The trouble with self-help advice is that it’s often based on barely any evidence.
For example, how many times have you been told to “think positively” in order to reach your goals? It’s probably the most popular piece of personal guidance, beloved by everyone from high school teachers to bestselling careers experts. One key idea behind the slogan is that if you visualise your ideal future, you’re more likely to get there.
The problem? Recent research found evidence that fantasising about your perfect life actually makes you less likely to make it happen. While it can be pleasant, it appears to reduce motivation because it makes you feel that you’ve already hit those targets.1 We’ll cover some ways positive thinking can be helpful later in the article.
Much other advice is just one person’s opinion, or useless clichés. But at 80,000 Hours, we’ve found that there are a number of evidence-backed steps that anyone can take to become more productive and successful in their career, and life in general. And as we saw in an earlier article, people can keep improving their skills for decades.
So we’ve gathered up all the best advice we’ve found over our last 10+ years of research. These are things that anyone can do in any job to increase their career capital and personal fit — and, therefore, their positive impact.
In many cases, the evidence isn’t as strong as we’d like. Rather, it’s the best we’re aware of. We’ve tried to come to an all-considered view of what makes sense to try, given (i) the strength of the empirical evidence, (ii) whether it seems reasonable to us, (iii) the size of the potential upside, (iv) how widely applicable the advice is, and (v) the costs of trying. The details are given in the further reading we link to and the footnotes.
We’ve put the advice roughly in order: the first items are easier, more widely applicable, and do better on the factors listed above, so start with them, then move on to the more difficult areas later.
Much of what follows is about building new habits — regular behaviours and routines that become almost automatic. So if you get better at building habits, everything else will be faster.
And there’s research on how to do exactly that. Atomic Habits is a bestselling book that turns the basic behavioural science on forming habits into a very practical guide. If you’d prefer a more academic vibe, take a look at BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits.
It takes about 30 days to ingrain a new habit. That’s hard enough without starting five at once! So, skim through the list below, pick one area that you think might make the most difference to your life with the least effort, and pick one habit or exercise from there to start.
Typically you might focus on an area for 3–12 months, using each month to build one habit or do one exercise.
As you gain momentum, you can take on bigger challenges.
Reading time: 45 minutes
Table of Contents
- 1 1. Don’t forget to take care of yourself
- 2 2. If helpful, make mental health your top priority
- 3 3. Deal with your physical health (not forgetting your back!)
- 4 4. Set goals
- 5 5. Try out this list of ways to become more productive
- 6 6. Improve your basic social skills
- 7 7. Surround yourself with great people
- 8 8. Apply scientific research into happiness
- 9 9. Use these tips to save more money
- 10 10. Learn how to learn
- 11 11. Be strategic about how to perform better in your job
- 12 12. Use research into decision-making to think better
- 13 13. Teach yourself these useful work skills
- 14 14. Take these steps to master a field and make creative contributions
- 15 15. Work on becoming a better person
- 16 How to be successful: the compounding benefits of investing in yourself
- 17 Want to come back later?: Get the guide as a free book
1. Don’t forget to take care of yourself
Before we go onto more complex advice, a reminder: ambitious people often don’t take care of themselves. This can make them burn out and ultimately be less successful.
In fact, even if you only care about helping others, it’s important to look after yourself. Professor Adam Grant did research that suggested that altruists who also looked out for their own interests were more productive in the long term, and so ultimately did more to help.2
To look after yourself, the most important thing is to focus on the basics: getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, and maintaining your closest friendships.
This is common sense, and research seems to back it up. These factors can have a big impact on your day-to-day happiness, not to mention your health and energy.3 In fact, as we’ve seen, they probably matter much more than other factors people tend to focus on, like income.
So, if there’s anything you can do to significantly improve one of these areas, it’s worth taking care of it first. A lot has been written about how to improve them. Sometimes there are small technical tricks (e.g. some people find they sleep far better if they wear an eyemask), but it often comes down to building better habits (e.g. scheduling a weekly call with your best friend).
Here are some quick tips and places to learn more:
- The best guide we’ve found on how to get better sleep is by Lynette Bye, which aims to summarise all the research.
- Within exercise, try to at least hit these guidelines by the UK’s National Health Service. If you want to optimise further, here are some further resources.
- Within diet, the main point of agreement is to avoid processed foods, and to eat lots of plants. Beyond that, experiment with what makes you feel best (e.g. I found I gained a lot of energy from having only coffee and no food in the morning, but others find the opposite).
- Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to maintain close friendships is to schedule regular time for them. We have more advice on this later in the article.
- A list of life hacks by Alex Vermeer.
- The Huberman Lab podcast is by a Stanford professor, and tries to summarise the scientific research on topics like getting better sleep, exercise, diet, and energy management.
2. If helpful, make mental health your top priority
About 30% of people in their 20s have some kind of mental health problem.4
If you’re suffering from a mental health issue — be it anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression, or something else — then it’s often best to prioritise dealing with it or learning to cope better. It’s one of the best investments you can ever make — both for your own sake and your ability to help others.
We know many people who took the time to make mental health their top priority and who, having found treatments and techniques that worked, have gone on to perform at the highest level.
Many of our staff have also made taking care of their mental health a major priority, including our CEO, who spoke about it on our podcast.
If you’re unsure whether you have a mental health issue, it’s well worth investigating. We’ve also known people who have gone undiagnosed for decades, and then found their life was far better after diagnosis and treatment.
And don’t get hung up on whether you satisfy the criteria for a formal diagnosis. Many mental health conditions appear to lie on a spectrum (e.g. from good mood to ‘normal’ unhappiness to depression), and the point at which a formal diagnosis is made is ultimately arbitrary. What matters is not the label that’s applied, but whether you can find helpful ways to feel better.
