Read more Slate pieces on lifehacking here.
When brilliantly successful people get stressed out by their to-do lists, they often resort to bizarre and elaborate techniques to save time and get things done. Buckminster Fuller, architect and inventor of the Dymaxion House, claimed he averaged just two hours of sleep a night over a two-year period and that he was more energetic and alert as a result. Thomas Edison had an elaborate note-taking system—his diary ran to 5 million pages. Honore de Balzac ate dried coffee grounds to stimulate his imagination. Plato kept his togas pre-pinned. (OK, we made that last one up.)
How do the celebrities of today stay organized? To find out, Slate asked a select group of accomplished people—writers, politicians, artists, businessmen—to answer the following question: What’s your single most effective trick for getting things done? Their responses are listed below.
I am always driven by the terror of humiliation. I do not need to trick myself into getting anything done because the voice in my head is always there reminding me that if I don’t get it done, my world will collapse. It is not true. It makes no sense, yet I believe it every time. It is not a healthy way to motivate oneself. I have gone to the therapist for almost 20 years to remove this type of thinking from my head, but I can’t argue with its effectiveness.
Procrastinate. A fast-approaching “last minute” really gets me motivated.
Cleaning. I am paralyzed in a cluttered or dirty room; I can’t write, I can’t think. After coffee, I straighten up the house, I organize, I arrange, I put everything back in its place. Only then do I feel like I have cleared some kind of literal and figurative space that I can work in. Then, during the day, things slowly become undone again.
I suppose I’d rather create chaos as part of the process then attempt to carve out order from within it. By the time I’m finished working on something, the mess has returned. The cycle continues the next day. I’m not OCD, I swear.
My single most effective trick for getting things done is to stop doing what I’m doing and get some sleep. There is nothing that negatively affects my productivity and efficiency more than lack of sleep. After years of burning the candle on both ends, my eyes have been opened to the value of getting some serious shut-eye.
I have my own list of management maxims, which begins with “Ignore other people’s management maxims.” But I think the single most effective trick for getting things done is to get other people to do them. Of course, that only works if you surround yourself with smart, competent people.
1) If I’m writing, my trick—which isn’t that tricky—is to close all windows and files except for the document I’m working on and not to check e-mail (I truly don’t understand how anyone who has e-mail that pops up automatically ever accomplishes anything) or to answer the phone. And I don’t have a smartphone, which eliminates that temptation. If in the course of writing I need to look up information online, I’ve found that it’s best to just put a place-holder in the document and find the information later—once I’m on the Internet, all roads ultimately lead to celebrity gossip. Right now, I’m not sure if it’s more embarrassing that I’m conversant with Avril Lavigne’s divorce or the disappearance of Jessica Simpson’s Maltipoo.
2) If I’m trying to get something done that’s not writing-related, my similarly untricky trick is to turn off my computer. I’ve found that when I step away from it but leave it on, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that I should be responding to e-mails, even though when I’m actually sitting in front of the computer, I have no problem doing things other than responding to e-mails (see above re: Jessica Simpson’s dog).
3) Politely saying no can free up astonishing amounts of time. I’m still trying to learn how.
Prioritize. In a word, that is what too many of us fail to do too often. When the proverbial to-do list is too big for the memory on your laptop, it is time to step back and say “What really matters?” Too often we don’t take that simple step, getting consumed by the papers that happen to rise to the top, rather than by the issues that matter most. Ask the really hard questions about what is worth doing at all and why. After that, there is nothing like an incipient deadline and three cups of coffee to get the job done. Forget the herbal tea; double espresso wins the day.
I have no tricks for getting things done: I delegate as much as possible and, when that fails, I just knuckle down and do it.
My most effective tip for getting important things done is deciding what NOT to do so that you have the calendar freedom to focus on the big stuff.
I used to say yes to far too many commitments, which littered my calendar and kept me from giving the big stuff the time it deserved. Really big stuff often has less hour-by-hour schedule urgency but needs dedicated time for focused work, consultation, and study—and that is far more important than the schedule-litter I found I was being driven by.
Why do we say yes to the less important things? A lot of reasons: A colleague asks us, and we hate to be rude; the deadline is several weeks off, and surely by then we’ll have spare time. The list goes on.
So I do a short exercise with every request that comes through—I ask myself “If I had to do this today, would I be glad?” For most requests, the answer is no (because I know I should be working on the big stuff), which means I say no to most extraneous requests!