How do highly productive people manage to get everything done? There's no one way, of course, but there are lots of incredibly useful things you can learn from people who've spent tons of time thinking about how to get the most out of their day.
We surveyed 11 top professionals—Google global marketing VP Lorraine Twohill, star designer Joy Cho, Airbnb executive Belinda Johnson, and many others—about their approach to maximizing their always-limited time. To see what we learned, click through the slides above.
We recently spent a couple of days learning about Oprah Winfrey's empire, her huge number of projects, and how she handles everything.
"I procrastinate with confrontational things and uncomfortable conversations. I’ll give myself a deadline. And then I’ll change that deadline when that deadline shows up [laughs]. ‘Okay, by 3, I’m going to make that call.’ Four o’clock comes around—‘Okay okay, by 5 today. Oh, everybody’s left New York! Can’t make that call!’ So now I sit and ask myself, ‘What’s the worst that’s going to happen here, and why do I fear the confrontation?’ "
Since taking office in 2013, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has tackled tough issues such as water conservation, raising the minimum wage, and homelessness. His next order of business? "Being a builder," says the onetime international affairs professor and human rights advocate. "Building a great city, building an economy, building an infrastructure, and, ultimately, building people’s trust in government." He’s also a delegator, a traveler, and a master napper.
"Being reactive. That’s part of my job description: There is always going to be a fire, a shooting, a crisis, but you can’t let the urgent overcome the important."
"Google is a very fast-paced place," says Lorraine Twohill, the company's senior VP of global marketing. "It’s never gotten boring, but you also have to be super organized." A 12-year Google veteran, Twohill is intimately familiar with the company’s productivity tools. But she’s also fond of a more natural sort of Google resource.
"Every morning, I look through all my emails and star the ones that I want to have cleared by the end of the day. I have made peace with myself that I may not get back to all the rest. You get older and wiser and realize you can’t do it all. You can’t even begin to do it all. You have to be realistic."
For the past four years, Airbnb's chief business affairs and legal officer, Belinda Johnson, has been responsible for Airbnb’s regulatory efforts, a tough, sometimes controversial position as the company has grown. Now she’s been promoted to an even bigger role, helping to steer Airbnb’s overall strategy and adding a host of new responsibilities, including public policy, communications, social initiatives, and philanthropy. In other words, her already epic to-do list just got a whole lot longer.
"Apple Notes. I use it all day long. As I’m going through my email, I’m either taking care of things in the moment or making [an entry] in Apple Notes that I need to deal with it later. At the end of the day, I go through all my notes and make sure I’ve addressed everything."
Nobody would accuse Aziz Ansari of slacking off. He is cowriting and starring in the semiautobiographical new Netflix sitcom Master of None, which will be available on November 6, and he’s also the coauthor of the best-selling sociological study Modern Romance. Plus, he’s been touring as a stand-up alongside Amy Schumer in the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival. But his life isn’t all work. "I paint a picture of myself as this crazy workaholic, but I do think it’s important to have a well-rounded day," Ansari says. "I like to eat, drink good wine, and smoke amazing weed."
"While we were writing [Master of None], we would work until 6 or 7 p.m., and then we’d be done. There are other writers’ rooms where people spend nights in the office. I can’t imagine you’re doing your best work then. You’ve got to be a person and do other stuff, or you’re not going to be inspired to write."
Joy Cho, the Los Angeles–based designer, author, and founder of the lifestyle site Oh Joy!, has big goals: "To make life happier and prettier and more meaningful," she says. One of Pinterest’s most influential users (she has more than 13 million followers), Cho is known for creating cheery, brightly hued patterns that have graced Hygge & West wallpaper, Nod children’s bedding, specially designed Band-Aids, and even a Microsoft mouse. Next spring, she will introduce her second line of products for Target, which is sure to increase her following—and her workload.
"When you hear that ding, you have this compulsion to check [your phone]. I already work too much. There’s nothing wrong with reading a magazine or a book or even staring into space."
