25 Famous Women on How to Be Productive

Shonda Rhimes: “My email signature says, ‘I do not answer calls or emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest that you put down your phone.’” Photo: Getty Images

Productivity” — and the inevitable question of how to be more productive — has boggled humans since the beginning of time. Unless you’re a high-achieving robot, it’s very likely that your productivity levels have undulated through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Below, 25 accomplished CEOs, writers, artists, and more share tips and strategies they’ve used to create and stay productive amidst the world’s shiny distractions (not limited to the dark hole that is the internet). Women like Shonda Rhimes, Joan Didion, Yayoi Kusama, Eileen Myles, and Ava DuVernay discuss the impact sleep, high expectations, and self-imposed technology bans have on their own levels of productivity, while also reminding us that even procrastination can be beneficial.

Melinda Gates

“I stopped trying to clear out my inbox every day. Some of those emails needed to gel for a while before I replied, and some maybe didn’t need a reply. So now it’s only on select evenings that I go back to my computer. These are big issues we’re trying to tackle, whether it’s malaria or reproductive health. Our cotrustee, Warren Buffett, said to me, ‘Remember, Melinda. You’re taking on the problems that society has left behind, and they’ve left them behind because they’re hard problems.’ And it just reminded me that I have to take that time to fill my own joy bucket if I’m going to be good at this work. I build in 15-minute breaks so that I can take some quiet time and close on one meeting before I go to the next. I’m a big believer in taking time to pause and reflect, particularly when you’re working on some of the big challenges in the world.” – Fast Company, December 2016/January 2017

Tavi Gevinson

“The moment I let myself get overwhelmed, it all becomes more stressful. It helps to ask, ‘What’s the worst thing that happens if I don’t answer this email?’ I have a schedule. I go, ‘It’s 7 p.m. — I did everything I could today.’ You need a life separate from work.” – Fast Company, July/August 2015

Shonda Rhimes

“So, not being the definitive ‘yes’ person also means that I do not answer phone calls or emails after 7 p.m. I do not work on the weekends, which I have to tell you is incredibly difficult. I mean, I write, I just don’t answer phone calls or emails. My email signature says, ‘I do not answer calls or emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest that you put down your phone.’ And at work I have a rule that you’re not allowed to come into my office unless you’re coming into my office with a solution to a problem, and not (only) with a problem.” – Fast Company, December 2016

Whitney Wolfe, CEO of Bumble

“I really try to ask myself the question of nine. Will this matter in nine minutes, nine hours, nine days, nine weeks, nine months or nine years? If it will truly matter for all of those, pay attention to it. If it isn’t going to matter in nine minutes, nine hours or nine days from now, you need to not pay attention to it. I think it’s extremely easy to become distracted by noise, by things that might upset us or set us off track. It gives us this intrinsic feeling that I have to react to this. This concept of nine has kept me on track from losing focus on the things that truly matter. That way you can respond when you need to, but you don’t spend your time reacting to things that are not going to have any importance in a short period of time from now.” – Entrepreneur, June 2017

Maya Angelou

“I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible … I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and house-keeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: ‘Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!’ But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up. And that’s how I write books!” – The Daily Beast, April 2013

Katia Beauchamp, CEO of Birchbox

“I don’t listen to anything while I work — I prefer silence in order to be most productive, but I do occasionally steal away for a few minutes to meditate and get refocused. I love to listen to podcasts on my way to work though‚ my current favorites are Reply All and Planet Money.” – LifeHacker, June 2017

Zadie Smith

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” – The Guardian, February 2010

Mindy Kaling

“I’ve found my productive-writing-to-screwing-around ratio to be one to seven. So, for every eight-hour day of writing, there is only one good productive hour of work being done. The other seven hours are preparing for writing: pacing around the house, collapsing cardboard boxes for recycling, reading the DVD extras pamphlet from the BBC Pride & Prejudice, getting snacks lined up for writing, and YouTubing toddlers who learned the ‘Single Ladies’ dance. I know. Isn’t that horrible? So, basically, writing this piece took me the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Enjoy it accordingly.” – Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), November 2011

