how do really busy and successful people manage it all and stay sane?
February 15, 2014 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I've taken on a lot of work recently and I feel like I am at capacity, yet it seems like other more successful people manage to do so much more, and with greater efficiency. How do these people manage to use their time so well?

Maya Angelou worked in hotel rooms, this guy sits at a desk for hours no matter what, Michell Rhee uses two phones at once, 44% of wealthy people wake up 3 hours before work, and me, I sometimes refer to a todo list.

But I'm so busy that I stop eating and going to the gym. What am I missing?
posted by jander03 to Work & Money (27 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
One of my former bosses received 200+ emails/day.

He didn't read them. Just skimmed the subject line and first paragraph. Then sent a bunch of them to me (which I had usually been CCED on already in the original).

Take that as you will, but to some extent, it is taking information in differently and passing it off quickly, expecting others to handle it. Delegation of all but the most important.
posted by zizzle at 2:17 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I monitor my time on the computer kind of obsessively with RescueTime. It really, really keeps me on task. I like to use the "goals" feature to set goals and then try to meet them multiple days in a row. I also write detailed to-do lists and schedules each night before bed.

Basically, I just try not to waste time. When I'm really on my game I even schedule time for Metafilter, rather than just clicking around on here aimlessly throughout the day. Really what works best for me is a detailed schedule and then monitoring my activities so that I am working when I want to be working, goofing around when I plan to goof around, exercising when I want to, etc.

Good luck.
posted by k8lin at 2:27 PM on February 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Well, there's this Forbes article that recently came out: "How Successful People Stay Calm."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:41 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


not advocating, just providing a potential explanation
posted by melissasaurus at 2:43 PM on February 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

They know when to say no, and they know when to delegate.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:53 PM on February 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's a book called Daily Rituals that talks a lot about the work methods of famous and prolific writers and artists. Many woke up very early, used drugs/alcohol, had no social life, and/or had employees and assistants.
posted by girlmightlive at 2:54 PM on February 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

There really is not enough information for us (really me) to be very helpful. Where are you in the pecking order, do you have people to whom you can delegate, is this all self imposed work, is this characteristic of other parts of your life, were you often "frazzled" even when you were not objectively so busy, are you easily distracted, do you have the essential skills to do the work, can you so "no" to the expectations of others, etc. I can tell you that people who are high achievers and balance multiple demands do not usually stop eating and exercising. If you feel up to it you might provide additional information
posted by rmhsinc at 3:06 PM on February 15, 2014

Seconding drugs, based on secondhand information from a friend or two. :/
Also see college and adderall usage and the like.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 3:54 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most unsuccessful people are missing "priorities" in the true sense of the word.
posted by 99percentfake at 4:27 PM on February 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have noticed that with myself, there are certain types of tasks I simply do more quickly than average. Over time, I have been able to optimize my job so that it consists of as many of these tasks as possible and as few "normal" tasks as I can get away with. This cherry picking keeps my productivity above average even if I put in average effort, and it goes even further above average if I put in significant effort.

I suspect this is probably true for a lot of high profile successful people, particularly in business. Play to your strengths as much as possible.
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:49 PM on February 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Two things are important here, I think.

There are some things you can get better at, or more efficient, and someone glancing at a more-efficient person won't notice it unless you look. I get well over a thousand email messages a day. I aggressively use filters to try and get them most important ones first, and I let the rest pile up, so I'm reading a thread of 20-40 emails at one time, and not returning to that thread 20+ times. (Check the important stuff often; check the less-likely-to-be-crucial stuff twice a day, once it piles up into stacks.)

There are some people who are better at some things. One dude I work with can write 10+ hours a day, without looking up, barely stopping to eat or pee. He is a machine. But I only judge what he's doing during those ten hours. He could be the world's least-together person in the other six hours awake, whether he's spending that time recovering from work, or can't manage to tie his shoes on the way in; I just don't know.

