I Hired 5 People to Sit Behind Me and Make Me Productive for a Month
Tripling my productivity with one weird trick
Most people approach productivity from the bottom up. They notice something about a process that feels inefficient, so they set out to fix that specific problem. They use a website blocker and a habit tracker, but none of these tools address the root problem. Personally, I even went as far as making my own tools, but they yielded at most 20% more productive time. I craved more, and I was willing to go as far as it takes. I wanted to solve productivity top down—with a system that would enforce non stop productivity with zero effort on my part.
I had tried less intense “watch you work” solutions before. Sharing a screen with someone through FocusMate coworking was great, but I had problems scheduling and keeping consistent sessions because of my chaotic calendar. StudyTogether’s leaderboard was a great way to push myself to spend hours in the server, but I found myself eating dinner or napping instead of being productive with nobody the wiser.
I decided it was time to try the nuclear option: having people physically sit behind me to keep me on task. And if I was going to do that I was going to do it right: they’d be there 16 hours a day and only leave for me to sleep. (I have an endlessly growing list of projects I want to make, books I want to read, and skills I want to learn, so productivity means a lot to me!)
It fit my chaotic schedule well, because if I had a call or appointment I would step out, and then go right back to work when I would get back. There was also no way to game the system because they could see everything I was doing.
I made the following Craigslist post and eagerly refreshed my inbox:
At first, I interviewed applicants about their data entry and cooking skills, but realized it was far more important to get a feel for how comfortable we were working around each other. I moved all but one of the interview candidates who actually showed up (which was only ⅓!) to the trial stage and, in the end, chose three people, with two others as backups.
This is what the shift schedule looked like (not their real names):
(I didn’t mean to only hire women; it just turned out that way. One guy actually canceled at the last minute. For reference, ~70% of my applicants were women.)
Sunday night, before the first day, I was also so scared of sleeping through my alarm—and failing my first productivity test—that I almost didn't get any sleep. I woke up at 6:55, threw on my clothes, double checked that my room wasn’t a horrible mess and raced downstairs to meet Sophia by 7.
Walking up the stairs, we exchanged morning pleasantries as best as one can at 7am in the morning. To my surprise, we were both less nervous than I had expected. Sophia actually seemed excited about the experiment, talking about her own journey with productivity and how she thought this was a smart thing to do. Upstairs, I let Sophia get situated at the desk, and we were off to the races!
The first thing I immediately noticed was I felt uncomfortable going to the bathroom because the assistants were effectively right outside my bathroom door. Aside from that, the first day was unquestionably a success. In the morning session, I did yoga, went to the gym, started two blog posts, and did some work for my job. The thought of doing happy baby in full view of someone else mildly unsettled me, so I asked Sophia not to watch my yoga. I asked her to prepare a post-workout smoothie to be ready before I came back from the gym.
I was unjustifiably worried about an assistant crossover, so near the end of the session I asked Sophia to leave a little early before Julia came in. Like Sophia, Julia seemed surprisingly relaxed about the prospect of working the next 8 hours from a stranger's home, but I wasn’t one to complain.
In my evening session, I continued to work on my blog posts, and then I went on a dinner date. I told Julia I would be back by 7 (I take it slow 😉) so she could feel free to grab dinner as well. As I walked to the restaurant, it suddenly occurred to me that all my electronics in my room were up for grabs, causing me to frantically call my roommate and ask him to keep an eye on her. However, as a testament to my vetting process, she left uneventfully. In the middle of the date, Julia texted me that her car had a flat tire so she wouldn’t be able to finish the session. I didn’t think much of it, but after that she never came in again. (I would ask her if she was available and she would respond that either she was sick or had car trouble, so eventually I gave up. Which made it all the more surprising when she texted me after the experiment asking for a link to my blog.)
Tuesday morning—under Sophia’s supervision—I wrote a random blog post and did more work for my job. In the evening session with Hannah I picked up where I left off for my job and then went breakdancing. When I came back to my apartment, the internet was out so I read two chapters of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them until the internet came back on, after which I completed a lesson in the UI/UX course I’d enrolled in.
