Productivity Spotlight: Zeno Rocha

Written by
Macgill Davis

In this week’s episode of Productivity Spotlight, we'll be speaking with Zeno Rocha, the CPO of Liferay Cloud, prolific open-source developer, and creator of Dracula, clipboard.js, and 14 Habits of Highly Productive Developers.


Mind providing a short summary of your background, current job, and experience?

I’m from Curitiba, Brazil originally and I started off as a developer in 2009 focusing mostly on open source. In 2013, I was the 21st most active open source contributor. I love to create things and I just kept building things and exploring. Today, I’m in more of an executive role as the Chief Product Officer for Liferay but I still work on a lot of side projects. 



What’s one unique aspect of your daily routine that keeps you productive?

Well I’m not a big coffee drinker or consumer of stimulants in general. I don’t meditate. But one thing that I’ve always made a big part of my daily routine is working on side projects. 

Well I’m not a big coffee drinker or consumer of stimulants in general. I don’t meditate. But one thing that I’ve always made a big part of my daily routine is working on side projects. 


In any type of work and in any position, you are always going to hit a ceiling eventually. For example, my job is in B2B software and I’ve been working in that space for a while. But last year I decided I wanted to explore consumer apps and build a cheese app. I’ve been working in web development for a long time so I wanted to build a mobile app side project to learn about mobile development. 

Side projects are a way to learn new subjects that you won’t get exposed to in your regular job. I’ve always tried to make room for building things on the side. Sometimes I do it in the morning and sometimes in the evening. I know it’s hard to do, especially for those who are married and have kids. But I feel like you can always find a way to do 30 minutes or 10 minutes of work a day.



What are your tactics to make sure you work on your side projects every day?

Well in the beginning I just had to force myself. Now I’ve been working on side projects for so long, it comes naturally. 

I also keep a Notion database where there are three things that I want to do every single day. Right now that includes posting on social media everyday, exercising, and making sure I’m tracking the first two. That has helped me keep a streak and build these new habits.

I’m a huge fan of habits. I actually wrote a book on habits (The 14 Habits of Productive Developers). I believe in incorporating those small habits until they become automatic.

I’m a huge fan of habits. I actually wrote a book on habits (The 14 Habits of Productive Developers). I believe in incorporating those small habits until they become automatic.

Any tips you can share on starting to build new habits?

Well the first is making sure you remove as much friction as possible. For example, if it takes a really long time for me to tweet every single day then I won’t do it. So I try to equip myself with tools and systems that reduce friction.

Well the first is making sure you remove as much friction as possible. For example, if it takes a really long time for me to tweet every single day then I won’t do it. So I try to equip myself with tools and systems that reduce friction.

Going with the tweet example, if I’m really inspired one day I can write out a bunch of tweets for the month and save them in a Notion database. Then I don’t have to create a new tweet each day. I can also create little processes that help me reduce friction. I can write a list of questions or topics to review to help inspire a tweet if I’m struggling to think of one. 

The second tip is to make sure that my daily habit is not too aspirational. If a habit is too aspirational there’s a high chance I won’t be able to do it. If it’s micro or atomic, then it’s achievable. Like James Clear writes about in Atomic Habits.

The second tip is to make sure that my daily habit is not too aspirational. If a habit is too aspirational there’s a high chance I won’t be able to do it. If it’s micro or atomic, then it’s achievable. Like James Clear writes about in Atomic Habits.


Who are some less well-known people or resources that you follow for productivity inspiration?

I’m lucky. I’m on Twitter all the time. I wouldn’t say there’s a specific person I follow but I’ve been able to connect with this collective group of people that are interested in topics like productivity. I’m always open to trying new productivity tools that come recommended on Twitter, that’s why I started using Rize.

I wouldn’t say there’s a specific person I follow but I’ve been able to connect with this collective group of people that are interested in topics like productivity. I’m always open to trying new productivity tools that come recommended on Twitter, that’s why I started using Rize.


If a tool doesn’t exist then I try to create it myself. Dracula is one example. I created it as a tool to help me reduce the cognitive load of switching between different tools. 

If you’re a developer you’re probably spending a lot of time in your code editor and then you have to go to JIRA. In the time it takes to switch context, you can completely lose focus or your flow. I created Dracula, which is supported across 170 different applications now, to unify themes between different tools and reduce the cognitive load of context switching. 


If a tool doesn’t exist then I try to create it myself. Dracula is one example. I created it as a tool to help me reduce the cognitive load of switching between different tools. 

I’m always trying to optimize, even for those little efficiency improvements. Those types of improvements compound throughout the day into big productivity gains. 

Speaking of, I just started using Superhuman and I’m loving it. The required onboarding is brilliant. I love how they taught me the keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts, in Superhuman and in general, are a great example of those small efficiency improvements that compound into big productivity gains.


I’m always trying to optimize, even for those little efficiency improvements. Those types of improvements compound throughout the day into big productivity gains. 

What is the one productivity tool you wouldn't be able to do without? Why?

One tool that comes to mind and that many people might not even consider a productivity tool is 1Password. There’s many ways to think of productivity and 1Password improves my productivity in two ways.

First, I’m always signing up for new products and 1Password makes that process super smooth and saves me time for each account. Second, six months down road when there’s been a data breach, 1Password alerts me through their Watchtower feature. Now I know immediately the account that is at risk and I can easily change passwords without having to deal with a data hack. 

Another productivity tool I love is Alfred, an app launcher for macOS that is similar to Spotlight. Alfred was actually created before Spotlight. Since it has a large and active plugin community it has a ton of awesome features. Some features I love are a hex to RGB converter and the ability to search NPM packages. There’s also a new app launcher that is a competitor to Alfred called Raycast that I’ve been interested in trying out too.



