This is a re-broadcast. The episode originally ran in October 2018.
Do your days seem like a continuous blur of busyness, and yet you don’t seem to get much done, nor remember much about how you spent your time?
As a former employee of Google, my guest today worked on the very apps and technology that can often suck away our time. Today, he’s dedicated to figuring out how to push back against these forces to help people take control of their time and attention.
His name is John Zeratsky and he’s the co-author of the book Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. Today on the show, John shares how the experience of feeling like he was missing months of his life led him to spending years experimenting with his habits and routines, looking for the best ways to to optimize energy, focus, and time. He then shares the simple 4-step daily framework that developed from this research and walks us through that system. John talks about choosing one “highlight” each day to ensure your most important work gets done and that your life is full of memorable moments. He also shares how to reduce the time you spend wading in what he calls “infinity pools,” why energy management is just as important as time management, and how reflection is essential in figuring out if what you’re doing is working.
Lots of valuable direction in this show for how to get your life on track and find more hours and meaning in the day.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How John’s experience in the tech industry led to a productivity obsession
- Why your life isn’t about what happens, but what you pay attention to
- Why to build “highlights” into your daily life
- Should highlights be work-related or personal?
- How are highlights different from goals?
- How highlights can help you move toward your goals
- Why most time management and self-help advice is intimidating
- Why goals are risky and can actually blind us to the present moment
- The importance of flexibility and forgiveness in your time management
- Ditching your to-do list (and what to replace it with)
- What’s an infinity pool? What makes them so dangerous to our productivity and happiness?
- How to rid your life of infinity pools
- How spending less time on email makes you better at emailing
- The case against fancy time management and productivity tools
- Why energy management is so important
- The case for cooking (and other strenuous/active hobbies)
- How to make time to reflect every day
- Keeping up with this framework day after day
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- John’s first book: Sprint
- My interview with Adam Alter about why today’s tech is so irresistible
- Getting Things Done by David Allen
- Be a Time Wizard: How to Slow Down and Speed Up Time
- Rapt by Winifred Gallagher
- Make Every Day a Good Day With This Morning Routine
- My interview with Steven Kotler about flow
- 4 Questions to Kill the Fear of Missing Out
- How to Slay the Email Monster
- A Call for a New Strenuous Age
- The Winston Churchill School of Adulthood
- My interview with Tim Wu about the tyranny of convenience
- The Spiritual Disciplines: Self-Examination
- My interview with Charles Duhigg about hacking the habit loop
Connect With John
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
The Strenuous Life. The Strenuous Life is a platform for those who wish to revolt against our age of ease, comfort, and existential weightlessness. It is a base of operations for those who are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to connect with the real world through the acquisition of skills that increase their sense of autonomy and mastery. Sign up for email updates, and be the first to know when the next enrollment opens up in January.
The Great Courses Plus. Better yourself this year by learning new things. I’m doing that by watching and listening to The Great Courses Plus. Get a free trial by visiting thegreatcoursesplus.com/manliness.
One Fix. With the One Fix app, a nutritionist will analyze your meals and find one thing that’s causing your body to store extra fat, and give you a fix. Go to getonefix.com, enter code “manliness,” and get $50 off your first month.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Do your days seem like a continuous blur of busyness, and yet you don’t seem to get much done, nor remember much about how you spent your time? Well, as a former employee of Google, my guest today worked on the very apps and technology that can often suck away your time. Today, he’s dedicated to figuring out how to push back against these forces, to help people take control of their time and attention. His name is John Zeratsky, and he’s the coauthor of the book Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day.
Today on the show, John shares how the experience of feeling like he was missing months of his life led to him spending years experimenting with habits and routines, looking for the best ways to optimize energy, focus, and time. He then shares the simple four step daily framework that he developed from this research, and walks us through that system. John talks about choosing one highlight each day to ensure your most important work gets done, and that your life is full of memorable moments. He also shares how to reduce the time you spend wading in what he calls infinity pools, why energy management is just as important as time management, and how reflection is essential in figuring out if what you’re doing is actually working.
Lots of valuable direction in this show for you to get your life on track, and find more hours and meaning in the day. After it’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/maketime. John Zeratsky, welcome to the show.