On Wednesday, I asked Julia’s backup assistant, Rachel, to cover the evening shift. Rachel didn’t seem to be as much of a fan as Sophia of my experiment. She asked if I had a life, and that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It caught me a little off guard, but she seemed a little younger than me so I shrugged it off. At one point I had to take a call so I stepped out of my room. Coming back, she slammed her laptop shut. Laughing, I asked what she was doing that she needed to close it so frantically. She retorted coldly that she was watching porn. I instantly replied “makes sense” as if it were a reflex, and sat down at my desk. I must have been in some sort of a daze from my call, because only once I sat down I thought “wait WHAT?” I proceeded to stare blankly into my screen, afraid to turn around and look at her, as I processed the situation. After calming myself down, I continued the session as normally as possible to avoid awkwardness and breathed a sigh of relief when she left.
Saturday morning Hannah texted me she couldn’t make it, so I slept in and skipped the gym. When I woke up, I put the finishing touches on a blog post I had started earlier in the week and published it. It hit the #1 spot on Hacker News; I couldn’t stop myself from constantly refreshing the post as it got more upvotes while chuckling at the classic Hacker News hate comments. I only escaped the Skinner box when Sophia came in and I explicitly told her I wasn’t to be allowed on Hacker News.
The rest of the experiment continued in a similar fashion (albeit less hectic), with me doing yoga and working out in the morning, working my job, reading books, doing my UI/UX course, writing blog posts, working on some side projects, all interspersed with ping pong and breakdancing classes. In the moment I didn’t feel I was working especially hard or that I was being crazy productive, but looking back, sometimes during the experiment I would do in one day what previously took me a whole week.
When I tell people about this experiment, they often ask me what the assistants would do when I would go on a website I wasn’t supposed to be on, like Twitter. I actually found that I would never go on these websites, and it’s surprising to me that people think I still would with an assistant practically breathing down my neck.
Actually, whenever the assistants did check in with me to make sure I was being productive I would feel more productive afterwards. (Maybe due to a fear of further check-ins? A desire to impress? I’m no psychologist.) However, I think they struggled to come up with a way of phrasing their check-ins that wouldn’t feel too aggressive. I couldn’t think of a clean solution either until Julia’s second replacement (one who didn’t watch porn on the job) asked me the benign question, “What are you working on?” and I realized that was a great way for them to enforce my productivity while not coming off too strong.
Another minor communication hurdle for me was asking the assistants to do tasks other than sit behind me. Although I had mentioned both in the job post and in interviews that chores would be involved, I felt I hadn’t laid it out explicitly enough, so I still felt bad when asking. (Also, I’m generally wary of being overly-assertive.) Luckily, a few assistants really liked cooking and did it of their own volition. The meals were far better than what I could have prepared myself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if having quality home cooked meals made me happier and thus more productive as well.
Aside from stopping me from going on bad websites, a big benefit of hiring productivity assistants was that I would move from task to task very quickly. Normally when I finish a task, I take a break or just dawdle. This context switching causes a lot of inefficiency. With assistants in the room, I would be forced to instantly pick up a new task, or at least consciously look for a new task.
I intended to continue tracking my productivity for another month after this experiment to see how the assistant-free life compared, but I basically immediately fell off the wagon. The day after the experiment ended I tested positive for Covid. Over the weekend (after I tested negative) I participated in the ETH SF hackathon where I pulled an all-nighter, which killed any remainder of a routine I had.
Had an assistant been with me, I would have instantly gotten back on track. (That’s what happened on nights where I went out; I would ask them to come in at 11am instead of 7am and get right back to work.)
For more objective measurements, I used ActivityWatch to track how much time I spent on various things such as social media, writing, side projects, etc… I manually tracked things such as whether or not I did yoga or went to the gym on a given day, my phone screen time, and my phone pickups. However, once I fell off I also stopped tracking my time for the most part. Luckily, I recovered my yoga stats from the yoga app I use, and I recovered my gym stats from looking at my Google timeline to see if I had gone to the gym that day.
I classified (most of) my ActivityWatch data as productive or unproductive, and here is what I got (averaged per week):
I’m always surprised by how time tracking makes you wonder where the hours went. The sum of my unproductive and productive time was only ~25 hours per week, which is surprisingly low. After looking at my time tracking during the hackathon on 11/5-6, I only spent 9 hours in my IDE (a code editor) despite pulling an all-nighter.
As I expected, my fitness routine got obliterated after Covid and the hackathon, and then picked back up a little as I started getting back into my routine.
