Productivity Hacks Aren’t What They’re Made Out To Be

A desk with multiple devices arranged for maximum productivity

You know what sounds cool at first glance? Productivity habits. You know how long they’re cool for? Probably two days or so.

For the past few years, I’ve adopted every hack from early wake-ups to meditation, all in the name of growth. And that has given me some fodder to discuss today’s topic.

Here’s a quick preview: It’s not about the what, but the why. Cliche, huh?

Anyway, after a long stretch of trial and error, I now present you with my thoughts on these popular hacks.

1. Waking up early

This is a popular one, isn’t it? I’m sure you’ve heard the miraculous claims: Wake up before sunrise and you’ll get more done. Don’t hit the snooze button and Zeus himself will bless you with his vigour.

Well, I gave it a go. I wasn’t exactly Murakami material, but I did wake up at 6 a.m. for more than a year, only missing one or two days due to COVID. You wanna know the benefits I gained?

Nothing.

Sure, there was the quality me-time, or being able to brag about waking up early. But it wasn’t as if I magically became a productivity fiend. In fact, operating on five to six hours of sleep only made me more greedy for slothful moments.

You know what I’ve learned though? It’s that what I do during my waking hours matters more than what time I wake up.

Devil’s advocate: It’s good to be sleep deprived from time to time, just to prove to yourself that you can. This will come in handy when you have to take care of a sick family member or a newborn.

A man crashed and napping on the couch

No use waking up early if you’re going to crash midday. Photo: Mert Kahveci

2. Cold showers

Maybe you’ve seen Wim Hof in action, or maybe you’ve heard Joe Rogan’s praises for the cold plunge. Either way, you think that cold exposure will grant you the wisdom dating back to the ice age. Maybe it could even add 50 kilos to your bench press.

Sadly, simply turning off your heater when you bathe isn’t the magic bullet you think it is. How do I know? Because I’ve been doing exactly that for a few years now. Unless it’s actual cryotherapy, you’re not going to get the true benefits it’s been touted to provide.

Cold showers did teach me the ability to relax in discomfort though. It’s the same feeling as letting go during a rollercoaster drop, which helps me deal with other stressors.

But there are worse obstacles than being doused in cold water, and life will throw said obstacles your way. So if you don’t have a legit ‘why’ to cold showers, you could just be suffering for the heck of it.

Devil’s advocate: Cold showers have helped me during power cuts or early-morning swims. So it does make you a tiny bit more resilient to life. Also, not flinching when you first feel the cold carries over well into other areas of life.

3. Productivity systems

The typical hustlephile must be having a field day with all the productivity systems available today. Think Getting Things Done or Second Brain.

Thing is, you have to spend time learning these systems before you can apply them to your life. Case in point: look up ‘Zettelkasten’ and tell me you’ll be able to set up your system today.

That doesn’t stop me hopping from one system to another, however. If there’s anything I suffer from, it’s the Shiny New Thing syndrome. So you can bet your ass I’m going to try every method that promises to rein in the chaos that is my brain.

Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve learned so far is that I’m all chaos when it comes to organising. But I’ll take it. Because it’s allowed me to accept said chaos.

Devil’s advocate: Finding a system that suits you will feel like a match made in heaven. They can really augment your brain’s capabilities, provided you use them properly.

A woman bathing under waterfalls

After a certain point, the reasons become personal instead of practical. Photo: Seth Doyle

4. Bullet journalling

Since we’re on the topic of organisation, let’s talk about the journalling method that went big in 2013. Even as a long-form journal keeper, I was enticed by the promise of increased productivity, using nothing but circles and dots.

So I kept a bullet journal for about six months. That’s when I realised that I had very little use for the bullet format, since I preferred exploring prose.

Plus, my life wasn’t exciting enough to be logged in bullet form. There’s only so much ‘exercise, took the dog for a walk, wrote’ I could write. But I could go on end about how my dog made friends with the corgi in the park.

Also, being the tweak-head I am, I’m prone to fine-tuning my spreads instead of actually using them.