What’s a small change that’s boosted your productivity over the past year?

This is a change that I actually made two years ago but it’s been a huge improvement to my productivity and mornings. I used to wake up in the morning and immediately check my phone. Since I work on a distributed team with teammates in New York and Brazil, they had already started work when I woke up. By checking my phone immediately, I would get pulled into messages and get really stressed since I would start work immediately before actually arriving at the office. 

By checking my phone immediately, I would get pulled into messages and get really stressed since I would start work immediately before actually arriving at the office. 


I started putting my phone into airplane mode and only opening it up once I got to the office. My mornings improved immediately. I was in a better mood and had a clear head in my morning shower. My wife and I work at the same company and we would commute together and our entire commute changed. We started listening to music and singing in the mornings. It was an entirely different vibe than before. We were a lot happier just by putting my phone on airplane mode. It’s been phenomenal. 


I started putting my phone into airplane mode and only opening it up once I got to the office. My mornings improved immediately. I was in a better mood and had a clear head in my morning shower.

What are your productivity killers? How do you avoid them?

Slack is definitely a big one. Even though I couldn’t work without it. If I’m doing focus work, Slack breaks my flow more than any other tool. It’s a great tool for communication but even when I hear the new message noise I get a bit stressed now.

Slack is definitely a big one. Even though I couldn’t work without it. If I’m doing focus work, Slack breaks my flow more than any other tool. It’s a great tool for communication but even when I hear the new message noise I get a bit stressed now.


Another productivity killer is YouTube. I get sucked in YouTube. Just last week, I started watching the F1 series on Netflix. That led me to YouTube and I spent a ton of time there. I used to have a Chrome Extension that automatically blocked certain sites. I don’t use it anymore but it was helpful for a time.



What’s top of mind for improving your productivity now and moving forward?

In the past I was a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions and setting big goals that I wanted to hit. For example, I want to lose X number of pounds or increase revenue by Y.

Although I still feel it’s super important to set goals, I’ve been focusing a lot more on the daily habits I adopt rather than the goals I set. I’m trying to optimize my day for those daily habits, not some big goal.


Although I still feel it’s super important to set goals, I’ve been focusing a lot more on the daily habits I adopt rather than the goals I set. I’m trying to optimize my day for those daily habits, not some big goal.

A great example is reading. Rather than optimize to read 30 books this year, focus on reading 30 pages every day. You’ll build the habit of reading and probably end up reading 30 books in a year and more over a lifetime.


A great example is reading. Rather than optimize to read 30 books this year, focus on reading 30 pages every day. You’ll build the habit of reading and probably end up reading 30 books in a year and more over a lifetime.

I have a friend who runs 8 minutes everyday. He has a friend who runs an hour and a half every once in a while. By the end of the year, my friend who runs 8 minutes a day will end up running more than his friend because he does it every day, consistently. 

That’s actually one thing I really love about Rize. It allows me to see how I’m actually spending my time so I can course correct day to day and stay on track for my daily habits. I have a book that makes $10k and Dracula that makes $100k. With Rize, I can see I’m spending way too much time on my book and learn that I should be spending time on Dracula, since that path pulls in a lot more revenue for me.



Do you have a process for selecting your daily habits that you want to focus on?

I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing each day matches my standards for happiness and my life and business goals. I don’t have an Airtable spreadsheet that I’m assigning tasks to outcomes. I approach it from a higher level.

I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing each day matches my standards for happiness and my life and business goals. I don’t have an Airtable spreadsheet that I’m assigning tasks to outcomes. I approach it from a higher level.


For example, I understand that having an audience is going to be important to what I’m doing in 5 years. Regardless of what I’m doing now, having a large audience will make it easier to sell X product down the road, even if I’m not selling anything now. I realize that in order to have an audience in 5 years, I need to tweet everyday now. So that’s my approach. 

For example, I understand that having an audience is going to be important to what I’m doing in 5 years. Regardless of what I’m doing now, having a large audience will make it easier to sell X product down the road, even if I’m not selling anything now. I realize that in order to have an audience in 5 years, I need to tweet everyday now. So that’s my approach. 


It’s the same with side projects. I love to express myself creatively, especially with code and building things. It’s important to me. So I make sure that I work on side projects every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes.



You started your career in Brazil and now you work in the USA. In your experience, are there any differences in time management between the two countries?

There are actually some super big differences and it’s been interesting to see. It was especially true when I was actually going into the office.

In Brazil, I would go into the office and the first 30 minutes to an hour, I’d spend chatting with the entire office. We’d talk about the soccer game from last night and our weekend plans. We’d have breakfast together. Throughout the day, we spoke and connected a lot more. On one hand you could say this is a huge productivity loss since you’re not sitting down at your desk solving problems. But at the same time, you’re talking a lot about work and building relationships while you do it. Additionally, I would generally stay at the office until 8pm to 9pm in Brazil.

In Brazil, I would go into the office and the first 30 minutes to an hour, I’d spend chatting with the entire office. We’d talk about the soccer game from last night and our weekend plans. We’d have breakfast together. Throughout the day, we spoke and connected a lot more.


In the USA, when I first started going to the office sometimes people wouldn’t even say hello. They were super focused on getting their work done and leaving right at 5pm. There wasn’t nearly as much communication between team members. 

It’s definitely a big difference. I think both approaches have their pros and cons. 


Macgill Davis is the cofounder of Rize - a simple, intelligent time tracker that improves focus and helps build better work habits.

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