Join us at TNW Conference 2021 for insights into the future of tech →

The heart of tech

This article was published on November 21, 2014

    Productivity advice I learned from people smarter than me

    Productivity advice I learned from people smarter than me
    Ryan Holiday
    Story by

    Ryan Holiday

    Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying and The Obstacle Is The Way. After dropping out of college at 19 to apprentice Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying and The Obstacle Is The Way. After dropping out of college at 19 to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians, and served as director of marketing at American Apparel. He currently lives in Austin and writes for Thought Catalog and the New York Observer. He gives monthly reading recommendations to 30,000 people here.

    Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of The Obstacle Is The Way, the founder of Brass Check Marketing and gives monthly book recommendations to 30,000 people here.

    Like all people, I’d like to think I am a productive person. If I am, however, it’s because I’ve been ruthlessly efficient at one thing: stealing secrets and methods from people a lot smarter than me.

    In my career, I’ve had the fortune of coming in contact with bestselling authors, successful entrepreneurs, investors, executives and creative people. Some I didn’t meet, but I found their thoughts in book form. Whether they knew it or not, I cased all of them and took from them what I thought were their best ideas on productivity.

    Below are the secrets I learned from them. Thanks guys! You helped me get more done and be more creative.

    Casey Neistat

    From this popular YouTube filmmaker and artist, I picked up the trick of keeping a small Moleskine journal that I write in everyday: thoughts, reminders, notes, lessons. I prefer one that can fit in my back pocket, this way I always have paper on me.

    The last few months have been incredibly difficult and this journal helped me cope. More importantly, I learned how to keep track of these journals (and everything else I own) in case I lose them: In big letters writer “If Found Please Return [INSERT NAME & NUMBER].”

    Tim Ferriss

    From Tim I learned the art of the to-do list. A simple, straight forward one. One notecard, five to six big items and that’s it.

    Everyday, I cross these off and tear up the card. That’s it. That’s the system.

    Robert Greene

    Robert Greene, renowned author of the 48 Laws of Power, showed me how he creates books. His notecard system has changed my life. Every book I read, I fold the pages of and then go back through and transfer the information on to notecards which I then organize by theme in card boxes.

    At this point I have hundreds of thousands of these cards, which I always turn to if I need an anecdote, a fact, inspiration, a strategy, a story or an example.

    Dov Charney

    The first time I called Dov, I got his voicemail. It said: “I don’t use voicemail, email me.” This is a way better system.

    I’ve taken it a step further, I don’t even have a voicemail set up. If it’s important, they’ll call back. If I have time, I’ll return the missed call. Either way, having “six unchecked voice messages” is something I’ve haven’t worried about in years… because they don’t exist. 

    Ramit Sethi

    Ramit has built a 40 plus employee, multi-million dollar education business right before our eyes (he and I grew up in the same small town actually). One trick I learned from Ramit – after ignoring the advice several times – is that if you’re going to hire an assistant, make sure they are older or more responsible than you.

    Too many people make the mistake of hiring someone young and cheap, which is ridiculous. It’s impossible for them to understand the value of time and organization and they will end up making you less productive, not more. If you’re going to have an assistant, do it right. 

    Tobias Wolff

    In his book, Old School, Tobias Wolf’s semi-autobiographical character takes the time to type out quotes and passages from great books. I do this almost every weekend. It’s a) made me a faster typer b) a much better writer c) a wiser person.

    Robert Greene

    From Robert I also learned that swimming is a great productivity tool. Why? Because it requires total isolation: no music, no phone, no possible interruptions. Just quiet, strenuous exercise. I’ve had some of my most productive brainstorming sessions in the pool.

    David Allen & Merlin Mann

    Inbox Zero. Never touch paper twice. Let these phrases sink in and use them.

    Ramit Sethi

    Another from Ramit: You don’t have to answer every email you get. The delete key is a quick way to get to inbox zero.


    There’s a great quote from Napoleon about how he would delay opening letters so that by the time he did, the unimportant issues would have resolved themselves. I try to do the same thing with email and issues from staff. 

    Marco Arment

    Instapaper changed my life. I don’t play games on my phone, I read smart articles I queued up for myself earlier in the day. I don’t get distracted with articles while I am working at my desk because I can easily put them in the queue.

    James Altucher

    “No” is a powerful, productive word (he also wrote a book about it). We think we’re obligated to say yes to everything, then we wonder why we never have enough time.