Ken Washington is Ford’s explorer. A former Lockheed Martin rocket scientist with a doctorate in nuclear engineering, the company's VP of research and advanced engineering is leading its effort to experiment, working on autonomous cars, vehicle-subscription services, and even a smart bicycle that syncs to an iPhone. His mandate: "To advance the technology, and to innovate new capabilities and technologies that make our cars great, fun to drive, green, safe, and smart."
"Email is huge for me. It’s really important to have an email-management strategy. I color-code emails that are from key contacts and strategic partners, so when they come to me I see them in the massive digital pile. I’ve been developing and honing this system for the past 10 years. The second tool I use is paper. There’s no substitute for it. You don’t need a Wi-Fi hot spot to get it to work. It never runs out of batteries. I start each week with a list of the things I want to accomplish and a list of key actions."
As the head of a prominent podcasting company with a small staff and three high-profile shows, Gimlet Media CEO Alex Blumberg is absurdly busy, and it’s essential for him to find ways to be productive. But not too productive. "The process of trying to launch something is fraught with inefficiency," he says. "We want to be able to kill stories that don’t work. We want to be able to produce a pilot that won’t air because it’s not as good as we thought it was going to be. We’re trying to become cautious friends with inefficiency."
Still, with hot podcasts Reply All, Mystery Show, and StartUp in various stages of production and a host of other shows in development, Blumberg works as adeptly as he can without compromising the creative process.
"I learned a lot working at This American Life. My tendency was, ‘Okay, let me think about it.’ [This American Life host Ira Glass] would kick things off his list in the moment. If it could happen right then, he would do it. It wasn’t like he ever sat me down and said, ‘Listen, young Alex, this is my secret to productivity.’ But it seeped into me."
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s days have been unusually full over the past year, even by his globe-traversing standards. In April, he opened Streetbird Rotisserie near his Harlem flagship, Red Rooster, and he spearheaded the Harlem EatUp! festival, held in May. There were also new restaurants in Bermuda and Sweden, along with a cookbook and a memoir aimed at kids, called Make It Messy—which is a good description of his hectic itinerary.
"I hate [writing] long emails. You’re sitting there thinking, Is my tone right? Because there can be 50 ways of misinterpreting that email. Texting is better: ‘Let’s talk.’ Then you follow up with a conversation."
Procrastination as a productivity tool? As Microsoft's chief experience officer, Julie Larson-Green’s job is to help people work smarter. But when it comes to her own day, she has a somewhat counterintuitive approach. A 22-year Microsoft veteran, Larson-Green is responsible for the overarching experience of getting stuff done with Office and other tools on PCs, phones, wearables, and tablets. "We want to help you manage your scarce resource of time," she says.
"I’m a huge procrastinator and a fairly lazy person. Being lazy makes me more efficient, because I try to find ways that I can do the best work in the most minimal amount of time. I also know that I need pressure to perform, and procrastination is one of the levers for creating that pressure."
Lying horizontal is a luxury for Steve Aoki. The Grammy-nominated DJ and producer has a relentless global schedule that finds him spinning records in places like Shanghai and Oslo, along with ongoing residencies in Ibiza and Las Vegas. He also puts out albums, including the recent Neon Future Odyssey (which collects his previous Neon Future I and II releases), and runs the record label and clothing brand Dim Mak. Fueled by catnaps and meditation, Aoki has managed to grow his empire while staying connected to his fans.
"Meditation is a key component in my daily cycle now. I went through a major physical change in my life in June when I had vocal-cord surgery. I used that time to reset and think about a different set of rules to be more efficient and productive."
Watch us put multitasking to the test:
A version of this article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 02 / Photo: Herring & Herring; 03 / Photo: Tommaso Mei; 04 / Photo: Amy Harrity; 05 / Photo: Chloe Aftel; 06 / Photo: Peter Ash Lee; 07 / Photo: Emily Berl; 08 / Photo: Corine Vermeulen; 09 / Photo: Geordie Wood; 10 / Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath; 11 / Photo: Clayton Cotterell; 12 / Photo: Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao;