Pamela Meyer’s counter-intuitive strategy for time management

My guest today is Pamela Meyer. You might know Pamela from her very famous TED talk about How To Spot a Liar, which has been viewed by 20 million people. She also wrote the bestselling book Liespotting: Proven techniques to detect deception. Pamela is also the founder and CEO of Calibrate, a leading training company that teaches people how to spot lies.

Pamela is someone who thinks a lot about how to get the most out of each day, and I particularly liked hearing about her rather counter intuitive strategy for time management which I am trying to now apply in my own life.

Some of the topics we covered in this chat include:

  • How Pamela structures her to-do list
  • Pamela’s strategies for preparing for the day ahead
  • Pamela’s counter-intuitive time management technique
  • Pamela’s must-have tool for keeping focused
  • Pamela’s “burst” method for getting things done
  • How Pamela uses self-rewards to drive motivation
  • How Pamela decides what to say yes to versus what to say no to
  • Pamela’s rules for having “clean” email
  • Pamela’s go-to places for creative work

And a whole lot more.

You can find more about Pamela at and via her company Calibrate

Here are links to some of the things Pamela referred to during our chat:

NYT podcasts

The Opposite of Hate

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners

For a full transcript of the episode, see below:

Pamela Meyer: You know, I sleep better at night when I know the day ahead of me is planned well. And so I try really hard at the end of the day to think about what the next day is going to look like. Even as a little girl, I had to put my clothes out the night before and so between menu planning for the family and clothing planning and then planning your day, I’m pretty ready for attack by the time I hit morning.

Amantha Imber: Welcome to how I work. The show about the tactics used by leading innovators to get so much out of their day. I’m your host, Dr. Amantha Imber. I’m an organizational psychologist, the CEO of Inventium, and I’m obsessed with finding ways to optimize my work day. My guest today is Pamela Meyer. You might know Pamela from her very famous Ted Talk about how to spot a liar, which has been viewed by 20 million people. She also wrote the best selling book, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception. And Pamela is also the Founder and CEO Calibrate, a leading training company that teaches people how to spot lies.

Now Pamela is someone who thinks a lot about how to get the most out of each day, and one of the things I like most in this chat is hearing about her rather counterintuitive strategy for time management, which I’m now trying to apply in my own life. Over to Pamela to find out about how she works.
Pamela, welcome to the show.

Pamela Meyer: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.

Amantha Imber: Now, I’m excited to be chatting to you and understanding more about how you work and I’d love to start with your mornings. I’m wondering what does a typical morning look like for you? Do you have any sort of rituals or habits that just set you up for a good day?

Pamela Meyer: Well, I do, although I’m not crazy about doing exactly the same thing every day, I’m kind of like moments of joy and moments of surprise and so I have a morning I like the most and most mornings are like this, but not always. Which is that I really get up ahead of my family and like to have that quiet, you know, the sun’s not quite up yet, it’s dark in the kitchen. Our papers are delivered very early. I read four newspapers in the morning, drink my coffee and just have that time to do the reading that I never get to do. The news is really a huge fascination for me, and something I follow really closely. So I just read.

Amantha Imber: Wow and how early are you getting up before your family? What time does that look like?

Pamela Meyer: It’s like 5:30, 5:45, something like that.

Amantha Imber: And what are your four go to newspapers in the morning?

Pamela Meyer: New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and I’m Washington D.C. based, so Washington Post as well.

Amantha Imber: Awesome, love it. Love it. Yeah, I love the idea of kind of being awake before the family, I do an almost identical routine, minus the papers. What happens when the family’s all set up and they’ve gone off to their day, what happens then? Are you driving to the office, are you working from home, what are those sort of first few minutes in front of the computer or whatever you’re doing when work starts, so to speak, for the day?