    Learning to say no – “No, thank you” more specifically – will energize you and excite you. Use it as much as you can.


    From Montaigne I also learned the importance of keeping a commonplace book. If something catches your eye, write it down, record it somewhere. Use it later. Simple as that.

    Andrew Carnegie

    He has a great line about “being introduced to the broom” at an early age. In other words, know even the most lowly tasks intimately. Doesn’t mean you have to do them still, but know them.

    Aaron Ray

    Aaron Ray was my mentor in Hollywood. He’s a hugely successful movie producer and manager, but I noticed one thing: He was never in the office. And he always had some ridiculous excuse why he wasn’t.

    Eventually, I realized why: He was avoiding the office BS that sucks up most people’s time. By staying away, he got way more done. He could see big picture.

    And as an extra bonus, everyone was always talking about him: “Where’s Aaron?” “Has anyone seen Aaron?” 

    Tucker Max

    You wouldn’t guess it but Tucker has the biggest library you’ve ever seen. Why? He buys every book he wants. I don’t waste time thinking about what books I want, or where to get them cheapest. I buy them, I read them, I recommend them, I benefit from them. End of story (See my library here.)

    I’m never without something to read, and I’m always driven to read more because the shelves are looking down on me as a reminder of what I have left to do.

    Nassim Taleb

    Speaking of books, from Nassim Taleb I learned about the “anti-library.” Don’t just collect books you have read, collect the books you haven’t read. It’s a testament to what you don’t know, and an on-hand resource whenever you need it. 

    Samantha Hoover

    From my fianceé, I got a nice little trick. Delete Facebook from your phone. Just do it. Trust me. (Note: pretty sure she’s relapsed, but I haven’t.)

    Bryan “Birdman” Williams

    The guy founded Cash Money records and is worth about $500M. I was shocked the first time I was supposed to meet him… at the studio… at 1 AM… on a Sunday. His day was just starting. He works at night, sleeps during the day.

    Like I said, at first it was weird, but then I realized: He picked the hours that were most productive for him; screw what most people think is “normal.” 

    Tucker Max

    I think Tucker was the guy I stole listening to the same song over and over from. It lets you space out and get into the zone (or flow state). My iTunes playlist is embarrassing, but I don’t care. Listening to the same song hundreds of time is how I get so much done. 

    Samuel Zemurray

    The entrepreneur behind United Fruit (and one of my favorite books) used to say: “Don’t trust the report.”

    We waste a lot of time trusting numbers and opinions we’ve never verified. Going backwards and doing something over ends up costing us far more than we saved by skipping over the work in the first place. 

    Tim Ferriss

    Another one from Tim: you don’t have to be the first one to sign up for things. Wait a bit on the new apps and social networks. Wait for things to sort themselves out, let other people do all the trial and error, then when you come, just be the best.


    I forget who gave me the idea, but never buy in-flight Wifi. Go off the grid for the whole flight. Catch up on stuff. Think. Read.

    Adam Corolla

    On Loveline Adam used to complain about how the producers wanted him to get their 15 minutes before the show started. His refusal was simple: every week that added up to an extra show – for free.

    Important people can get a lot done in “just 15 minutes” so they don’t give it away easily. And they don’t mind looking bad in order to protect. 

    Niki Papadopoulos

    My editor always says: “Ok, well, try writing it then.” In other words, she means “Get started.” She usually says this right after you explain some big sweeping idea you have for a book or a chapter or an article.

    Planning it out is great, but productive people get moving.

    Frederick Douglass

    “A man is worked on by what he works on.” Steer clear of quagmires, toxic work environments, busy work and unsolvable problems.

    James Altucher

    Entrepreneurs and writers are nuts. To save yourself many wasted hours of time and insanity, find yourself a spouse who is better adjusted and balanced than you. James and his wife Claudia are an inspiring example of this important pairing.

    Aaron Ray

    As a talent manager, Aaron showed me why you never waste your time, or your own money, doing your own negotiating. This has served me well.

    I pass incoming inquiries to a speaking agent, book projects to a book agent, interview requests to an assistant, movie/TV stuff to Aaron, etc etc. Yes, this means I pay them a fee, but guess what? All valuable services have a cost. Only a fool represents himself or herself.

    What have you stolen from people smarter than you? Share in the comments!

    Read next:Are you ‘fit’ to be an entrepreneur? 3 ways to get mentally charged