In a time when all of us are looking for more time, Jake Knapp is an anomaly. Although he was once just as stressed and pressed for time as the rest of us, Jake found a way to reinvent his approach to how he spends his day.
Jake, a tech designer who spent 10 years at Google building products like Gmail and Google Hangouts, used that same innovative approach to tackling what might be the biggest mystery yet: time. He applied his design skills to his daily routine and figured out how we can design our days to get more out of them.
He then teamed up with fellow tech designer John Zeratsky to write Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day to let others in on the secret of how to make more of their day.
Live Happy: This is such a relevant book, because I don't know a single person who says they have too much time on their hands anymore. Are we busier than we used to be, or is it the way we're structuring our time? What's going on with us in time?
Jake Knapp: I don't know. I think there's probably some element of the human experience, at least in modern industrial age, that has probably always felt really busy and there's always been a lot of stress, I think. There is definitely something going on with our technology and the rate at which we're improving our ability to be distracted these days.
Also, I think our culture, more and more, accepts busyness and expects busyness, especially in the United States. If you're in the United States, you're used to asking people how they are and hearing, “I'm busy.” That can be good or bad or whatever, but that's the standard answer.
LH: What really sets your book apart is that you're not talking about time management. Can you explain that to us?
JK: My background is as a designer and I think a lot about how to try to design things so they'll be easy for people to do and work well for what people want to accomplish, which is how we get into this fix where technology is so compelling and so distracting. It's also a way to take control of things.
With time management, the word that people associate with it is being productive. How can I get the most things done in the least amount of time? The way that I'm talking about it is actually about being purposeful, instead of productive. It's picking that one thing that really excites you each day, one thing that you want to have bring your full attention to and then making a time for it on your calendar and defending some space for it.
Then everything's designed around that. It becomes the focal point. We call it the highlight of your day and everything builds off of that one central design piece. It's almost like in Instagram, the highlights of Instagram are probably the photos and the highlight of your inbox maybe is each e-mail. For us, in the making time process, the highlight is that one thing that's the most excites you each day.
LH: For a lot of us, the thing that's most exciting is not the thing that dominates our day. How do you balance those two things?
JK: I should probably say it can't always be the most exciting thing. Sometimes it's going to be the thing that's most satisfying, and maybe your day realistically is going to be dominated by some big project at work. Perhaps you're a bit stressed about it. I can't tell you how many times in my past I've talked to people, or I've had this experience myself where I know I have to do something. It's really important and it's the most important thing for the day at work. Yet at the end of the day, I haven't done it somehow. I look back and I think, “Gosh, I was answering e-mails and I was talking to people,” but somehow I kept putting off that hard, big project that I knew was really important.
Sometimes it'll be really satisfying to do that thing that you've got to do, but whenever possible I want to encourage people to prioritize something that they might not otherwise get to. Start off the day by saying, “If the day was over and I was looking back on it, what would I like to say was the highlight of my day?” Occasionally, it will be that work project, but sometimes it's going to be that thing that was really fun, that hobby you wanted to get to, or spending time with your kids. That's really the promise of it is when you start to be able to harness this idea of highlighting to do those things that otherwise get deprioritized.
LH: How do you use this concept to regain control and get back on track with your day?
JK: Well, one of the most important things about this concept is that it is day-by-day. There is no week-long plan, or month – It's not a big master plan. It’s, “let's look at today and see what's possible today.” I think that already helps a lot. Not feeling you're building a big suspension bridge and if one piece falls apart, the whole thing collapses. Rather, you're just saying like, “For today, what's workable and what's doable?”
Also, I think it's important to be realistic during the day. A lot of times for me, the thing I set out to have – be my highlight at the beginning of the day is something happens, things come up. Life is like that. At the end of the day when I reflect back on what's happened, I'll say, “Oh, yeah. This this other thing took its place, but that thing was really important, really urgent.” My kid got sick, or last week it was our puppy who got sick.
Part of what happens is that, at least for me, I stopped feeling guilty about not doing the things that were important. I start having a better relationship with my own attention, because I've said this is the thing that's most important to me today. If I do it, great. If I don't, I can at least look back and say, “Well, I know why because there was this clear headline.”
LH: One thing that you say is crucial to being able to make time is to start identifying the things in our lives that are worth making time for. How do we start that process?
JK: Knowing what the highlight is, is really important. For me, a great exercise to start off with is making a list of the projects that you have in your life, just in any order. Anything could be a project. For me, being a dad is a project and writing a book is a project.
I often have one or two work-related projects going on at a time. There might be something else going on at home and you can just list out all of those. Then make yourself put them in priority order. At this moment, like it doesn't have to be for your whole life. Just saying right now, this week, or today, what's the top priority of these projects? Just make a numbered list and draw a circle around that top thing and really – I really encourage people when they're doing this to think about that thing that you feel you've put off, that you've been like, “Gosh, some day it would be really great if I could get back to painting, or get back to practicing the saxophone, or someday if I could spend more time with my kids, it would be so great.”
Well, put that thing at the top of the list. Then every chance you get, every day when you choose to highlight, see if there's a way to make time for that thing, that top priority. Even if it's something that usually gets put off. I think that's a really powerful way to start. Then day-to-day, I usually suggest people look for whatever's going to be the most satisfying at the end of the day. Something that will probably take 60 to 90 minutes usually makes a good highlight.
LH: What's the one thing that you want everyone to take with them?
JK: It is extremely important in our world to look at the default settings. Look at the way that things are set up, the ways that you handle e-mail, the ways that you interact with social media, the ways you spend your time and ask which of those things really have to be the way that they are.
If you start to question some of those things, you really can take control of your time. Time is – it's your life, so you should take control of it.