The shift in thinking that’ll help you beat distraction forever

Jan 23 · 9 min read

Imagine you’ve been transported back in time 50,000 years. Once you recover from your initial shock, you set out to learn more about this strange, unfamiliar world. As you explore, you come across a young hunter-gatherer named Urk. He’s amused by your strange clothes, but quickly realizes you don’t pose a threat and invites you to join his tribe.

Although their customs seem strange at first, over time you find yourself enjoying the sense of community and purpose these prehistoric humans share. Suddenly a thought hits you: “Other than the language barrier, how different from them am I?”

That’s the question posed by the self-proclaimed “Time Dorks,” Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, in their book “Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day”. They contend that a major problem we face today — the sense that our lives are out of our control — is not that we don’t have the willpower to do what’s best for us, it’s that we’re simply not built for it.

As Jake and John (affectionately called JZ throughout the book) see it, the advances of modern society are not beneficial, or even intentional. Our world, they say, has “been shaped very accidentally by the technologies that have stuck over the last few centuries, decades, and years. We’re built for one world, but we live in another.”

So how can we navigate our modern world using brains designed for a very different way of life?

What’s standing in your way?

In the days before email, Facebook, and Netflix, you had to pay close attention to what was happening around you. It helped to know which berries were safe to eat, where to find shelter, and how to avoid being eaten by a lion. Your level of attention was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Things are very different now. Remarkably few of us have to worry about being attacked by wild animals as we go through our day. Other than the risks from unwashed lettuce, our food supply is extremely safe. But our brains haven’t changed, which is why we’re so easily distracted — although now it’s by smartphones and social media instead of saber-toothed tigers.

How deep is this modern obsession? Research firm Dscout tracked smartphone usage and found the average person touches their phone 2,617 times per day. That adds up to almost a million touches a year.

“All these technologies take advantage of the natural wiring of the brain, which evolved in a world without microchips,” say Jake and JZ. Tech companies hire the best and brightest employees, then task them with inventing new ways of capturing and maintaining your attention. Not because of some evil plan to take over the world — it’s simply business. In our modern world, attention equals income, which for a company equals survival.

As a result, say the Time Dorks, “most of our time is spent by default.”

Jake and JZ divide these digital distractions into two categories:

Busy Bandwagons

These are the byproducts of an ‘always-on’ business culture—“the overflowing inboxes, stuffed calendars, and endless to-do lists” demanding your attention. As soon as a new email or instant message arrives, it compels you to put aside what you’re working on and address it. Why? Because, say Jake and JZ, you’ve been conditioned to believe that “if you want to meet the demands of the modern workplace and function in modern society, you must fill every minute with productivity.”

Infinity Loops

Infinity Loops are the constant flow of news and entertainment you feel you have to stay on top of in order to belong to the ‘tribe.’ As the Time Dorks say, “If you can pull to refresh, it’s an Infinity Pool. If it streams, it’s an Infinity Pool.” The problem is that there’s no end; you can scroll and refresh and consume forever. It’s like candy for your brain — “your reward for the exhaustion of constant busyness.”

Note: For a closer look at the distractions competing for your attention, and how you can fight back, check out our Focus Culture podcast with John “JZ” Zeratsky:

How can you “make” time?

As Jake and JZ put it, “Distraction has become the new default.” So what can you do about it?

You can’t create more time, but by reclaiming the time you have from the distractions in your life, “you can get the best of technology, and put yourself back in control.”

First you need to break free of the Busy Bandwagons and Infinity Loops. But remember, these distractions were designed by some of the smartest folks in the world, with the sole purpose of grabbing your attention and not letting go. Clearly, willpower isn’t going to be enough — you need a strategy.

That is the heart of “Make Time.” The Time Dorks have devised a four-step plan for reclaiming your time and attention, so you can focus on the things that really matter to you.


The Busy Bandwagon is constantly telling you to do more: get more done, set more goals, be more efficient. Instead, say the Time Dorks, do less but do it well.

In particular, they say, you should choose one thing to be your “highlight” for the day. It won’t be the only thing you do, but it will give each day a focal point — a sense of direction and purpose.

Here are the three questions the Time Dorks offer for choosing your highlight:

  • What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?
  • At the end of the day, what will bring me the most satisfaction?
  • When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?

