Be More Productive Every Day: Lessons from Stephen Wolfram

The CEO and founder of Wolfram Research has published an incredibly detailed account of his ‘personal infrastructure hacks.’ We bring you 15 key takeaways.

28.04.2020 | by Christy Romer
Photo on Venture Beat
Photo on Venture Beat

Coronavirus aside, you may think you’re productive. Need to find an email from last year? Or a letter that arrived three months ago? No problem.

But I can guarantee that you’ve got nothing on Stephen Wolfram, the godfather of organisation and productivity.

The renowned computer scientist has optimised absolutely everything in his life. He’s so well organised that he can consult every document he’s ever produced—even, astoundingly, geography notes made aged 11.

Last year, Wolfram published an incredibly detailed account of these ‘personal infrastructure hacks.’

We’ve dived in and pulled out 15 pertinent lessons from the brilliant mind of the original remote CEO.


1. Get the basics right


You need the right tools to work well. Wolfram’s keyboard is at the right height for optimal typing. The monitors are positioned to stop him from hunching over. He uses a roll-around mouse, because, as he points out, “I’m still faster with that than with any other pointing technology.”


2. Pull-out desks = no clutter


Wolfram has only got pull-out drawers on his desk.

“One of my theories of personal organisation is that any flat surface represents a potential ‘stagnation point’ that will tend to accumulate piles of stuff—and the best way to avoid such piles is just to avoid having permanent flat surfaces,” he writes.

His solution, when he needs a snack or to write something, is pull-out compartments. “If one needs them, pull them out. But one can’t leave them pulled out, so nothing can accumulate on them.”


3. You don’t have to sit down


Not only does Wolfram have a desk that pops up to become a standing desk, he’s also got a second desk connected to a treadmill—to start his day with something more active.

In typical Stephen Wolfram fashion, he writes that the “biomechanics weren’t too hard to work out.” With a gel strip in the correct point under his wrists, he can type while walking. Here’s another tip: He tries to get potentially frustrating meetings scheduled in whilst he’s walking, so if he gets frustrated he can just “walk it off.”


4. Take your work outside


After daydreaming for some time about working while walking outside—something he thought was just impractical—he had a flash of inspiration. He saw someone at a tech event control a robot dog using a laptop he strapped in front of him as if he were selling popcorn.

Minor modifications allowed him to walk and type perfectly well outside, even for a couple of hours. During quarantine, outside may just mean strolling around a garden. But hey, it’s possible.


5. You probably don’t need all those videocalls


Stephen Wolfram is all about screensharing. “Often I’ll do a meeting where I have lots of people in case we need to get their input,” he writes. “But for most of the meeting I don’t need all of them to be paying attention (and I’m happy if they’re getting other work done). But if video is on, seeing people who are not paying attention just seems to viscerally kill the mood of almost any meeting.”


6. Don’t mess with audio quality


He says no to speakerphones and poor mobile connections.


7. Cut out dead time


Wolfram has a substantial 13-inch laptop for “serious work.” On the move, he has tablets, a smartphone and a key innovation: a tiny, 2-lb laptop that he carries with him at all times.

If he’s got to do some writing, it’s the tiny laptop. If he’s going to be standing for a while, it’s the tablet. If there’s nothing else, it’s the phone. And if there’s suddenly a dearth of useful things to do, or no internet connection, he starts looking at an offline “things to read” folder synced on all devices.


8. Make notes on the go


What about when none of this is available, but you have an idea? A folded piece of paper, the size of a credit card, in your pocket, with an accompanying pen. Make the notes, then transcribe when you get home.


9. Back up. And bring back ups


When he travels, alongside regular cloud backups, Wolfram carries an encrypted backup of his computer—in case he loses his computer and has to buy and configure a new machine.


10. Make tech survival kits


When travelling (again, different in a Coronavirus world), he takes all sorts of gear: chargers, adaptors, connectors, cameras. The Wolfram flourish is to organise these into separately-labelled plastic envelopes—tech for the car, for presenting, for the hotel room, etc.


11. Every space is work-ready, with the right gear


Even Wolfram’s drives are productive, which he uses to make phone calls.

As a passenger, he spent years working out how to work, on a laptop or a call. “I thought I had tried everything. Big cars. Little cars. Hard suspension. Soft suspension. Front seat. Back seat. Nothing worked.” Then, to his surprise, noise-cancelling headphones did the trick.

Also, at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, he picked up some “strange objects” that he says prevent car sickness—wearable tech that look like a cross between 3D glasses and old-style aviator goggles.


12. Get a good in-house presentation set-up


When presenting online, Wolfram makes use of an in-home videoconferencing set-up. There’s a back-projected screen, on which he sees the remote audience, and the camera is positioned in front of the screen, so he’s looking straight at it.

He’s also particular about the right sort of podium in talks: one that is horizontal enough to type—essential as he often live-codes when he presents.


13. There may always be tech issues


In 2010, he delivered the first of two TED talks. Stephen Wolfram says the TED audio and visual set up was the most advanced he’d ever seen, but there were huge issues in the trial run of the presentation.

He found a work-around, with a nifty bit of tech to help the conversations between computers and projectors. But the lesson? Always be prepared, and even in the least likely places there may be tech issues.


14. Just database everything


Ok, easy to go overboard here. But Wolfram has a people database so detailed that he’s able to see that on an upcoming trip, he’ll be within shooting distance of dozens of acquaintances—colleagues, friends, students, business partners. If you don’t know what’s around you, how can you know what you’re missing?


15. Sort out your filing system


Wolfram’s personal filing conventions are so detailed and awe-inspiring that it’s much better to just read about them yourself. What’s relatable is his complete revulsion for digital clutter.

“From time to time, I’ll see other people’s computers, and their desktops will be full of files. My desktop is completely empty, and plain white.

“I’d be mortified if there were any files to be seen on my desktop. I’d consider it a sign of defeat in my effort to keep what I’m doing organised.”

They are so well-organised that he can search through the 815,000 emails he’s written over the past 30 years and the 2.3 million (mostly non-spam) he’s received.

And—as mentioned before—every document, including old geography notes and issues of elementary school magazines from Easter 1971.

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