Book Summary: Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

Book Cover for Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

This is a summary of Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. The book sets out a simple four-step approach and includes dozens of practical tips to help you spend more time on the things that matter to you.

Buy Make Time at: Amazon | Kobo (affiliate links)

Key Takeaways from Make Time

  • Make Time is about making time for the things that matter to us. It’s about changing our defaults so that we spend our time more intentionally.
  • The authors set out a four-step approach:
    • Highlight. Every day, pick the thing you most want to get done that day. It could be a work highlight or a personal one (e.g. spending time with family).
    • Laser. Focus on your highlight. The authors suggest a variety of tactics to help with this, such as turning off notifications on your phone and getting a wristwatch.
    • Energise. We get more energy by taking care of our bodies—exercising, eating well, socialising, and resting. While this may all sound obvious, again, the authors include practical tips to make this easier to implement.
    • Reflect. Keep records of which tactics you used and how well you were able to focus on your Highlight each day. Reflecting on our experiments allows us to improve our processes.
  • All in all, the book contains 87 suggested tactics to help you put this four-step approach into practice. You’re not expected to do all of them, but you can experiment to find what works for you.

Detailed Summary of Make Time

What is Make Time about?

Make Time is not about getting more done, but about making time for things that matter. Most of us let other people or even algorithms decide how our precious time and attention is spent. (The authors know this all too well—they were product designers who worked on services like Gmail and YouTube.) The point of Make Time is to change our defaults so that we spend our time more intentionally, without relying on willpower.

If I started the morning with two hundred emails and got to zero by midnight, was that really a successful day?
—Jake Knapp in Make Time

Knapp and Zeratsky (or “Jake and JZ”) explain their four-step approach (Highlight, Laser, Energise and Reflect), which you are meant to repeat every day. JZ apparently invented the 5-day design sprint at Google, and the authors subsequently ran over 100 design sprints with a bunch of start-ups in Google Ventures.

Both Jake and JZ started using the tactics in the book to become more productive at work. However, both of them eventually decided they’d rather make time for other priorities: Jake became a full-time writer while JZ chose to sail and travel full-time. While they’re not advocating that you quit your job to sail the world, it’s worth noting that once you make time for the “someday” projects you’ve been putting off, they may reveal a new and unexpected path.

The book lists 87 practical tactics that you can test out, each aimed at helping you achieve one of the four steps. You’re not expected to try all of them—not even the authors do all of them consistently—and certainly not all at once. But you can pick, test, and repeat. Over time, you’ll figure out which tactics work best for you. In this summary, I outline a few which resonated with me.

1. Highlight

Choose your highlight

Choose a single highlight to prioritise each day. What do you want to make time for? If someone asked you at the end of the day what your highlight was, what do you want the answer to be?

There are three ways you might pick your highlight:

  • Urgency. What’s the most urgent thing you have to do today?
  • Satisfaction. What highlight would bring me the most satisfaction at the end of the day? These are activities that aren’t so urgent, but are things you’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.
  • Joy. What would bring me the most joy when reflecting back on the day? A joyful highlight may look like a “waste of time” to some people, but you only waste time if you’re not intentional about how you spend it.

The authors suggest picking a highlight that takes around 60-90 minutes. Don’t worry too much about what you choose—you can change your highlight partway through the day if things change. You can also repeat highlights for several days to make faster progress. You can’t really screw this up, and choosing a highlight will feel more natural over time.

Prioritise your highlight

Schedule your highlight in your calendar so that you’ll focus on your priorities instead of reacting to other people’s demands the whole day. You might not respond to all your emails, but that’s fine.

You must also protect your scheduled highlight. If you don’t take the calendar appointment seriously, other people won’t either. But don’t be greedy and block out too much time. Start by blocking an hour or two each day and adjust from there. Over time, this might evolve into time-blocking, an approach Cal Newport recommended in Deep Work.

2. Laser

Beat distraction and stay laser-focused on your highlight. Each distraction comes with a context switching cost of at least a few minutes, but sometimes much longer.

Moreover, the longer you focus on a highlight, the more engaging you’ll find it and the higher the quality of your work or play. When you feel the need to split your attention, you might subconsciously hold back on a task in order to conserve your energy. So, counterintuitively, you may find it more energising and easier to focus on the task when you apply yourself wholeheartedly to it.

Put in barriers to distraction

The Internet is full of “Infinity Pools”—sources of endlessly replenishing content, such as those you can pull to refresh. Such Pools are designed to capture and hold your attention (the authors would know; they helped design them). One way they do this is by making the apps or websites as easy to access as possible by removing barriers. So we can beat distraction by bringing those barriers back.

The authors recommend keeping a distraction-free phone, which means:

  • Deleting social apps and other Infinity Pools;
  • Deleting email apps (or replacing them with send-only email apps like Compose);
  • Removing the web browser (you may have to go into the settings for this).

Both the authors have had distraction-free phones since 2012. Even if you already feel in control of your phone, you should still try going distraction-free for a while as an experiment. You can always re-enable the apps if you really need to.

