All too often our big goals, the ones that we think will really make an impact on the world, or those we love, get shunted into never never land by the relentless treadmill of everyday tasks and distractions. Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky are tech developers who have worked on everything from Gmail to YouTube, so they understand better than most how the ‘Busy Bandwagon’ and ‘Infinity Pool’ of digital distractions can take over our lives. Their new book ‘Make Time’ explains how we can switch our default behaviours to focus on the things that really matter. Here’s what RSNG learned from reading it…
1. Take Four Steps Every Day
At the core of Knapp and Zeratsky’s philosophy is a simple 4-step approach to each and every day, because if you can’t make time today for what really matters then you probably never will: highlight, laser and reflect, with a vital supporting role for energy. ‘Every day, you’ll choose a single activity, or project, to prioritise and protect in your calendar.’ Importantly, this doesn’t have to be work related and it can be something you want to do rather than need to do, such as play with your kids, or write a book.
Then ‘laser’ steps in to make sure you are not distracted away from being able to fulfil your priority, using tactics such as scheduling times to check email, or logging out of social media apps. When it comes to the human body, it’s a counter intuitive truth that the more you use it, the more energy you get. ‘Charge your battery with exercise, food, sleep, quiet and face-to-face time… The lifestyle defaults of the Twenty First Century ignore our evolutionary history and rob us of energy. That’s actually good news: because things are so out of whack, there are a lot of easy fixes,’ write the authors.
The final daily step is to ‘reflect’ by taking a few notes in order to decide which tactics you used are working, and which ones to drop. This will allow you to customise and then fine-tune your own system to make time for your highlight.
‘Doing more doesn’t create time for what matters – it just makes you even more frazzled and busy’
2. Slow Down And Do Less
We live in a culture of busyness and being productive, trying to optimise our schedules and habits to cram more and more into our days. This is a recipe for feeling unfulfilled, say the authors of Make Time. ‘Doing more doesn’t help you create time for what matters; it just makes you feel even more frazzled and busy.’ Instead, we need to find space to experience doing something meaningful every day. ‘I loved thinking about big, lofty goals and I was good at getting things done by the hour, but neither was truly satisfying. I was happiest when I had something I could hold on to in the present – a chunk of time that bigger than a to-do but smaller than a five-year goal.’ In other words, a daily highlight, says Zeratsky.
Don’t go thinking that your highlight has to take up a massive chunk of your day. In fact, you should aim for a 60-90 minute sweet spot of time where you can bring laser focus to bear, while holding distractions and interruptions at bay.
3. Make A Burner List
Knapp and Zeratsky recommend writing your highlight down once you’ve decided on it, using various methods, including identifying today’s highest priority. They say to include work and life items in a stack and to not feel guilty if ‘work’ or ‘family’ lose out to playing the saxophone, for instance, on that particular day – your work and family may be in a good place, but if your music practice has fallen behind then you won’t progress in that long-term goal. Follow your gut instincts on this.
Once you’ve identified your highlight, rather than a to-do list, Knapp advocates drawing up a daily ‘Burner List’ on a piece of paper, with two columns. The left-hand column is for one project, activity or objective (and only one) to put on the front burner, with ‘counter space’ below it reserved for adding tasks for the top project. The top of the right-hand column is for your second most important project, with its related to-dos, then about halfway down make a ‘kitchen sink’ of anything unrelated to projects one and two.
You’ll notice that not all of your potential tasks will fit on the Burner List, but that’s the whole point. ‘I’ve found that one big project, one small project and a short list of catch-all tasks are all I can (or should!) take on at once. If it doesn’t fit on the paper, then it won’t fit in my life,’ says Knapp, who calls the Burner List disposable: once he’s crossed off a few finished to do’s he re-creates it, allowing different projects to change priority as his life shifts.
4. Re-Build Barriers To Distraction
In 2017, studies showed that Americans used their smartphone for four hours per day, and in 2016 researchers Dscout found that people touched their smartphones 2,167 times a day, on average. At the same time the average American still watches 4.3 hours of TV a day. The ‘Infinity Pools’ that the authors say live on our phones, TVs and laptops have managed to remove more and more barriers to us, pulling us deeper into distraction. They are never willingly going to give us our time back.
It might seem that we are powerless to resist, without going entirely off-grid and living in a mountain hut, but the authors say we can still take radical steps to recreate the barriers to apps, streaming content and endless emails, even without dropping our phones into a bucket. Since 2012 both Knapp and Zeratsky have been bosses of their phones by deleting all of their social apps email and web browsers, leaving the other ‘magical’ functions of cameras, mapping apps, calendars, music and podcasts, while limiting social media to laptops.
‘My phone used to call to me from my pocket the way the ring called to Bilbo Baggins. The second I felt even the slightest twinge of boredom, my phone would appear in the palm of my hand as if by magic. Now, without Infinity Pool apps, I feel less twitchy. Those moments when I used to instinctively reach for my phone, I’m forced to pause – and it turns out those moments are not so boring after all,’ says Knapp.
5. Slow Down Email
The benefits of email are also its downfall – it’s so quick and easy to send them that they bombard us all day long. A 2012 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that office workers spend only 39% of their time on real work and the rest communicating and coordinating, of which email accounts for a half. Make Time’s authors recommend taking back back control by slowing the whole process down and seeing emails as a dressed up, high-tech version of snail mail. ‘Most letters sit on your desk for a while before you do anything about them. And for 99% of communications that works just fine.’
Other tactics include only replying to email towards the end of the day, rather than checking first thing and allowing other people’s priorities to dictate your schedule. Also, setting a goal to empty your inbox once a week, slowing down your response time and resetting expectations with a auto-response or other communication saying you’re slow because you are prioritising other projects, and that any urgent messages should be sent by text.
‘Walking created time I could use for thinking or mentally working on my highlight’
6. Take The Pavement
When it comes to adding the energy component of Make Time’s four steps, it requires a mindset shift. Rather than exercise or a new diet being performed to achieve a separate goal or distinct project, we need to realise that to get energy for our brains we need to take care of our bodies. It’s the small steps we take each day to be more active and eat healthier that count here, rather than complex workout plans, or overly restrictive diets.
A good pace to start is to make our lives as ‘inconvenient’ as possible. If you need to do a journey of less than two miles then why not walk? Swap your wheeled luggage for backpacks you have to carry, take the stairs rather than the lift, cook your dinner. Not only will being more active give you more mental energy, there may be some unexpected benefits, as Zeratsky found when he swapped a crowded bus or his car for walking his two-mile commute.
‘As walking became my routine, I noticed something surprising: I felt like I had more time when I walked to work. Technically, walking took longer than riding or driving, but it didn’t feel that way because walking created time I could use for thinking or mentally working on my highlight.’
7. Don’t Wait For Someday
‘For most of our own careers we were too distracted, scrambled, busy and exhausted to make time for the things we cared most about,’ say the authors. ‘When you create a practice of setting your own most important priority, daily life changes.’ So, don’t wait for the time to pursue your own priorities to miraculously appear, or you’ll be putting them off for forever. ‘As Howard Thurman said, the world needs people who have come alive. Don’t wait for “someday” to make time for what makes you come alive. Start today.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Jake Knapp being interviewed by Dave Asprey on Bulletproof Radio about his work with Google and Slack...