How Adobe Principal Designer Khoi Vinh Gets Things Done

Khoi Vinh doesn't believe in coffee

A day in the life of Adobe designer Khoi Vinh
Illustration by Margarida Mouta

After 25 years in digital design, Khoi Vinh is still pushing creative boundaries. As a Principal Designer at Adobe, he was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2019 for his pioneering work bringing voice interface tools to designers. Before Adobe, Khoi served as Design Director at both the New York Times and Etsy. He’s also a huge movie buff (he watched no less than 201 movies in 2018) who writes about film, technology, and design on his long-running personal blog, subtraction.com. His most recent creative endeavor: Hosting the design storytelling podcast Wireframe, a collaboration by Adobe and Gimlet Creative.   

Khoi also happens to be one of the earliest adopters of Todoist, writing about the app back in 2007 when it was still just a single-platform app built by a one-man “company”. Today he lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, daughter (age 9), and twin sons (ages 6). He still uses Todoist.

In this productivity profile, Khoi walks us through his typical workday including a morning routine without breakfast or coffee, his strategies for carving out time for “deep work” as a manager (“you have to get crafty”), and how he’s managed to build a 614-day streak of completing at least 6 Todoist tasks per day. 

This is the latest installment of our new Productivity Profile series where interesting people give us a behind-the-scenes look at what their day-to-day routines actually look like and the tips, tricks, habits, and workflows they use to get things done. Sign up for our newsletter to get the next profile delivered to your inbox.

Early rise & RSS, hold the coffee

I wake up as late as I can, which is rarely later than 6:30 am. I have young kids, but even before the kids came along, I had a dog, so I’ve been waking up before 6:00 am for so long that my body often just wakes me for no reason at, say, 5:00 am, which is what happened today.

I often spend a bit of time catching up on various blogs and news sites via Fiery Feeds, an app on my iPad. It’s a bit archaic to still use RSS, but it works very well for me. I can stay current with certain sources I value and it keeps me off of social media. I try to spend as little time on social media as I can.

I also just think coffee is a total scam that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing is an essential staple.

I get about ten minutes to myself and then my wife and I get my three kids dressed, fed, ready for school, and out the door. Their school is not in our neighborhood, so that means we take a short bus ride to the subway. It makes for long mornings.

I stopped eating breakfast about a year ago. I found that I didn’t really need it, and it gives me some time back in the morning. I also do not drink coffee. Except for a brief flirtation with it when I was in my early twenties, I’ve never found it to be particularly enjoyable or necessary. I guess I’m lucky that I have enough natural energy to never feel the need for coffee, but I also just think coffee is a total scam that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing is an essential staple.

Catching up on the commute

After I drop off my kids at school it’s a short walk back to the subway, which I take from Brooklyn into Manhattan where Adobe’s offices are. I’m usually listening to podcasts as I walk, and when I get on the train I switch to music while I start reading on my phone. Usually I read the latest issue of The New Yorker when it comes out on Monday mornings. After a day or two when I’ve finished that, I switch to books or, occasionally, reading something on my constantly growing but infrequently visited Instapaper backlog.

Productivity wise, I often add new tasks to Todoist in the mornings, because a lot of them seem to occur to me during that part of the day. I try to capture them as soon as I think of them.

I like to get off the subway a stop or two before my destination and walk the rest of the way while listening to podcasts. I’m a big fan of podcasts by the way—in fact, the work I’ve done as host on “Wireframe,” which is a show where we tell deep narratives about the world of design, is some of the stuff I’m proudest of lately.

Productivity wise, I often add new tasks to Todoist in the mornings, because a lot of them seem to occur to me during that part of the day. I try to capture them as soon as I think of them. If it’s not a convenient moment, I’ll sometimes actually mentally “write them out” so that I can remember them more easily when I do get a chance to add them. That could happen anytime between waking up and sitting down at my desk at the office, and always on my iPhone.

Khoi’s to-do list on Todoist for iOS.

Opting for the office

Adobe does make it easy to work from home, but I try not to do that more than once a week because I find the facetime with people in the office—and the more reliable wifi — makes my job a lot easier. However, if I have a day where I’d just be on video calls all day anyway (there are a lot of video calls in a company where teams are spread all over the globe) I tend to work from home. It’s also not unusual that I’ll have conference calls that are scheduled for late afternoon Pacific time which means early evening in New York, so I’ll either stay home all day or leave the office early and do those from home, so that I can be around for my family instead of commuting home at 8:00 pm or 9:00 pm. My mornings at home are not much different from the office except that I’m such a neat freak that I usually can’t get started on work until I’ve cleaned up all the dishes and mess from breakfast first.

Unless I have meetings elsewhere—which is about half of the time—I get to the office between 8:30 am and 9:00 am. That’s really nice because it’s very quiet; not only are most people not in the New York office yet, but it’s at least two or three hours before Adobe’s west coast offices wake up. So I’m often very productive at that time.

The very first thing I do when I sit down to work is review all of my tasks in Todoist. I create a task for everything in Todoist, so I usually have at least two dozen items that I’m looking at for any seven-day period. It also means that every morning there are tasks that I didn’t accomplish from the previous day. That’s never concerned me, because what’s important to me is that they’re visible and in my line of sight. Rather than being obsessive about finishing everything, I’ll reschedule those tasks, move them to today or to further out, to a more realistic point in time for me to tackle them

Khoi’s Next 7 Days view on Todoist for Mac

My days are predictable in that there’s usually some combination of lots of meetings and running around town, but rarely in a recognizable pattern. And then there’s all the travel I do, too, whether it’s to Adobe’s San Francisco office or to some conference or to visit some customer, I end up traveling quite a bit. My calendar is basically an intricate puzzle.