Mental health is not our area of expertise, and we can’t offer medical advice. We’d recommend seeing a doctor as your first step. If you’re at university, there should be free services available.
This said, we’ve collected some of the resources we’ve personally found most helpful for you to explore.
Probably the most evidence-based form of therapy is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which has been found to help with many different conditions.
Moreover, managing your emotions is just a vital life skill for everyone, and CBT is one of the main evidence-based ways of getting better at that.
- On our podcast, we interviewed a CBT therapist, Tim LeBon, about what CBT involves and why it might be useful to our readers.
- We also spoke with therapist Hannah Boettcher on the types of mental health issues people interested in effective altruism face, and the tools Hannah uses to address them in her therapy practice.
- A classic book is Feeling Good by David Burns — reading the book has even been tested in randomised controlled trials and found to reduce the symptoms of depression.
- Spencer Greenberg (who has also been on our podcast) developed an online CBT app that we like.
- We’ve also written up a list of simple CBT-inspired questions you can ask yourself whenever something bad happens in your life — from struggling to find your keys to being in a car accident — and which will probably help you feel better and move on more quickly.
- See the STOPP process for a quick CBT-based technique you can use to work with any difficult emotion.
You could also explore other therapies broadly in the CBT tradition, such as dialectical behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, behavioural activation, compassion-focused therapy, exposure therapy, and more. Some of our readers have also found focusing, meditation (see below), and internal family systems therapy useful for general emotional management.
Here are some additional resources by condition:
- The UK’s National Health Service publishes useful, evidence-based advice on treatments for most conditions. That’s usually a good starting point.
- Depression and low mood — in addition to CBT, see this summary of treatments for depression by Scott Siskind. We’d also recommend It’s Not Always Depression by Hilary Hendel.
- Anxiety — see this summary of treatments for anxiety by Scott Alexander, and Mind Ease, another app created by Spencer Greenberg.
- ADHD — check out Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD and Taking Charge of Adult ADHD.
- Perfectionism — this seems very common among our readers, and is the focus of the first part of this podcast episode with CBT therapist Tim LeBon.
- Imposter syndrome — this is also extremely common, which is why one of our team wrote her own guide to overcoming it.
Beyond the self-help resources above, for many conditions, speaking with a therapist is extremely beneficial. A key step is finding a therapist who’s a good match. Match is crucial — some research has suggested that the degree of ‘therapeutic alliance’ can even be more important than the form of therapy. This is often difficult, but here are some tips:
- Ask for referrals from your friends whose judgement you trust.
- Don’t feel like you need to stick with the first therapist you find. Most therapists will be happy to do an initial consultation or trial session, so you can do several of these and go with whoever has the best match.
- Therapy can be roughly divided into two very different forms: those in the tradition of psychoanalysis, which aims to identify patterns of counterproductive behaviour starting in childhood, and those that are in the tradition of CBT, which tends to be practical and solution focused, and to have a clearer evidence base. Both forms can be useful, but our sympathies lie with the CBT tradition, so that’s what we’d suggest trying first. Make sure not confuse the two types.
- If you’re interested in effective altruism, you might like to check out Mental Health Navigator or the Slate Star Codex Psychiat-List. Private practitioners include Ewelina, Daystar Eld, and Tim LeBon.
- Here’s a longer guide on how to find a therapist.
Just as with your mental health, it also pays to focus on your physical health…
3. Deal with your physical health (not forgetting your back!)
Lots of health advice is snake oil. But it’s probably also the area where the most evidence-based advice exists. Besides your doctor, you can find easy-to-use summaries of the scientific consensus on how to treat different health problems on websites like the NHS’s Health A to Z and the Mayo Clinic. Read more about how to get evidence-based health advice.
We were surprised to learn that the biggest risk to our productivity is probably back pain: it’s a major cause of ill health globally, at least by some measures.5
Our cofounder, Will, was suddenly taken out for months by chronic lower-back pain. Will spoke to over 10 health professionals about his back pain before he got any useful advice. This isn’t uncommon either, since the causes of much back pain vary widely, and it can be hard to treat.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is also a hazard of modern workplaces, and can even permanently damage your ability to type or use a mouse.
Nevertheless, you can reduce your chances of back pain and RSI in a few ways:
- Correctly set up your desk and maintain good posture.
- Regularly change position (the pomodoro technique is useful).
- Exercise regularly, probably including some strength training for the whole body (especially the posterior chain).
These steps sound trivial, but statistically, it’s pretty likely you’ll face a bout of bad back pain at some point in your life, and you’ll thank yourself for making these simple investments.
4. Set goals
There is plenty of debate about the best ways to set goals. Should you focus more on outcomes or the process? Should your goals be ambitious or achievable?
These differences don’t matter too much. The key point is that setting goals works: people who set goals tend to achieve more.
So, what most matters is to get in the habit of setting goals for your personal development.
One place to start is to get clearer about what an ideal life would look like to you.
For example, how would your life ideally look in 10 years’ time? If money were no object, or you knew you couldn’t fail, how would you spend your time?
Don’t only think about what you’d like to achieve (many external achievements don’t seem to affect happiness that much), also think about your ideal “mundane Wednesday.” What exactly would you do from waking to falling asleep?
In doing this, it’s useful to keep in mind the ingredients that are normally most important for fulfilment:
- Satisfying relationships
- Contributing to a goal beyond yourself
- Craft — something you feel competent in and find engaging (where you can enter a state of ‘flow’)
- Some fun and positive emotion
- A lack of major negatives, such as financial stress, health problems, or interpersonal conflicts
And that leads on to another useful exercise to clarify your direction. Write out your 5–10 most important values for guiding your life. You can pick some from this list, do a full life compass exercise, or use this tool from Clearer Thinking.