Pamela Meyer: I usually, I have a child, so I take her to school and then I also have a dog, sometimes to school with the dog and to the dog park and then home and then change clothes and then to the office, it kind of depends on what’s going on with the day. I have an office, I go to the office and one of the things that I find really helps is I prepare my day the night before. So when I approach the day, I usually have a little index card where I know exactly what I’m going to be doing, what the priorities are and schedule. I sleep better at night when I know the day ahead of me is planned well. And so I try really hard at the end of the day to think about what the next day is going to look like.

I was trained in time management years ago when I was a producer at Electronic Arts. They put us all through time management training as part of the kind of corporate benefits, and I still to this day use a lot of those techniques that I was trained on. One of the things they were emphatic about was you have to plan your day the night before so that you can attack the day. The combination of that plus my mother growing up always had me put my clothes out, even as a little girl, I had to put my clothes out the night before. So between menu planning for the family and clothing planning and then planning your day, I’m pretty ready for attack by the time I hit morning. Not always, not always, but as much as possible.

Amantha Imber: That’s awesome, and so when you’re writing the plan for the next day, is that something … When does that happen and what does that look like, like you’re writing on, is it a big to do list for example or is it a schedule. Tell me exactly what time of the day you’re writing this and how does that work?

Pamela Meyer: I love pencil and paper, so I don’t do this online. I don’t make use of you know, on my iPhone or whatever, I don’t make use of the programs there for time management or for planning your schedule or anything. This is all pencil and paper kind of stuff. But I have a running to do list, it’s several columns. There’s a column for personal, a column for kind of family stuff and then multiple columns for the different projects I’m doing at work. That to do list gets updated over the weekend, and then from that to do list, which is on a big yellow pad, I extracted, I have an index card and I make the priorities for the next day from that list, so the list is sort of a weekly list that I carry around with me and it’s kind of like my base list of everything I have to get done in the world. And it’s a yellow pad because there’s a lot of notes behind it.

And then the index card, I just create the equivalent of something I can put in my pocket and carry around with me, so that as I’m going from meeting to meeting, I can remember what I need to do and I add things to that index card. It’s kind of like my little card that I kind of write additional to do’s as they come up with on.

Amantha Imber: And are you then crossing off to do’s on that index card all through the day as well?

Pamela Meyer: Trying.

Amantha Imber: Excellent.

Pamela Meyer: When I’m traveling, the index card is totally different, the index card is like a typed schedule. When I’m traveling and I have multiple meetings and agendas, and itinerary and flights, it all goes, you know, my office, we put together a whole schedule so that I don’t get lost in meetings that take all day when I need to be somewhere the next hour. And so I will still write notes all over that, but I keep a more formalized schedule that time, during that time.

Amantha Imber: Excellent. I’m intrigued about this time management course from your time at Electronic Arts, what are some other things that you found incredibly valuable and have stuck to this day?

Pamela Meyer: I don’t think this came from the time management course, but one of the things that I do that is kind of counterintuitive in terms of time management is I actually make a lot of phone calls. A lot of people feel that email and texting is much more direct, and you can get something done without all the cushion of the niceties of asking how you are and how was your day and how are your kids and what’s going on and then let me just get to it. They think it takes up a lot of time, but I actually find that for the core relationships that are really important to me in business, as well as personally, I just get on the phone. I’m one of the last holdouts on the telephone. And I think over time, it’s more efficient. In the short run, it’s less efficient ’cause you do spend more time on the phone than you would just shooting somebody a text. But over time, those relationships are built more with human contact.

I was just on the phone today with a lobbyist I’m working with on some policy issues here in Washington and texted him and said, “Give me a call, I want to tell you something.” And he called me right back. He knows, I’m one of the few people he works with that just calls. So I find that that’s a counterintuitive approach to time management over the long haul, it will serve you better.

Amantha Imber: I like that a lot. I think I could probably do with taking a leaf out of your book there, I think emails can just be so time consuming with all the back and forth that goes on. You think you’re being efficient, but in the long run, you’re possibly not. When you’re in the office, because you’re leading a company, how do you stay focused when you’re trying to do some sort of deep focused work, what techniques do you have for just getting rid of all the distractions that can be in an office, whether they’re online or offline distractions?

