Daily Briefing Blog

'How do you do it all?' Secrets from super-efficient people


Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

Austin Frakt is a prominent health care researcher and economist. He's also a professor. And a prolific blogger. And a New York Times contributor. And a husband and father.

(And also, a very generous friend who's instantaneously responsive on email.)

I've always wondered how he pulls off the juggling act. So when Austin published a post this week outlining how he "does it all" ... I wanted to finally learn his secrets. And I wasn't alone; Austin's post spread across the Internet.

Related: Half of all meetings are a waste of time. How to change that.

As Austin alludes to, his post was a response to similar tips shared by Tyler Cowen—like Frakt, a well-regarded economist, prominent professor, and prolific author at the New York Times and elsewhere.

I don't think Austin and Tyler's productivity secrets are for everyone. (For example, one of Tyler's suggestions is "at any point in your life, do not be watching more than one television show on a regular basis." Considering that the average American watches 34 hours of TV per week, that recommendation may fall flat.)

But they certainly resonated with me, and here were four provocative recommendations that stood out:

    Austin: "I don’t drive on my commute. I walk and take the train. Walking (up to 6 miles per day) replaces what would otherwise be time spent at a gym or similar. During my commute, I catch up on news and, yes, some entertainment by podcast (at 2x speed—people speak too slowly). I read and take care of email on the train."

    Tyler: "Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you. Estimate 'most important' using a zero discount rate. Don’t make exceptions. The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you."

    Austin: "I ignore most office and institutional politics, skip every possible meeting, and don’t pay close attention at all times in most of those I attend. (These habits can be potentially dangerous. I have some protective workarounds, which rely on the skills, interests, and good will of others. Gains from trade.)"

    Tyler: "Don’t feel you have to finish a book or movie if you don’t want to."

How two Advisory Board leaders do it all

Austin's post also sparked conversation among my colleagues and friends at the Advisory Board. And I was especially curious how some of the most productive people that I know would react.

"I follow a lot of Austin's rules," Rivka Friedman told me. (Rivka leads our Medical Group Strategy Council; she also has a full plate outside of the office, as a food writer and active member of the community, and with a growing family.)

"My mornings are for my hardest work," Rivka agrees. "I don't really watch TV. Perhaps the most important, though, is [that] most of what I do promptly, I do because I want to."

Allison Cuff Shimooka, an executive director at the Advisory Board, is famous within the firm for her ability to simultaneously manage so many different projects and staff—and doing it with grace and accessibility. (And like Rivka, Allison has an active life away from the office too.)

I pinged Allison for a reaction, and true to form, she got back to me right away with a list of her productivity tips.

We whittled them down to these six:

    1. Know yourself and understand your role—what value do you bring to play? Focus your effort and attention there.
    2. When you are asked to do something, before automatically saying yes, ask questions to scope the yes. Determine if the person asking really needs you to do it, and if so, do you need to do an A+ job or if giving 80% effort is sufficient.
    3. Determine which of your own projects need to be A+, and which ones where a solid B will be fine.
    4. Scope, scope, scope your role.
    5. When working in partnership, or when people are asking you do things, establish a relationship of trust. That will allow you to push back, and rescope the project if necessary.
    6. Never procrastinate. It never pays off.

Seeking more lessons on being productive?

Listen to our popular on-demand webconference for tactics on how to be more efficient in meetings, cut down on unnecessary emails, and more. And catch up on the Daily Briefing's coverage of workplace strategies, such as how to be efficient when returning from vacation and how to schedule your most critical work tasks.