John Zeratsky: Thanks a lot for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you coauthored a book, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. This is interesting, because your coauthor, Jake, and you, you both worked at Google, correct?
John Zeratsky: Yeah, that’s right.
Brett McKay: All right, so you guys … And you also spent time designing the apps that people spend a lot of time on, right? Gmail, YouTube, the things that people are like, “Ah, I need to get a handle on this stuff,” but then, here you guys come out with a book saying, “Here’s how to manage your time and not be distracted by these things we helped create.” I mean, what was the impetus behind the book? Did you guys have a problem with this stuff, too?
John Zeratsky: Yeah, definitely. As you pointed out, working in technology, working on these products was such an interesting spot for us to be, because on the one hand, you were working on apps that people find very distracting, that people struggle with, and so we’re kind of on the inside, and we know how these things are made, and that gives us ideas for how people might make some adjustments, make some changes to affect that relationship.
But the other thing that was pretty interesting was technology, in many ways, is kind of the ground zero or the epicenter for a lot of what’s crazy about our work cultures and about the defaults that we all operate under, so big tech companies, lots of meetings, lots of email. There’s instant messaging. There’s an expectation that you’re going to be online. You’re going to be plugged in. You’re going to be responsive. So we definitely, we both struggled working in that environment, to feel like we were using our energy and our time well at work, but also having something left over for ourselves.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, you make the point, these apps, they definitely help our lives, right? They improve our lives. But you have to learn how to manage it and take control of it, instead of them controlling you. Let’s talk about, you had this moment, this epiphany, right? You were working, and you felt like you were just missing out on months of your life, right? You didn’t realize that three months had passed. You’d be like, you couldn’t remember what happened during those three months. Tell us about that.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. Yeah, so maybe to put that in context, we can go back to 2005, when I graduated from college. I was lucky enough to get a job at a tech startup in Chicago, called FeedBurner. I’d been in school, and I had started a little web design business, so I had sort of developed some habits and some ways of making sure I was productive, I was getting things done. But I was dropped into this company and this team that was very high-performing. It was kind of the classic ideal of a tech startup, you know? It was hard work, hustle, long hours. People were super smart and super talented.
I wanted to thrive in that environment. I wanted to make the most of that opportunity, so I got really obsessed with productivity, and when I say productivity, I mean it in kind of the sense of trying to be as optimized and efficient, and leave no scrap of time unused, so I became obsessed with the book Getting Things Done. That was sort of like my Bible. I had the filing system and the to-do lists, and I had the stack of note cards that I carried with me at all times. To a certain extent, that worked, but I always felt like there had to be a better way. I felt like being productive was good, but it often just kind of made me feel like a machine, you know? I was just sort of cranking through these endless lists of tasks I needed to do.
In 2007, FeedBurner was bought by Google, and so then, I was working at Google. Life was really good. I had this great job. I had a great girlfriend, who’s now my wife. We had just moved into a new place in Chicago, but like you said, I woke up one day with kind of this feeling that time was just slipping away from me. I started to try to figure out what was going on, and I realized that I didn’t have anything of substance going on day-to-day that I could sort of hold onto. I was in this productivity mindset of just cranking through, going to the meetings, answering the emails, getting things done, but it was all kind of at this consistent level of these small tasks, and it just led to this feeling that time was slipping away.
Brett McKay: Right. I mean, I think we’ve all experienced that. The way I kind of describe it, the way I’ve experienced it is that, I remember as a kid, I had these memories from being a kid where it was just these moments, that they were really mundane, but for whatever reason, they stuck with me. Then, as an adult, I found I got fewer of those, right?
John Zeratsky: Yeah, definitely.
Brett McKay: Because you do the same thing day in and day out, and everything just sort of bleeds together.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. I mean, I think that our days living as professionals in the 21st Century, I think that our days tend to be made up of mostly small, kind of inconsequential tasks, things that happen. The process of forming memories, it happens automatically, you know? Some things might stick out, some things might not, but when nothing is sort of that big of a deal, I think it’s difficult to create those memories that make you feel like you’re living in time, instead of just seeing time move by.
