Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
Chris Hardwick is a punchline. Not in a negative way, though. The comedian and author simply hosts so many TV shows that a popular joke of late involves wondering if there are any shows left that he doesn't host.
Comedy Central's new Twitter-feuled hit @midnight is only the latest in Hardwick's rotating stable of shows. On Sundays, he chats his way through Talking Dead on AMC, a companion program to The Walking Dead that picks apart the carcass of what viewers just saw. (Over the summer, he had a similar gig for AMC's Breaking Bad.) And when he's not voicing characters on Nickelodeon's Sanjay and Craig, he's center stage on BBC America's The Nerdist, which is based on the same-titled flagship show of Hardwick's podcast empire. Somehow, the nicely franchised hostmaster is also an in-demand touring stand-up act.
With everything that's on his plate these days, Chris Hardwick could be considered a bona fide time management expert just for figuring out how to get it all done. Although he has an assistant to keep him on track—a marine reservist, at that—the prolific entertainer swears that anybody can use their time more wisely and stay focused all by themselves. Hardwick talked to Co.Create recently about getting in gear, dodging distraction, and optimizing your time like a data engineer.
You may not be able to force yourself to be creative in the moment, but you can force yourself to just work. Even if what you’re coming up with is gibberish at first, you’re unsqueaking the wheel, and you might not notice the benefits right away, but after 15 minutes or so, you’ll find them. You just have to push through it. There’s no trick. When your brain says "No, I have nothing for you," just do it anyway. Eventually you’ll train your brain like a dog. It’s really just getting around your sometimes-counterproductive internal monologue.
A lot of times I have to immediately alternate from one task to the next and I really just do it without thinking too much. There’s this momentum you build up from working on something, and if you get in the way of that and start asking whether you want to go right into the next thing, the answer is going to be "Oh no, of course not," and then you lose steam. It really is about jumping from building to building. If you allow yourself to, you’ll ramp up on one project and hit a peak, and then you’ll come down and have to ramp up to the next project. But if you just switch over without thinking about it, your brain will catch up.
Your body tells you when you’ve taken on more than capacity. That’s when you start getting really anxious, or getting insomnia. If you’re very aware of your body, you’ll feel it when you’re doing too much and sort of hang back on certain days and rest a little more. Exercise principles have sort of moved over into other areas of my life. I know when to "stretch" because some area needs it, and when to have a light day.
It’s important to take some time off to recharge, even if it’s just a day or two. Sometimes my girlfriend and I will go to Disneyland, just to take a day off. If you feel completely exhausted while working, though, I’ve survived a long time on taking 20 minute naps. It just gives you a refresher. If the goal is to get the most quality time in, I’d rather set 20 minutes aside to get three hours worth of good work than just go through it all at 40%.
There’s this idea that I notice a lot of people putting forth, which is that time is moving really fast now. "I can’t believe it’s already been a year since the last time a thing occurred to me!" It just feels busier now, even if we’re not doing anything, because we’re distracting ourselves with the Internet and our smart devices. Because of that, you’re not paying attention to time. It’s moving the same speed as it was before, but you perceive it as faster because you’re not paying attention. We’re distracted by busy-tasks that aren’t actually necessary, and our brains aren’t really evolved enough to process all the data that we encounter every day.
I thought it was important to see how much time I was wasting, so I got a timer and started measuring things. How long it takes me to check email, how long does it take me to write, how long before I burn out and need to take a break. Once you start tracking your time, you become like a scientist. If you have data, you can manipulate data. If I know I spend three hours essentially going down a wiki rabbit hole or being on YouTube, I can change that. Maybe shave an hour or two. I’ll still do those things because brainless activity is good and zoning out is necessary, but I feel that you can steal time away from chunks that you’re wasting not doing anything.
I was a pretty insane calendar person, even before I got an assistant. My schedule was color-coded and my email was sorted with filters for everything. When you get to a point where you have a lot of responsibility, though, you do really need someone to help get some of that stuff off your plate. Monica [my assistant] is connected to my iCal, so she is constantly updating things and it syncs across the cloud. Then, at the end of every day, I’ll get an end-of-day report, with questions that need to be answered immediately—which she calls "taskers." Then there’s a list of things that are pending, and a list of FYI things: this happened today, this came in the mail, next week we’ll have to start talking about this. It’s a hierarchy of what needs to be answered when and information on what’s upcoming. It’s something that anyone can do for themselves at the end of any day.
There are certain meetings where it doesn’t even make sense for me to go. I’m just going to turn to the production guy and say that we have to figure out what resources we need to get this production going, so it’s just as easy for him or her to go straight to that meeting and not me. In general, I’m fairly good at delegating and I trust people. For some people, that’s hard because they like to do everything themselves. Not only can you not do everything yourself, though, you’re burning out your own mental resources trying to do so.
Some projects need to be completely hands-on, other projects don’t. My resources are split up. There’s no set way that everything will get my full attention—instead, everything gets the attention it needs from me. It’s really important to make sure you don’t know everything yourself. Figure out what the best thing is that you bring to the table and let other people bring other things to the table.
When it comes to entertainment, and TV in particular, things just move glacially. Most of the projects we pitch aren’t going to go anywhere, but even the ones that do will still take several months to years before they see the light of day. It’s a constant process of stirring the pot, and putting in more ingredients, and stirring the pot some more. That never ends. Because the projects you have today might not still be going in a few years, the things you pitch today pick up where those things leave off. It really is a never-ending process, and you have to learn to enjoy it.