The issue there is that when you gave your three or four examples... you picked the one thing that they're best at. You singled out people who are terrific at one thing, and asked "why can't I do that?"... for all of them. Maya Angelou can't work like Charles Duhigg. Duhigg can't use two phones, I'd bet. The two phones guy? Probably isn't Maya Angelou, either.

No one does everything well.

There are a few outliers. People who can get by with way, way less sleep, and still focus at near 100%? They have a huge advantage on the rest of us, as they have more hours to work with. That said? Ignore your family and friends, and just focus on something, and you'll also have more hours to work with. But that's a crummy trade.

People are naturally generalists. We do lots of things - more than we think - and we do those things halfway decently, some better than we care about, and some less well than we'd like. If you want to be stupidly good at one thing... do that thing obsessively, to the exclusion of almost everything else, and odds are you'll become fantastic at it. If you can focus that much. And if you can survive the tradeoffs that that obsession will cost ya.

But yeah. Maya Angelou? Doesn't use two phones at once. Don't compare yourself to people when the only thing you know about them is the thing they're the best at, or you'll go nuts.

On busy days, I get two to four thousand emails. The answer
posted by talldean at 5:04 PM on February 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I honestly think some people have more energy, or require less downtime than others. This could be genetic, drug assisted or built on a lifetime of discipline and building good habits (eg eat well, exercise, sleep early etc).

I found that I lost a lot of time between tasks, just deciding what to do next. So for me, it's important to have a to do list that lists the tasks in the order that I am going to do them (which may or may not be the same as when each thing is due).

We can't really tell from your question if you need little hacks like this, or if you're so genuinely overwhelmed that you couldn't do it all even if there were 25 hours in a day and you were awake and at maximum efficiency for all of them. You might get more useful answers if you provide more details.
posted by pianissimo at 5:27 PM on February 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Re: getting work done, don't multitask—it takes you out of the zone. Make yourself a queue of tasks and try to only break from it every so often to deal with distractions like email, phone calls, and in-person conversation. Any phone call you get when you're in the zone, try to quickly evaluate whether you really need to answer it, and don't if you can at all help it. On your outgoing voicemail message, encourage people to email you instead of leaving a message, so you can more easily evaluate, categorize, forward, and save their messages. And try to gamify your day—set up the queue such that it keeps you motivated, with small, more easily completable tasks and a visual checklist.

Re: getting to the gym, I still haven't figured out the secret to that one. The best I've ever done is making sure my visits are either scheduled in advance or part of fulfilling a certain number of days I need to go per week, so I can skip a day here or there, but I can't skip every day. The other trick to getting myself to go, when I did have the time and willpower to make it happen: All the Web surfing you might otherwise do when you get home, do on your phone on the treadmill at the gym for a half hour or hour. Even better: Get a treadmill at home and do it there—that's what I'd do if I had room for one. Try to cut down as many barriers to going as you can, whether that means buying a massive stack of gym shorts or finding a gym as close to home as possible.
posted by limeonaire at 5:53 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

it seems like other more successful people manage to do so much more, and with greater efficiency. How do these people manage to use their time so well?

Have at least one person to do things for them, whether it's an assistant, a cadre of handlers, a private trainer that comes to them....

44% of wealthy people wake up 3 hours before work

I just want to point out that the list you linked to is not about general "time management tips form successful people, it's "So what do the rich do every day that the poor don’t do?" and includes things like:
3. 76% of wealthy exercise aerobically four days a week. 23% of poor do this.

7. 70% of wealthy parents make their children volunteer 10 hours or more a month vs. 3% of poor.

6. 63% of wealthy parents make their children read two or more non-fiction books a month vs. 3% of poor.

10. 88% of wealthy read 30 minutes or more each day for education or career reasons vs. 2% of poor.

12. 79% of wealthy network five hours or more each month vs. 16% of poor.
so I guess one thing is, don't be poor. My first piece of advice would be to throw out that list.

I don't say this to be snarky at all, but your question reads a little like, "How do all my facebook friends manage to have such perfect lives?" The answer of course is, they don't. And all these successful people aren't just good at hacking life.