Around that time when I was struggling, this was like 2008, I read a book called Rapt by Winifred Gallagher. It was a really incredible book that has stuck with me for a long time. She makes the argument that your experience of life is not necessarily what happens to you. It’s what you pay attention to. That was a big turning point for me. I realized that, if I started to intentionally build my days around the things that I wanted to remember, then I could choose to pay attention to those, and that would have the effect of sort of slowing down the passage of time, very much like being a kid and just having those summers that went on and on, and those amazing memories from those days.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, so okay, the solution to this was this thing you called highlights. So, what is a highlight?
John Zeratsky: Yeah, so a highlight is the one activity or thing that you want to prioritize and protect in your day. So, the idea is that, it’s not the only thing you’ll do, and it’s not like, I don’t think unrealistic. I don’t want to encourage people to have this expectation that they can completely clear their calendar or clear their day, but by choosing a highlight, you can kind of build your day around it. You can make sure that, no matter what else happens, you made time for that one thing, and you can feel like that time was well spent.
Brett McKay: Tell me, what’s an example of that? Are the highlights work-related, or are they something that just makes your life meaningful, that you want to do?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. For me, they’re all of the above. They tend to be more work-related stuff for me, like I often spend time on my highlight first thing in the morning, right after I wake up. I went through this process of becoming a morning person about five, six years ago, so I love to wake up, make some coffee, and work on my highlight, which is usually writing something, or doing some kind of design work, or doing something that’s related to work.
But in the book, we talk about a few different approaches for coming up with your highlight. What I described is, I think kind of an example of satisfaction, looking at what task or activity is going to be really satisfying? It’s not necessarily the most urgent thing, but it’s the thing that, it’s going to be a good chunk of work that you want to do, and you feel good about doing it.
But sometimes, my highlight is something that needs to get done, something that’s urgent, and that’s another strategy. A lot of times, like on Saturday, my wife and I are … We just moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we’re taking a food tour that’s sort of a tour of Milwaukee for Milwaukeans, and so I know that on Saturday, that’s going to be my highlight. That’s going to be the thing. It’s not something I have to get done. It’s not something productive, but it’s something that I want to do, and I’m going to kind of build my day around really enjoying and savoring that.
Brett McKay: So, as long as you accomplish your highlight, that day was a win, even if you didn’t get much done else?
John Zeratsky: I mean, that’s my take. You know, I think there’s always bad stuff that can happen to us, but my experience, and I think experience that’s backed up by some research and by experiences of other people, people who have read about this stuff as we’ve been writing about it, before the book, just on the web, it seems to be the case that when you build your days around one thing that you want to make time for, time moves more slowly, and you feel better about the way you spent that time.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how you establish these highlights, because I think people have heard of the idea of … People establish goals for themselves, but usually goals are often abstract and too far away in the future. It’s like, well, save for retirement, or I’m going to go on a vacation.
John Zeratsky: Totally.
Brett McKay: So, how does a highlight differ from a goal in that regard?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. I mean, a highlight is really short-term. It’s something that you want to do that day. It’s very much a daily process, and I think Jake and I kind of had this hypothesis that most advice about time management and self-help kind of stuff is way too intimidating, you know? It’s really big. It’s like, what do you want your life to be? Where do you want to be in five years? It’s really grand, and I think when you’re feeling busy, and you’re feeling distracted, and you’re feeling like you’re on autopilot, and like the days are sort of flying by, trying to break from that, and all of a sudden shift into thinking about these grand plans, I think is pretty tough. It’s pretty unrealistic.
Our belief is that, if you can start small, you can start by identifying what you want to do that day, the thing you want to make time for, and then starting to reclaim a little bit of the time that you might otherwise lose to your smartphone, social media, meetings, email, whatever, a lot of these default behaviors. If you can start to reclaim a little bit of that time, it can build from there. You’ll have a little bit more space, a little bit more time to think about what’s important to you. You’ll recognize the things that you enjoy doing, the things that are motivating to you, that create that clarity and sense of purpose around your time, and those might build into something really grand and big. They might build into some trip, or a career change, or retirement, but they might not. They might just be something that makes your existing life a little bit better, a little bit slower, a little bit more joyful.
