Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day
Knapp, Jake; Zeratsky, John
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This is a book about slowing down the crazy rush. It’s about making time for things that matter. We believe it’s possible to feel less busy, be less distracted, and enjoy the present moment more. Maybe that sounds a little hippy-dippy, but we’re serious.
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about getting more done, finishing your to-dos faster, or outsourcing your life. Instead, it’s a framework designed to help you actually create more time in your day for the things you care about, whether that’s spending time with your family, learning a language, starting a side business, volunteering, writing a novel, or mastering Mario Kart. Whatever you want time for, we think Make Time can help you get it. Moment by moment and day by day, you can make your life your own.
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But is constant busyness really mandatory? Is endless distraction really a reward? Or are we all just stuck on autopilot?
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Refresh Facebook. Browse YouTube. Keep up on the nonstop breaking news, play Candy Crush, binge-watch HBO. These are the defaults behind the ravenous Infinity Pools, devouring every scrap of time the Busy Bandwagon leaves behind. With the average person spending four-plus hours a day on their smartphone and another four-plus hours watching TV shows, distraction is quite literally a full-time job.
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Make Time is a framework for choosing what you want to focus on, building the energy to do it, and breaking the default cycle so that you can start being more intentional about the way you live your life. Even if you don’t completely control your own schedule—and few of us do—you absolutely can control your attention.
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His question wasn’t intended to make me feel bad; he was just curious. But I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, sure, there was probably some excuse for checking my email right at that moment. But not a great one. All day, I’d been looking forward to spending time with my kids, and now that it was finally happening, I wasn’t really there at all.
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He looked through the lens of a product designer and figured this “system” would work only if it changed our defaults, making distractions harder to access instead of relying on willpower to constantly fight them.
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Late in the week, energy would plummet. So we made adjustments, and saw how things like a healthy lunch, a quick walk, frequent breaks, and a slightly shorter workday helped maintain peak energy, resulting in better and more effective work.
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And that’s just it: Reclaiming your time and attention can be weirdly easy. As Jake learned from his distraction-free iPhone, the changes do not require tons of self-discipline. Instead, change comes from resetting defaults, creating barriers, and beginning to design the way you spend your time.
How Make Time Works
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The first step is choosing a single highlight to prioritize in your day. Next, you’ll employ specific tactics to stay laser-focused on that highlight—we’ll offer a menu of tricks to beat distraction in an always-connected world. Throughout the day, you’ll build energy so you can stay in control of your time and attention. Finally, you’ll reflect on the day with a few simple notes.
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Over time, you’ll build a customized daily system tailored to your unique habits and routines, your unique brain and body, and your unique goals and priorities.
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It’s stressful, isn’t it? None of us can be perfect eaters, perfectly productive, perfectly mindful, and perfectly rested all the time. We can’t do the fifty-seven things bloggers tell us we’re supposed to do before 5 a.m. And even if we could, we shouldn’t. Perfection is a distraction—another shiny object taking your attention away from your real priorities.
The Missing Months
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I was happiest when I had something I could hold on to in the present—a chunk of time that was bigger than a to-do but smaller than a five-year goal. An activity I could plan for, look forward to, and appreciate when it was done. In other words, I needed to make sure every day had a highlight.
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We believe that focusing on these in-between activities—in the space between goals and 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.
Three Ways to Pick Your Highlight
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The first strategy is all about urgency: What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?
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The second Highlight strategy is to think about satisfaction: At the end of the day, which Highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?
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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.
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The third strategy focuses on joy: When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?
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You only waste time if you’re not intentional about how you spend it.
Make Time for Your Highlight
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But a completely planned day provides the freedom to focus on the moment. Instead of thinking about what to do next, you’re free to focus on how to do it. You can be in the flow, trusting the plan set out by your past self.
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Almost every time, I’d breeze through and finish in a fraction of the time it would’ve taken me the previous night. Instead of trying to power through when I was running on fumes, I refueled by quitting when I was done.
Create Barriers to Distraction
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These tactics are all based on the same philosophy: The best way to defeat distraction is to make it harder to react. By adding a few steps that get in the way of checking Facebook, catching up on the news, or turning on the TV, you can short-circuit the cycle that makes these products so sticky. After just a few days, you’ll have a new set of defaults: You’ll go from distracted to focused, from reactive to intentional, and from overwhelmed to in control. It’s all about creating a little inconvenience. When distraction is hard to access, you don’t have to worry about willpower. You can channel your energy into making time instead of wasting it.
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When your brain changes contexts—say, going from painting a picture to answering a text and then back to painting again—there’s a switching cost. Your brain has to load a different set of rules and information into working memory. This “boot up” costs at least a few minutes, and for complex tasks, it can take even longer. The two of us have found it can take a couple of hours of uninterrupted writing before we’re doing our best work; sometimes it even requires several consecutive days before we’re in the zone.
Be the Boss of Your Phone
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The second I felt even the slightest twinge of boredom, my phone would appear in the palm of my hand as if by magic. Now, without Infinity Pool apps, I feel less twitchy. Those moments when I used to instinctively reach for my phone, I’m forced to pause—and it turns out those moments are not so boring after all.
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Remember, adding friction is the key to avoiding Infinity Pools and staying in Laser mode.
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By turning off your notifications, you’ll teach your phone some manners. You’ll transform it from a nonstop blabbering loudmouth into a polite bearer of important news—the kind of friend you’d actually want in your life.
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And if you’re anything like us, a quick time check on your phone often pulls you into an Infinity Pool, especially when there’s a notification on the screen. If you wear a watch, you can keep your smartphone out of sight. And when it’s out of sight, it’s easier to ignore.
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When I’m out and about, I usually carry my phone in my bag. And when I get home, I put my bag on a shelf and go about my life. Sometimes I forget about my phone for hours. It’s a small daily reminder that life goes on without my smartphone.
Stay Out of Infinity Pools
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Savor it. Don’t reach for email, Twitter, Facebook, or the news right away. It’s very tempting to do a check-in first thing in the morning and get the latest updates; after all, something in the world always changes overnight. But as soon as you fire up that screen, you start a tug-of-war of attention between the present moment and everything out there on the Internet.
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How many of those headlines are designed to provoke anxiety? “If it bleeds, it leads” is a newsroom cliché, but it’s true. Most news is bad news, and none of us can shrug off the nonstop bombardment of stories about conflict, corruption, crime, and human suffering without it taking a toll on our mood and our ability to focus. Even once-a-day news is a persistent, anxiety-provoking, outrage-inciting distraction.
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Reacting to what’s in front of you is always easier than doing what you intend.
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But it’s not just Infinity Pools that create time craters. There’s also recovery time. A “quick” fifteen-minute burrito lunch might cost an extra three hours of food coma. A late night watching TV might cost you an hour of sleeping in and a whole day of low energy. And there’s anticipation. When you don’t start your Highlight because you’ve got a meeting coming up in thirty minutes, that’s a time crater, too.
Slow Your Inbox
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Instead of checking your email first thing in the morning and then getting sucked in and reacting to other people’s priorities, deal with email at the end of the day. That way, you can use your prime hours for your Highlight and other important work. You’ll probably have a little less energy at the end of the day, but that is actually a good thing when it comes to email: You’ll be less tempted to overcommit by saying yes to every incoming request and less likely to bang out a multipage manifesto when a simple reply would do.
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Every time you check your email or another message service, you’re basically saying, “Does any random person need my time right now?”
Make TV a “Sometimes Treat”
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As Jake found with his fiction-writing projects, if you’re constantly exposed to other people’s ideas, it can be tough to think up your own.
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Note that each item includes a verb. Each one is specific. And each one is small and relatively easy. We learned this technique from productivity shaman David Allen, who has this to say about breaking projects into physical actions: Shifting your focus to something that your mind perceives as a doable, completable task will create a real increase in positive energy, direction, and motivation. In the vocabulary of Make Time, tiny doable to-dos help you build momentum and lock into Laser mode. So if your Highlight feels overwhelming, add a little dynamite.
Stay in the Zone
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Boredom gives your mind a chance to wander, and wandering often leads you to interesting places.
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If you’ve tried these techniques and you still don’t have Laser mode in you, don’t beat yourself up. You might need a rest day. Energy—especially creative energy—can fluctuate, and sometimes you need time to replenish it.
You Are More Than a Brain
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When your battery is empty, you’re totally exhausted—you feel wrung out and maybe even depressed. This is when you’re most likely to get distracted by Infinity Pools such as Facebook and email. Then you feel worse because you’re tired and you’re annoyed at yourself for wasting time. That’s 0 percent. It sucks.
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If you want energy for your brain, you need to take care of your body.
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But caffeine is powerful stuff, and because it has a direct effect on your energy level, you should drink it with intention rather than on autopilot.
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What’s interesting in this (at least to us) is that caffeine doesn’t technically give you an energy boost; instead, it blocks you from having an energy dip caused by adenosine-induced sleepiness.
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Wake up without caffeine (in other words, get out of bed, eat breakfast, and start the day without any coffee). Have the first cup between 9: 30 and 10: 30 a.m. Have the last cup between 1: 30 and 2: 30 p.m.
Go off the Grid
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I love taking real-world breaks, but sometimes they’re not enough. When I’ve been working super hard and I get that “brain drain” feeling like my head is a squeezed-out sponge, I know it’s time to take a megabreak: I’ll stop everything and watch a whole movie. Why a movie? Unlike a a TV series, a movie is relatively short and finite. Unlike social media or email or the news, it won’t make me anxious. It’s pure escapism and a chance for my brain to stop and relax without the risk of falling into a time crater of energy-draining distraction.
Sleep in a Cave
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If possible, put your alarm clock on a dresser or shelf across the room. This will keep the light away from your eyes, and it’ll help you wake up: When the alarm sounds, you’ll have no choice but to get out of bed, stretch your legs, and switch it off.
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A newborn baby is kind of like a loss of cabin pressure, and if you don’t take care of yourself (at least a little), you can’t be a great caretaker. That means you need to maximize your energy by eating as well as you can and making the most of whatever sleep you can get. You’ve got to find a way to take little breaks and maintain your sanity. In other words, you should put on your own oxygen mask first.
Small Shifts Create Big Results
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The goal is to make time for what matters, find more balance, and enjoy today a little more.
START “SOMEDAY” TODAY
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But it is also possible that those side projects might gradually take on a life of their own. A new and unexpected path may emerge. And you may find yourself ready to follow that path and see where it goes.
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As Howard Thurman said, the world needs people who have come alive. Don’t wait for “someday” to make time for what makes you come alive. Start today.