Maya Angelou is certainly an inspiration, but unless you spend a lot of time in hotel rooms I'm not sure how "Maya Angelou worked in hotel rooms" helps you get to the gym. Why don't you post a question next week with some specifics about your situation and the things you're juggling?

For this question, I'd suggest that you are underestimating what goes into keeping the busy and successful people sane! As someone who has worked with the kinds of people you are asking about here, I promise you that no one does it alone.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:19 PM on February 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

successful people that you don't know very well can present an illusion of competence that breaks down upon closer inspection. you could go behind the scene at the white house and learn that barack obama can't hard-boil an egg.
posted by bruce at 7:42 PM on February 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

When I realize I've bitten off more than I can chew and something's gotta give, it usually feels like there's nothing that can give. I need to sleep, I need to bathe, I need to eat. Self-care like washing my face before going to sleep, or preparing the food, falls to the wayside. Not doing those things chips away at my sanity until I start asking questions like the one you have above. That's when I talk to someone I trust and get a reality check. Last time, we made a list of all the things I had to do, all the things I needed to do, and then came up with a list of things I actually didn't need to do, temporarily, in order to meet all my deadlines and finish my projects. Some of the things I gave up were:

- Preparing food. I bought pre-prepped food for about three weeks. It wasn't cheap, but it saved me time that I needed for other things.
- Answering non-project emails. I set up an autoreply in gmail that said, "I'm focused on meeting some deadlines right now, and I'll get back to you on X date."
- Answering my phone, mostly. I set my ringtone to silent for all except very few numbers, and specifically had my voicemail say I was working on a project.
- Fancy grooming. Look, I bathed, but I did not use fancy lotions and potions. I did not blowdry my hair. I did not focus on looking good, just presentable.
- I bought a Groupon for a cleaning service, and used them three times so I didn't have to deal with cleaning.
- I blocked timesuck websites like facebook and MeFi.

Look, this was not a lifestyle change. This was temporary. I got through what I needed to and went back to my normal life. People who are otherworldly successful frequently have an army of staff behind them that they can delegate the less efficient parts of any tasks. Even Maya Angelou has someone else managing her calendar, even if she's writing in a hotel room. And how do you think she's getting dinner in that hotel room? Someone is preparing it for her, and bringing it to her. The idea is, you can't do all of it unless you have resources that most people don't have, in the long term. But in the short term, yes, you can do it. Take inventory of what you need to do, find someone to help you cut some things, and roll.
posted by juniperesque at 8:09 PM on February 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

I suggest you find a networking or mentoring group of some kind to talk to. It'd be great if it were field-specific, but if you can't find that, find one that's demographically specific ("rising young professionals," "midlife executive women," "Greater Podunk area black business leaders"). Because I think a lot of what you're hearing in here is that there's a big difference between the way busy/successful people appear and the things they actually do/don't do. The way to get some perspective on that - and to understand that even the busy/successful people don't have it all figured out - is to talk to other busy/successful people about their hacks, their realities, their advice. You've got to get a peer group that's doing something similar to what you do, and is facing, or has faced, similar challenges.

I wish I had a great advice for you, but I struggle mightily with this and I'm not really all that high-powered (a bad email day for me is 200 emails, not 1000). I've learned that priorities are essential, even when they're painful or go against your personal grain. For instance, I've had to put a moratorium on the kinds of feeler-outer meetings I used to have with people as a matter of course, just to see if they had something to offer my program and expand my network. I just can't take those meetings now - I can only afford to be in touch with people we've actively identified as of interest already. I delegate a ton of shit that I wouldn't have used to - I make the initial contact, do the handshake, and then say "please be in touch with X manager who will handle the details of your event." I've had to give up the amount of 'scanning' - reading periodicals and the web - that I used to do. I agree that multitasking is the devil - I've learned to block off chunks on my calendar, sort of defensively, to ensure that i can have 2 or 3 hours unbroken in order to work on something with sustained focus. These days I regularly go into my calendar 3, 4, 5 months ahead and reserve 2-3 hour blocks of time a couple times a week into the future. I can give them away for pressing priorities, but they create much-needed islands of concentration that I know will be there every so often.

