How to Multitask Like Tim Ferriss, Randi Zuckerberg and Other Very Busy People
Think you're busy? Take a look at Guy Fieri's calendar. Or a U.S. Army general's. Or an in-demand teenage actor's. Or the CEO of a globally recognized company's. Some of the busiest people on the planet took time out of their days to tell us how they get it all done. Take note!
Guy Fieri: Chef, author, TV personality, Donkey Sauce maker
Guy Fieri has one very important trick for keeping his busy life together: “I haven’t had my ass handed to me because I’ve been pretty good about looking ahead,” says the chef, entrepreneur and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host. To understand how a man can cook a bacon mac ’n’ cheeseburger in Vegas, host a TV show at a diner in the middle of Iowa and sample his latest vintage in Sonoma at what seems like the same time, it’s important to understand what “looking ahead” means to him. It doesn’t mean just big-picture. It means tomorrow. “We have a system inside my company, Knuckle Sandwich, that generates tomorrow’s agenda by 5 o’clock the night before. We call it ‘the Lock,’ and it outlines all details of the day coming forward.” It’s the Herculean task of Fieri’s assistant to, as he describes it, “capture all the butterflies” and generate this hyperdetailed agenda. It’s obsessive on the minutiae, down to, say, the name and phone number of the Fieri’s driver for the day. It puts everyone in the company on the same page and avoids wasting a busy person’s most precious commodity: time.
Jace Norman: Actor, Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger
Jace Norman gets it: Members of his generation are expected to be frantic, mind-boggled multitaskers. And Norman, 18, used to fit the stereotype. On set during the first season of Henry Danger, the hit Nickelodeon series he stars in, he’d hop on his phone during every break. “You end up pointlessly checking things for no reason,” he says, “and you think it’s making you happier, but it’s making you way less happy. And when you’re less happy, you’re less engaged.”
Five seasons into the show, he now also has an influencer marketing company called Creator Edge, a movie he’s producing and starring in for Nickelodeon, a project with Viacom Digital Studios and an in-the-works candy company. So he’s made an important change: When he’s working on any project, the phone stays out of reach. (On set, it’s left in his dressing room.) Every 60 to 90 minutes, he’ll briefly check texts -- his preferred mode of communication, to keep everything short -- and respond only to emergencies. “I’ve become good at filtering -- that can wait, and that can wait,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many things can wait.” Some of his peers go further; controversial YouTube prankster Jake Paul, for example, told Norman that he turned off text notifications, so he never feels the need to reply immediately. Norman isn’t quite there yet, but maybe one day. “Everything’s begging for your attention,” he says. “It’s so much noise.”
Anu Duggal: Founding partner, Female Founders Fund
As the founding partner of Female Founders Fund, an early-stage fund focused on technology companies with women founders, Anu Duggal is responsible for supporting such fast-growing businesses as Zola, Billie and Eloquii. She wants to be there for the women building those businesses and knows they deserve her undivided attention. So she makes sure they get it. “I try to walk to and from work,” she says. “I use that time to make calls and check in on our founders.” It’s just 30 minutes in the morning and after she leaves the office, but that uninterrupted time has become a valuable, sanity-keeping habit. “I could take an Uber or the subway, but this way, I can fit things in that, otherwise, I just wouldn’t.”
Kimberly Steward: Oscar-nominated producer; founder, K Period Media
Everyone wants a few minutes of Kimberly Steward’s time. The founder of K Period Media, a young Los Angeles–based production company, Steward has spent the past five years investing in and producing socially minded content for film and television. (Steward earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for her hand in the 2016 film Manchester By the Sea, the second black woman in history to receive the honor. The first was Oprah.) To adhere to her by-the-minute schedule, Steward has set up a system of warnings. “When I have a call scheduled, I set three alarms,” she says. “One an hour before, one 15 minutes before and one literally two minutes before the call. Like, Mayday: This is about to happen.” She’s got an emergency plan in place, too. “If I’m even one minute late, I have amazing assistants who will call me.” In fact, it was an assistant who originally crafted the system she now lives by, after seeing her miss too many calls. “The best bosses listen to their employees.”
Naveen Jain: founder and CEO, Viome; co-founder and executive chairman, Moon Express
“People know I’m always reachable,” says Naveen Jain. He means it. The serial tech entrepreneur is founder of a space company and a healthcare company, gets 400 emails a day and promises to respond to anyone within his companies within five minutes. How? By managing mindsets.
“It’s OK to make wrong decisions,” he tells his teams. “What’s not OK is to only play it safe.” If someone can act without him, they should. If he sees someone below him CC’d on an email, he’ll let that person reply -- weighing in only if someone is struck with indecisiveness and needs his help. Errors may be made, sure, but he sees that as the cost of thinking big. “I will never, ever, ever tell someone that they made a mistake,” he says. Instead, he’ll review the process that led to a wrong decision -- so next time, he won’t be needed at all. Though if he is needed, he works from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m… and is responsive throughout.