I literally couldn’t do my job or even manage all the business of being a fully functioning parent and spouse—school, playdates, anniversaries, date nights, housework, home contractors, whatever—without Todoist.

I lead the design team building Adobe XD, our new design/prototyping/collaboration tool for people who make apps, websites, and all kinds of digital products. So I talk a lot with the designers on that team and check in on their progress. I also spend a lot of time with the XD leadership team—the business management, product management, engineering management, marketing management teams, basically. And when I’m not in the office, I’m meeting customers—other designers!—which is the funnest part of the job. Getting to hang out with people who are interested in my passion, design, and who are diving super deep into various aspects of it that I’m often just barely familiar with is incredibly fun.

I’m a heavy, heavy Todoist user. I open Todoist countless times a day—on my iPhone, my iPad, and my Mac. My approach is to capture everything I want to do. As soon as I think of it, I add a task and assign a due date.

I literally couldn’t do my job or even manage all the business of being a fully functioning parent and spouse—school, playdates, anniversaries, date nights, housework, home contractors, whatever—without Todoist.

Keeping productivity simple

I don’t really have a productivity method. All I do is capture tasks, assign a date to them, then try to cross them off as I get them done. When I don’t get something done on its due date, I move it forward. That’s it. I find it works great.

I look for blocks of time on my calendar that I can cordon off for “deep work”. Sometimes I’ll move around meetings to create longer contiguous blocks, and then I’ll create a meeting called “Do Not Book” or, if I suspect someone will ignore that, I’ll name it something like “Collaboration Session” or “Research Review.” You have to get crafty.

Khoi blocks out time on his calendar for deep work.

For me, getting focused is about making the time. If I can clear my schedule, and I can sit down at my desk—preferably in my home office—I have no trouble focusing. Occasionally, I get more distracted than I would like by news headlines or social media, but I’ve been steadily weaning myself off the latter for a few years and now its not a real problem. I just need a block of time, some headphones, and all my stuff. When you have so little focus time, it’s easier to concentrate when you get it.

Sometimes I’ll move around meetings to create longer contiguous blocks, and then I’ll create a meeting called “Do Not Book” or, if I suspect someone will ignore that, I’ll name it something like “Collaboration Session” or “Research Review.” You have to get crafty.

When I get into a deep work mode, I usually listen to music. But my musical tastes are quite unfashionable, I’m afraid. It’s usually pretty drone-y or atonal, or it’s in the ballpark of some long disgraced trends, like psych rock or glam or whatever. Basically, I just sort of like what I like and have no idea what’s popular with the young people today—or with anyone, to be honest.

Aside from lunch, I rarely take breaks. There’s just too much to do during the day, sadly. I’m also trying to optimize for my time at home with my family. So I’d rather power through and finish all of my commitments for the day an hour earlier than I would if I took a bunch of breaks. That extra hour with my wife and kids is invaluable compared to the break time.

Balancing profession and parenthood 

I sometimes leave work earlier, but usually I’m out by 6:00 or 7:00. It is helpful for me to stay loosely up to date on email until about 9:00 at night, because things are still happening on the west coast and I can be more efficient the next day if I get them sorted out as they happen. But I don’t often find myself with a huge chunk of labor to be lifted after dinner.

I rarely take breaks…That extra hour with my wife and kids is invaluable compared to the break time.

I want to do a good job at work and really make a difference at Adobe, at what we’re building and making life a little bit better for our customers. At the same time, I want to have a happy home life and be there for my wife and be a very present dad to my kids. So, I do strive for a balance and it’s just hard. For the most part I make it work. The times it doesn’t is when I have to travel, which is too often for my taste, but less often than I know a lot of people in tech have to go on the road. So overall, I feel pretty balanced—and lucky.

Powering down with family and film

My kids have an evening routine, and I’m kind of beholden to it. Bedtime starts at 7:00 pm—theoretically but as they get older that slips more and more frequently—and it often takes them a while to fall asleep. So on nights when I’m on bedtime duty my time is not my own until 8:00 pm or sometimes as late as 9:00 pm or 9:30 pm. After that, my wife and I spend some time together, either eating late if we didn’t manage to get dinner in beforehand, catching up with each others’ lives, or watching a movie together..

I’m a massive movie fan. I just like watching anything and everything. I like new movies and I’m fascinated by movie history—anything that came before, even if it was just a decade ago. I also log everything I watch over at Letterboxd, and then write monthly round-ups of what I saw on my blog.

Khoi keeps track of all the movies he watched on Letterboxd.

My wife tends to fall asleep a little before I do, so I end the night catching up on various bits of work or personal business on my iPad before turning in around 11:00 pm or so.

If I remember, I’ll do one last review of my Todoist tasks to make sure that I haven’t forgotten something to add or neglected to check off something I finished. I’ve become kind of ridiculously enamored with Todoist’s Karma system which keeps a running record of my total completed tasks. I’ve got a running streak of almost six hundred consecutive days of completing at least six or more tasks per day in Todoist.

Khoi's Todoist Karma Daily Streak
Khoi’s 614-day task goal streak and counting…

I want to make sure I get credit for every one of them because I’m this close to reaching the next—and highest—“karma level,” which apparently less than 1% of Todoist users have ever achieved, from what I understand. I think that’s somewhere around 16,000 or so completed tasks in Todoist. So yeah it’s all a bit silly because there’s really no reward for getting to that highest tier (is there?) but hey it’s working for me, so I can’t complain.

I usually get to sleep too late.

Update: Since the writing of this profile, Khoi has reached the final karma level, Enlightened. As of publish, his daily task goal streak continues at 625 days.

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