Goals for the year
In addition to (or instead of) your longer-term goals, consider setting 1–2 professional and 1–2 personal goals for the next year or quarter.
I (Benjamin) like to do an “annual life review.” A template for doing this that many on the 80,000 Hours team have found helpful is Alex Vermeer’s ‘8,760 Hours’ document (no relation). I’ve also published a slightly over-the-top document I created for doing these.
For your career, we also made this quick tool to help you reflect on your work once a year.
Learn to prioritise
A common pattern is that often most of the results come from the top couple of priorities. This is sometimes called the 80/20 principle — because about 80% of the results come from 20% of your activities.
This principle most likely applies to your goals, so it’s vital to put them in order of priority, and to focus all your attention on those at the top.
But life constantly throws more options at you, so this is an ongoing practice.
One exercise to help you do this is to make a list of your goals, pick the top couple, and then put everything below that on a do not do list.
If you want to think more about prioritisation, here are five frameworks.
It’s normal to always feel like you’re not doing enough. But if you’ve prioritised, and focus on your top priorities, then you’ll know you’re doing the best you can.
Now, once you’ve set some goals, how can you actually achieve them?
5. Try out this list of ways to become more productive
You can find lots of articles about which skills are most in-demand by employers — is it marketing, programming, or data science? But what people don’t talk about so often are the skills that are useful in all jobs; the ones that make you more effective at everything.
We’ve already covered several examples: how to build habits, prioritising, and taking care of yourself. Here we’ll cover another: building the habits of personal productivity.
Here’s an example: implementation intentions. Rather than saying “I will exercise every day,” define a specific trigger, such as: “When I get home from work, the first thing I’ll do is put on my trainers and go for a run.” This surprisingly simple technique has been found in a large meta-analysis to make people much more likely to achieve their goals — in many cases about twice as likely (effect size of 0.65).6
This section will also help you implement the rest of the advice in this article. Want to socialise more? Use a commitment device. Want to be more focused when you study? Batch your time. Want to take up gratitude journaling? Add it to your daily review.
What follows is a list of productivity techniques that have seemed most useful to the people we’ve worked with. This section is not particularly evidence-based, but we think that’s OK, because you can quickly try the techniques yourself and see if you get more done. Work through them one at a time for about a week each. Then spend several weeks on the ones that work for you until you’ve built the new habits.
Sticking to your goals
If you’re having trouble getting going, start here.
- Use “implementation intentions,” as we covered above.
- You can make implementation intentions even more effective by: (i) imagining you fail to achieve the goal, (ii) working out why you failed, then (iii) modifying your plan until you’re confident you’ll succeed. In this case, it’s negative thinking that’s most effective. You can read more in Rethinking Positive Thinking by Professor Gabriele Oettingen.
- We know lots of people who swear by commitment devices, like Beeminder and stickK. Read more.
- To go more in-depth on how to become more motivated, check out The Motivation Hacker, a short popular summary by Nick Winter, and The Procrastination Equation by Professor Piers Steel.
- Set up a system to track your tasks, especially small tasks like a simplified version of the Getting Things Done system (most people find the full system over the top, so you might want to first try something like Daniel Kestenholz’s Minimalist Productivity System). This helps you avoid forgetting things, and provides (some) peace of mind. Todoist is a popular tool for managing tasks; some people in the 80,000 Hours team swear by Asana.7
- Do a five-minute review at the end of each day. You can put all kinds of other useful habits into this review, such as gratitude journaling, tracking your happiness, and thinking about what you learned each day. You can also use it to set your top priority for the next day: many people find it useful to focus on this first thing (a technique that’s been called “eating a frog“).
- Each week, take an hour to review your key goals, and plan out the rest of the week. (And the same monthly and annually.) Here’s an example.
- Share your to-do list. At the start of each day, try sending your to-do list to a friend or colleague. We find that just telling someone else is enough to give some motivation — even if there’s no formal accountability.
- Batch your time. For example, try to have all your meetings in one or two days, then block out solid stretches of time for focused work; and clear your inbox once a week. Paul Graham discusses this in his essay, Maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule. This approach reduces the costs of task switching and attention residue. More detail on this can be found in our podcast episode with Cal Newport, or in his book Deep Work. Also, consider defining a fixed number of hours for work (for example, have a hard limit of stopping work by 6:00pm). Many people have found this makes them more productive during their work hours, while also reducing the chance of burning out and neglecting their social life. Read more. Toggl and HourStack are useful tools for tracking your time.
- Be more focused by using the pomodoro technique. Whenever you need to work on a task, set a timer, and only focus on that task for 25 minutes. It’s hard to imagine a simpler technique, but many people find it helps them to overcome procrastination and be more focused, making a major difference to how much they can get done each day. Professor Barbara Oakley recommends it in her course, Learning how to learn. Another step would be to do this with someone else: tell each other what you’re each going to do in the 25-minute focus time, and then hold each other accountable at the end. Focusmate is a helpful platform for finding people to co-work with.
- Build a regular daily routine, which you can use to complete tasks automatically — for example, always exercise first thing after lunch. Many people find having a good morning routine is especially important, because it gets you off to a good start.
- Set up systems to take care of day-to-day tasks to free up your attention, like eating the same thing for breakfast every day.
- Block social media. It’s designed to be addictive, so it can ruin your focus. Changing tasks a lot makes you less productive due to attention residue. For this reason, many people have found tools that block social media during work hours, or for a certain amount of time each day, to majorly boost their productivity. Consider: Rescue Time, Freedom, or OFFTIME. Or reward yourself for focused work with apps like Forest.
Further reading on productivity
A huge amount has been written about all of these ideas. Hopefully, this gives you an idea of what’s out there and some ways to get started. When you’ve spent a few months incorporating some of these habits into your routines, move on to the next step.
