"Do Less, Then Obsess": How Hollywood's Busiest People Get It All Done

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From left: Nina Jacobson, Victoria Alonso and Mary Parent

Time-management experts and top industry execs share tips for efficiency and effectiveness, from staying off Twitter to learning how to say no.

With work pressure often feeling crazier than ever, time management experts offer a range of solutions that focus on mind-set shifts. Author Laura Vanderkam (I Know How She Does It) is big on "Friday planning": Set intentions for the week ahead on a Friday afternoon. "Thinking in terms of 168 hours, not 24 hours, gives us a more abundant perspective on time. Look at what’s on the calendar now and make short two- to three-item priority lists in three categories: career, relationship and self." She also advises getting "good data. Track your time for a week: write down what you are doing. Ask yourself what you like and what you don’t like. Then you’re making rational decisions.”

The motto of U.C. Berkeley professor Morten Hansen (Great at Work) is "Do less, then obsess." Meaning, figure out what you're good at and put that on turbo-drive.

Productivity expert and author Maura Nevel Thomas (Attention Management) says keeping a level of focus is crucial. Working in open offices with an array of communication devices has habituated us to distraction. “We get distracted by technology and other people every other minute,” she says. “A study shows that we switch what we are doing every 3:05 minutes on average. We expect to be distracted. Even when there isn’t an external distraction, we distract ourselves.” She advises becoming more aware of those distractions and then exerting more control over one’s environment (create a “do not disturb” sign or signal) and over one’s devices (put your smartphone in another room).

Essentialism author Greg McKeown suggests perfecting the art of saying no. “I know people who have actually written down and practiced how to say no,” he says. One swamped agent put McKeown's advice into action by creating a spreadsheet of criteria for prospective clients. "Instead of just randomly running after the next shiny object, he became very selective," he says.

So how do top industry women get it done?

AMC Theaters’ executive vp worldwide programming and chief content officer Elizabeth Frank already practices a version of Friday planning. She calls it “Friday afternoon triage — [otherwise] you spend the next week chasing other people's to-do lists,” she says. “It often means taking a lot of things off the schedule." She also advises others to “find time every week to connect with your peers, internal and external, on what your shared priorities are. Often, that time gets squeezed out.”

Legendary Entertainment's Mary Parent prioritizes the night before. "I wake up in the morning and a bunch of things can have happened overnight. It’s easy to get caught up in the new challenges of the morning. Everything I do in the day is informed by the five or 10 things that are 'do or die,' " she says.

Choosing what not to do can be empowering. "You have to home in on what you're great at," says Erica Huggins, president of Seth MacFarlane's Fuzzy Door Productions. In the past, she has juggled making films on location while also running a company. "I found I couldn't do both things well. I had no choice but to rely on the people whom I picked to be my co-pilots in the company. Giving it up, in a way, makes you feel free."

Color Force's Nina Jacobson focuses on a finite number of projects. "Unequivocally, we don't do anything that we don't love," she says.

For others, it's about creating a productivity zone. "Wake up earlier than everyone else, when there's no one around to interrupt," Sidecar's Gail Berman says. "It's a great time for reading and assessing." And avoid distractions by "staying off of Twitter," says attorney Linda Lichter. At the beginning of the day, Warner Bros. Pictures COO Carolyn Blackwood (who tries not to schedule business lunches more than every other day) lights a candle and plays music, and CAA agent Ann Blanchard starts off with "quiet time and meditation, no matter how short." Adds producer Caroline Baron: "Meditation is like hitting pause on my psyche before I charge into the day. Then I start making lists."

Actual tools matter too. Jacobson swears by Evernote, while director Ondi Timoner uses Notes in her iPhone "for everything — that syncs to my laptop. From there I copy and paste to-do lists that I send to my team." For producer Susan Downey, "Nothing beats an old-school, handwritten to-do list."

Many efficiency hacks are related to commuting. Producer Suzanne Warren listens to plays and books while driving: "It leaves me more time to read what I have to actually read." TriStar Pictures executive vp Nicole Brown limits her drive time by doing "all shopping — groceries, household items, clothes — from home with an app." And Parent says she moved to be closer to work, eliminating a "punishing" drive. "It's really reduced stress," she says.

Most importantly, says Marvel Studios' exec vp production Victoria Alonso, "Never procrastinate. If I don't do it right away, it will fall through the cracks!"

A version of this story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.