Issa Rae

“I’ve accepted my procrastination as part of who I am. As such, I do designate days where I allow time for procrastination. Like, I’m not going to do anything, I’m not going to do shit today. This is a wasting-time day, and I allot for hours of just doing nothing, so that the next day I can really focus. I feel now like I’ve nailed my procrastination.” – The Huffington Post, April 2015

Martha Stewart

“Be curious, don’t retire, and keep very active. Never stop working at something. I think people age really quickly the minute they stop doing things they are really interested in. They think it’s going to be fun to play golf all the time, but that’s not the answer to everything.” – MarketWatch, June 2013

Roxane Gay

“No, I don’t ever rest. It’s a problem and hopefully something I will get a better handle on in the coming years. If I cannot rest and relax, all the work I do is for naught … My dad is a workaholic so I take after him in this respect. I don’t know that anyone in the United States is taught to rest. We have this cultural obsession with work and productivity as if we’re better people if we don’t stop and take some time for ourselves. I’ll learn how to rest, though. I can still learn new tricks.” – The Rumpus, January 2017

Tina Fey

“I’m a working parent and I understand that sometimes you want to have a very productive Saturday to feel that you are in control of your life, which of course you are not. Children and Jimmy Carter ruin all your best-laid plans. And then your wife casts some sort of evil spell?! Inexcusable.” – Bossypants, April 2011

Rashida Jones

“My writing partner, Will McCormack, implements a no-phones-for-an-hour rule. It seems utterly ridiculous that two grown-ups wouldn’t be able to stay away from their phones for just an hour, but there are many days when my phone owns me. And the rule helps. We tried to follow another rule that said no emailing each other or the people on our team at night. Nobody could handle it. Now we’re just working on not immediately assuming that if you ignore an email you’re a lazy jerk.” – Wired, July 2015

Ava DuVernay

“If there is nothing to ask permission for then don’t ask for permission. Half of us are waiting for permission; for someone to say okay, for someone to say do it, for someone to say that is a good idea, [for] someone to give you the money, [for] someone to give you the resources. When I just decided that I’m going to work with what I’ve got and give myself the permission, then it really started … I think for me because I started in another career first, that I was able to go into this career with a little bit more…fuck you because I knew I was good at something else. I had been in a lot of [these] male-dominated rooms before so I didn’t really have a fear of saying no, or I didn’t have the fear of asking a question, or I didn’t have a fear of just saying this doesn’t work for me, I’m going to leave and go do it myself.” – Tribeca Film Festival, April 2015

Rupi Kaur

“I try to write everyday. But with school, travelling, and doing shows it’s become a lot more difficult. So now I usually write when my body tells me I have to. That sounds a little odd, I know, but let me explain: Usually I know when I have to write because I begin to feel this tug in my heart. It’s almost like an anxiety building up in my stomach. This buildup is basically all the ideas my mind has turned into poetry over the past few days because I get inspiration through my interactions with the world. And so when I’m out there, going through my day, the poems are generating themselves and if I’m not writing them out, then they’re building up inside me. And if I don’t get to a laptop, or some pen and paper right away, it almost feels like they might rot inside of me. And so then I’ll go somewhere quiet. With my laptop. And a pair of headphones. The process begins by listening to “Qawwalis” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I give myself time to sink into his voice and his words. And then when I’m finally ready, when I feel fully in tune with myself and the emotions I will switch to something instrumental. No words. The words get in the way of the writing. I will open up my text edit document. The same one I always use. And I just begin. Freewriting. Rewriting. Entering. Backspacing. Copying. Pasting. Until I stop. Until it feels like I’ve gotten out everything that needed to be written and then I will put it away. And come back to it with fresh eyes some other time.” – The Huffington Post, January 2015

Janelle Monáe

“One, I have to realize that I’m not in control of everything, but I am in control of some things, and I am in control of my reactions. I am in control to my responses to pressure. We like to say, in our circle of friends, that pressure’s a privilege. There are so many people who didn’t even get the opportunity to sit here and say, ‘I’m part of a film. I run a record label. I do music. I write stories.’ Not everybody who paved the way for me got these opportunities. So you’ve got to keep things in perspective. You have to choose your battles, too: it’s like, are you really going to be upset because you’re really busy? Some people are not busy and are praying that they could be as busy as you are. But yeah, it gets stressful because you can’t be in five different places at one time. So I’m ready for cloning. That’s why I talk about science fiction. I’m ready to have a clone … I have so many things that I want to accomplish. I could sure use five of me. It’s a lot of work, but with a lot of work comes great responsibility.” – Complex, December 2016