It may work for some, but simply changing the way you journal isn’t going to improve your productivity.

Devil’s advocate: Bullet journalling works great for analytical minds who enjoy tracking data. It soothes the creative soul too, as some people find the art-ifying cathartic.

Flat lay of a journal, a book, polaroid photos, and stationery

The journalling process is highly personal too, both in process and benefits. Photo: Noemi Macavei-Katocz

5. Writing longhand

This isn’t so much a productivity hack as it is a writing tip. I’m sure you’ve heard how longhand is the magical doorway to your highest self. And that the key to beautiful prose is breaking out your notepad instead of firing up Notepad.

I think that’s phooey.

I say that as a huge proponent of longhand. After all, I wrote my first novel entirely longhand, I think on paper all the time, and I’m a huge fan of morning pages. But I don’t think writing longhand is the miracle cure to a better memory or writing prowess.

There are times where it makes sense to write on paper, such as when doing copywork or when you need to keep things fresh. But I believe both mediums should be used in tandem with each other, and not exclusively.

So no, if you’re not already writing as a habit, buying that new fountain pen isn’t going to help much.

Devil’s advocate: You think differently when writing longhand, not better. So it’s a great way to explore ideas from a different perspective. It’s also a great medium for when you want to rest your eyes.

It’s all relative

Checking your e-mail just twice a day may work as a writer, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re in the service industry.

Similarly, running 10 kilometres every day may suit the endurance athlete, but not the powerlifter.

As I learn more about productivity, I realise that the best advice always starts with ‘It depends’. Because we all have micro factors in our lives that may or may not render a ‘hack’ useless. Only a fool would relay cookie-cutter advice and expect it to work for everyone.

Having said that, I hope that you still give these productivity hacks a go and see what they do for you. Because the best way to find out isn’t to read an article by a random Malaysian, but to go ahead and try.


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69 thoughts on “Productivity Hacks Aren’t What They’re Made Out To Be

  1. Pingback: Productivity Hacks Aren’t What They’re Made Out To Be – Brandon’s Portfolio

  2. I have tried all of these to some degree. The only one I find that works – for me – is writing sometimes in longhand. The slowing down changes my process and for poems the non-uniform line lengths make me rethink the poem and line breaks when I eventually type them up.

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    • It’s all about finding what works specifically for ourselves, so I’m glad you’ve found one such method through longhand.

      It definitely sounds like poets can benefit more from longhand since there are less words, and aesthetics also come into play instead of just words.

      Thanks so much for sharing your process, and for stopping by!

      Like

  3. I think these are fantastic things to avoid. I’ve heard the cold shower thing and honestly… All it entices me to do is crawl under the nearest heated blanket. Getting up early? Um no screw that. The only thing getting up early does for me is have me yawning and checking the clock for a nap by noon 😅

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    • There’s something to be said about doing hard things for the sake of it, because it toughens the mind.

      But since I’m quite a noob at it, and have a limited amount of endurance, I’d rather do hard things that also bring me closer to my goals. Kill two birds and whatnot.

      Which is why I feel that simply doing busywork without a plan can detract from life.

      Great to hear your thoughts on this!

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  4. It does seem like I have more time in the morning when I wake up around six, but then I do not function well if I don’t get seven hours’ sleep. I do like scribbling some ideas and thoughts on paper but I have to type them before I lose these notes since my work does involve a lot of paper shuffling. This afternoon I was looking everywhere for a physical document only to be told that i was never handed one in the first place, it then dawned upon me that I had only seen a digital copy. Mind can get so mixed up when we see documents in print sometime and in digital at other times. I realise it is because I was not being present while attending to the task. When you fully immerse yourself in a task, I don’t think the time or the medium matters. Thanks for sharing your experience, another insightful post Stuart.

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    • I tend to store my notes all over the place too, but weirdly enough, despite the chaos, I can roughly estimate where my different notes are. But then again, we’ve been chatting about mindfulness so much that I can totally relate.