Here are some systems and over-the-top reflections from highly productive people:
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Productivity by Sam Altman
- Pmarca guide to personal productivity by Marc Andreessen
- Seeking the productive life by Stephen Wolfram
- How I am productive by Peter Hurford
- Interviews with productive people in the effective altruism community by Lynette Bye
Want help implementing the above? We’ve worked with Lynette Bye, who does productivity coaching with a focus on those interested in effective altruism, and has a great blog with lots more ideas.
6. Improve your basic social skills
Social skills are useful for almost everything in life, and although there’s surprisingly little good advice on how to improve them, there are some really basic things that everyone can learn. Small habits, like how to make smalltalk and changing how you think about social situations, can make it much easier to make friends, get on with colleagues, and generally deal with people.
The most popular guide to learning basic social skills is probably How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s full of advice like “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” We think the advice is a bit dated and simplified, and sometimes sounds a bit manipulative, but many people find it helpful. Here’s a summary of the book by Bryan Caplan that highlights the best ideas.
If you’re looking to develop more advanced social skills, then you might find The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane useful. It makes at least some attempt to use the limited research that exists. Other people have found things like improv and Toastmasters helpful.
Finally, much comes down to practice, and getting comfortable talking to new people. So it’s useful to work on this area while also following the steps in the next section…
7. Surround yourself with great people
Everyone talks about the importance of networking for a successful career, and they’re right. A large fraction of jobs are found through connections — and many are probably never advertised, so are only available through connections.
But the importance of your connections goes far beyond finding jobs. It may be an overstatement to say that “you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” but there is certainly some truth in it. Your friends set the behaviour you see as normal (social norms), and directly influence how you feel (through emotional contagion). Your friends can also directly teach you new skills and introduce you to new people.
Researchers have even measured this influence, as reviewed in the book Connected by Christakis and Fowler. One study found that if one of your friends becomes happy, you’re 15% more likely to be happy. And if a friend of a friend becomes happy, you’re 10% more likely to be happy.8
Your connections are also a major source of personalised, up-to-date information that is never published. For instance, if you want to find out what job opportunities might be a good fit for you in the biotech industry, the best way to find out is to speak to a friend in that industry. The same is true if you want to learn about the trends in a sector, or the day-to-day reality of a job.
If you ever want to start a new project or hire someone, your connections are the best place to start, because you already know and trust them.
Finally, if you care about social impact, then your connections are even more important. Partly this is because you can persuade people in your network of important ideas, such as global health or animal welfare. But it’s also because your behaviour will help to set the social norms in your network, spreading positive behaviours in the way we just described above. For instance, if you start donating more, there’s a good chance more than one other person will join you.
Practical tips on how to build connections
Networking sounds icky, but at its core, it’s simple: meet people you like, help them out, and build genuine friendships. If you meet lots of people and find small ways to be useful to them, then when you need a favour, you’ll have lots of people to turn to. However, it’s best just to help people with no expectation of reward — that’s what the best networkers do and there’s evidence that it’s what works best.9
You don’t have to meet people through networking conferences. The best way to meet people is through people you already know — just ask for an introduction and explain why you’d like to meet (here are some email scripts). Alternatively, you can meet people through common interests — things you actually enjoy doing.
When you meet a new person, a useful habit is the “five-minute favour.” Think of what you can do in just five minutes that would help this person, and do it. Two of the best five-minute favours are to make an introduction, or tell someone about a book or another resource. The right introduction can change someone’s life, and costs you almost nothing.
But it still takes effort to reach out to people. In the long term, it’s even better to develop habits that will let you build connections automatically. For instance, join a group that meets regularly, or live with people who have lots of visitors. Starting a side project can also work well — it gives you a good reason to meet people and work alongside them, building more meaningful connections.
Of all the social media, Twitter currently stands out as the one that we’ve found most useful for making professional connections and becoming more known in your industry. It’s relatively easy to end up talking to amazingly successful people you’d struggle to meet in any other way.
Twitter only works if you have good content, but there are some relatively straightforward ways to do that. One option is to pick a niche topic you know about (that’s professionally relevant!) and try to make your feed into a key place to follow for people interested in that topic. Another option is to post summaries of recent research or news within an area (e.g. Ethan Mollick has built a huge following by posting summaries of psychology papers). Posting thoughtful replies to people you’d like to connect with can also work.
Don’t forget that you want both depth and breadth in your connections — it’s useful to have a couple of allies who know you really well and can help you out in a tough spot, but it’s also useful to know people in many different areas so you can find diverse perspectives and opportunities — there’s evidence that being the ‘bridge’ between different groups is what’s most useful for getting jobs.
Draw up a list of your five most important allies, then make sure to stay in touch with them regularly. But also think about how to meet totally new types of people for breadth.
In a later article, we’ll cover the very best way to improve your connections: join a community.
- Chapter 4 of The Startup of You by the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman.
- Give and Take, by Professor Adam Grant, is about how the most successful people are those with a giving mindset, in part because it helps them to build more connections.
- Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi. The tone isn’t for everyone, but it shares the same approach as the above, and also has lots of tactical tips.
- “How to become insanely well-connected” is a classic article with great practical networking advice.
- “How to make friends as an adult” is a short essay on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Consider changing where you live
Should you move to the hub of your industry?
Another way to greatly improve your connections is to change cities.
Despite the rise of remote working, it’s still true that industries still cluster in certain areas. Go to Silicon Valley for technology, LA for entertainment, New York for advertising / fashion / finance, Boston or Cambridge (UK) for science, London for finance, and so on.
