max (yes, it feels too fast at first, but I promise, you’ll get used to it).


Automations, filters

The most efficient way to do something is not to do it at all.

Get it automated or get it filtered and it’s not on your to do list anymore.

Automations: 

  • Zapier automations to link tools together. If you do the same process often, you can automate it with Zapier in 10 minutes.
  • Blocking apps or websites during your “focus hours”
  • Home automations (if you’ve got gadgets) like morning and evening routines

Filters:

  • Unsubscribe from most emails, filter newsletters to a distinct inbox
  • Filter out all notifications not sent by a real person, and mute most remaining notifications until you’re ready to deal with them
  • Limit the content you see on social media to limit the time you spend on social media

Main point: outsource as much to the robots as possible. Automations and filters allow you to make the decision once to avoid making it many times.

Templates, checklists

If a certain action is required often, and you cannot automate or filter it fully, you should use templates or checklists.

Templates so you don’t need to start from scratch - improves speed.

Checklists so you cover everything - reduces errors.

Here are some example processes where I’m passively more productive because of templates and checklists:

  • Editing a blog post => I follow a list and once everything’s ticked, I’m confident it’s my best work
  • Sending emails / reports => Did you know you can create Gmail templates? Gets that weekly report out of the way in record time
  • Working out => a checklist for warming up, sets, weights and cool down means I can focus on moving, not wondering how to move

What’s something you should templatize?


How to identify further systems that lead to passive productivity

You should look for things you do frequently. If you do it only once, there’s no real room for automation.

Unlike skills, systems don’t depreciate. You can forget a skill if you don’t reinforce it, but a system doesn’t need reinforcement.

So we can look at things you do monthly, annually or even bi-annually, apply systems, and create time savings over the long term. 

The main “equation” you need to care about is this: Time saved by the system > time used to set up the system. 

For example, you could spend 2 hours automating a task that saves you 10 minutes a week, therefore you’d become “time profitable” in 13 weeks (so it takes 13 weeks to earn back the time it took to set up your system).

Limitation: life happens. You may create a template for that massive annual review of yours, estimating you’ll become time profitable in 5 years. But then life happens and you discontinue creating those reviews.

I recommend you prioritize systems where you achieve time profitability the quickest.


Conclusion

Like vitamins won’t substitute a poor diet, passive productivity isn’t a substitute for the traditional productivity advice. It’ll make you faster, but the direction needs to be right first.

And on their own, these aren’t massive, radical improvements in your productivity. Why should we care about a few minutes here and there?

But if you learn a few skills, set up a few systems, you can free up days or even weeks, every single year. Your own holiday, earned through passive productivity.

Think of it as a salary increase: you negotiate it once, and all your future paydays are going to be bigger.

I urge you to improve your passive productivity - you will benefit from it every working day of your life.

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