Crazy things people have done in the name of productivity

Sometimes I get stuck in distracting loops that are so hard to break free from that it feels like the only option is to try something utterly crazy because well, nothing normal is working. These don’t always work (ok, ok, they RARELY work), but every now and then I’ll stumble across something that’s actually pretty effective and makes a big difference in how I spend my day. The other times, well… at least I sometimes end up with a ridiculous story to tell.

You never know until you try, right? So, in that spirit, here are a few of the most over-the-top productivity hacks I’ve ever heard of.

Hugo Gernsback’s “Isolator” helmet

Back in the 1920’s, writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback got fed up with the distractions of everyday life and how they disrupted his thinking. He realized, correctly, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to focus, cautioning that “You are your own disturber practically 50 percent of the time”.

(hat tip to Aerogramme Writers for pointing this one out to us!)

So how to beat distraction? He came up with a gloriously absurd solution. The Isolator was a helmet that would, as completely as possible, remove any outside stimulus from the wearer’s perception. If you were wearing this thing, you would be in complete silence, and total darkness except for what was visible out of the two tiny eye holes designed to keep you focused on whatever it is you were working on. If that wasn’t enough, oxygen was pumped in through a tube to keep you alert and in the zone.

Gernsback also suggested using electric shocks to combat mid-afternoon drowsiness, delivered either directly to worker’s chairs, or sending current flowing through the air around them! I’m really glad he became better known for his science fiction than his workplace management ideas!

More about Hugo Gernsback and the Isolator

Honoré de Balzac’s extreme coffee consumption

cafetiere

Honoré de Balzac’s Coffee Pot

Just go to any coffee shop and take a look around to see the role caffeine plays for the modern knowledge worker. But the coffee consumption French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac used to fuel his productivity was legendary. This guy LOVED his coffee. He would go on epic work benders, allegedly consuming up to 50 cups of coffee per day, two cups at a time, on an empty stomach. He wrote about the highs and lows of his relationship with coffee in the essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”, complete with details about his personal limits (“you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness”), and the type of person that could handle such epic caffeination (“men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.”)

Balzac also died relatively young, with ailments that many people attribute to his all-too-human body not being able to handle the super-human amounts of coffee he poured into it.

Dr. NakaMats’ near-drowning for inspiration

nakamatsu-pool

The prolific Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, also known as Dr. NakaMats, has some peculiar methods for getting focused and generating flashes of inspiration. He spends time in his solid gold plated bathroom because the “gold blocks out radio waves and television that are harmful to the imagination”.  (Full disclosure: If I had a gold-plated bathroom, I’d probably come up with some radio-waves excuse to hang out in it, too.) But after that, he goes for a swim, staying underwater to starve his brain of oxygen because “the best ideas come 0.5 seconds before dying”. One obvious drawback here is that it may be hard to remember the great idea while scrambling back to the surface. Problem? Not a problem. Dr. NakaMats developed an underwater notepad that he can scribble his ideas down on while floating back up.

It’s really weird, and it certainly doesn’t seem safe, but it’s apparently working for him. He holds over three thousand patents and is the inventor of the floppy disk.

Read more about Dr. NakaMats here.

Demosthenes’ ridiculous haircut.

demosthenes-haircut

The ancient greek orator Demosthenes wasn’t born as a gifted speaker. His first few speeches were apparently disastrous. He had to work at it, and to make sure he didn’t lose focus, he developed an effective commitment device. He would isolate himself in a study for months at a time, and shave half of his hair off. The haircut itself didn’t help his oratory, but it made him too ashamed to go out in public, forcing him to stay in and keep practicing.

There are plenty of other examples out there. Someone hiring a stranger to slap them when they look at Facebook? Check. A company paying a user a thousand dollars if they fail to update their website every single day? It happened. This guy has made a whole website cataloging his productivity experiments.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever tried to force yourself to stay focused and get things done? Did it work? Did you at least get a good story out of it? Let us know in the comments.

pssst! If you’re looking for something a little less extreme, check out our tools to block distracting websites for times when you need to get focused.

3 Comments on “Crazy things people have done in the name of productivity”

  1. LOL @ the Isolator ( and the tweet comparing it to @rescuetime) & the beard-shaving Demosthenes.

    The craziest thing I did to stay focused and get things done is to go on a “working vacation”. I’d been a new mom for a year when I got frustrated by the slow pace/boredom of working at home as a start-up founder. I took off with my little one for a weekend working by the poolside and drinking beer at a resort while my toddler wobbled around. I didn’t get a lot done to be honest, but the refreshing change inspired me to be really productive when I got back from the mini-vacation.

    Maybe not the wildest story, but it did work for me in a round-about sort of way.

    Thanks for the entertaining post. I got a good chuckle out of it :)

  2. dreeves says:

    Thanks for including our $1000 bet on User-Visible Improvements! We’re now 1267 improvements in as many days, and counting!

    Another thing that should definitely be in this list is Maniac Weeks, invented by Nick Winter and which seem to be gradually becoming A Thing: http://blog.nickwinter.net/maniacs-minimalists-and-mega-hike

    Here’s Bethany’s first attempt: http://blog.beeminder.com/maniac and the two of us are planning a paired maniac workweek (9am Mon to 5pm Fri, possibly shifted by 24 hours) next week. For those who don’t know, Bethany and I are the founders of Beeminder and are also spouses. We seem to never get sick of each other!

  3. dreeves says:

    Doh, I bet my previous comment got eaten by the spam filter for containing 2 links.