In these clusters, it’s much easier to build deeper professional connections, meet new people serendipitously, and find more jobs. Indeed, in some industries, the top positions only exist in certain regions — three-quarters of US entertainers and performers live in LA.10 There are also significant pay differences between regions, which are often larger than the differences in the cost of living.
But that’s only part of what’s special about these regions. As of 2008 (and we expect the broad pattern holds true today), the world’s 10 largest urban economic regions hold only 6.5% of the world’s population, but account for 57% of patented innovations, 53% of the most cited scientists, and 43% of economic output.11 This suggests that, in terms of innovation and economic output, the people in these regions are about eight times more productive than the average person.
These regions in 2008 were: (1) Greater Tokyo, (2) Boston-Washington corridor, (3) Chicago to Pittsburgh, (4) Amsterdam-Brussels-Antwerp, (5) Osaka-Nagoya, (6) London and South East England, (7) Milan to Turin, (8) Charlotte to Atlanta, (9) Southern California (LA to San Diego), and (10) Frankfurt to Mannheim. Silicon Valley, Paris, Berlin, and Denver-Boulder also deserve a mention as having some of the highest rates of innovation per person.
It’s unclear exactly why these areas are so productive, but at least part of it seems to be that innovation comes from being in close communication with other innovators. Culture and social norms might be important too. If that’s true, then it suggests you’ll be more likely to make a breakthrough if you move to these regions. We’ve certainly advised people who saw major boosts to their careers after moving cities. (Read more about this in Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser.)
Should you move to Thailand?
The opposite strategy is to move somewhere fun and cheap. This is easier than ever due to the rise of remote work, and could be good for quality of life. It’s also good if you want to make your savings last longer to start a new project or study. Read more. However, due to the reasons above, someone ambitious early in their career might be better served by moving to their industry hub.
Location and your personal life
Your location is important in many other ways. One survey of 20,000 people in the US found that satisfaction with their location was a major component of life satisfaction.10
This is because where you live determines many important aspects of your life:
- The types of people you’ll spend time with.
- Your day-to-day environment and commute.
- And even your security in retirement, as most people’s biggest financial investment is in their house, and different regions have different property markets.
The main cost of changing cities is to your personal life. It takes a long time to build up a network of friends, and you’ll probably leave behind relatives. Since close relationships are perhaps the most important ingredient of life satisfaction, this is not a trivial cost.
We moved 80,000 Hours to the San Francisco Bay Area, to be closer to an “industry hub” of people trying to do good — but after a couple of years, we decided to move back to the UK, in significant part for this reason.
If you don’t feel like a good fit with the social life in your hometown, then you’re more likely to gain from moving cities. Another option is to move for a period of years to build your connections, then return home later. Or if you can’t move, you can periodically visit the cluster for your industry.
If you’re unsure where to live, the ideal is to spend at least a couple of months living in each location.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, we recommend the book Who’s Your City by Richard Florida. In the Appendix, he has a scorecard you can use to rate different cities based on the predictors of location satisfaction. Though note that we don’t put much stock in his actual rankings of locations (e.g. see this criticism) and the data is from 2008. We also enjoyed Paul Graham’s essay on the topic. We list where our community is clustered here.
8. Apply scientific research into happiness
Although most advice about being happier isn’t based on anything much, the last few decades has seen the rise of “positive psychology” — the science of the causes of wellbeing — as covered in an earlier article.
Researchers in this field have developed practical, easy exercises to make you happier, and tested them with rigorous trials to see whether they really work. We think this is one of the best places to turn for self-help advice.
Partly, this research emphasises the importance of the basics — sleep, exercise, family and friends, and mental health.3 But they’ve made lots of other useful discoveries too.
Below is a list of techniques recommended by Professor Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the field. Most of these are in his book, Flourish. Some of these techniques have been successfully replicated and multiple recent meta-studies have found statistically significant positive effects of all of these techniques.13 Test them out, and keep using them if they’re helpful.
- Rate your happiness at the end of each day. You’ll become more self-aware and be able to track your progress over time. Moodscope is a good tool.
- Start gratitude journaling. Write down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day, and why they happened. Other ways of cultivating gratitude are also good, like the gratitude visit.
- Use your signature strengths. Take the VIA Character Strengths survey, then make sure you use one of your top five strengths each day. Read more.
- Learn some basic cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The key insight of CBT is the kernel of truth within the idea of “positive thinking”: much unhappiness is caused by unhelpful beliefs, and it’s possible to change your beliefs. CBT has developed lots of techniques for doing exactly this. A simple exercise is the ABC of CBT which you could do at the end of each day. You can learn more in section 2 above.
- Try out a mindfulness practice — usually meditation. There’s a significant amount of evidence from trials that meditation helps with wellbeing, stress, mental health, focus, empathy, and more. You can see a review of some of this literature in Altered Traits by Goleman and Davidson, and some large studies in the footnotes.14 More importantly, it’s cheap to try doing 20 minutes per day for a couple of months, and see if you feel better afterwards. A good place to start is the Waking Up app, created by Sam Harris. It has an introductory course, and also features courses from 20+ other teachers, which you can try to see which style makes you feel best (e.g. I (Benjamin) found Loch Kelly’s courses especially helpful). The book Mindfulness by Penman and Williams, is also a great introduction, and is organised into an eight-week course. The course is similar to “mindfulness-based stress reduction” which is a widely available evidence-based weekly programme, which you might be able to find on offer near you.
- Do something kind each day, like donating to charity, giving someone a compliment, or helping someone at work.
- Practice active constructive responding to celebrate successes with others.
