Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (2018) is a framework for finding the time to do what matters most to us. The obstacles to implementing this framework are twin distractions the authors call the “Busy Bandwagon” (e.g. overstuffed calendars, endless to-do lists, overcommitment) and “Infinity Pools” (endless wells of content like social media, news, television, etc.). The authors’ contention is that countering distraction is key to uncovering more time.
The core of Make Time is a daily process in which you (1) select one primary goal for that day called your “highlight”, (2) apply laser focus on accomplishing that highlight, (3) ensure sufficient mental and physical energy to sustain your focus and (4) review the process and make necessary adjustments. The remainder of the book is devoted to the 87 tactics designed to facilitate this process.
Pros: Easy to read, practical, not dogmatic (the authors tell you to pick and choose and experiment with the tactics that make sense for you). Book is peppered with interesting (and sometimes funny) drawings and diagrams.
Cons: Quality of the tactics can be uneven and many are redundant (as with most books of this sort, the diet and exercise recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt).
Verdict: This is a solid choice for someone starting their productivity and time-management journey. Score: 7/10.
Notes & Highlights
- Make time is not about productivity. “It’s a framework designed to help you actually create more time in your day for the things you care about…” (p.3)
- Two powerful forces compete for your time: 1) The Busy Bandwagon: Culture of busy-ness (e.g. overstuffed calendars, endless to-do lists, overflowing email inboxes). 2) Infinity Pools: Social media, apps, other sources of endless content.
- “Most of our time is spent by default.” Busy Bandwagon and Infinity are the defaults for most people. Defaults are everywhere: why do work meetings default to 30 or 60 minutes? Why must we reply immediately when texted? Authors urge you to create your own defaults.
- “Distraction is quite literally a full-time job.” (p.5)
How Make Time Works
- Make Time is 4 steps repeated daily: 1) Select a single highlight around which to prioritize your day. 2) Act and be laser-focused on that highlight. 3) Build energy throughout the day to stay in control of your time and attention. 4) Reflect on the day with a few simple notes.
- “When you look back on your day, what activity or accomplishment or moment do you want to savor? That’s your highlight.” (p.34). The highlight gives your day a focal point. It is the focus on your attention and energy.
- Three ways to pick a highlight: 1) Urgency: “What’s the most important thing I have to do today?” 2) Satisfaction: “Which highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?” 3) Joy: “What will bring me the most joy?”
- “A good rule of thumb is to choose a highlight that takes sixty to ninety minutes.” (p.37)
Tactics for Choosing a Highlight
- Write it down: Write down your highlight. You are more likely to do something once it’s written.
- Groundhog it: Do yesterday’s highlight again today. Good tactic for when you didn’t finish your highlight previously.
- Stack rank your life: Make a list of the big things that matter in your life. Order and number each items by importance and rewrite the list in order of priority. Use the list to select your highlights. Revisit and revise the list as needed.
- Batch the little stuff: Turn dozens of non-highlight tasks into your highlight. Example: A day to catch up on email or to deal with household chores.
- The might do list: The “might do” list includes things you could do at some point in time. Review the list periodically and promote items as you’re highlight as needed. This allows you to be intentional about overly large to-do lists.
- The burner list: Divide sheet of paper into two columns. Left column is “front burner”. Right column is the “back burner”. Write the single most important project you are working on in the front burner section. Second most important project gets recorded in the back burner space. Below the back burner section add a “kitchen sink” which is where other miscellaneous tasks go that don’t fit with project 1 or project 2. Use this sheet to generate new highlights and then toss and create a new burner list.
- Run a personal sprint: Sprints consist of multiple days where an individual or team focuses on a single highlight or project. Eliminate all other non-essential activities (e.g. meetings, other projects). Benefit of the sprint comes from the single-minded focus and lack of context/task-switching costs.
Tactics for Making Time for Your Highlight
- Schedule your highlight: Put your highlight on your calendar.
- Block your calendar: Create a standing block of time for your highlight (e.g. every day from 9am to 11am).
- Bulldoze your calendar: Clear all existing obligations from your calendar (authors admit this might not always be possible to do).
- Flake it till you make it: If you are over scheduled, skip a meeting or push back on a deadline (and see what happens). Not an ideal long-term strategy but might work in a pinch.
- Just say no: Make “no” your default answer. “The best way to get out of low-priority obligations is never to accept them in the first place.” (p.63)
- Design your day: Plan how you will spend every hour of the day (you can go more granular if necessary, with 30-minute or 15-minute increments).
- Become a morning person: Plan your day the night before and use the quiet morning hours for your highlight.
- Nighttime is highlight time: Time after the kids are asleep is highlight time. Biggest challenge with a night-centric approach is energy so make sure you recharge.
- Quite when you’re done: Set an end-point and stick with it. Avoid the “just one more thing” mentality of the Busy Bandwagon.
- Laser is all about focusing on your highlight. The authors say this is the hardest part of the system to practice and develop.
- Distraction is the enemy of “laser mode”.
- Willpower alone is not sufficient to protect your focus.
