Be more productive: Block distracting websites and apps on all your devices with Freedom - try Freedom today

Peter Sagal: Finding ‘Freedom’ From Constant Distraction

Peter Sagal of NPR

At Freedom, we love our users – not just because they use our product, but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, bestselling authors,  editors, journalists, developers, illustrators, designers, academics, coaches, bloggers, explorers, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and passionate go-getters. We love to share their stories, advice, and process because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?

Meet Peter Sagal.

A man of many hats, Peter has at some point been a playwright, screenwriter, author, journalist, columnist, marathoner, Jeopardy contestant, dramaturg, podcast host, documentary host, foreign correspondent, actor, wedding officiant, magician’s assistant, and most importantly a husband and father.

During his early career, Peter pursued several different occupations with a focus on theater and writing, which earned him awards from the Lannan Foudnation, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and fellowships from the Camargo and Jerome Foundations.

Then in 1997, Peter got a call from a friend telling him about a new NPR show, which was looking for “funny people that read a lot of newspapers.” He auditioned and shortly after became the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! In the two decades since, he has traveled all of over the country with the show and had the opportunity to interview some of the world’s most interesting people including: two Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, astronauts and rocket scientists, musicians like Elvis Costello, Yo Yo Ma, and Ice Cube, actors including Tom Hanks and Scarlet Johansson – just to name a few. During his time as host, Wait, Wait has grown from 50,000 weekly listeners on nine stations to over five million listeners on more than 700 stations – though he promises that this hasn’t gone to his head.

With such success, diverse experience, and the resume of a small village, we decided to step aside and let him tell you how he finds the focus and time to do it all.

How did you know that you wanted to be a host and writer (among your many other roles) and what were your first steps in making this your career?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer — I remember learning to peck and type on a typewriter (for the kids: it’s a mechanical laptop without a screen) when I was in kindergarten. Being a host, though, came suddenly and accidentally. I auditioned for a radio show, got a job as a panelist, and then later i got a call asking me if I wanted to try being host. I thought it sounded like fun. Seriously. That’s it. Answer the phone, change your life. It worked for me. 

npr wait wait don't tell me

At what point did you realize that tech was taking a toll on your productivity, time, and relationships? When did you know that you had to do something about it?

I’ve always struggled with ADHD, or as I’ve thought of it, an almost physical urge to avoid whatever work I was supposed to be doing. And sort of how I assume an addict keeps wishing for a better high, even before the internet I wished my computer would talk to me, distract me, give me something to do other than fill in the letters behind the blinking cursor. So when the internet came, I was lost almost immediately. 

How do you prioritize what gets your time and attention each day?

Sadly, my usual method is to wait until I’m in trouble for not doing it. Some people use discipline, I use adrenaline and shame. 

How do you stay focused and motivated on a daily basis? Do you have a routine, ritual,  or process that helps to get into a productive flow?

I struggle with it every day. The thing that helps most is knowing I have people depending on me. My colleagues need me to get stuff done so they can get their stuff done, and feel good about their own work. My audience needs me to write a show so they can enjoy it. My friends need me to respond so I can let them know that I’m thinking about them and want to help them. Etc. I’m at my best when I can leverage my guilt and perform something like feels like service. 

How do you optimize your environment for productivity and focus? How do you incorporate Freedom into your schedule?

As I once joked, how do people expect anybody to get work done on a device which could provide unlimited pornography at the touch of a button? (That’s a joke: porn isn’t the problem, Twitter is. I’ve looked at it eight times in the course of answering these questions.) So basically, I give myself a coherent single task. Write a speech, scene, letter, chapter, segment of my show. Nothing impossible, like, “A Play!” or a “A Book!” And then I turn on Freedom for an hour, and try to get it done. Usually, I succeed. If not: another hour-long session. 

What is the most difficult or challenging aspect about your work or working process? Do you have any strategies that you use to help overcome these challenges?

I could list the various distractions available that entice me away from my focus, and blame them, but it’s not their fault. I’ll distract myself with anything: a chore, a snack, anything. I once locked myself in a library room with only books in German to keep myself from distracting myself from a paper I had to write, and ended up within ten minutes trying to teach myself German. 

What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?

Other than Freedom? The only thing that helps is trying to keep my desk clean. And maybe a picture of my wife, to let me know if I get this (whatever this is) done, I can get back to being with her. 

What projects are you currently most excited about?

Right now, with my book out last year, I’m between major projects. Thinking about a new book. Thinking about a new play or two. Generally speaking, though, the less I talk about things, the better I am at doing them. 

the incomplete book of running by peter sagal

What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay healthy and productive?

Running. Running, running, and more running. For more, see my book (written with the help of Freedom, of course): The Incomplete Book of Running. 

Where are you currently based?

Chicago, IL. 

To learn more about Peter Sagal and his work, you can follow him on Twitter @PeterSagal