- Craft your job. In an earlier article we covered the ingredients of a satisfying job. Often it’s possible to adapt your job so that it involves more of the satisfying ingredients, like ‘flow’ states, and less of what you don’t enjoy. It could be as simple as trying to spend more time with a friend at work. It can also be possible to find more meaning in your work. Adam Grant did a study of fundraisers for university scholarships. He found that introducing the fundraiser to someone who had benefited from the scholarships made them dramatically more productive.15 This is especially important if you’re pursuing a more abstract way of doing good, like earning to give. How can you make it seem more vivid? Job crafting exercises have been evaluated in trials and found to have positive effects. Here is a review of some of the research, and here’s a more practical introduction.
9. Use these tips to save more money
We recommend aiming to save enough money that you could comfortably live for at least six months if you had no income, and ideally 12 months (depending on how long it would take you to find another job). Besides the security, it also gives you the flexibility to make big career changes and take risks. The standard advice is also to save about 15% of your income for retirement.
So how can you go about saving money?
- Save automatically. Set up a direct debit from your main account to a savings account, so you never notice the money.
- Focus on big wins. Rather than constantly scrimping (don’t buy that latte!), identify one or two areas of your budget you could cut that will have a big effect. Often cutting rent by moving somewhere smaller or sharing a house with someone else is the biggest thing.
- But beware of swapping money for time. Suppose you could save $100 per month by moving somewhere with an hour longer commute. Instead, maybe you could spend that time working overtime, making you more likely to get promoted, or earning extra wages. You’d only need to earn an extra $5 an hour to break even with the more expensive rent.
- Until you have six months’ runway, cut your donations back to 1%.
- For more tips, check out Mr. Money Mustache and Ramit Sethi’s book, I Will Teach You to be Rich. Unfortunately, the tone of these is not for everyone, but they have some of the best advice we’re aware of.
Bear in mind that it might be more effective to focus on earning more rather than spending less, especially through negotiating your salary.
Once you’re saving 15% and have at least 6–12 months’ runway, move on to the next step.
10. Learn how to learn
Another skill that will help you in every job is learning how to learn.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can become much faster at learning. One example is spaced repetition. If you’re trying to memorise something, like a word in a foreign language, research shows that there’s an optimal frequency to review the word. If you use this frequency, you’ll be able to memorise it much faster. There are now tools that will do this for you, like Anki for making your own flashcards. Take a look at this essay on using Anki.
There are lots more techniques. Our top recommendation in this area is the Learning How to Learn course on Coursera by Professor Barbara Oakley, which is now the most viewed online course of all time. You can also read the book it’s based on, A Mind for Numbers.
If you’re interested in learning about a specific topic in detail, or forming a new opinion in an area that’s important, it could be helpful to try learning by writing.
Finally, Peak by Professor K. Anders Ericsson is a fascinating (if polemical) book about the importance of practice in developing expertise, and how to practice most effectively. In brief, you need to have:
- Specific goals for your practice, focused on improving your weaknesses.
- Rapid feedback on how well you’re performing.
- Intense focus on the task.
- A good coach or teacher.
Many people have spent thousands of hours driving, but they’re not expert drivers. This is because they don’t practice with all these ingredients, and their skill quickly tops out. This is the same for many people in many jobs.
Deliberate Performance is a great paper by Fadde and Klein about how to turn any activity into practice that improves your skills. See a summary.
When you’ve learned the basics, go on to learning more narrowly applicable skills, as we cover in the next two steps.
11. Be strategic about how to perform better in your job
How can you perform better in your job? As we covered earlier, being good at your job brings all kinds of other benefits:
- You’ll have better achievements and connections, boosting your career capital.
- You’ll gain a sense of mastery, making you more satisfied.
- You’ll have more positive impact.
Working harder helps — if you can go 10% beyond what everyone else is doing, that’s often all that’s needed to stand out. But it’s better to work smarter rather than harder.
One key question to ask is: “What is really required for advancement in this position?” It’s easy to get distracted, but there are often only a few things that really matter. For a salesperson, it’s the revenue they bring in. For an academic, it’s how many good papers they publish.
Talk to people who have succeeded in the area, and try to identify what this key thing is. Don’t just trust what they say; work out what they actually did. Then, using the material in the earlier section on learning how to learn, figure out how to master it. Try to cut back on everything else.
To learn more, we recommend Cal Newport’s work:
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You
- Deep Work
- The Top Performer online course. You can see some of the key ideas in this series of posts by the course co-creator Scott Young:
12. Use research into decision-making to think better
Another example of a skill that’s useful in every job, but often not explicitly taught, is clear thinking. Research suggests that intelligence and rationality are distinct (perhaps that’s why smart people make so many dumb decisions), but fortunately, rationality is easier to train.16
Clear thinking is also especially important if you want to make the world a better place. As we show in the rest of this guide, having a big social impact requires making lots of tough decisions and overcoming our natural biases — and it means doing that in areas where there are no clear answers, and our judgement is all we have to rely on.
So, how can you become more rational?
Broadly, it’s about having the right mindset, building the right habits of thinking, and practice.
We think some of the best research about learning to think better is Philip Tetlock’s research on forecasting. He had people make predictions about difficult-to-predict things — like who would win the next election, or whether Russia would declare war on Ukraine — and measured who performed best. He then identified the traits of the best forecasters, and used this to develop a forecasting training programme. Finally, he tested that programme and found some good evidence that it really does help people make better predictions!
Drawing from this research, we wrote a separate article about how to improve your judgement, which summarises the mindset and techniques of good forecasters. It also explains how you can test your skills by doing calibration training or through making your own forecasts.
What else can help with learning to think better more broadly?
Partly it involves building up better habits of thinking. Decades of research have shown that we often make bad decisions due to cognitive biases.
Being aware of these biases is unfortunately not enough to overcome them, but it can motivate us to improve our thinking, and research has found there are habits of thinking you can instil that make you more resistant to these biases.