- You must actively create barriers to distraction to make it more difficult to respond to distracting triggers.
Tactics for reducing phone distractions
- Create a distraction-free phone: Delete social media apps, games, news, YouTube, email, web browser and any other Infinity Pools. Keep your “tools” like maps, Spotify, calendar, weather, etc.).
- Log out: Staying logged in makes access to Infinity Pools easier. Forcing yourself to login adds friction. Leave the “remember me on this device” option on the login page unchecked. Supercharge this tactic with difficult passwords that require use of a password manager to login (another point of friction).
- Nix notifications: Turn off all non-essential smartphone notifications.
- Clear your home screen: Remove all apps from your home screen. This forces a scroll or search to access your apps. The blank screen might remind you of your goal to slow down and be more focused.
- Wear a wristwatch: Eliminates the need to check your phone for the time (which means one less chance to get sucked into the phone’s Infinity Pools).
- Leave devices behind: Separate yourself from your phone or laptop. This could mean leaving your phone at work when you go home for the weekend. This could mean putting a device in your backpack rather than your pocket. It could also be storing and charging devices somewhere other than your bedroom.
Tactics for avoiding Infinity Pools
- Skip the morning check-in: Don’t reach for the phone, email, social media, etc. first thing when you wake up. Postpone these things as long as you can until late morning or after lunch.
- Block distraction kryptonite: Identify the one Infinity Pool that always gets you. This is your distraction kryptonite. Delete or logout from the kryptonite.
- Ignore the news: Consider catching up on the news on a weekly basis instead of a daily basis.
- Put your toys away: Close all the apps on your laptop. Later when you open your laptop, distractions won’t be the first thing you see.
- Fly without the wi-fi: Air travel can be a great way to accomplish focused work. Turn off the entertainment screen when you are first seated and don’t purchase the wi-fi plan.
- Put a timer on the internet: Your home internet doesn’t need to be on 24/7 (that’s just the default we all use). Use software to block the internet during certain hours of the day or plug your internet router into a vacation timer to power off the router during certain hours of the day.
- Cancel the internet: Consider eliminating your home internet service. You may still have use of slower, metered (or capped) cellular data.
- Watch out for time craters: Time craters are small distractions that snowball into big, unanticipated time sinks.
- Trade fake wins for real wins: Fake wins are accomplishments that don’t achieve much and keep us from our primary goals.
- Turn distractions into tools: Rediscover the actual utility for an Infinity Pool app and use it purposefully rather than mindlessly.
- Become a fair-weather fan: Sports are an Infinity Pool and sap emotional energy. Consider watching games only on special occasions.
Tactics for taming your email inbox
- Deal with email at the end of the day: Protect your morning hours for your highlight and avoid overcommitting or reacting to other people’s problems at the start of the day.
- Schedule your email time: Add “email time” to your calendar and only deal with it during that window of time.
- Empty your inbox once a week: Only worry about “inbox zero” at this time.
- Pretend email messages are letters: Treat email like old-fashioned snail mail. Take your time in responding and don’t react immediately.
- Be slow to respond: Change mentality from “as fast as possible” to “as slow as you can get away with.”
- Reset expectations: If you limit your email time/access, manage your expectations with an autoresponder like this: “I’m slow to respond because I need to prioritize some important projects but if your message is urgent, send me a text.”
- Setup a send-only email address: Handy if you need to send emails from phone but don’t want to use it to read emails. To create one: setup a new email account, add email forwarding to replies go to another account, login to the send-only account on your phone instead of your main account.
- Use a vacation auto-responder: Even if you aren’t on vacation, pretend as if you are and “go off the grid” for an extended period of time.
- Lock yourself out: Lock yourself out of your email app by deleting the app or changing the password to something too difficult to remember.
Tactics for taming TV
- Don’t watch the news: News is an Infinity Pool.
- Put the TV in the corner: Tuck the TV in the corner of the living room rather than as the focal point.
- Ditch your TV for a projector: Taking out and setting up a projector is more cumbersome than powering on a TV.
- Go a la carte instead of all-you-can-eat with your TV programmming: Instead of subscribing to AYCE services like Netflix or cable TV, buy or rent movies one at a time.
- Unplug and/or hide the TV in a closet: Make it more difficult to setup and watch a program (you can’t casually flip it on and channel surf).
Tactics for finding “Flow”
- Shut the door: Create a barrier between you and the world. Could be a literal door or it could be something like a pair of headphones that signals: leave me alone.
- Invent a deadline: Self-imposed time constraints can be powerful motivators.
- Explode your highlight: Break your highlight into small, easy-to-do tasks. Example: “Plan vacation” is broken into sub-tasks like decide travel dates, select destination, book airfare, etc.
- Play a laser soundtrack: Cue your personal habit loop with music used for focused work.
- Set a visible timer: Having a visible display of elapsed time can create a sense of urgency.
- Avoid the lure of fancy tools: Obsession with tools is misguided and a waste of time (see my post on "gear lust”).