      And provided I get the same amount of sleep, I’ll always choose to wake up earlier. The day somehow feels more productive by default. Not gonna mindlessly sacrifice sleep though.

      Always great to read your thoughts!

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  5. I started trying productivity or growth hacks in late 2021 but not every hack work well on me specially waking up early in the morning is a huge no no for me because my sleeping cycle has changed in the time I was working on my dissertation so now I find it hard to fall asleep till 2am.

    I’ve tried the cold shower method when i was in high school and yes it helped me to stay somewhat focused for a certain period in morning.

    I don’t use paper based materials for bullet journal writing but I used google ‘keep’ app and it works well for me so far. I enjoyed reading this!

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    • Speaking of digital productivity tools, I’ve hopped from one app to another—Notion, Reminders, Calendar, Keep, Obsidian, Vim—and so far I’ve been sticking to Obsidian.

      Still, I’m pretty chaotic in a sense that I also journal and write on paper, so my thoughts are spread across multiple mediums. I’ve tried reining it in, but this chaos helps me work best, lol.

      Great to hear your experience on these productivity tools, so thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I always use the doctor analogy when it comes to productivity hacks.

    It’s like wanting to become a doctor: you put on a stethoscope and a white coat with shiny Prince-Charming teeth but since you haven’t gone to med school yet, no doctoring for you.

    If there’s no purpose for the waking up or meditation or journalling or anything at all, then no need pushing too hard.

    Still, it doesn’t hurt to try a few.
    You made a really good point.
    Thank you☘️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah. I think the doctor analogy goes well with this train of thought too: If you haven’t even settled the big stuff (medical school), don’t bother optimising for the small stuff (stethoscope and white coat).

      Always good to try new things though. We’ll never know what’ll stick. Thanks for your constant support!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Splendid blog post Stuart. I enjoyed reading it and I agree that productivity hacks are not what they seem to be, they also have the negative effects surrounding them. Well what I can say it is that writing longhand is productive for me because I love to write blogs but as for sleep deprivation well that is just unhealthy sometimes, the body needs sleep to regain strength or else it will collapse like the Great Depression of the 1930s that caused a collapse in the financial markets.

    Well written post as usual🔥👏

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    • Lol unique analogy you used there. I’m 50/50 on the matter. On one hand, it’s great to know that you can function through sleep deprivation if need be. On the other, I think we’re not giving our day our best if we’re not operating at full capacity. Great thoughts there. Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been waiting to hear someone else’s truth about waking up early because I feel the same way. I’ve been focusing more on what I do in the time that I’m awake. Glad that you were able to try these out for us all! I enjoyed your post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I get up at 4:30 on weekday mornings and only a tad earlier (sometimes) on weekends (not bragging, I swear!). I don’t know how that developed over the years, but develop it did, and I find I’m quite the morning person. I’m definitely at my most productive in the morning. On the other hand, all productivity ceases by 4pm at the latest and I’m usually in bed by 8:30pm. Sounds crazy to night owls, but the night owl life seems crazy to me. The point is, I think productivity is at its peak when you let your body decide when it wants to sleep/wake. Night owls should be night owls and morning doves should be morning doves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agreed, as there’s this entire discussion on chronotypes and all. I feel like I belong in the night owl category, though I do feel better about myself if I maintain an early wake-up schedule.

      The world seems to be catered to early risers though, I feel. It’s like day drinkers versus evening drinkers. It’s the same thing, but the former gets more flak in general.

      But I also think it’s awesome you wake up at 4:30 almost every day!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, I dug this up. I do care about productivity, to be honest, and it is enlightening to read a post like yours to see what truly works.

    It is surprisingly logical that it ends with ‘It depends.’

