Secrets From 11 Of The Most Productive People From Oprah To Aziz Ansari

We asked Google and Microsoft execs, L.A.’s mayor, a famous chef, and other ultra-busy professionals how they get so much accomplished.

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.

Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Oprah Winfrey Network

We recently spent a couple of days learning about Oprah Winfrey’s empire, her huge number of projects, and how she handles everything.

Strategy to beat procrastination

“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?’ ”


Read everything we learned about Oprah Winfrey’s work life.

Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles

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.

Biggest productivity issue

“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.”


Read everything we learned about how Eric Garcetti gets so much done here.

Lorraine Twohill, Senior VP of Global Marketing, Google

“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.

Approach to prioritizing

“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.”


Read everything we learned about Lorraine Twohill’s productivity habits here.

Belinda Johnson, Chief Business Affairs and Legal Officer, Airbnb

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.

Key tool

“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.”


Read everything we learned about Belinda Johnson’s work life.

Aziz Ansari, Comedian

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.”

Productivity myth

“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.”


Read everything we learned about how Aziz Ansari gets so much done.

Joy Cho, Designer

Photo: Emily Berl

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.

Biggest productivity issue

“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.”


Read everything we learned about how Joy Cho gets so much done.

Ken Washington, VP of Research and Advanced Engineering, Ford

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.”

Key tools

“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.”


Read everything we learned about Ken Washington’s productivity habits.

Alex Blumberg, Cofounder and CEO, Gimlet Media

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.


Great advice

“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.”

Read everything we learned about Alex Blumberg’s time management tactics.

Marcus Samuelsson, Chef

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.


Email pet peeve

“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.”

Read everything we learned about Marcus Samuelsson’s busy life.

Julie Larson-Green, Chief Experience Officer, Microsoft

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.


Strategy to beat procrastination

“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.”

Read everything we learned about Julie Larson-Green’s productivity style.

Steve Aoki, DJ, Producer

Photo: Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao, Grooming: Homa Safar for Exclusive Artists Management using MAC Cosmetics and Oribe Hair Care

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.


Coping tactic

“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.”

Read everything we learned about Steve Aoki’s busy life.

Watch us put multitasking to the test: