Of all the questions I have fielded in recent years about my entrepreneurial path and portfolio career, the most common is: How do you find time to write?
That regularly forces some introspection (and tweaking) of my process. As we head into fall, which brings a natural reset with the start of the school year and the end of the summer lull, now feels like the right time to take stock of—and share—the productivity hacks I’ve discovered along the way. The most important: I finally learned to work fewer, more concentrated hours in order to get shit done.
Treat a job like a job.
I’ve spent 30-plus years as a journalist, and have been public and vocal for all 30 about how much I hate writing, but love having written. For much of my career, days before a deadline, my whole house would suffer as I talked incessantly about being behind, stayed up late and woke up early, dragged an open laptop to dinner and television watching and bedtime. I wrote two books and countless front-page stories under this messy system, and it was misery for me and everyone around me.
When I landed a regular column, initially at Fortune magazine, I started to slip into the same habits. But this time, I also had a startup to launch and many side hustles to maintain in order to pay the mortgage, COBRA, and other expenses. Almost immediately, it became clear that the old ways would not work.
One early lesson was to see the column dispassionately, as just another contract to complete. Many of us who write for a living, and even those watching from the outside, tend to romanticize the process and attach a lot of importance to every word and turn of phrase, from how a piece starts (lede) to how it ends (kicker). I could literally no longer afford to do so.
What helped was the column’s regularity—a weekly cadence that allowed me to carve out time in a more structured way. Initially, I resisted, because inspiration and lofty thoughts seemed hard to schedule. But with free time less available than ever—I had one child leaving for college and a lot of other caregiving responsibilities—I realized pulling your laptop out doesn’t count as “working” when there’s no focus or output. Plus, it felt like the other people in my life rarely had my full attention.
So I started to devote only Sundays and Monday mornings to the column, at least when it came to writing. That meant I could keep a Google Doc open on my laptop all week and jot down ideas but not dive in. When I switched the column over to Time and Charter two years ago, I tried to limit myself to outlining on Sunday nights and writing in the early hours of Monday morning. Today, I allow myself to still think about the column all week—but really only write on Monday mornings to meet a noon deadline. I liken the process to “shift work,” and it’s made all the difference in preventing spillover into all other parts of my week and other work I need to complete. (Your mileage may vary on this one, but for me, working in a short burst right before or until a deadline also assures that a task will actually be completed.)
Use email more effectively.
My column tends to be heavily reported. In the first year, I found myself juggling interviews for it (mostly via Zoom) with other meetings and projects throughout the week. This meant my brain had to frequently toggle between multiple tasks and revenue streams—say, interviewing an expert, hiring a new employee, designing decks for investors, and reviewing content-management systems.
To cut down on context-switching and save my time and brainspace, I began turning to interviews conducted by email. I don’t advise this for everyone—especially people early in their career still establishing style, rapport, and relationships—but my Rolodex is extensive and I had faith. I would keep running Google docs with these threads of thoughts and interviews. Sometimes I would start a new doc (eventually I trained my administrative assistant to do this) with a fragment of an idea I might revisit; that also gave me multiple options at a time for the subject of the next column.
An unexpected benefit: I began applying the process of being direct and targeted in email to other communications. It cuts down on meetings to get to know someone if you can say: “My schedule is packed, but I want to help/connect. Feel free to tell me what you are looking for.” Most contacts were grateful for this approach, because it spared their calendar, too.
Also on email and focus: I sometimes use the productivity app Boomerang to pause my inbox while working on the column so I don’t have to deal with constant interruptions.
Unexamined work is not worth doing.
Socrates is said to have declared that an unexamined life is not worth living. It is no coincidence that this column is on working, juggling, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the future of capitalism. All of those subjects happen to be what I work on in my day job(s).
Early on, I told my teams that my column is the best way to know what my priorities are and what keeps me up at night. A lot of founders and CEOs do this via threads on X (formerly Twitter) or other social media posts. I get about 1,000 words a week to really dive into a meaty subject and ways that employers and managers and all of us, really, might do better. It’s a privilege, but it’s also a way to align what I say (and write) and what I do. Especially for anyone who manages other people or holds any sort of leadership role, there’s real value in making sure that what you put out on external-facing platforms (LinkedIn, for example) matches what you put out on internal communications (memos, praise for colleagues).
Confidence can truly set you free.
I often tell managers that the ages of 35 to 45 are among the hardest: For most people, that’s the time when you’re no longer the wunderkind, but you’re also not yet fully in charge, and there are often dozens of competing interests pulling at you—direct reports, higher ups, family and financial obligations.
At the same time, this period also sets us up with the skills and practical knowledge we eventually string together. I crossed that threshold while writing this column, and assure you that aging can be a most freeing thing. It’s not that I don’t care what others think (I do), but as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed an awareness of myself—my patterns, how I work, and what’s important to me—that feels really transformative and liberating. Each week, when I sit down to write, I’m reminded of the countless experiences that frame my lens and perspective. It’s a reminder that’s given me the confidence to not necessarily have to turn to an expert to assert an idea—I might be enough. This awareness has also made me more attuned than ever to the ways in which the people around me support my work and push me to improve, from my admin to editors, my family to readers like you.
That may be the most valuable thing I’ve learned from writing this column over the past few years: that when it comes to productivity, cutting down the number of hours worked on something is only part of the equation. Writing this column took me three hours—or 30 years. A vital part of increasing output, efficiency and performance is reflection and understanding—of how you work, how you learn, who helps you to do your best, and all the work you’ve done before to arrive at the work in front of you.