    Thank you for the post :) I enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘It depends’ should be tacked onto every piece of advice, from writing to fitness. The moment I started making progress was the moment I realised there were certain methods I preferred over others, which may not be the ‘true way’.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  11. A good read, and the productivity systems are something I have struggled with for quite a while, trying to find a one stop shop for soemthing that works for everything when that clearly doesn’t exist for me.
    As for the getting up early, I have had to get up early for work (5ish) for years, and I do find my weekend mornings to be quite peaceful and productive, but getting things done like writing before work is largely a lost cause.
    Also, that notecard system…. oof, that looks like a nightmare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh yeah. I find that amplified in my pursuit of minimalism. Like, everything I own or do has to tackle everything, which is far from ideal, so I end up going in circles trying to find ‘the one’. Of course, that never happens, and I just need to get better at juggling everything in my life. Thanks so much for sharing your perspectives!

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  12. Waking up early definitely works for me. I get an hour and a half of writing in before everything else in life happens. I just make sure I go to bed at a reasonable and consistent time so as not to be sleep deprived. Journaling long hand or in note form also gives me clarity, reinforces what I’ve learned and reminds me of things later. That’s two life hacks that work for me.

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  13. Really good stuff here. I think most folks believe one or two productivity hacks will change their life when it’s the simple skill of being comfortable with being uncomfortable that puts all into motion. Of course, following some of these hacks can help you to develop that skill but never marry yourself to one or the other. I find that mind training seems to be my productivity hack of choice. Going within, seeing our One-ness, and wading through fear are simply the way, for me.

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    • You speak the truth, Ryan. Even if one ‘hack’ is working well for me, there’s no confirming that it’ll work forever. And that’s the downside for people trying to look for that silver bullet. It gives us a false hope that all we need to solve our life’s problems is to find the one right hack. Always great to see you here, Ryan!

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  14. Thanks for sharing! I don’t get why so many of these “hacks” rely on us doing things that make us miserable. Hate waking up early—don’t do it. If you don’t want a freezing shower, why try it when you can take a warm shower you actually enjoy. I feel like a lot of this stuff relies on the idea of discipline rather than integrating ideas that make life more fun, not hard.

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    • I’ll play devil’s advocate to that point and say that at least anecdotally, I gain more self-worth if I endure tougher situations. There’s a certain confidence that comes with knowing I can handle hard things, but reaching that point requires doing said hard things—hence the thing that makes us miserable. But those are just my two cents. You do bring up some valid points!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do agree that doing hard things can give you confidence. I feel like life is already hard, and I’m not sure it’s worth it to do hard things for the sake of it–unless they pertain to specific goals where you’ll get something out of it. Lifting heavy weights is tough at first, but you become stronger. Reading classic literature or poetry might be tough, but you grow to appreciate the work over time. But hard things for the sake of growing endurance in itself–I’m not sure that’s worth it. Thanks for sharing! It’s an interesting discussion for sure.

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      • Nice points you make there. I’d add that endurance could also be a type of strength to develop. But then again, everybody has their own goals to pursue, and that’s the magic of life, eh?

        Like

  15. Ya, I’ve tried allot of these. Waking up early is questionable for me as I can’t do anything for a couple hours after I wake up anyway. I do my best work from mid-morning to supper time whether I’m up at 5am or sleep till 8. But I’m up pretty early most days by default.
    I also tried bullet journals. It was fun and I enjoyed being creative but did it make me more productive? No.
    I’ll pass on the cold showers. I don’t even need to try that one!
    Great post as always Stuart.! Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. I believe in the chronotype thing, because try as I might, I just can’t seem to leave my preference for late nights and afternoons (and this is coming from someone who woke up at 6 a.m. every day for a year, just because).

      The techniques still have their benefits though. It just needs to fit the right person at the right time.

      Always great to connect with you!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I’ve got to admit I’ve never tried any of these things. That’s not to say they couldn’t work for some, but I’m pretty content with my life as is. I have to have a good reason to try something else. I can be spontaneous, and I consider myself open-minded, but I also operate from the principle, “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”

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    • I’m the total opposite of ‘if it’s not broken’, lol. Maybe that’s why I get in tons of trouble. I remember experimenting with my PC back in the late 90s, and often shorted the thing due to my itchy fingers always wanting to tweak something. Funny how your passing mention of that saying conjured so many memories. Thanks for that, I must say!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I have a lot of chaos in my mind too. I do find some comfort in reorganizing when I actually feel like it, but I always slip back into chaos. Still trying to figure out chaos in my life.