Brett McKay: One example you give in the book of a highlight was you and your wife built this boat and wanted to go sailing. That’s a huge goal. So, did you just break it down, like you decided Saturday’s going to be boat day. “I’m going to make at least two hours for boat day.” Is that how that worked?
John Zeratsky: Kind of, yeah, and just to make sure that I’m not getting any undue credit, we did not build a boat.
Brett McKay: Okay. You had to repair it, though, right?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. We bought an old boat, and then we ended up selling that one and getting a different boat. Yeah. We ultimately ended up spending about eight months on the boat. We sailed from San Francisco all the way down the coast of North America to Panama. Boat’s in Panama right now, and we’ll be spending another probably six months on the boat this winter. But yeah, what you said about sort of on the weekend days, using that same approach of having a highlight and saying, “What’s the thing that we want to focus on now, that’s going to move us toward this goal?” That’s exactly what we did.
I think that we were … I’ve kind of a maybe unconventional way of thinking about goals. It’s that I feel like goals are risky. I think that you touched on how they’re sort of these abstract, amorphous things, and I think that they create sort of a feeling that we’re not good enough yet, because we haven’t reached our goal, and if only we reach our goal, then we’ll be satisfied. Then, we’ll be happy with ourselves, which I don’t think is a great way to live day-to-day. I also think that they blind us to what’s happening in the present. If we become so fixed on a goal that we’re working toward, we might not notice when our priorities change. We might not follow something that comes, that appears, that we enjoy doing in the meantime.
So, for my wife and me, we … I wouldn’t say that we made this sailing plan. It’s called cruising in the sailing world. That’s the idea of travelling by sailboat. I wouldn’t say that we made cruising a goal until very late in the game, until we got to the point where there was a finite set of things that we needed to do to prepare the boat, to prepare ourselves to be ready to actually leave at a certain time. Then, we got into making spreadsheets, and to-do lists, and all the typical stuff you do when you’re managing a big project. But earlier on, for me, it was really about trying to find the skills or the behaviors that I wanted to develop, so that I would be in a position to go cruising, to pursue this goal, and use my highlights and use my time to develop those skills and those behaviors.
Brett McKay: As you said, there’s different ways to pick your highlight of the day. One could be this sense of urgency, like this has to get done in order for me to move forward at work or whatever. So, that’s one way to pick a highlight. The other one is just also joy and satisfaction, like the one thing you think … That’s tricky, too, because sometimes, we think something will give us satisfaction and joy, but then we do it, and it doesn’t.
John Zeratsky: Yeah, totally.
Brett McKay: But I mean, I think that’s one of the nice things about highlights. One of the problems with goals, as you said, you kind of get fixated on it. You get goal lock, and you keep pursuing it because you feel like you should. I feel like the highlight concept, it’s a little more … It’s flexible, so it’s like, “Well, that didn’t really bring me satisfaction. All right. Move onto something else.”
John Zeratsky: Yeah, totally. I mean, flexibility and really forgiveness. Those are some of the key philosophies behind this book. Jake and I being obsessed with this idea of redesigning time, of how we spend our time, we’ve read tons of books and blog posts, and we’ve read all of the things about the 18 things you should do before 8:00 a.m. and all that kind of advice that you see.
I just feel like so much of it is so intense and so unforgiving, and so we think that making these changes to how you’re spending your time is better approached from a standpoint of flexibility and forgiveness, to be able to say, “You know, I don’t know what I want to be doing in five years, and I know I’m not going to completely remake my life overnight, and I’m not going to adopt this exact set of steps that is kind of being presented as a framework, but if I can start small, and every day, I can try to make time for something that is important,” we know that people can build, and those changes can compound.
Jake and I both found that those led us to places, with the sailing stuff and with writing, that approach led us to places in our lives that we didn’t necessarily plan. Those weren’t necessarily goals. They weren’t things that we saw coming.
Brett McKay: Another sort of mindset shift that I thought was really useful … Let’s say for this task of getting a boat ready to go sailing around the world. As you said, there’s all these things you have to do to get ready, and the tendency, the productivity books that say like, “You need to set a deadline for each of these little tasks,” right?