The first graph doesn’t tell the whole picture. First, my productive hours for the first week post-experiment are too high because of the hackathon. Second, it doesn’t account for time spent doing fitness, which I think is fair to classify as productive. Third, I picked up the unfortunate habit of going on social media and YouTube on my work computer after the experiment ended, so the post-experiment unproductive hours are drastically undercounted.
To adjust for these three factors, I subtracted the 9 hours I spent in my IDE from my productive hours, added 27 minutes for every time I did yoga (that’s how long my yoga sessions take), added 1 hour for every time I went to the gym (whenever I go I go for at least 1 hour), and added 1.5 hours/day post experiment for social media + YouTube (looking at my history, unfortunately this is an undercount).
This shows the full extent that the assistants were keeping unproductivity at bay; post-experiment my unproductivity skyrocketed.
Looking at the average productive/unproductive hours per week during/after the experiment, we get this table:
This means that having assistants sitting behind me increased my adj. productive hours by ~2.8x and decreased my adj. unproductive hours by 3.1x.
All in all, I feel comfortable saying this experiment tripled my productivity, especially since I didn’t even track reading, dancing, and playing sports.
I don’t think I got close to burnout, but towards the end of the day I would usually get a little antsy and anxious. I think most of that can be attributed to a lack of a wind-down routine. My lights turned off at 8pm and my computer turned off at 9pm, but I think I should have also had my computer shut down at 8, done my evening routine, and then read for the remainder of the time to get sleepy.
Also, the assistants did not seem to significantly affect my sleep quality. Here are the average sleep quality scores from my Fitbit and Eight Sleep mattress:
Fitbit says my sleep score increased and Eight Sleep says it decreased, and I didn’t feel a difference in tiredness.
Hiring people for 16 hours a day for a whole month is expensive! I want to acknowledge that I’m privileged to be able to do this experiment and it’s not for everyone.
I budgeted ~10k for the month, (16 hours per day * $20 per hour * 30 days), but due to a combination of not finding a long-term replacement for Julia until the last week, going out a few nights, going into the office, and a few other assistants canceling some days, it ended up being ~5k.
The data says that the assistants gave me an extra ~57 hours of productive time a month, which means you would need to value your time at $5,000/57 hrs=$88 per hour to break even. This suggests to me that more people that struggle with productivity (and can afford it) should consider doing this, especially since you can write this off as a business expense if you have an S-corp or similar.
For Next Time
Though this experiment greatly improved my productivity, I still think there are a lot of things I can do to make it more effective next time. The most basic one is that I should have scheduled my day in the evening before. Normally I don’t do this because it never works for me, but here there was a reasonable enforcement mechanism that I should have taken advantage of. Without a schedule, I would decide on what the next task was in the spur of the moment, and all these decisions probably added fatigue.
Next time I’ll also give my assistants a clearer outline of my expectations. I’ll set guidelines for how often they should check in with me, how they should check in with me, and what chores need to be done on what times/dates. During the experiment I half-assedly committed to checking in every 30 minutes through a 30 minute Pomodoro-esque method, but often I would forget to set a timer. Laying these details out upfront will also eliminate a lot of the awkward moments that I faced like having a hard time asking for them to do chores.
Because I was constantly jumping from task to task, I never got any reflection in. During the experiment, I would have nagging feelings around things I should improve (like when I was/wasn’t allowed to use my phone), but because I was constantly working on tasks I never took a breather to act on those feelings. I should have dedicated a weekend morning to thinking about my previous week and how to make my next week better. However, this would probably be most useful when I’m doing this for multiple months in a row.
While it was nice that the assistants cooked for me, occasionally it did get a bit excessive—some days they would cook for 3+ hours, which noticeably decreased my productivity. It turns out having an assistant in the kitchen is not that same as feeling their gaze on your neck! Next time I might clarify how much time I want them to spend on cooking, ask them to stick to making frozen meals, or hire someone for cooking separately.
For longer periods of time, I will have one of the assistants manage the hiring process and the scheduling to handle people getting sick and quitting, as interviewing was a pretty significant disruption, especially when most people are no-shows.
Personally, I had a great time cranking out tasks and getting to know my assistants (the savory ones). Next on my list: one year of productivity assistants!