For instance, several studies of decision-making found that “whether or not” decisions — those that only consider one option — were much less likely to be judged successful than those where several options were simultaneously compared. This suggests it may be helpful to develop a simple habit of always considering at least three options when you make decisions. This and much more advice is covered in Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. We also incorporate some of these techniques into our career decision process.
To accurately understand the world or predict the future, it’s important to update your opinions in the right way (i.e., in line with Bayes’ theorem) each time you encounter a new piece of evidence. This is such an important idea we made an episode of our podcast all about it: How much should you change your beliefs based on new evidence? Dr Spencer Greenberg on the scientific approach to solving difficult everyday questions.
Finally, you can become better at thinking by building up your toolkit of concepts and mental models. This means understanding the big ideas in every field. Former 80,000 Hours staff member, Peter McIntyre, created a list of 52 key concepts, which you can sign up to learn over a year via a weekly email.
It’s particularly important to understand basic statistics and decision analysis. A great book about taking a rational approach to messy problems is How to Measure Anything, by Douglas Hubbard.
13. Teach yourself these useful work skills
Having set up the basics, learned the skills that make you more effective at everything, and thought about how to best perform in your job, it’s time to turn your attention to classic work skills, like management and marketing.
The best way to improve these skills is to apply them in the course of your job, while getting feedback from someone more experienced.
So rather than self-study, try to incorporate new skills into your day-to-day work, or start a side project. For instance, if you want to learn web design, then volunteer to design a page for a group you’re involved with. Doing projects is also much more motivating than trying to learn in the abstract. (And don’t forget to apply all the advice in the earlier section on how to learn.)
Which skills are best to learn?
We did an analysis of which transferable work skills are most useful in the most desirable jobs, finding broadly that the best are:
- Analysis — including decision making, critical thinking and problem solving.
- Learning new skills and information.
- Social skills — including spoken communication, active listening, social perceptiveness, and persuasion.
- Management — including time management, monitoring performance, monitoring personnel, and coordinating people.
We could broadly classify these as “leadership” skills. And they still look to be among the most valuable skills in the age of GPT.
We’ve covered many ways to improve these skills already in the sections above on good thinking, learning how to learn, and improving your social skills.
The problem with leadership skills is that, while you can make some improvements, after learning the basics your rate of improvement tends to slow up quite a bit.
Consider the contrast with computer programming: you can go from having zero knowledge to having useful abilities in a year or two of practice, and advanced expertise beyond that.
So what to do? Our suggestion is to take any concrete ways you can see to noticeably improve the leadership skills listed, and then focus on concretely useful but faster-to-learn skills after that, such as technical and quantitative skills, or other specialist skills that seem especially useful to your career plans.
You also need to consider your personal fit. Some skills will be faster for you to learn than others, and this will make your efforts more effective. And you need to consider which skills will be most useful in the options you want to take in the future.
In other words, you want to look for the skills that have the best combination of: (i) future value to your career, and (ii) being quick for you to learn.
Here are some lists of skills to consider learning
You could pick one and make it your focus for three months (and perhaps longer if you decide to specialise in it).
We list some valuable transferable work skills and resources for learning more in our article on career capital, including: machine learning, software design, data science, information security, applied statistics, management, marketing, sales, and knowledge of China and other emerging economies.
In the section on graduate studies, we also argue for the value of knowledge of machine learning and economics, as well as other applied quantitative subjects (like computer science, physics, and statistics), subfields of biology relevant to pandemic prevention (like synthetic biology, mathematical biology, virology, immunology, pharmacology, or vaccinology), security studies, international relations, public policy and law.
When it comes to social impact, you can also use the categories we highlight in our article on high-impact careers, including: organisation building and entrepreneurship, communications and community building, research, and knowledge of government and policy.
Which combinations of skills are best?
Consider whether to focus on one main skill, or explore lots of skills. In some areas, success is more a matter of being exceptional at one thing — for example, academic career progression mainly depends on the quality of your publications. In that case, just focus on getting good at that one thing. Having one impressive achievement is also usually more useful for opening doors than several good but more ordinary achievements.
However, in other areas, it’s useful to have an unusual combination of skills and become the best person within that niche. For instance, the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams, attributed his success to being fairly good at telling jokes, drawing cartoons, and knowing about the business world. There are many people better than him on each dimension, but put all three together and he was one of the best in the world.
That said, not all combinations of skills are valuable. We can’t give hard and fast advice about which combinations are best, or whether to focus on a single skill or a portfolio.
However, one combination that does seem valuable is the combination of quantitative and social skills. As technology improves, there’s more and more demand for people who can work at the intersection of people and technology. And because people usually specialise in one or the other, there’s a shortage of people who are good at both.17
14. Take these steps to master a field and make creative contributions
After you’ve taken the low-hanging fruit from the steps above, and explored different areas, one end game to consider is becoming a leader in a valuable skill set or global problem. This is where you gain the deep satisfaction of mastery, and can make a big impact on a field. However, while the previous points can be covered in years, becoming an expert usually takes decades.
So, how can you become an expert? This is a subject of huge debate.
A common belief is that in every area, some people are naturals, and can attain mastery with ease.
The most famous researcher in the study of expert performance, K. Anders Ericsson, however, mostly debunked this idea (as we covered in the earlier article on career capital). For any area where large differences in skill exist, the highest-performing people have all done a huge amount of focused practice, usually with top mentors. Child prodigies, like Mozart, got ahead by practicing more and from a younger age.
However, there is still debate about whether practice is the main thing you need, or whether talent is also important.18 Given that there’s not yet a consensus, we think the most reasonable position is to assume that both matter.
So this means that to become an expert you need four things:
- Talent for the area.
- The right training techniques and mentorship.
- Five to 30 years of focused practice.
How much practice is required depends on the area. There’s evidence that it’s most important in well-established, predictable domains, like running. In newer, more fluid areas, you can get to the forefront faster.