Also I think there's just a terrible professional uncanny valley where you're good enough to have been promoted up to near-executive status, but you're not quite executive level, which means you're doing almost an executive degree of work with actual tasks and not just decision-making, with none of the exec perks, like having an assistant, and having most junior staff not be able to say "no" to you, even if your request is unreasonable and really hard for them. It's kind of the curse of senior middle management and I think the only thing to do is survive it in reasonably good shape and make sure your next job comes with an assistant.

There are hacks. But I think it would be great for you to put yourself in a cohort of people you can learn from more specifically so you can start to understand better how they work.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on February 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

The secret is most people will trade time to save money but the thing that's REALLY limited in quantity is time, assuming you have the money.

Because you can trade money for pretty much anything once you've got enough of it and being successful tends to mean you have a lot of money and I have found that successful, driven people feel less Protestant-type guilt about not doing things themselves.

How much time do you spend on laundry, say? Do you know there's probably a place in your town that'll do it by the pound (wash and fold!) and then you won't have to do it? If you have an assistant you can even have them take it and drop it off and new, clean clothes magically appear. But up to a certain class of people, YOU DON'T DO YOUR OWN LAUNDRY OH HOW HI-FALUTIN' ARE YOU?!, you know?

Even some of my middle class friends have hired assistants in India to handle the minutiae of life. A buddy of mine outsources everything from booking doctor's appointments to buying concert tickets, thus having much more time to do fun stuff and less time waiting for Ticketmaster or for the doctor's office to answer the damn phone.

When I worked in a bookstore, we had a rich guy that would call in and ask us to pick out a bunch of books for his daughter. He'd very calmly give us an age range and what she liked and give us his credit card number and whoever was working would go pick out those books (we're talking like a few hundred bucks, so a significant enough sale to be worth it) and get the cashier to wrap em up and then dude would roll by in his pimped out, blacked out Lincoln Navigator or whatever and roll down the window and we'd toss it inside. Some people would be horrified HE WASN'T PICKING OUT PRESENTS HIMSELF FOR HIS OWN DAUGHTER but those people would spend 2 hours trying to figure out what to buy in the store themselves and he'd spend that 2 hours doing whatever he did to make shitloads of money. Now, whether that makes him a bad person or not is obviously up to you.

One of my bosses wouldn't read emails. Instead, if it was important enough, you'd go talk to her and then send her an email telling her what you'd talked about and agreed to so she had it if she ever came up. But regular email? Never bothered, never cared.

Read The Four Hour Workweek, too, that's got excellent advice for productivity and how successful people manage it.

But overall, I'd say things you do because you think you'd be a bad person for not doing them yourself is the difference when others will trade money for time. Like on the small scale some guys would smirk because I don't change my own oil in my car. Instead, I drive to the dealership, drop it off, pick up the loaner car they give me, drive home, and get some work done and pick up my car later. I trade $60 for not having to spend 2 hours on a weekend doing it and I don't care if it doesn't make me a real man or whatever.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:08 PM on February 15, 2014 [12 favorites]

My bet is that they have a partner who does a large part of their life, if they appear broadly competent.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:48 AM on February 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

"...and stay sane" -- Your premises are flawed. I don't think people can or do maintain the level of productivity you seem to be idealizing over a lifetime without doing damage to their mental, emotional, physical, and/or social health.

Nthing that drugs are involved more often than you might think. This ranges from using caffeine to wake up and stay alert and energetic during the day followed by alcohol to unwind and get sleepy at night, to getting prescriptions for Adderall and sedatives to pharmaceutically fine-tune their mental state as needed, to using hard drugs like cocaine and meth to stay awake for days and opiates to mitigate the pain when they finally crash.

There are also a lot of people who are able to maintain high levels of productivity over short periods of time by seriously neglecting other areas of their life like health, family, friends, and dreams. They're usually not very happy people and end up with a lot of regrets at the end of their lives.