If that sounds too drastic for you, you should at least turn off almost all notifications, leaving only the really critical ones like calendar reminders and text messages. [A way to ease into this “no notifications” thing is to set your phone to go on “Do Not Disturb” automatically each day (excepting critical notifications and calls). You can start with just a few hours per day—I’d recommend the morning—and extend it if it works well]

Other barriers you can put up include:

  • Logging out of websites and apps.
  • Clearing your homescreen (move all apps to the next screen over).
  • Change your browser defaults so that it starts up with something unobtrusive (like a clock), rather than with the sites you visit the most.

Physically disconnect

If your Highlight can be done offline, putting your devices physically away can be a good way to make time for it. The authors found that their design sprints often went better when they started off with simple pen and paper—paper improves focus, and you can do almost anything on it.

If you need the device but not the Internet, try turning it off. Switching off the Internet on your device is very easy to undo, but there are some apps (e.g. Freedom) that help with this. Alternatively, plug your Internet router into a vacation timer.

More generally, you can build in physical barriers to checking your phone by putting it somewhere out of the way when you get home, such as on a shelf or drawer. If you frequently use your phone to look up random questions, keep a notepad to write them down instead. If you use your phone to check the time or to wake up, get a wristwatch or a physical alarm clock. Quick checks can easily pull you into an Infinity Pool.

Watch TV intentionally

Rearrange your furniture so that the TV is not the focal point of the living room. Perhaps you could even replace it with a projector, which are fiddly to set up each time.

Unsubscribe from streaming services, which encourage you to browse their offerings even if there’s nothing you particularly want to watch. Rent or buy shows/movies à la Carte instead, or subscribe briefly for a show you really want to watch and immediately cancel afterwards. (Don’t worry about unsubscribing—these services make it very easy to sign up again if you want.) You can still enjoy TV and movies, but be more intentional about how you do so.

Check email less often

A 2014 study by the University of British Columbia found that when people checked their email only 3 times a day, instead of whenever they felt like it, they answered roughly the same number of messages, but did so 20% faster and with less stress.

So you can probably benefit from checking your email much less often than you do. One way to do this is by scheduling email time. Perhaps you just deal with email at the end of each day. Or even at the end of each week! With the vast majority of communications, it’s fine to let them sit for a while before doing anything about them, especially if you make this clear to other people. You can still skim your inbox for messages that require a faster response but save substantive responses for the end of the week. Issues often resolve themselves.

Set the scene for focus

Try playing the same song or album every time you start your Highlight. Over time, the music can become a cue, triggering a “habit loop” that gets you in the right mood. Make sure your song/album is something you love to listen to, but only listen to it during your special Highlights. [See Atomic Habits for more on habit loops.]

You can also set the scene by using a visual timer on your desk. Timers give us a sense of urgency or deadline, which can be great for focus. Knapp has five such timers at home. [There’s actually a special Make Time visual timer, which seems very expensive for what it is. I’ve used this one, which is less than half the price, and works fine. The main difference seems to be that the former goes up to 2 hours whereas the latter only does 1 hour, but I usually have a short break within an hour anyway.]

3. Energise

When your battery is depleted, you’re most likely to get distracted by Infinity Pools like social media apps and email. And then you just feel annoyed at yourself for wasting time. On the other hand, when your battery is full, you feel alert and even excited to take on a project. It’s much easier to maintain your focus and priorities when you’re well-rested and energised.

How do we get more energy? By taking care of our bodies. This means exercising, eating well, socialising, and resting.

Exercise regularly but not too hard

Exercise daily for 20-30 minutes. The energy and mood boosts from exercise last for about a day, and research shows that we can get the most important cognitive, health, and mood benefits of exercise in just 20 minutes.

Super-short workouts of 5-10 mins can also be convenient and energising. Some research shows that short, high-intensity workouts can produce greater gains than longer periods or low or medium-intensity exercise. However, the authors argue this shouldn’t be the only exercise you get.

Light exercise is fine. Many of us have preconceived ideas about what “real exercise” is, but a 2017 University of Connecticut study found that light physical activity improved psychological well-being, while vigorous activity did not. Moreover, when we go too hard we may exhaust or even injure ourselves, so we follow up with days or weeks of no exercise at all. It’s better to do a small amount daily than to do an intense workout every once in a while.

Walking in particular is really, really good for you. It helps you lose weight, lowers many health risks, and improves your mood. While walking, you can think or daydream, listen to podcasts, or talk with other people. Studies also suggest that walking in nature gives a greater cognitive boost compared to walking in the city.

Fit movement into your normal life by finding ways to inconvenience yourself. Take the stairs. Substitute walking for your normal mode of transportation—even if just for part of the way. Use a suitcase without wheels.

Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

The supposedly complicated question of what humans should eat to be healthy is not really that difficult. The authors cite Michael Pollan’s simple advice in In Defense of Food:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
—Michael Pollan as quoted in Make Time

Some specific tips:

  • Central Park your plate. Put your salad/veggies in the middle of your plate first, then fit everything else around it.
  • Fasting vs Snacking. Both can work. JZ finds that fasting clears his mind—each morning after he wakes up, he works for 4-5 hours on his Highlight without food or other distractions. Jake, by contrast, is a snacker who gets cranky when he gets hungry. For him, the key is to have high-quality snacks available and to eat when his body needs it, not just when he’s bored.

