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Illustration: Andrea Chronopoulos

You vs. Your Inbox

All the productivity bells and whistles only make things harder

Everyone has their own “distraction kryptonite” — the thing that irresistibly pulls them away from spending their time on activities they care about. For some, it’s the aspirational images of Instagram. For others, it’s the global pulse of Twitter. Some find the lure of breaking news or niche discussion boards impossible to look away from.

For me, it’s email.

I know how lame that sounds. But here’s why: Since I no longer work at a big company, virtually every email I receive is intended for me. I never get copied on big threads or added to team updates. …

It’s all about creating the perfect template, then using it the right way

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Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

Sometimes I fantasize about an empty calendar. No meetings. No obligations. Nothing but time for my work, myself, and the people I care about.

Then I remember: I’ve already lived that dream, more than once. I had an empty calendar in 2015, while writing my book, Sprint. I had it when my wife and I were traveling in Central America and our only commitments were to each other. When we first moved to Milwaukee, there it was again — an empty calendar. Nothing but possibility.

And then I remember something else: The reality of an empty calendar does not live up to the dream. …

Spending all my energy on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy has given me new appreciation for what’s at the top

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Credit: Jonathan Evans/Getty Images

Two years ago, my wife and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. We had full-time corporate jobs, a car, and a busy life full of friends and work.

Today, we live on a sailboat. For the past 18 months, we’ve been sailing and traveling in Central America. We’re fully responsible for our health, safety, and comfort. If we don’t feel like cooking dinner, we can’t grab a phone and order delivery. Instead of a paycheck, we live off our investments, supplemented by income from writing and other projects.

A lot of big stuff hasn’t changed. Michelle and I are still happily married. I have the same great friends. I’m still myself, with my same interests and values. But over the past two years, I’ve nearly completely changed the circumstances of my life. …

Two and a half years ago, when we published Sprint, I thought to myself: “Cool, mission accomplished.” The Design Sprint recipe — based on Jake’s work at Google and our years of experimentation together at Google Ventures — was out in the world, described in enough detail that anyone could pick up the book and run their own sprint. (Indeed, many teams have done just that.)

But I had a blind spot. Because we had done so many sprints at GV—about 150 after five years—I forgot what it was like to have never done a sprint before. I didn’t think about how hard it could be to run that very first sprint. Dumb, I know. …

Here’s what is really necessary for making good use of your time

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Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

I’ve been sitting in front of computers since I was about 10 years old. In that time I’ve designed a thousand newspaper pages, built hundreds of software prototypes, hacked together who-knows-how-much code, written probably a million words of prose (including two books), dabbled in video editing and audio production, and created a surprising number of spreadsheets 🤔

I’m feeling reflective, so I’ve been thinking back on all those years and all that work. Here’s one thing that stands out: I wasted a lot of time and attention obsessing about my workspace.

For example, at Google, I worked at a desk that was configured for my body by an ergonomic consultant, with display risers and a keyboard tray and a thousand-dollar chair that was set to precisely the right height. …

Step one: fake the sunset

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Photo by Ahmet Ali Ağır on Unsplash

Co-authored with Jake Knapp

According to a 2016 study by the University of Michigan, Americans spend around eight hours in bed every night, as do folks in Britain, France, and Canada. But despite what seems like a decent amount of time in bed, most of us still don’t get enough sleep. What the heck? Sleep quality is more important than quantity, and our world is full of barriers to getting good sleep — from screens to schedules to caffeine.

When you don’t take care of your body, your brain can’t do its job. If you’ve ever felt slow and uninspired after a big lunch or invigorated and clearheaded after exercising, you know what I mean. If you want energy for your brain, you need to take care of your body. …

From the moment I clicked “Publish” two years ago, I’ve been uncomfortable with my post about ignoring the news.

Not because it’s wrong, or because it’s bad advice. On the contrary, I think ignoring the news is more important than ever. (I even made it a part of my new book Make Time, as tactic #25, “Ignore the News”.) If you follow the news because you’re an active, engaged citizen—a force for good in a world of bad news—you can’t afford to squander your time and energy in a reactive loop of breaking news. You need to be in charge.

No… That old post makes me uncomfortable because telling people to ignore the news feels wrong in today’s chaotic world. …

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Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash

I am writing this on a Friday morning. Last night, I stayed out a little too late. I didn’t get enough sleep. I had one too many drinks. I even ate dessert after dinner. The night before, I did the exact same thing. It’s not a big deal, but I’m feeling tired and a bit hungover.

Yesterday I decided that my Highlight for Friday would be to draft this post. And as usual, I planned to start right after coffee. But I didn’t. When I opened my laptop, I checked my email instead… New tab, start typing “inbox,” matched to Scroll, click, archive, reply. Next up, Twitter. New tab, type “tw,” auto-complete, same drill. Like, like, reply. Then, Facebook. …

I’m a big fan of doing one thing at a time. This approach is powerful because, among other reasons, it works well at different “zoom levels” in life.

If we zoom in, the one-thing-at-a-time tactic can help us get things done more quickly, with less stress. (This is the idea behind my One Big Thing practice, which has evolved into Make Time’s daily Highlight.)

But zoom out, and it gets even more interesting: If we can focus on just one thing per month, or per year, we can make big changes to our health, career, relationships, finances, or any other department of life. …

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For nearly 15 years I’ve been a designer in the technology industry. I’ve worked with close to 200 companies, including Slack, 23andMe, Pocket, and of course GV, YouTube, and Google. I’ve designed websites, mobile apps, enterprise software, medical reports, newspapers, and even the personality for a robot.

But now I’m going to leave that world behind — at least for a little while — and set sail on a new adventure.

And no, that’s not a metaphor.

My wife and I are embarking on an open-ended sailing voyage!

This is an adventure we’ve been dreaming and discussing and planning together for almost 10 years. …


John Zeratsky

Veteran technology designer, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Make Time and Sprint. More at

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