- Start on paper: Paper planning limits distractions and forces focus on the essentials.
Tactics for staying in the zone
- Make a “random question” list: If you feel twitchy for your browser (e.g. “who was that actor in that movie?”), don’t react by reaching for your phone or opening a web browser, write the thought down as something to rollup on later.
- Notice one breath: Pay attention to the sensations of a single breath. Breathe in through your nose and notice the air filling your chest. Breathe out through your mouth and notice your body softening.
- Be bored: Let your mind wander. Wandering will lead you to interesting places.
- Be stuck: Stuck is different than bored. Bored is nothing to do. Stuck is when you know what you want to do but are uncertain of how to proceed. Give your mind the time and space to process the problem.
- Take a day off: Take a rest day to reenergize so you can regain our laser mode.
- Go all in: Double down and find that second wind.
- “If you have energy, it’s easier to maintain your focus and priorities and avoid reacting to distractions and demands.” (p.166)
- “If you want energy for your brain, you need to take care of your body.” (p.166)
- Some sources for energy: Eating food, hydration, caffeine, exercise, quiet/calm, recreation/play, contact/interaction with others, sleep.
Tactics for exercise:
- Exercise every day (but don’t be a hero): Exercise 20 minutes each day. Don’t worry about perfection, take a “just enough” approach.
- Pound the pavement: Walk, it’s good for you (if possible substitute walking for your usual mode of transportation).
- Inconvenience yourself: Cook dinner (carry groceries, move around kitchen), take the stairs, use a suitcase without wheels.
- Squeeze in a super short workout: Example: Employ the famous New York Times 7-minute workout.
Tactics for eating:
- Eat like a. hunter-gatherer: Follow Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
- Central Park your plate: Put salad on your plate first and then add everything else around it.
- Stay hungry: Consider intermittent fasting.
- Snack like a toddler: Eat healthy snacks to maintain energy levels.
- Go on the dark chocolate plan: Dark chocolate may have health benefits and is lower in sugar than other types of candy.
Tactics for caffeine:
- Wake up before you caffeinate: Morning cortisol is high when you first wake up. Make use of that and don’t add caffeine until 2 hours after wakeup.
- Caffeinate before you crash: Consider when your energy regularly dips and have your coffee 30 minutes before.
- Take a caffeine nap: Drink your coffee then immediately take a 15-minute nap. Takes time for caffeine to be absorbed into bloodstream. When you wake up you’ll get the benefit of your caffeine hit.
- Maintain altitude with green tea: Replace high doses of caffeine from coffee with more frequent, low doses from tea.
- Turbo your highlight: Time your caffeine just before the start of your highlight.
- Learn your last call: Set a rule for no caffeine after a certain hour (e.g. 4:00pm) if caffeine is affecting your sleep.
- Disconnect sugar: Eliminate/avoid overly sugary caffeine/coffee drinks.
Tactics for going off-the-grid
- Get woodsy: Walk in nature or spend time in nature (calming benefits and reduced stress, heart rate and blood pressure).
- Trick yourself into meditating: “Meditation is just a breather for your brain.” (p.212). Consider using an app like Headspace.
- Leave your headphones at home: Embrace the quiet or the ambient noises of the moment around you.
- Take real breaks: Rest your brain with a screen-free break: gaze out a window, go for a walk, grab a snack, talk to someone.
Tactics for interacting with others
- Spend time with your tribe: Schedule quality time with friends or family (even a phone call can be beneficial).
- Eat without screens: Have a family dinner conversation.
Tactics for sleep
- Make your bedroom a bed room: Make the bedroom only about sleeping. Remove TV, tablets and other distracting electronics from this room.
- Fake the sunset: Indoor lighting keeps us up later than our prehistoric ancestors. Starting dimming or turning down the lights as a signal to start the nighttime wind-down.
- Sneak a nap: Lie down and rest for 10-20 minutes (you don’t even need to fall asleep to benefit from this habit).
- Don’t jet lag yourself: Don’t confuse your internal clock by accumulating too much sleep debt. “Catch up sleep” doesn’t work.
- Put on your own oxygen mask first: You need to be healthy and alert in order to help/care for others. So prioritize your sleep and health.
- Fine-tune your days with the scientific method: 1) Observe what’s going on, 2 Guess why things are happening the way they are, 3) Experiment to test your hypothesis and 4) Measure the results and decide whether you were right.
- Make Time can be boiled down to 3 hypotheses:
1. The Highlight Hypothesis: “If you set a single intention at the start of each day, you’ll be more satisfied, joyful and effective.”
2. The Laser Hypothesis: “If you create barriers around the Busy Bandwagon and Infinity Pools, you’ll focus your attention like a laser beam.”
3. The Energize Hypothesis: “If you live a little more like a prehistoric human, you’ll enhance your mental and physical energy.”
- Ask yourself these questions to track your daily performance:
What was today’s highlight? Did you make time for it? How good was your laser focus? How good was your energy? What tactics did you try today and how did they work? What tactics will you try (or try again) tomorrow? What moment were you grateful for?