Ari Meisel gets things done—and so efficiently that if you hadn’t seen photos of him (friendly smile, lean physique) you might suspect he had 10 hands. He coaches individuals and groups on how to “make everything in life easier” through a system he calls “Less Doing, More Living.” He consults on green building projects. He develops real estate and writes books. He tweets, blogs, speaks, podcasts. And he manages all this in just six hours on an average day, leaving him plenty of time to hang out with his wife and three young children, do CrossFit workouts, and whip up “power meals” such as eggs rancheros and sardine salad.
“It’s like being in that flow state all the time, that optimal state of performance,” said Meisel, who, on top of everything else, has managed to quash all symptoms of his Crohn’s disease. “I just feel like I have control of my life, my body and sort of my outcome. And that’s a really good feeling.” It’s also a feeling that many people wouldn’t mind acquiring, of course—me included. Last month, as you may recall, I got fired up to be more productive. But how to turn my resolve into action? The answer was more slippery than I had hoped, especially when it came to the online poetry magazine I edit. So here I was, getting a free consult with Mr. Less Doing.
Could he help me—and, by extension, you—make 2015 the most efficient year ever?
I was pretty optimistic about the answer. After all, Meisel arranged our interview using ScheduleOnce.com, a service that syncs your calendars and appointments—no protracted email exchange needed. And now he was speaking to me from his car in Bridgehampton, N.Y., sharing key tips:
Streamline—“Everything we do is a process—paying a bill, hiring an employee or making lunch for your kids,” Meisel said. To handle a process quickly and smoothly, you first need to trim it to the essentials. Bill-paying, for instance, used to take him 27 steps (visit payment site, log in, go to payment page, etc.). He studied the sequence, spotted tasks that were redundant or otherwise pointless, and soon was down to 22. “I optimized my process by about 20 percent and gave myself a checklist that was very easy to follow.” The same could help me with my magazine, he said. Were there steps I could combine or cut? (Later I would realize that handling each poet’s submission took me as many as 45 steps, including reading it, sharing it with other editors, checking repeatedly for feedback from those editors, rereading the submission three or four times, waffling…. Yes, I allowed, perhaps a couple of those steps could be eliminated.)
Focus—Meisel swears by the Pomodoro Technique (PomodoroTechnique.com), which combines focused bursts of work with short breaks. “It’s like interval training for your brain,” he said. The best length for each component is a matter of debate (the website on the technique recommends 25-minute bursts and five-minute breaks; a recent study suggests bumping those numbers up to 52 and 17, respectively); the important thing, Meisel said, is to set an alarm for your breaks and obey it. Having time limits makes you more focused, he and other Pomodoro advocates believe; taking breaks puts the info you’ve been working on “into a part of our brains that makes it more easy to recall” and helps you recharge.
“What starts to happen is you’re going to want to finish your task in that time period” allotted for a focused burst, he said. “You’re not going to want to come back to it.” I thought about how, on Saturdays, I get 80 minutes to work in a coffee shop while my daughter is at music class. It’s often the most productive period I have all week. Maybe I should try time limits on other days, too.
Automate and delegate—To speak with Meisel is to hear names of web tools at every turn: the ever-popular Evernote (the note-taking and archiving software and services); IFTTT (a service that lets you combine web applications into automated “recipes”); Wappwolf (which connects web apps and services to Dropbox); Feedly (a news-aggregator app). And—surprise!—Meisel does have extra hands. Fancy Hands, to be precise—a paid service that lets him outsource small jobs to “virtual assistants” he will probably never meet. Thanks to such time-savers, he has scraped countless tasks off his own plate.
The trick, he said, is to delegate all but the stuff that “only you can do, or do better than everybody else.” My head swam with jobs I’d love to turn over to Fancy Hands. And even if their prices—low though they were—proved a stretch for a poetry magazine, Meisel had gotten me thinking harder about work I could farm out to volunteers.
We said goodbye. He was on to his next efficiently planned moment (a family trip to the beach). And I—armed with techniques and apps, and schemes to rope in volunteer proofreaders—was ready to Meisel my way through 2015. Though I would probably skip the sardine salad.