Pamela Meyer: I have a couple that are odd, but they’re mine. The first is a kind of, I call it the burst method. I kind of do bursts of energy. I can’t sit for hours on end, focusing on something. I do it in bursts, and I do wear headphones a lot. I think headphones keep me a lot more focused, which is not good, ’cause people feel that that’s rude. If you’re actually working with a team and you’re trying to motivate people, and you’ve got headphones on a lot, it doesn’t signal that you’re particularly available. So I know that that’s not socially necessarily that acceptable in an office environment, but it does help me. I do a lot of writing and a lot of research, so when I’m in that mode, I really need to have those headphones on. It keeps me from being distracted.

The other thing that I do is I, this is a little bit of a glimpse into my crazy internal monologue, but I do promise myself different rewards for different deep bursts of energy that I expend in different ways in my life. So if I have something I need to write, which can be really laborious and difficult, in order to set myself the deadline, I promise myself I’m going to go watch a movie at the end of the day or something. I give myself some kind of a treat at the end of the day.

I did this for years with exercise too, if I exercise five days solid, then I’ll get myself a massage on the sixth day. And I do this when I’m traveling as well, when I’m doing very, very intense training, which is three days, on my feet for three days in a row, eight hours a day, I will promise myself that I’m going to go to the best restaurant in that town as a reward at the end of it, and so same thing on airplanes. I will load up the iPad with something I really want to binge watch on the airplane, but I know I have a project and I have to work, so I’ll get the work done but I know I have that episode of Handmaid’s Tale or whatever it is everybody’s binge watching at the time to look forward to.

So I think bursts of energy, headphones and other ways to stay focused, and then providing oneself with little rewards and treats, that’s what works for me.

Amantha Imber: With your bursts, how long does a typical burst go for?

Pamela Meyer: It totally depends, it could go for days. It could go for days or it could be a micro burst, you know, a couple hours. Some are long term goals and some are more like little projects that you’re doing during the day. A lot of people say you should get up and walk around and get fresh air, I find that if I’m on a roll, I just keep it going. I don’t care how much time has gone by. But then when I’m done, I get myself out of the office environment. So I don’t set a timer or anything like that.

Amantha Imber: I like that, wow, a several day burst, that sounds intense. What are you doing to I guess keep energy levels up if you are in a seven day burst when you’re trying to I assume hit some kind of a deadline or accomplish some kind of project. How do you maintain energy levels?

Pamela Meyer: I actually … I think it comes from curiosity more than anything. There’s a lot you can do physically to maintain your energy level, you can eat healthy and you can exercise and you can walk around and you can start and stop and all of that.

We have a treadmill at my home, and so a lot of times I’ll start the day or I’ll end the day on the treadmill, but I think what really drives me when I’m working on a hard project, like I’m putting a really intense report together for a client or I’m custom designing training for a client. It’s very laborious, the research that we do to make sure that it’s entertaining and so forth, what drives me when I’m going through that is I remind myself what is interesting about this. Really, what’s my purpose in doing this and what is really, truly captivating my curiosity. And I think you have to keep reminding yourself of that ’cause sometimes the granular work that one does in any job can be incredibly frustrating or challenging or challenging to your energy, but if you remember why you’re doing it, what your purpose is and what’s interesting about it and you really follow those interests, I think it can help you through.

Amantha Imber: Fantastic. I’m curious as to how you prioritize, what you say yes and what you say no to ’cause I imagine that you’re probably inundated with different kinds of requests, so how do you think about what you do inevitably say yes to and what you decline?

Pamela Meyer: In my office, we work on a quarterly system and we actually set goals for each quarter, so we have a clear set of what our goals are, and the priorities really fall behind those goals. So we set them up, they’re on a whiteboard, I can see what they are. I usually have one for myself that’s personal as well, and I try really hard to let that drive decision making with a lot of room for improvise when something just sounds like it’s going to be fun, or someone just sounds like they’re going to be interesting to work with. Real believer in not being so rigid that you lose out on the fun.