Yayoi Kusama

“I work at my condominium-turned-studio near the hospital as well as at a studio I’ve been renting for some years, which is just a few minutes walk from the hospital. I also created a large sculpture in the big yard of the hospital — a store-bought rowboat completely covered with stuffed canvas protuberances. I have made about 500 or 600 large sculptures so far … I work very hard even now, but probably not as hard as I did when I was in New York.” – BOMB Magazine, December 1999

Stevie Nicks

“I work very, very hard. I have a piece of typewritten paper here that says, ‘You keep going and you don’t stop.’ You do your vocal lesson. I have a lot of friends from high school and college who want to hang out when I play in their city. I have to rest for my show. It breaks my heart, but what comes first? Don’t endanger my show. That’s been my mantra my whole life: Don’t endanger my show.” – Rolling Stone, March 2017

Sia Furler

“I love the idea of how fast can we make the song, but I don’t think that I’m necessarily like a super-talented songwriter. I think I’m just really productive. One out of ten songs is a hit. So where a lot of people will spend three weeks on one song, I will write 10 in three weeks. Maybe the song that they sculpt is going to be as successful as just one of the ten that I wrote.” – The Guardian, January 2016

Iris Apfel

“I’ve never been someone who likes to sit around and dish with the girls — I’ve worked all my life. I’ve been very, very busy and I like to do things that are productive. Particularly now that I’ve lost my husband. We were together for 68 years and I lost him this summer … I really need to keep busy. So I’m hysterically busy now, it’s almost insane.” – Daily Life, February 2016

Eileen Myles

“I have this awareness that when I’m not writing in a real, consistent way I get a little crazy. Recently, I feel like, what is this time in my life about? Especially as I get older, if I’m not writing now, when am I writing? What is the point of this existence at this point in time? I don’t mean writing all day long, I’m a sprinter, a few hours are good and then I stop. Maybe [continue writing] a few hours later or something. It’s like depression. When you get depressed do you interrupt it? Go to the gym, go to the therapist, do the other things you might do to keep yourself get better? Or do you just let it — really wallow in it? Not writing, or not being productive is a little like that. Sometimes I’m just a little ornery and I don’t want to be good Eileen or Eileen demonstrating what an amazing productive writer I am.” – Rookie, November 2015

Joan Didion

“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in.” – The Paris Review, Fall-Winter 1978

Elizabeth Gilbert

“Perfection is the death of all good things, perfection is the death of pleasure, it’s the death of productivity, it’s the death of efficiency, it’s the death of joy. Perfection is just a bludgeon that goes around murdering everything good. Somebody once said I was disingenuous for saying this, because surely I try to make my work as good as it can be. And that’s absolutely true — but there’s a really big difference between ‘as good as it can be’ and perfection.” – TED, September 2015

Emily Weiss

On the times she’s most productive: “Definitely not mornings, I’m NOT a morning person. I would say in the afternoons. I actually love coming up to the Glossier Penthouse where we’ve been hosting Summer Fridays. I do work on the sofa or out on the deck. I try to take as many meetings as possible out here and in our Escape Room. Mainly, I like not sitting at a desk, and I move around a lot.” – Goodmorningoodnight, September 2015

Michelle Obama

“After I had Malia, I began to prioritize exercise because I realized that my happiness is tied to how I feel about myself. I want my girls to see a mother who takes care of herself, even if that means I have to get up at 4:30 so I can do a workout. … I just started thinking, if I had to get up to go to work, I’d get up and go to work. If I had to get up to take care of my kids, I’d get up to do that. But when it comes to yourself, then it’s suddenly, ‘Oh, I can’t get up at 4:30.’ So I had to change that. If I don’t exercise, I won’t feel good. I’ll get depressed. Of course, it’s easier to do it here, because I have much more support now. But I always think about women who don’t have support. That’s why work-family balance isn’t just a policy conversation; it’s about changing the expectations of who we have to be as women and parents.” – O, The Oprah Magazine, April 2009

25 Famous Women on How to Be Productive