    What resonated with me the most was when you said it matters more on what you do during the day vs how early you get up. I become guilty each time I sleep in when I don’t have work.

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    • I feel that that guilt can also be a good thing. It’s a type of voice that keeps us on track in life. But if everything else is in place, then we shouldn’t feel bad about the occasional slowdown.

      Here’s to figuring out the chaos together!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Your post made me smile and laugh 😂 I enjoyed reading your points. I’ve never been a productivity fiend myself; rather, I have been trying to set the bar low and do the bare minimum at the moment to survive anxiety.

    My method is simple: I get things done whenever I feel like it and wait for that instinctive urge to appear. Some call it a muse, but for me, it’s not drawn from the outside. It’s something I already have within me. What other people/things do is ignite the fire :) Perhaps, that’s what “muse” means. Not sure 🤔

    I have been waking up around 5 am almost daily, not because I want to be productive. I want to be as lazy as possible and daydream all day long 😂 I go to work early, and before and after work are my time to relax and wind down. I can’t see myself being productive outside work because it would burden me unnecessarily. I love meditating and don’t see it as a means of productivity, either. It’s one of those rarest moments I can be myself without having to prove anything.

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    • I think that’s the best way to live life, for sure. To do what you want to do, without being pressured by what others say, or tell you to do.

      For me, it’s keeping my own promises that determine how I look at myself, so there’s that. Doesn’t matter if it’s early wake-up times or meditation, as long as I do something I said I would do, then I can look at myself with respect. Thanks so much for your lovely comment. They always make me smile and laugh too!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. When I had a baby, I realized the only time I could have my coffee and some “me” time was at 06:00, before everyone else was up. That was 18 years ago, and the habit stuck. Being ADHD, my issue is getting distracted. I’ve found a few things that help, and I’m always looking for something new. So far, it’s Asana for work-related stuff and the Tody app for keeping my home together. I have an ancient edition of Lotus Organizer that I still use for daily stuff, and Alexa reminds me to do stuff, too. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was a few years ago.

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    • I think I may have some issues with my attention too, so I might find an equivalent to keep my focus steady.

      Having ‘me’ time is one of the solid reasons to wake up early for sure. I find that if I wake up the same time as everyone else, that I don’t get that quiet time to reboot properly.

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective!

      Like

  20. I agree with everything you and everyone else has said. It does depend on all sorts of factors. I really like your review of getting up early. I guess it works I’d youre still getting enough sleep but that just means you’re working maybe before others get to the office, house is quiet etc … but the key there is quiet, no interruptions and distractions etc rather than adding more hours. Sleep is really important and skimping on that not only may impact on your concentration and productivity, but could also impact on your health.

    Loved reading this Stuart

    Like

  21. I think different things work differently as we move through various seasons of life..being wildly productive might not be the best goal at all times.. Agree, an “it depends” discerning mindset is the way to go! Fun, thoughtful post..thank you

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    • I actually think that both methods (longhand and typing) produce different results. But if someone were to use either one only for hacks, then they’d be sorely disappointed lol. Like me, since I always need to coax myself to write. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Like

  22. Hmm. I’ve tried the hack of waking up early. It only caused me problems, as I was too tired to perform perform my daily tasks which I expect to perform every day. (Write, program, learn.)

    Writing long hand has an alternative: I have tried writing on Braille, but honestly, it didn’t help me in the slightest, aside from giving me a massive pile of papers. Besides, I’ve managed to keep this writing train going for over a year now, despite being blind. So I personally don’t think writing on notepad, or firing the notepad and typing there are any different.