Amantha Imber: Do you sort of trust your gut with that when you’re getting requests or how do you judge that?

Pamela Meyer: How do I judge what’s going to be fun?

Amantha Imber: Yeah, like what’s going to be worth kind of deviating from the quarterly goals?

Pamela Meyer: It’s usually either a person I really want to work with or it’s material that I really want to learn or go deeper into. It’s usually one or the other or possibly both.

Amantha Imber: And I’m curious, so you mentioned that you’ll opt for phone rather than email, but I’m curious, what is your approach to email? Are you someone that’s got email open all day or you check it at certain times of the day, what’s your approach to managing your inbox?

Pamela Meyer: I’m on email a lot, I’m not opposed to email at all, I love email. I just try when it’s important or when it’s a delicate conversation or it’s something that’s come up that really needs to be explored in a more substantive way, to do it in person ’cause I think it makes such a difference. I am pretty much always trying to get to inbox zero. I try really hard to respond very, very quickly when requests come in. I have an assistant that helps with that as well and we’re both on it quite substantially.

I try very hard when I construct emails not … To end a dialogue when it needs to be ended, not to keep someone engaged and take up their time. I try not to CC people that don’t need to be CC’d. I try not to respond to a chain of emails on one subject with a completely different subject, so that when you open it up, the subject line bares no resemblance to what someone is actually asking. I mean I try to basically have good, clean email etiquette, as we said. But I can’t say that I’m perfect at that at all. I try not to lose my temper and write in all caps with five exclamation points when something pisses me off.

Amantha Imber: Yes I love that.

Pamela Meyer: It’s been known to happen.

Amantha Imber: That sounds very kind of clean and logical, I wish everyone applied those rules to email, I think it would make it a lot quicker.

Pamela Meyer: Well I try. I’m certainly not perfect at it.

Amantha Imber: I’m curious when you said that you do quite a lot of writing, and I’ve read your writing which I like very much, do you approach writing, which I guess many would see as creative work, although arguably it’s also quite analytical as well with the kind of writing that you do, do you approach creative work in a different way or is it still sort of in that kind of focused bursty kind of way that you were talking about before?

Pamela Meyer: Writing, you know, backgrounders or reports or investigative analysis for a client is very different than writing for example a book or an OpEd. And so if you’re doing an editorial or if I’m doing some kind of blog post, in some ways, that requires much more solitude for me than if I’m doing kind of more of by business work where I’m just writing something, essentially trying to write a good memo or a good summary for a client. So those are two very different things. I think the creative work is more challenging and more satisfying at the same time. More challenging in that it requires kind of more isolation I think to think through and make sure the words are chosen much more carefully. Memos, analytic work, I tend to find can be done more in kind of outline form and the language doesn’t have to be exactly perfect. Of course you want it to be very readable and concise, but it’s more of a science and less of an art.

Amantha Imber: So with writing an OpEd say, would you still be in the office with the headphones on or have you got other tactics that you use when you are working on like a piece that as you say requires some more solitude?

Pamela Meyer: No, sometimes I will print and then go to Starbucks and edit by hand, or I’ll be in my home office late at night or it depends, oftentimes on an airplane.

Amantha Imber: Yep, I found that airplanes are great for creative work because no one is interrupting you.

Pamela Meyer: Exactly, and you have the white noise of the engine prompting you on.

Amantha Imber: Yes, is that why you like Starbucks for editing because of the white noise of the café?

Pamela Meyer: No, actually I don’t like the noise of the café, in fact I could give you a detailed list of all the public spaces one can go to in Washington D.C. to do editing that do or don’t have musac in the background.

Amantha Imber: I love it, what’s a couple of your favorite places in D.C.

Pamela Meyer: Well sometimes you’re better off at a hotel restaurant than you are in a chain restaurant where they have music going all the time, it depends.