Tim Ferriss: Author, investor, podcaster
Tim Ferriss holds up his phone. “My phone’s on airplane. It’s always on airplane,” he says. That way, he isn’t alerted to the steady increase in a very high number: his unread email count, which on this day is 355,692. “That is a small percentage of the things I am ignoring,” he says.
Ferriss is a prolific author (Tribe of Mentors) and podcaster (The Tim Ferriss Show), and an investor and startup mentor. There are ever-growing demands on his time, and yet he feels like he’s always becoming more productive. The reason, he says, is because he stopped getting stuck in the weeds -- managing the details of every project, or trying to clear out even a portion of those 355,692 unopened messages. (His assistant, Donna, will ensure that he sees the critical ones.) Instead, he’s begun asking himself an important question about every project and challenge: What might this look like if it were easy?
That question will lead to other questions, such as: Are there people I could hire? Are there ways I could simplify it? It’s a basic thought experiment, of course, but Ferriss knows that it may not occur to people like him. “As a very type A, competitive, driven, run-through-walls type of person, you end up only having one gear, which is sixth gear,” he says. “When you’re so accustomed to competing and pushing rocks up hills successfully, you accidentally look for paths that include a lot of resistance.” So his message to himself -- and to anyone like him -- is to stop. Imagine the easier path. Then build it. “I’ve been looking,” he says, “for elegance and less resistance.”
Randi Zuckerberg: Author, investor, CEO of Zuckerberg Media
Randi Zuckerberg is traveling too much to have a morning routine -- or really, an anything routine. So instead, she devotes each day to one singular focus area. Monday, for example, could be entirely about writing her upcoming speeches, or working on a book. Wednesdays are radio days, devoted to her SiriusXM show and other podcasting. “I have to be very disciplined about not doing other things,” says Zuckerberg, whose most recent book is Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day). By focusing on one subject, she ensures it’s done to completion.
Of course, the outside world still tries to interject. To manage this, she has become disciplined at not responding to people quickly. She sees it as a form of training -- setting everyone else’s expectations. “No one else puts boundaries on your time except for you,” she says. “If you get everyone around you used to you replying to emails within five minutes, that’s what they’ll come to expect.” (And anyway, she says, “I often find that half the emails that would have seemed urgent solve themselves by the end of the day.”) For the queries that do matter, she has a system: At day’s end, Zuckerberg’s assistant sends her an email called “Notables” -- a bullet-point list of every message that requires attention. “Now I basically feel like my inbox gets curated for me, which is very, very helpful.” She often just replies to her assistant point by point, and then gets back to focusing on the day’s big task.
Stanley McChrystal: U.S. General (Ret.); founder, McChrystal Group
When General Stanley McChrystal took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009, he became, in his words, fanatical about his calendar. “The most valuable thing a leader has is their time,” he says, and he wanted to use it properly. So first, he wrote down his priorities: Spend a certain percentage of his time with troops, another percentage with Afghan government leaders, and so on. Then on a monthly basis, he and his team of roughly 20 people would review his Outlook calendar (where he put every meeting) and compare his goals to how he actually used his time. This gave everyone insight into what worked and what didn’t. “We would then adjust the future,” he says. “I’d take things off the calendar that had somehow grown up like weeds in cracks in the sidewalk.”
Now in civilian life, as the head of an 85-person consultancy (and the author, most recently, of Leaders: Myth and Reality), he maintains that rigor. He and his executive assistant review his calendar twice a week, and everything he does goes in it -- right down to his personal morning routine. (Thirty minutes are allotted for “shower and dress.”) Though he does admit a weakness: He’s bad at ending meetings on time -- an easy way to bungle tightly planned days. So he relies upon his assistant. “About five minutes to the end, she opens the door and says, ‘Sir, I want to remind you we’ve got your next appointment in four minutes,’” he says. That wraps things up. Then it’s on to the next calendar entry.
Sylvia Acevedo: CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA
Sylvia Acevedo constantly studies her own schedule. “I have an Excel spreadsheet I work from that maps out what I want and need to accomplish on each day of the week,” says the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. “At the end of the week, if I didn’t accomplish something, I’ll look back and try to figure out what kept me from it.” That helps her reprioritize -- shifting her energy toward tasks that are strategically important to the organization, and away from things that someone else can handle. And importantly, she says, it also helps her build wiggle room into her schedule so she can stay current on what girls are into. “I’ll study the Top 40 every week,” Acevedo says. “When they ask me what I’m listening to, I won’t say something they think is just for moms. I can say, ‘I know Ariana Grande, yeah!’ ”