Your highlight doesn’t have to be work-related; in fact, what brings you the most joy probably won’t be. It could be spending quality time with your family or friends, or even doing something just for you. Doing less is about “experiencing the moments you want to savor and remember rather than rushing through them just to get to that next item on your to-do list.”

For our tribe of hunter-gatherers we met at the start of this article, they would have no doubt had a highlight for each of their days. If a storm was coming, it might have been to find shelter; if the herd animals were migrating, it might have been to find food for the tribe. Some days, it may have been to share stories with their children so their traditions would be carried on.


Once you’ve decided on your highlight for each day, it’s up to you to focus on it with intensity. That requires a particular state of mind, when “your attention is focused on the present like a laser beam shining on a target.”

Many people refer to this state as “flow,” or being “in the zone.” It’s essential for sustained high-level work, but it’s not easy to achieve. The Busy Bandwagons and Infinity Loops are conspiring to pull you out of this state. That’s why overcoming them is crucial to making time for what matters.


What would our hunter-gatherer ancestors have eaten? Research suggests that it was mostly fruits, nuts, meat, and fish. Food supply was unreliable, which meant that they would often skip meals — sometimes for days. And nothing was processed (obviously). In spite of what we would call deprivation, they survived and thrived. They were constantly on the move, so exercise was a given, and managed to expand from their African origins to fill the entire world.

Now, however, we eat processed foods stripped of nutrition, work all day at desks, and move from place to place in cars. It’s no wonder we feel sluggish and overweight.

Instead, say the Time Dorks, you can “make” time by squeezing more into the hours you have. By treating your body more like your ancestors would have done, you can “turn moments that might otherwise be lost to mental and physical fatigue into usable time for your Highlights.”


A good experiment requires observation and reflection to make sure the results are accurate and repeatable — the Time Dorks’ plan is no different.

At the end of the day, it’s important to look back on what worked and what didn’t. That gives you the ability to make any course corrections for the following day, so you can get closer to the goal you’ve set.

Reflecting is simple, but vital. All it requires of you is to honestly assess whether you made time for your highlight, how focused and energized you felt, what tactics you tried, and what you want to do differently tomorrow.

Finally, it’s important to note something you’re grateful for. That will help you stay positive rather than focusing solely on what could have gone better.

Going beyond the 4-step plan

OK, so the Time Dorks’ plan to make time is a great start, but that alone isn’t enough to save you from the Busy Bandwagon and Infinity Pools. Jake and JZ break the plan down further into 87 straightforward tactics you can use to put it into action.

As JZ explained to Evernote’s Forrest Bryant, “Make Time” isn’t a recipe for success; think of it as a cookbook, and each of the 87 tactics as an experiment. As Jake and JZ admit, “we use some tactics all the time and some tactics some of the time, and we each use some tactics none of the time.” There’s no expectation for you to even try them all — you choose the tips that will help you achieve the results you need.

Check out the book to see all 87 tactics, and listen to our conversation with JZ above.

You can do it

The reasons we look back at Urk and his tribe with pity (No cars! No email! No Netflix!) are the same reasons they would pity us. Urk exercised regularly, ate healthily, slept well, and formed strong social bonds that gave his life purpose — all the things we’ve lost. That’s not to say you should give it all up to live in a cave, but “if you adopt a few small Urk-like activities, you can get the best of the twenty-first century and the best from your old-fashioned Homo sapiens self.”

Unlike so many productivity books, “Make Time” doesn’t suggest you should follow every word exactly. In fact, the Time Dorks say “the goal is not monastic vows but a workable and flexible set of habits.”

Nor should you aim for perfection. Each day is an opportunity for a fresh start; a chance for you to learn from the previous day, reject what didn’t work, and recommit to doing better today. The goal is simply to become better than you were yesterday. Best of all, “you won’t have to start over if you ‘fall off the wagon,’ because each day is a clean slate.” The key is to start now, and keep improving.

If making time for what matters is a goal for you, check out the Ever Better Challenge from Evernote. It’s a free 30-day program to help you build better habits so you can finish what you start. And subscribe to our Focus Culture podcast on iTunes to see how organized passion and creative thinking can change the world.

What are your tips for beating distraction and finding your focus? Let us know in the comments below!

Anthony Bartlett is trying to break his addiction to technology, but those cat videos are just so tempting.

Focus Culture

Where organization, passion, and creative thinking meet. Brought to you by Evernote.


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Focus Culture

Where organization, passion, and creative thinking meet. Brought to you by Evernote.

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