Optimizing Your Life One Day at a Time
It might surprise you to learn Jake Knapp has come to think of productivity as “kind of a dirty word.”
The man who created Google Venture’s sprint process and co-wrote the New York Times best-seller, Sprint, has a new perspective on time management and how he works. He joined us on a recent podcast to talk about it and his new book, Make Time.
According to Jake, the big problem with productivity is that it’s usually reactive.
He admits it feels good to get a lot of stuff done. But that doesn’t mean he’s doing the thing that matters most. It’s too easy to spend time checking items off a to-do list, powering through emails and attending meetings in a reactive state, instead of purposefully choosing to focus on the most important thing.
Defining The Highlight of Your Day
Through their work leading design sprints at Google Ventures, Jake and his co-author, John Zeratsky, came to focus on what they call “highlights.”
In a design sprint, every day of the week has a single focal point, such as mapping, sketching, prototyping or testing. They found this was an energizing and satisfying way to approach work, and they started experimenting with how it could be applied in other ways.
“John started to do this in his own day-to-day life,” Jake explained. “When we weren’t in a sprint, he would write down: What’s the one big thing that I want to do today? What’s the thing that matters the most?”
Eventually they recognized the ideal highlight is something in between a to-do list task and a goal. It’s about 60 to 90 minutes of focused activity that should be prioritized above everything else. It could be a work thing, or in the broader scope of your day, it could be making time to hang out with your kids or go to dinner with friends.
At the end of the day, Jake said it’s about being able to look back and say: “That was the thing that brought me the most joy or the most satisfaction.”
Staying Out of the Infinity Pool
In addition to focusing on a daily highlight, Jake also purposefully steers clear of what he calls “infinity pools.” These are the apps on our phones that constantly refresh with new content, like Facebook, Instagram or even Gmail.
Jake actually deleted these apps from his phone, which is pretty ironic considering he worked extensively on creating Gmail during his early days at Google. “The difference between only having email available on your computer and having it on your phone as well, it’s actually a huge deal,” he said. “When it’s on your phone, you could be up to date on your email inbox at any time, for 24 hours a day, wherever you are, which isn’t necessary.”
By deleting all the infinity pools from his phone, the time he spent with his family improved and he began working on side projects, like writing books. “Without all that stuff, it cleared up a huge amount of stress and divided-attention from my head, and I felt like I had more attention,” he said.
Device makers are beginning to introduce tools to help people control their usage. But Jake said there’s a big difference between just dialing down usage on your phone a little bit and actually going all the way to zero.
Unplugging From the Workplace
Of course, not everyone has the option to delete these apps from their phones, which may be required for staying on top of projects and keeping in touch with colleagues. But this led to an interesting discussion about workplace culture.
Management certainly wants employees to focus on doing their best work without a bunch of task switching. But they also want to have open lines of communication. So what’s the right balance?
Jake said the value proposition for management is that helping make time for employees to focus gives them more agency in their work, instead of just reacting (often in circles with other employees) to what’s going on around them.
It might be impossible to give up meetings and Slack completely, but he suggested that bosses create space every day for their teams to have focus time that they purposefully control — a time when perhaps email and messages are not allowed.
Controlling Your Calendar (Not the Other Way Around)
Jake said the best thing he ever did to get control over his calendar was to quit his job.
But that’s not an option for everyone. So he recommended another strategy that he still uses, which is to block off big chunks of time for focused work. He suggested going as far as scheduling a full design sprint, if needed, to create more focus.
Batching meetings into one or two days a week is another effective approach, and one that will help minimize the impact of the “time crater.” That’s the 20 or 30 minutes before and after a meeting that are lost (in addition to the meeting time) for doing deep, focused work.
“Any meeting in the day, it’s like putting a rock through a pane of glass.”
“It’s not just going to put a perfect hole in there, it’s going to shatter a bit. So we tried to leave fully blank days on the calendar whenever we could,” Jake said.
Alternatively, you can design your calendar around mornings and afternoons to optimize your most effective hours. For a lot of people that means no email or meetings first thing in the morning when they’re freshest. “The calendar can be a tool to help you focus,” Jake said. “It’s just that by default, if we don’t take control of it, it’s going to be a tool to push us around.”
Going All In
Ultimately, the big idea behind Make Time is to proactively design your days (and life) so you can be 100% focused and mindful when you’re engaged in the things that are most important to you. It’s doing whatever works for you to marshall the physical and mental energy to be fully engaged in your highlights.
“I’ve got to shut off the things that distract me,” Jake said. “I may have to make those impossible to access; I may have to turn off the Internet; I may have to delete the apps on my phone; whatever. But once I do that, once I create a little bit of space, if there’s something I want to do, then I can get into what we call laser mode. Then I can be 100% focused.”
Jake added, that if the highlight is something you truly want to do, the rewards will be immediate. Changing one’s behavior patterns is inherently difficult, so choosing a highlight that truly excites you is a key piece of the equation. According to Jake, picking and doing that thing will energize the rest of your day and generate immediate rewards, not to mention long-term progress towards bigger goals that may be involved.
“You can’t just wait for somebody else to think that your dreams or your goals are important.”
Jake said, “You’ve got to find a way to take your attention back, even if it’s for an hour to an hour and a half a day, I think that can make a huge difference in what you’re able to do and how good you feel about how you’re spending your life.”