Use caffeine intentionally

Our bodies produce molecules called adenosine, which bind to receptors in the brain and make us feel tired, telling us to rest. Caffeine molecules look similar to adenosine and can bind to the same receptors, preventing the brain from getting the “tired” signal. Caffeine therefore doesn’t actually give us more energy—it just blocks us from feeling tired. The adenosine is still there so if you don’t re-caffeinate, you’ll crash. Over time, your body produces more adenosine to compensate so if you’re used to drinking lots of coffee, you’ll probably crash harder.

Caffeine is powerful stuff. Everyone processes and reacts to caffeine in a slightly different way, so you’ll need to experiment to find out what works for you. Some suggestions:

  • Wake up before you caffeinate. Cortisol helps you wake up. Your body naturally produces lots of cortisol in the morning, especially between 8-9am, so try having your first cup of coffee at around 9:30am.
  • Caffeinate before you crash. If you re-caffeinate once you feel tired, it’s too late—adenosine has already attached to your brain receptors. Caffeinate around 30 minutes before your energy naturally dips (often after lunch).
  • Take a caffeine nap. Alternatively, you can caffeinate after you get tired and immediately take a 15-minute nap. That time allows your brain to clear out the adenosine and your body to absorb the caffeine. Studies show that caffeine naps improve cognitive and memory performance more than coffee or a nap alone.
  • Try low-doses of caffeine. Substitute 2-3 cups of green tea for every cup of coffee you’d normally have, and drink it throughout the day. More frequent, low doses can keep your energy levels more consistent throughout the day.
  • Figure out your last call for caffeine. The half-life of caffeine is 5-6 hours on average. So if you have a cup of coffee at 4pm, half of it will still be in your system by 9-10pm. If you’re having trouble sleeping, your last call may be earlier than you think.

As with any experiment, you should track your results. It may take 3-10 days of feeling groggy as your body adjusts.

Socialise

Even the most introverted of us need human connection. Spending time with interesting friends who inspire you or make you laugh is one of the best ways to recharge your battery.

The authors recommend socialising having real (voice-based) conversations, rather than email, text, etc. Screen-based communication is so easy and efficient that it often displaces higher-value real-life conversations.

4. Reflect

While the authors suggest 87 different experiments in Make Time, you don’t know which ones will work for you until you’ve tried them. Many of the insights sound obvious when you read about them, but feel much more powerful when you experience the results for yourself. Experimentation helps us improve processes, so long as we reflect on what we’ve done.

Keep a record of how well you were able to focus on your Highlight each day, how much energy you had, what tactics you used, etc. There’s a template for this on the book’s official website.

Some tactics may require patience and adjustments. Other tactics may not work at all, and that’s okay. It’s still a data point and you can always try again. We’re not aiming for perfection—you can do as much or as little as fits in your life.

My Review of Make Time

The advice in Make Time appears to be generally sound. To be honest, I’ve probably read way too many “productivity” books now. Much of the advice about “Highlight” and “Laser” overlapped with Deep Work while the “Energise” section was reminded me of The Power of Full Engagement. So I was already doing most of what the authors had suggested—not to the letter, but applying the general principles.

The good thing about Make Time is that you can treat it like a menu—when I saw a tip I was already doing or wasn’t interested in, I just skimmed over it. I still found their four-step framework useful and discovered a few new ideas, such as the stuff on caffeine.

Some things I tried after reading Make Time included:

  • Got a physical wristwatch. I’m not sure I did this because of the book—I just wanted an easier-to-access stopwatch—but it did happen shortly after so the book may have planted the seed. It’s been surprisingly great! I hadn’t worn a watch in over a decade and had forgotten how convenient watches are.
  • Clearing my phone’s homescreen. This didn’t do anything for me at all, probably because I’m already reasonably intentional about my phone use.
  • Audio cues. I’ve tried to use audio cues to get me into the mood for sleeping rather than for focus. I’m not sure how effective this has been but I see no harm in it.
  • Switch to caffeine-free diet cola after 2pm. Since I don’t drink a lot of diet cola (and hardly any coffee), I hadn’t worried too much about caffeine before. But it was easy to switch to a caffeine-free option.

Lastly, I appreciated how the authors weren’t prescriptive or moralising with their suggestions. Not only do they acknowledge that different things work for different people, they explicitly call out some of the ways in which they differ from each other (e.g. snacking vs fasting, being a morning bird vs a night owl).

Let me know what you think of my summary of How Big Things Get Done in the comments below!

Buy How Big Things Get Done at: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through these links. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Book Summary: Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

  1. I just bought one of those clocks you linked to. I think having physical timers is better. I’m going to use it for timing out guitar practice.

    1. Cool! Yeah I fiddled around with timers on my computer for a while but never got into the habit of using them consistently. It’s amazing how much difference it makes to remove just a few seconds of friction

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