But then, I’ve done that before, and what ends up happening is, all of my tasks are undone right? I’ve got that right now. I use to-do lists, and I’m like, “All right, this week, this task is going to be done” and then like, it was due two days ago, and it’s in red saying I need to get this done. You guys said, instead of doing that, having these sort of assigned tasks for certain days, have instead of a task list, having a might … Or instead of having a to-do list, have a might-do list, right?
John Zeratsky: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So today is boat day. I’m going to spend two hours. Here’s a list of tasks that I could possibly do. Why do you think that’s so powerful in moving forward on those things that are really meaningful to you?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. That’s very much how I plan my days ongoing. I think what’s powerful about the might-do list is that it separates the decision about what you should do, or what you could do, from the act of doing it. I think that if you sit down in front of a to-do list that is neatly organized and categorized, and everything’s got a priority and a deadline, and all these different things, there’s a chance, a good chance, that you’re not going to end up spending time on the most important things. You might knock off the easy things, or the things that are maybe, they appear the most urgent, because you put a date on them and they’re overdue, but maybe they’re not actually the most important things that you should be doing.
Whereas I think if you have a list, a might-do list is what I call it, and before you sit down to start working on that stuff, you review that, and you think about what’s important to do in that time, and then you schedule it, I think that you have a much better chance of actually spending your time on the things that are important. I don’t even use a to-do list, at all. I just have a note in Google Keep, so it’s on my computer and on my phone. It’s just my one big might-do list, and it has a couple of headings in it, but there’s no priority. There’s no dates. The calendar is really where I sort of handle the question of when am I going to do things, but I think that that very human process of reviewing and intuitively deciding, here’s what’s important now, is essential, and I think it’s something that to-do lists don’t necessarily help us do.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing I’ve noticed, whenever I’m working on a larger task, and I create to-do lists, as I get started working on the project, I realize that what I thought was urgent is no longer urgent, or I need to solve this other problem first before I get to this. I don’t know. I think the idea of a might-do list gives some flexibility to, when you actually get started, you can make adaptations.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. Well, and it’s kind of a trick, right? Part of it is just in the framing, this idea that instead of a to-do list, it’s a might-do list. It’s, I think in that spirit of forgiveness and flexibility that we talked about a few minutes ago. Maybe that’s not the most life-changing shift in thinking, but I do think that there’s something valuable about it.
Brett McKay: So, we’re going to be flexible with what we do with this highlight, whatever we pick it to be. Here’s a question. Can your highlight change from day to day, or is this something where it’s like, you sit down on Sunday … Here’s the typical productivity tip. You’ve got to plan your week on Sunday night and decide what you’re going to do each day of the week. Or is this concept a little more flexible? It’s like, “Well, you know, today is going to be boat day,” or, “Today is going to be writing memo day,” or whatever. How does that work?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. Make Time is really a daily framework. We think that the day is kind of the sweet spot. It’s the right size that we are capable of both thinking about in a productive way, but then actually acting on. When you create that plan for the week, or the one-year plan, or the five-year plan for yourself, it’s too difficult to predict, to know what’s really going to happen, how you’re going to feel, what else is going to happen to you. So, the day kind of feels like a sweet spot. Setting a highlight is a daily activity. The other steps in the Make Time framework, laser, energize, and reflect, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, those are all daily activities.
Yeah. The highlight can totally be, can be something different every day. You can kind of jump between one day, there might be something urgent you need to take care of, and then once you’ve got that off your plate, the next day, you feel like you can do something really satisfying. The end of the week rolls around, and you choose a joyful highlight, something that is just going to be really fun for you.
The twist on that, or the exception, is when we’re working on a big project, we often find it valuable to think of sort of a personal sprint, so essentially choosing the same highlight every day for a week, or for longer, or highlights that are thematically related. So, if you’re working on creating something new, and this was the case when we were writing Make Time, pretty much every day, with a few exceptions, my highlight was about Make Time. It was about writing a draft of the next chapter, or reviewing something that Jake had written, or working on outlining a certain section. But having a sort of similar or the same highlight day after day, I think really allows us to get into the groove, to get into flow in a way that’s difficult to do just within one day. But that’s kind of an advanced move. That’s not really sort of the basic way that the highlight works.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, actually, you guys coauthored a book called Sprint, as well, where you kind of-
John Zeratsky: We did, yeah.
