Co-authored with John Zeratsky
If you want to make time for things that matter, the Busy Bandwagon will tell you the answer is to do more. Get more done. Be more efficient. Set more goals and make more plans. It’s the only way to fit those important moments into your life.
We disagree. Doing more doesn’t help you create time for what matters; it just makes you feel even more frazzled and busy. And when you’re busy day after day, time slides by in a blur.
With so many things vying for our attention, figuring out what to make time for can be a challenge. We believe focusing on activities that fall in the space between long-term goals and short-term tasks is the key to slowing down, bringing satisfaction to your daily life, and helping you make time. Long-term goals are useful for orienting you in the right direction but make it hard to enjoy the time spent working along the way. And tasks are necessary to get things done, but without a focal point, they fly by in a forgettable haze.
Plenty of self-help gurus have offered suggestions for setting goals, and plenty of productivity experts have created systems for getting things done. But the space between has been neglected. We call the missing piece a Highlight. Choosing a Highlight is the first step in the four-step system we lay out in our book, Make Time.
What Will Be the Highlight of Your Day?
We want you to begin each day by thinking about what you hope will be the bright spot. If, at the end of the day, someone asks you, “What was the highlight of your day?” what do you want your answer to be? When you look back on your day, what activity or accomplishment or moment do you want to savor? That’s your Highlight.
Your Highlight is not the only thing you’ll do each day. After all, most of us can’t ignore our inboxes or say no to our bosses. But choosing a Highlight gives you a chance to be proactive about how you spend your time, instead of letting technology, office defaults, and other people set your agenda. And although the Busy Bandwagon says you should try to be as productive as possible each day, we know it’s better to focus on your priorities, even if that means you don’t get to everything on your to-do list.
Your Highlight gives each day a focal point. Research shows that the way you experience your days is not determined primarily by what happens to you. In fact, you create your own reality by choosing what you pay attention to. This might seem obvious, but we think it’s a big deal: You can design your time by choosing where you direct your attention. And your daily Highlight is the target of that attention.
3 Ways to Pick Your Highlight
Choosing your daily Highlight starts with asking yourself a question:
What do I want to be the highlight of my day?
Answering this question isn’t always easy, especially when you’re just beginning to use our Make Time method. Sometimes you have many important tasks. Maybe there’s one you’re super excited about (“Bake birthday cake”), one with a looming deadline (“Finish slide deck”), or even a nasty job hanging over your head (“Put rat traps in garage”).
So, how should you decide? We use three different criteria to choose our Highlight.
The first strategy is all about urgency: What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?
Have you ever spent hours churning through email and attending meetings only to realize at the end of the day that you failed to make time for the one thing you really needed to do? Well, we have. Lots of times. And whenever it happens, we feel miserable. Oh, the regret!
If you have something that absolutely, positively must be accomplished today, make it your Highlight. You can often find urgent Highlights on your to-do list, email, or calendar — look for projects that are time-sensitive, important, and medium in size (in other words, they don’t take 10 minutes, but they don’t take 10 hours, either).
Your urgent Highlight might be one of the following:
- Create a price quote and send it to a customer who’s expecting it before the end of the week.
- Request catering and venue proposals for an event you’re organizing at work.
- Prepare and cook dinner before friends come over.
- Help your daughter finish a big school project that’s due tomorrow.
- Edit and share vacation photos that your family is eager to see.
The second Highlight strategy is to think about satisfaction: At the end of the day, which Highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?
Whereas the first strategy is all about what needs to get done, this strategy encourages you to focus on what you want to get done.
Again, you can start with your to-do list. But instead of thinking about deadlines and priorities, take a different approach: Think about the sense of accomplishment locked inside each potential Highlight.
Look for activities that are not urgent. Instead, consider projects you’ve been meaning to get around to but haven’t quite found the time for. Maybe you have a particular skill you want to put to use, or maybe it’s a pet project that you want to develop before sharing it with the world. These projects are super vulnerable to procrastination, because although they’re important, they are not time-sensitive, and that makes them easy to postpone. Use your Highlight to break the “someday” cycle.
Here are some examples of satisfying Highlights:
- Finish the proposal for a new work project you’re excited about and share it with a few trusted colleagues.
- Research destinations for your next family vacation.
- Draft 1,500 words of the next chapter in your novel.
The third strategy focuses on joy: When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?
Not every hour has to be optimized and orchestrated for maximum efficiency. One of our goals with Make Time is to steer you away from the impossible vision of perfectly planned days and toward a life that’s more joyful and less reactive. That means doing some things just because you like doing them.
To other people, some of your joyful Highlights may look like wastes of time: sitting at home reading a book, meeting a friend to play Frisbee in the park, even doing a crossword puzzle. Not to us. You only waste time if you’re not intentional about how you spend it.
All sorts of Highlights can bring you joy. Here are some examples:
- Go to your friends’ housewarming party.
- Master a new song on the guitar.
- Have a fun lunch with your hilarious co-worker.
- Take your kid to the playground.
Trust Your Gut to Choose the Best Highlight
Which strategy should you use on any particular day? We think the best way to choose a Highlight is to trust your gut to decide whether an urgent, joyful, or satisfying Highlight is best for today.
A good rule of thumb is to choose a Highlight that takes 60 to 90 minutes. If you spend less than 60 minutes, you might not have time to get in the zone, but after 90 minutes of focused attention, most people need a break. The sweet spot is 60 to 90 minutes—it’s enough time to do something meaningful, and it’s a reasonable amount of time to create in your schedule. With the tactics in our new book, Make Time, we’re confident you can make 60 to 90 minutes for your Highlight.
When you’re starting out, choosing a Highlight may feel strange or difficult. If this happens to you, don’t worry; it’s perfectly natural. Over time, you’ll get the hang of it, and choosing will become easier and easier. Remember, you really can’t screw it up. And because Make Time is a daily system, no matter what happens, you can always tweak your approach and try again tomorrow.
Of course, your Highlight isn’t magical. Deciding where to focus your energy on any particular day isn’t going to make it happen automatically. But being intentional is an essential step toward making more time in your life. Choosing a Highlight makes focusing on your priorities the default, so you can spend time and energy on what matters, not on reacting to the distractions and demands of modern life.