I read Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future over the summer. It’s a fantastic read and a detailed account of the ups and downs of one of the biggest visionaries of our time.
It also gives you a sneak peek into Musk’s work ethic and productivity secrets he uses to run multiple companies.
Now, Elon Musk is a smarter than average individual with an enormous ambition and drive. But I think that us–mere mortals–can incorporate some of his productivity secrets into our daily lives.
Here are the top 10 productivity secrets of Elon Musk and how you can apply them:
#1 Start the Day with Critical Work
As the CEO of three companies — Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink — Elon Musk has a lot of things to stay on top on a day to day basis.
That’s why he starts his day with his most critical work. For Musk, this meansdealing with important emails that he needs to address in order to unblock other people’s work and progress.
He typically starts the day at 7 a.m. and replies to critical emails for at least half an hour. Musk is careful to filter anything that is not deemed critical, focusing on only the most important items.
In his own words at the USC Commencement Speech:
“Focus on signal over noise. Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better.”
#2 Use Feedback Loops
Musk has a very tight schedule, often working at different locations on any given day. That’s why he’s constantly trying to optimize his time.
While admitting he hadn’t read any books on time management, Musk shared some insightful advice on how to become better:
“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
Musk incorporates not only his own feedback but also of others: he urges entrepreneurs to seek preferably negative feedback. While it might be hurtful at first, you normally end up getting a lot more out it.
He also focuses on hiring the best people in any field that can provide consistent and truthful feedback.
Shortening the feedback loops lead to increased efficiency, faster implementation, and a better-finished product.
#3 Reason from First Principles
A first principle is a basic assumption that can’t be deduced from any other proposition. It’s the only sure thing in a complex problem.
Musk reasons from first principles, rather than by analogy (such as previous experiences). This way you build your reasoning from the ground up:
“You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that and then see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work. And it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past. It’s harder to think that way, though.”
Here’s an example of first principles reasoning, from Musk himself: “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”
Instead of buying a rocket for millions of dollars, Musk decided to purchase the raw materials for cheap and build the rockets himself in his own own company.
And SpaceX was born.
#4 Use Asynchronous Communication
The first productivity hack gave you a slight hint for this one: Musk prefers to communicate on his own terms. That means defaulting to email and texts, both asynchronous ways of communication.
In his own words:
“I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I’m really good at email.”
He also makes himself hard to reach for people outside his company by using an obscure email address.
This lets him focus on actual work for his companies.
#5 Master Communication
When Musk is not building rockets or revolutionizing the automobile industry, there’s one place you can always find him: on email. He joked on a conference: “I do a lot of email — very good at email. That’s my core competency”.
He is extremely clear, concise, and direct on his emails. As an example, read the email sent to his entire staff about the use of acronyms aptly called “Acronyms Seriously Suck”.
He frequently emails his entire company with updates, how to communicate, company visions and mission, and being more productive at work.
“People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.”
He is also a master at public speaking, converting complex concepts into easy to understand language using an authentic voice. Musk often uses the present tense when talking about visionary topics, a language trick that excites the listener into feeling the future is now
#6 Batch Tasks
Musk multi-tasks strategically. Whenever possible, he combines several tasks together in a productivity hack known as batching. For example, he answers emails while eating or having a meeting over lunch.
Here’s a quote from Elon on the subject:
“But what I find is I’m able to be with [my kids] and still be on email. I can be with them and still be working at the same time… If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to get my job done.”
Another example is going through emails and invoices while on phone meeting or interviews.
Running three companies is no small feat, which means time is of the essence for Elon Musk. He is constantly trying to optimize his time using feedback loops.
Like many other ultra-productive and successful people, he follows a very detailed and specific daily schedule. He breaks his calendar into five-minute slots and finding your way into one of those openings is tough work.
He prioritizes engineering, design, and manufacturing, spending 80 percent of his time at work on those areas.
“I don’t spend my time pontificating about high-concept things; I spend my time solving engineering and manufacturing problems.”
By splitting his day into 5-minute chunks, Musk manages to get more tasks scheduled into his work.
#8 Embrace Stretch Goals
Perhaps one of Musk’s most notorious character traits is his tendency to set incredibly ambitious deadlines for his companies’ projects. He uses stretch goals as a way to change perception:
“The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.”
Here’s a story from a former SpaceX executive: “It’s like he has everyone working on this car that is meant to get from Los Angeles to New York on one tank of gas. They will work on the car for a year and test all of its parts. Then, when they set off for New York after that year, all the vice presidents think privately that the car will be lucky to get to Las Vegas. What ends up happening is that the car gets to New Mexico — twice as far as they ever expected — and Elon is still mad. He gets twice as much as anyone else out of people.” (emphasis mine)
The last sentence illustrates the power of stretch goals. Even in the face of failure, your goal was so outrageous, so impossible to achieve, that you celebrate the small achievements you made because you expected that nothing would come out of it.
The initial plan of Tesla was to start shipping the Roadster in 2006. The company pushed that deadline back several times until the car actually became available in 2008. Even though they released its car almost two years after the deadline, Tesla delivered the first completely battery-powered electric car.
In his own words:
“I say something, and then it usually happens. Maybe not on schedule, but it usually happens.”
Musk’s stretch goals have given us a world where one of the best cars you can buy is electric, and where we finally have reusable rockets: “When Henry Ford made cheap, reliable cars, people said, ‘Nah, what’s wrong with a horse?’ That was a huge bet he made, and it worked.”
Setting goals that maintain the status quo doesn’t get you reusable rockets.
#9 Develop a Growth Mindset
In 2004, Musk called a supplier to get the price of an electromechanical actuator. The supplier quoted $120,000.
Reasoning from first principles, Musk broke down the components needed and asked an Steve Davis, now SpaceX’s director of advanced projects, to build one from scratch for under $5,000. Davis spent nine months designing and building the actuator for $3,900, which flew to space inside the Falcon 1 rocket.
Elon Musk is never satisfied with where he is now. His companies have had enormous achievements, but Musk knows that there’s always room for improvement — in every area. There’s always a better, faster, or cheaper way to do things:
“You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”
This is what is called a growth mindset, an important skill that separates successful people from everyone else. When you have a growth mindset, you know you can learn anything if you put enough effort into it. And if you fail, you approach the problem from a different angle until you find a solution that works. You iterate until you get it right.
In Musk’s words:
“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
The opposite is known as a fixed mindset, where the status quo is rarely challenged. Things will always be the way they are because “that’s how we do things around here”. Preconceived notions are taken as universal truths, instead of being questioned. Thus, people stagnate.
On the other hand, developing a growth-oriented mindset brings progress to both our personal and professional lives. And even if you manage small gains each day are small, they compound over time. A 1% gain every day compounds to almost 38% increase over a year.
#10 Develop a Wide Knowledge Base
According to his brother, Musk used to read 2 books a day at his early age. In other words: he devoured knowledge. This led to a wide understanding of many sciences, such as physics, math, engineering, and computer science.
One of my favorite quotes is about how he describes knowledge:
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
Even when running his companies, Musk constantly tries to learn from the people around him that have more knowledge on a specific topic. Here’s a passage from the book: “He would trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material. “I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,” said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers. “Then I realized he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.”
Over the years, Musk developed T-shaped skills: a lot of knowledge in one particular field and a substantial amount of knowledge in many other disciplines and topics. This allowed him to be world-class in one field (business) but also use his broad knowledge to innovate, find different solutions, be more creative, and collaborate with experts in other fields effectively.