Amantha Imber: Definitely, definitely. And do you have any tricks for when you’ve got writer’s block, when the screen is blank and you’ve got a deadline, what do you do?

Pamela Meyer: I’m lucky, I’m married to a really creative ex-journalist and so I talk to him.

Amantha Imber: Excellent.

Pamela Meyer: I’m lucky, great partner. So I’ll be like, “What do you think of this idea?” And he’ll just start riffing with me, and he’s great and so that’s usually the most helpful.

Amantha Imber: That’s awesome, I love it. I love it. To kind of finish out the show, I’d love to ask you a few quick questions about what kind of information are you consuming because I think a thing that so many people struggle with is that there’s so much information out there. There’s so many books, podcasts, articles, it’s hard to know what to consume. So I’m curious at the moment, what podcasts are you currently listening to and loving?

Pamela Meyer: I’m not a big podcast consumer. What I do, although I do listen to a lot of the New York Times podcasts, and NPR I listen to on podcast, but what I do is I have on my electronic device, I have a folder called News. And it’s not just news, but it’s basically … And I put every single source that I love to listen to into that folder and then I just graze that folder every day, I’m kind of going through and whether it’s a website or a podcast, and I just graze through them all.

Amantha Imber: Cool, I like that.

Pamela Meyer: So I often will go, I mean I’ll go from … I’m a big fan for example of the lifehacker websites, it’s one of my favorite websites, I’ve always loved it. I’ll go from that to the Wall Street Journal to The Economist to a cooking website all within five minutes. Just because my mind will want to absorb all of it at once in a way. But I do sit down for kind of like a full hour usually in the morning and I just go through everything. So I’ll sit all at once, but I’ll be grazing all over the place.

Amantha Imber: Love it, love it. What is a great book that you’ve read recently?

Pamela Meyer: I’m just looking for it, I’m in my office right now, and see if I can find it. It’s an interesting book called The Opposite of Hate by Sally Kohn, A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity. Very interesting book.

Amantha Imber: What was one of your biggest take outs from it?

Pamela Meyer: It’s just a very interesting look at where hate comes from and what we can do about it and just looking at so many of the problems we have in our world coming from something that we often don’t think about or talk about itself, which is hating. What hating means and how some hating comes actually from belonging and how there’s unconscious hate in the world as well that we’re not aware of and what happens when hate almost becomes pandemic. So it’s an interesting book.

Amantha Imber: Fantastic, and finally what’s an e-newsletter that you subscribe to that you actually look forward to receiving?

Pamela Meyer: The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners does a great fraud newsletter, and they pull stories that really have not hit the news yet that are quite interesting. Profiles of whistle blowers, and scams and you know, just the scope of different fraudulent sectors. So for example, they just did something on, huge case on Medicare fraud and medical scams and it’s just interesting that to read … Interesting to me, it may not be interesting to most of the people who listen to your podcast, but interesting to me to go deep into different ways in which fraud can infect our world.

Amantha Imber: I think that sounds fascinating, and look finally, Pamela, if people want to know more about you, read your things, where can people find you?

Pamela Meyer: They can watch my Ted Talk on How to Spot a Liar, they can go to my blog,, they can read my book, which is a book on liespotting as well, or they can go to my corporate website which is called Calibrate, C-A-L-I-B-R-A-T-E dash inc, and they can see what our business is doing.

Amantha Imber: Fantastic, love it. Oh Pamela, it’s been so awesome talking to you, thank you so much for being on the show.

Pamela Meyer: Thank you, it’s been a delight.

Amantha Imber: Hey there, that’s it for today’s episode. If you liked it, there are plenty of others that you might also enjoy, such as my chat with Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress, where we talk about how he organizes his phone to create healthy habits, and my conversation with Adam Grant, where we talk about the two things he does at the start of every week to make sure he stays on track with what really matters.

Finally, it’s great getting feedback from listeners such as yourself, so feel free to give this podcast a review in iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts, and if you like this episode, make sure you hit the subscribe button so you can be alerted when new episodes are released. See you next time.