Before last December, you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Sam Altman was.
Then, ChatGPT was released. And, seemingly overnight, the whole world changed.
Since then, the former Y Combinator president—who first made his fortune advising and investing in companies ranging from Reddit to Airbnb—has become a household name, praised for his business acumen, leadership skills (YC co-founder Paul Graham once compared him to a young Bill Gates), and shrewd foresight into the potentials (and possible pitfalls) of generative AI.
It’s estimated that OpenAI's chatbot reached 100 million monthly active users a month after launching, making it the fastest-growing application in history (until Threads came along, that is—way to spoil the fun, Mark).
“People sometimes ask me for productivity tips,” Altman writes in a blog post on productivity that was published a year before the then 32-year-old (😯) raised $1 billion (😲) for OpenAI. “So I decided to just write them all down in one place.”
Of course, Altman quickly points out that there aren’t many shortcuts in life: “If you’re going to do something really important,” he writes, “you are very likely going to work both smart and hard.”
But, along with natural light, a low dose of cannabis before bed, weight-lifting three times a week, and fasting 15 hours a day, these are the routines, practices, productivity hacks, and strategies once used by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to be more productive than the average person.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman's Top Productivity Tips
According to Altman, his productivity system has three key pillars: “Make sure to get the important sh*t done,” “Make a lot of lists,” and “Don’t waste time on stupid shit.”
1. Getting the Important Sh*t Done
A successful day starts with your workspace and how you organize your schedule.
For Altman, “natural light, quiet, [and] knowing that I won’t be interrupted if I don’t want to be” are key.
“I try to prioritize in a way that generates momentum,” Altman writes. “The more I get done, the better I feel, and then the more I get done.”
For Altman, that means blocking off the first few hours for uninterrupted work and using the afternoons primarily for meetings (although he tries to avoid them when possible).
“I find the time cost to be huge,” Altman writes, saying he tries to keep meetings to 15-20 minutes or two hours if there’s more to discuss (“the default of 1 hour is usually wrong, and leads to a lot of wasted time”).
Despite his distaste for meetings, Altman echoes the sentiment of other CEOs by suggesting that it’s good to keep your schedule at least a little open “for chance encounters and exposure to new people and ideas.”
“90% of the random meetings I take are a waste of time,” he writes.”[But] the other 10% really make up for it.”
He takes a break or switches tasks when his attention starts to fade. But for the most part, Altman says he likes to “start and end each day with something I can really make progress on”—even if it’s outside his comfort zone.
“I think it’s good to overcommit a little bit,” Altman writes. “I find that I generally get done what I take on, and if I have a little bit too much to do, it makes me more efficient at everything, which is a way to train to avoid distractions (a great habit to build!).”
That said, Altman cautions not to go overboard (“overcommitting a lot is disastrous”).
2. Making a Lot of Lists
At Bloks, we’re a fan of to-do lists.
So, it was encouraging to know that one of the world’s most prominent tech leaders is a fan of them, too.
“I highly recommend using lists,” Altman writes. “Lists are very focusing, and they help me with multitasking because I don’t have to keep as much in my head.”
For his to-do lists, Altman thinks about the big picture and writes down what he wants to get done each day, month, and year.
He doesn’t bother with categorization or scoring (“the most I do is put a star next to really important items”).
But he does alter them frequently, re-transcribing to-do lists to help him think through priorities and adding and removing task items where necessary to ensure he’s focusing on the right things.
“If I’m not in the mood for some particular task, I can always find something else I’m excited to do,” he writes.
3. Not Wasting Time on Stupid Sh*t
Ultimately, what you do is more important than how you do it.
“Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored,” he writes. “It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction.”
But recognizing that requires a level of introspection most people try and avoid.
In his blog post, Altman talks about the idea of falling into the “productivity porn” trap, endlessly optimizing a system to help you get more done without questioning if what you’re doing is even worth all the effort.
“Chasing productivity for its own sake isn’t helpful,” he writes. “It doesn’t matter what system you use or if you squeeze out every second if you’re working on the wrong thing.”
To make sure he’s working on the right things, Altman likes to leave room in his calendar to think about what to work on.
“The best ways for me to do this are reading books, hanging out with interesting people, and spending time in nature,” he writes.
For Altman, people play a big role in his productivity and mental health.
“I love being around people who push me and inspire me to be better,” he writes. “To the degree you [are] able to, avoid the opposite kind of people.”
But you still have to care about what you’re working on to get the most out of it.
“Stuff that you don’t like is a painful drag on morale and momentum,” he writes.
If you’re in a position where you can manage people and what you work on, Altman says to delegate your tasks to someone else who’d enjoy them.
“Remember that everyone else is also most productive when they’re doing what they like,” he writes. “Try to figure out who likes (and is good at) doing what, and delegate that way.”
But, if you find yourself feeling consistently unmotivated, Altman suggests it may be time for a big change.
“If you find yourself not liking what you’re doing for a long period of time, seriously consider a major job change,” he writes. “Short-term burnout happens, but if it isn’t resolved with some time off, maybe it’s time to do something you’re more interested in.”
Hacking Sustainable Growth
Sam Altman didn’t get to where he is without considerable effort.
Like all great success stories, it consisted of years of trial and error—marginal gains that grew over time.
“Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well, and it is magic,” Altman writes. “A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot… If you get 10% more done and 1% better every day compared to someone else, the compounded difference is massive.”
But you have to be focused on the right things.
“Productivity in the wrong direction isn’t worth anything at all,” he reiterates. “Think more about what to work on.”