Then there are some people who were either born into wealth and/or got lucky enough early enough in their lives that they now have the resources to employ a behind-the-scenes support team to handle all the drudgery that the rest of us have to spend so much time on. It's easy to be superproductive if you have employees to delegate work tasks to, a personal assistant to delegate personal tasks to, and a stay-at-home spouse who can spend the time (s)he otherwise would have spent on a career on helping you be successful.

Now there are definitely ways you can manage your time better and be more productive than you are now and there are some good suggestions in this thread and elsewhere. Just don't be deceived into thinking that the only difference between you and seemingly superhumanly productive people is adopting a particular set of habits. They may credit those habits for their success but if you dig a little deeper you will almost always find some sort of privilege, lucky break, corner cutting, and/or uncredited support team. Sometimes you even find that someone's apparent "success" is just PR spin with very little substance behind it (self-help books are not investigative journalism).
posted by Jacqueline at 3:38 AM on February 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

I like this article on how Pres. Obama gets things done. The most interesting idea that I've tried follows this tip (from the Lifehacker summary):

"He limits decision fatigue with strict routines. Obama only wears blue or gray suits; he can't afford to have to make small decisions like what he eats or wears because he has too many other decisions to make. Similarly, according to Lizza's New Yorker article, the president prefers "decision" memos with three checkboxes at the bottom for agree, disagree, or discuss."

I try to lay out work clothes Sunday night and plan my work lunches so mornings don't involve much decision making.

I think it's also an interesting idea that when someone presents you with a complex problem and a lot of information, that you should ask them to boil it down to the decision they want you to make or weigh in on. Many times, I've waded through a detailed email only to figure out that the decision is easy once they get to the point.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:11 AM on February 16, 2014 [15 favorites]

three checkboxes at the bottom for agree, disagree, or discuss."

That's a great suggestion - it occurs to me that it could be two checkboxes, as if you're the boss "disagree" and "discuss" are kind of the same thing.
posted by Miko at 6:50 AM on February 16, 2014

Lots of great advice here already. I will add one thing, which is that productivity in your line of work is like most anything else: the longer you do it, the better you are at it.
I am doing a job that has gotten roughly twice as complicated each year over the past couple years. On the one hand, I feel like I'm constantly catching up, but on the other hand, if you put the me I am now in the situation that I was in this time last year, it would be a lot easier for me. The longer you do it, the better you get at knowing what you can ignore, what you can't ignore, what you can delegate or put off. You learn what you personally need to do for self-care to be happy enough to be productive (like sleeping 8 hours a night which many successful people still need to do).
If you find yourself at the same quantity of work in six months and it hasn't gotten at all easier, well, then maybe you should reach out and try to get some advice on what to work on. But I would personally bet that you don't really need tricks or tips, you just need to spend some time doing it. There's no real shortcut or trick, like any growth or change, it takes time more than anything else.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:31 AM on February 16, 2014

Check out the stuff on procrastinating at (or similar)... I'm kind of avoiding the fact I'm procrastinating right this instant ;)
Something that's helped me a bit is to chunk off time and tasks (ie my to do list) over a few weeks,instead of day to day.. seems to 'free me up' a bit from thinking shit, shit I haven't done x, y and z.
My business advisor (a successful businessman who's great) says the problem with me is in 'building my house I'm working on all rooms at the same time' and that yes, (he says) I need to keep heading towards my goals but revise deadlines regularly. This helps some.
posted by tanktop at 1:08 PM on February 16, 2014

Here's the group I believe tanktop is referring to:

They do have great self-help tutorials on procrastination, perfectionism, and worry/anxiety. If you decide it's more your emotional reaction to the work than the management of work itself, these may be a good resource.
posted by parkerjackson at 3:33 PM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can't optimize what you don't measure. So the first thing to do is to take a week and record exactly what you're doing with your time. As much detail as possilble. Can you squeeze an extra hour out of your day by eliminating the trivial and the unnecessary? De-lard your day and retarget the extra minutes to what you really want to get done.
posted by storybored at 8:56 PM on February 16, 2014

Response by poster: Lots of insight here, thank you!
posted by jander03 at 6:26 AM on February 19, 2014

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