So how should you choose where to focus?
First, if you’re going to put in (maybe) decades of work, you’ll want to pick an area or skill that’s valuable. See our material on which global problems are most important, which skills are most valuable, and high-impact career paths.
Second, you’ll want to choose an area where you have a reasonable shot at attaining expertise. One shortcut here is to focus on a field that’s new and neglected, since then it’ll be much easier to get to the forefront. For instance, we think GiveWell established themselves as experts on charity evaluation in about five years, despite having little background in the area.
Beyond that, as we covered in the article on personal fit, it’s hard to predict who’s going to perform best ahead of time. So while it’s possible to narrow down by, for instance, asking experts to assess your potential, ultimately it’s important to try lots of areas.
Here’s an overall process you could roughly work through for choosing what to focus on:
- Consider a lot of options. Explore and try them out in small ways.
- Narrow these options down based on: (i) where you think you’d have the best chances of success, (ii) what you think you’d enjoy, and (iii) what seems most valuable to master.
- To assess your chances of success, you can consider: (i) where you’re improving fastest, (ii) expert assessment of your potential, (iii) objective predictors of success (e.g. getting into a top PhD programme is predictor of success in research), and (iv) what’s most motivating you — since staying motivated for many years is necessary for success. Apply the material on making better predictions that we covered above.
- Consider committing for a couple of years, and then reassess. Use this as an opportunity to apply the research about how to learn effectively that we covered above.
- If that goes well, consider making a bigger commitment to the skill or area. Be prepared for years of hard work, but bear in mind that your interest in the area will probably grow as you gain mastery, and you start to use your skills to help others.
To learn more about how to develop expertise, we’d recommend Peak by K. Anders Ericsson (though bear in mind he’s the strongest supporter of practice over talent). We’d also recommend Grit by Angela Duckworth, which is about how to develop your passion and perseverance.
Another key way experts contribute is by coming up with new solutions that no one has thought about before. Unfortunately, we’re not aware of much good advice on how to be more innovative, but one recommendation is Originals by Professor Adam Grant.
Once you become an expert, what then? Use your skills to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Do what contributes.
You can learn more about what each problem most needs in our problem profiles.
15. Work on becoming a better person
Ultimately, everything above isn’t worth much if you don’t use it for good ends.
By becoming a better person, we mean coming to understand your own values, living your life in line with those values, and having a life of purpose.
Becoming a good person is a lifelong journey. Here are some steps to consider:
- Take time to reflect on your values and goals. We find it useful to set aside some time each year to identify our values, consider whether we’re living up to them, and work out what our top goals should be for the next year. We mentioned the idea of doing an annual life review above. By “values” here, we mean ultimately what you think a good life consists of. To get clearer about them, ask yourself why you’re pursuing your goals over and over again, until you can’t think of any deeper reasons. Or, imagine you were going to die in a year, and think about what you’d do in the remaining time.
Learn about what else has been written about being a good person. People have thought about these questions for millennia, so don’t just try to work it out by self-reflection. In particular, it’s useful to know some basic moral philosophy. One of our most relevant articles is the definition of social impact, which tries to summarise a wide range of moral philosophy. If you want to get more into theoretical philosophy, try Being Good by Simon Blackburn, or for something more hardcore, Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit. You might want to explore some major spiritual traditions (personally, my pick would be to learn about meditation and secular Buddhism, such as this course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology and Waking Up by Sam Harris). Actively challenge your views, and look for ways in which you might be wrong.
Build character day by day. By this, we mean developing strengths like grit, self-control, courage, gratitude, kindness, helpfulness, curiosity, humility, prudence, justice, respect of important norms, honesty, integrity, and sincerity. These strengths are vital to having a fulfilling, successful life, as well as helping others. Moreover, weakness in character can easily flip your impact from positive to negative, whether you succumb to temptation to do something unethical to preserve your position, damage the reputation of your field, or make it harder to work together. This is why we see them as an important part of your career capital. Listen to our podcast with Tim LeBon for more on why character matters and how to build it. Also see this thread on the importance of character to the project of effective altruism, and see David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character.
You can build character by surrounding yourself with people you want to emulate, as well as by building up small habits of better behaviour. If you think that it’s generally good to be honest, then practice being honest in low-stakes situations each day. That’ll make it easier to do the right thing when you’re really tempted. One exercise we like is picking 1–3 character virtues each year to especially focus on.
Which character strengths should you focus on? The list above is a good starting point. The VIA institute has a list of 24 signature strengths that are valued across many cultures and traditions. For those especially important to having a big positive impact, also see these articles: Doing good together, Avoiding accidental harm, Reflecting on the last year (by Toby Ord), Integrity for consequentialists, Virtues for real-world utilitarians.
Occasionally, really challenge yourself — change jobs to help others, give more, or take a stand for an issue. You could set yourself one big moral challenge each year.
How to be successful: the compounding benefits of investing in yourself
We’ve seen that even if you’re not in the ideal job right now, there’s still a huge amount you can do to make yourself happier, more productive, and better placed to have a positive impact on the world.
Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity.
— Richard Hamming, You and Your Research
If you apply the material on productivity and learning how to learn, you can learn everything else more quickly. Similarly, if you apply the material on positive psychology, you’ll be happier, which helps you be more productive. If you surround yourself with supportive people, that helps with everything else too, and so on.
In this way, over the years, you can learn how to be successful, build your career capital, and achieve far more than you might first think.
So, pick one of these areas, and get started. (If you’re having trouble getting started, check out the motivation tips in section 9!)
Next, we’ll show how to tie together everything we’ve covered in the guide and avoid some common planning mistakes.
Take a break by learning about how we turned this advice into our daily routine.