    Thanks Stuart, though maybe I should warn you that some productivity gurus might get angry at you for “Insulting” their methods.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha. Maybe I should be the anti fake guru. But that requires me to actually have my ducks in a row first. Always interesting to hear your thoughts on these topics because there are so many things that work differently for the visually impaired. Such as longhand as you’ve mentioned. It’s awesome that you’ve kept up with writing for this long too, and I’m glad to share your journey!

      Like

  23. Some interesting thoughts here, Stuart. I suppose the best hack is to find out what works for you. I’ve been in a habit of rising at 5.30am for many years, and I write in longhand, mainly. Experiment and find what works. I will try most things, once.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. An interesting productivity tip review, Stuart. Love that you provided the other side as well and how thoroughly you’ve tried out these tips!

    Makes me think of my productivity tips and I think the only one I’d swear by is OHIO – Only Handle It Once. Especially as applied to my email Inbox, I try to handle each as I come to it instead of having to revisit it.

    Liked by 4 people

  25. Hey Stuart, I just realized I have a hack to recall writing ideas, (or groceries I need to buy) 😆. It’s called voice to text on my mobile phone.
    Walking down the street see or hear something, get inspiration. Pull out phone and talk.

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    • Hahaha, I wish I could use that hack, but speech to text doesn’t tend to do well with my Asian accent. I mean, it performs admirably, but there are the odd mistakes that make me want to pull my hair out. Thanks for sharing though!

      Like

  26. We get bombarded with life hacks on social media, and it finally all got to be too much for me. I now ignore most of it. But I like your “It depends” take on it. And the older I get, the sooner I can tell whether or not something works for me, so I’d add this bit of advice: If it sounds like not a good fit for your life, don’t let someone trying to sell something talk you into it. You know you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh yes. For me, I notice this a lot in writing advice. The moment I shut down is when one method is touted as the only way to do things. Anyone who doesn’t recognise how unique we all are shouldn’t be giving people advice in the first place. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  27. The biggest productivity hack is to accept that no one can fathom what works for you and create your own way of getting things done. If you can then sell that as a cure-all for others, fair play! The battle for me isn’t about knowing what makes me more productive but being able to rebuke the things that make me less.

    For example, I’ve just read your point about bullet journalling and thought ‘agreed-not for me either’. But I then did spend a few minutes thinking about what kind of dog you might have, and cute corgis are, who wouldn’t to befriend one and that got me thinking about our dear Queen and her corgi’s which led to me wondering who cares for them now…

    Distraction and whimsical wanderings are my downfall. Not your posts though, this one as interesting as ever. An enjoyable read!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I can’t say enough how much I appreciate thoughtful comments like yours. What a joy it was to read it.

      And yes, besides having to-do lists, I also need to standby my to-don’ts! Because what I don’t do is almost as important as what I do.

      Case in point, the danged internet and mindless scrolling. Like you, I’m susceptible to distractions, and the internet is the fuel to the possible forest fire that is my attention. Don’t even know if that works as an analogy, lol.

      Anyway, thanks once more for your lovely thoughts!

      Like

    • Reminds me of a podcast discussing diets I just heard.

      “What’s the best healthy foods to eat?”

      “The ones that you would.”

      Having the self-awareness to figure that out is the challenge though. Always good to see you here, JYP!

      Like

  28. Haha….yep we’re all about life hacks aren’t we? Until we realise that the one we really need to hack is…Us! Thanks again Stu for exposing this truism we often overlook as we leap from yesterday’s trinket of an idea to tomorrow’s disaster! This is probably why I think I’ll just stick to writing what I know based on what I’ve read or lived out. And what I will always read is the weekly article some random Malaysian pushes out every Tuesday. Then go live out his good advice and hopefully do them justice. Onward!

    Liked by 3 people

    • And I’m definitely thankful to hear from you every week too. I have to admit, I’m always on the lookout for new hacks to try. But I always go into them not expecting much. Worst case scenario, I have an inconvenient couple of days. Best case scenario, I get inspiration for a new post, lol. Once again, I’m always grateful from your support!

      Liked by 1 person

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