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How Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn gets so much done

The Guatemala-born tech founder takes five Duolingo language lessons each day—before 6:30 a.m. Here’s how he optimizes the rest of his time.

How Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn gets so much done
[Photo: Nik Antonio]

In the morning, I take five Duolingo lessons. I do three French lessons, one Portuguese lesson, and, of late, a Japanese lesson. It’s mostly to test out the product: My teams get reports from me at 6:30 a.m. every day, saying, “You should fix this” or “You should improve this.” Then I work out. I do some weight training, followed by 16 minutes of running as fast as I can, which is like 9 miles an hour. When I do it, I look like I’m having a heart attack. I do it to optimize my time—I burn about 360 calories. I hate it, but it’s over fast.

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Then I head to the office. I believe in everyone being in the office together, so we are getting back to that [with employees coming in three days a week, starting in January]. It’s important to have serendipitous interactions to generate good ideas. I try to break for lunch with my employees at least a couple of times a week. I like to hear about their lives outside of work.

[At Carnegie Mellon, in 2005], I taught a large math class, about 300 people, and I would mess with students. The whole first week was a huge scavenger hunt, where students had to solve math puzzles related to the class. It’s kind of a similar idea to Duolingo. We want to make learning into a game.

I get my best ideas in the shower, so on weekends I try to take long ones. Sometimes I think I have a good idea in the middle of the night, write it down, and then in the morning I realize it makes no sense.

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Early on, a lot of the ideas at Duolingo came from me or my cofounder [CTO Severin Hacker]. That’s no longer true. At this point, less than 1% of the ideas come from me. Most of what I do is review other people’s ideas and work. I’ve had to learn how to be clear in my communication, because what ends up happening is if I say something, I usually say it to somebody who says it to somebody else who says it to somebody else who actually does the work. If you’re not super clear, it’s like a game of broken telephone. Now I even ask people to repeat [what I say] back to me to make sure it’s clear.

Earlier this year we became a public company, so leading up to the IPO I was working on weekends, because investment bankers work on weekends. I tell my employees, “Just get your work done.” At Duolingo, we’ve hired a lot of overachievers. The main message we give people is don’t work so hard, because people really burn themselves out. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Time he wakes up

Between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

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First thing he does in the morning

“Check my email and Slack—I stay in bed for the first 30 or 40 minutes and just do that. We have an office in Beijing and one in Europe, so between the time I go to sleep and the time I wake up, all kinds of things have happened. After that, I take my Duolingo lessons.”

His relationship with social media

“I don’t post about my personal life. I tweet a good amount because I’m from Guatemala, and I think our government is corrupt. I tweet against our government.”

What he does with 15 minutes of free time

“Usually check my Slack.”

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Last thing he does at night

“After dinner, I work in front of the TV, watching something like The White Lotus. I’m about 40% less efficient, but I can still get stuff done while I do it. [The very last thing I do is] make sure I haven’t left anything unanswered at work.”

Time he goes to bed

Between 10:30 and 11 p.m. “But I don’t sleep through the night. I wake up for an hour randomly in the middle of the night.”

Read more about the secrets of this year’s most productive people.

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