Why Productive People Have Empty Schedules

What's the one resource you can't borrow, invest, or recover? Time. Lessons on guarding yours by Warren Buffett, Peter Drucker, Charles Dickens, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong, and others.

Back in 1991, Warren Buffett met Bill Gates, though as he tells Levo League, neither of them were excited to see one another. But it turned out they had a great time talking—and during the course of the conversation, Buffett pulled out the little black date book that he carries in his pocket.

He flipped through it: The pages were practically empty.

"You've gotta keep control of your time," Buffett says, "and you can't unless you say no. You can't let people set your agenda in life."

To be creative, you need to say "no"

Buffett, now 82, admits that it doesn't get easier as you get older. But even if you're not inclined to decline—like when your friend asks you to attend something—you need to develop the ability to say no. He's far from alone: As Kevin Ashton wrote in a recent essay for Medium, being stingy with your time is part of leading a creative, productive life.

Ashton, who coined the phrase "Internet of Things," observes a common thread between ur-manager Peter Drucker, novelist Charles Dickens, and photographer Richard Avedon: All of them guarded their time. Why? For in order to do your work, Ashton observed, you must have time:

"Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work ... No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes."

This is why if we want to do the work that we want to do, we need to own our time—how else can we spend it productively? As Reddit CEO Yishan Wong explained in an epic, lesson-filled Quora thread, time is limited in three ways:

  • Time is highly limited: As humans, we're immature in our first decades, and declining in health in our last
  • Time is uniquely limited: You can't bank, transfer, or recover time, unlike money.
  • Time is equitably limited: Americans can, on average, expect to live about 77 years. That expectation isn't equal with resources like money.

Taking time

The good Mr. Buffett talks about how Berkshire Hathaway is his canvas, one that he's happy to paint every day. But if you are to paint your canvas—if you are to do meaningful work—you will need time. In this way, Ashton observes, managing time is the key to cultivating your creativity:

"Saying 'no' has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know."

How do you guard your time? Let us know in the comments.

Creative People Say No

[Empty Calendar Image: Guy Shapira via Shutterstock]

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  • mrjonathanjcksn

    Really dope article. Dope means cool by the way, not the drug #millenialTalk.

    Today, I lost a $10,000 project because I didn't want to bend on my TIME for submitting my deliverables. At first I was a bit down, cued some Michael McDonald and Ghostface Killah music, but then I thought:


    Really I pull all nighters anyway; however, when that time is at a premium and it is with a super picky client, I much rather reject it and move on to another project. Don't get me wrong, could very well hire some folk and do that dance as I have done before, but I like the idea of choosing my work. Choosing how I spend MY time which God has blessed me with. It is such a powerful strategy and way of life.

    This is our life and our time.

  • This is absolutely true. Thanks you for stating the obvious so eloquently that those of us who keep getting 'busy', then annoyed about it, can finally get the point. Cheers!

  • Totally agree with this piece, I know so many busy people who never seem to get anything accomplished even though they are "working" crazy hours. Tip I learned to is to plan for a certain amount of social time, and certain amount of work "appointments" and if you've already filled your calender this week, make that lunch next week. (also seeming busier when scheduling decreases the chances of someone flaking on you.)

  • I agree in principal - but when you are caught up in People Management at work -it becomes exceedingly difficult. The only way then, is to schedule me-time or work-time on your calendar. Also, another way to deal with is to define purpose and outcome of each meeting.

  • Mohsin Muhyidin

    Don't fall for interruptions. Make sure you control your time and not that call or that email. We live in an age of abundance of information, interruptions and invitations. Should have a strong filter in place. Else you will be very busy being busy

  • Doug Frohman

    Interesting perspective. I agree w. the comment that behind Buffett stands men & women w. full calendars. It all depends on what your most important work is -- totally agreed that saying "no" is essential to acquire time to focus, prepare and deliver. In addition, not mentioned but most important is the quality of one's attention & energy in the present which is really the only time we have to deliver in.

  • Lynn Abate-Johnson

    Great post, Drake. This year, I feel like I am finally "getting it" about saying no, with love and respect - and also blocking out time on my weekly schedule to do whatever I desire, whether that means a half day of "catch up", tying loose ends, checking in with friends or family, or just doing nothing (which is really really tough for me). I'm learning that in the empty spaces, creativity and passion are nurtured - and projects can be fueled with new energy.  Thanks for giving even more permission to create "blank" pages. I feel validated and encouraged by this.

  • Ljkeniry

    Sam Andersen's, "In Defense of Distraction," http://nymag.com/news/features... adds further perspective to this important dialogue.  About saying, "no," I find it is a bit easier to balance the calendar through the lens of a clear sense of purpose and and a well fed, well exercised and well stretched body.  If I'm pretty clear on what I'm trying to accomplish in the short, medium and longer term, it is a bit easier to evaluate how the various requests align with that and, then, how to negotiate accordingly.

  • sera

    It's almost a comfort to hear saying no doesn't get easier, because it hasn't, but I still do it because I will forever recognize its value. I've had more than one 'new' friend respond to me that they were beginning to take it personally. I reason, "it's not about you, until you make it that way." Either way, I'm going to continue to protect my time while you're busy figuring out an emotional response. Either that choice can be respected, or taken personally, but its not going to change my responses. Right now, I'm particularly busy starting a business, but also making time for meditation, writing, and creativity. I'm 1000 times happier and more productive this way.

  • sera

    And while this reads (to me) like a cold response, this is the space that allows me to do meaningful work that stems from deep-seated (seeded) compassion.

  • Jason W. Womack, MEd, MA

    Growing up, there were these two sayings that almost conflicted with one another: First Lady Nancy telling us to "Just Say No," and just a bit later the good folks at Nike telling us to "Just Do It."

    The empty calendar idea is a challenge for most: It forces them to be...

    be present
    be quiet
    be purposeful
    be where they are, how they are, with who they are

    Just say no is related (a distant cousin?) to another saying I hear in the "time management" world, the one called "do nothing."

    Both of these have one thing in common: Whatever we are saying no to, and whatever the nothing we would do requires that we have something else in mind; some other purpose to fulfill now that we can.

    Thank you, Drake, for putting this out there for us to read and think about today.

  • IMG_Summit

    An outstanding person Warren Buffet - old school business guru is an example of building his own media business empire. There are many thing we can learn from such people. You will have such possibility on the OMG European Business Architecture Summit June 18-19th in Berlin

  • AnonymousReview

    A nice perspective.  Unfortunately, behind every one of these world-shaping business leaders you will find a host of people throwing themselves at problems to keep the company running.  It takes an island, and not everyone can sit around not worrying about certain things while they focus on the one planned thing they have to do.  It is absolutely unrealistic.  Budgeted headcount models are best guesses, and new situations demand more resources than the company has.  To be Warren Buffet, yes, you must clear your calendar, but you must also have people working for you who are ready to fill their calendar and often their weekends to keep the vision successful.  I'm sure, at some point in his life, Warren was burning the candle at both ends to meet the demands of others, and to pretend that we can decide to re-arrange our time without the explicit consent of the organization around us is to engage in a fantasy.  Nobody wants a full calendar, and everyone wants plenty of time to focus on things.  But nobody gets a headcount budget approved with room for creative productivity in it, just shrinkage for absence and training.

  • Well, that's the challenge of the 'pyramid' theory that makes everyone believe that only a few can succeed, isn't it? Warren Buffett figured out how to use people, and they let him... perhaps we have to start appreciating our own value and make the time, no?

  • Maria Marsala

    it's much easier to say now when you have your priorities in order, that's for sure!