Brett McKay: Right, where you talk about the system you all used at Google to get these big projects moving forward and completed.
John Zeratsky: Yeah, so that book is about the five day design sprint process, where team goes from idea or challenge to a prototype that they can test with customers in five days. Running those sprints was really interesting for us, because it was almost like a time management laboratory, where we got to bring all these people in and work with them, and see how people reacted to changes in the defaults of how we spend our time, and make tweaks, and try to improve things, and see how it went.
One of the things that was really interesting is just the gains that you get from focusing on the same thing for a week. Instead of trying to move projects forward by little bit and little bit, when you can sort of load a lot of that knowledge and expertise about what you’re working on into your working memory, into your brain, it’s not like you make five times as much progress, because it’s five days. You make way more. You make so much more progress, because you don’t have the switching costs. You don’t have to reload your working memory every time you try to pick up that project again.
Brett McKay: Got you. What I was thinking, as I was listening to you, taking this to … I can see how that would work in your work life, right? There’s a big project. You just spend five days, and every day, that your highlight is going to be working on this project and moving it forward. I was thinking in your personal life, one of the things that people try to do, that they try to do in bit and pieces, like getting their house organized or their garage organized.
John Zeratsky: Yeah.
Brett McKay: They spend basically an hour every Saturday doing it. That’s all they got.
John Zeratsky: Sure.
Brett McKay: But you maybe you just set aside, “Okay, this week, every night, for just an hour, our highlight is clean out and organize the garage.”
John Zeratsky: Yeah, totally. Yeah. I mean, I think that that way of thinking about a project can be almost freeing, and really, really motivating, because when you have the clarity, that that’s what you have decided to do, and that’s what’s important, you no longer feel like you’re trying to squeeze it in, in between other stuff, or kind of making that decision in realtime like, “Oh, I could watch TV, but I really should clean the garage.” When you’ve made a plan and said, “You know what? This is going to be my highlight, is to, after we finish dinner, we’re going to go, and we’re going to work in the garage for an hour,” I think it allows you to look forward to that and to enjoy it more, even if it’s something that’s not really all that fun.
Brett McKay: So, we’re pretty flexible with the to-do list, might-do list, but the one thing you don’t want to be flexible with on the highlight is, you set aside time for it, and you basically protect that with your life, right?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. When people are getting started with this, we kind of think that 60 to 90 minutes is a good chunk of time to spend on a highlight. It’s something that most people can realistically create by adjusting their schedule, and by reclaiming time from distracting and addicting apps and devices, but it’s also, it’s long enough that you can really, you can sink your teeth into it. You can kind of get in the groove. You can get into flow. You can feel like it was worthwhile, it was something meaningful.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s talk about … So, we’ve picked our highlight. We’ve set aside time for it. We’re going to protect it with our life, say no to things, right? I think, that’s the hard part for people. Stuff comes up, and you think, “Well, it’s my highlight. I’m working on the garage. I could probably do that.” Just say, “I already got plans,” and people won’t say anything.
John Zeratsky: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about those things that distract us, that can sort of, if we spent too much time on it, it can seep into our highlight time. We talked about, you guys worked at Google. You call these things like email, YouTube, even web browsers, you call these things infinity pools. Why is that?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. An infinity pool is any app, or service, or product that has an infinite and replenishing source of content inside of it. If you can pull to refresh, or if it steams nonstop, like the Netflix example of starting the next episode right after the previous one ends, that’s an infinity pool. We kind of came up with that term because there’s always more water in the pool, you know? You can always jump back in. The level is never going to go down. It’s never going to go away. It’s never going to be empty.
These are really challenging. Infinity pools are a new invention in the history of humankind. Until just like 10 years ago, most things in our world were finite. Infinity pools, they really, they pull on several of the threads that make up the fabric of who we are as humans, of how we evolved. For example, we evolved to really care about people, and stories, and gossip, so social media, Instagram showing photos of what other people are doing and what their lives are like, that’s very appealing to us.
We are naturally susceptible to distraction, because if you think about a preindustrial, preagricultural world, if there’s a flash in the corner of your eye, you should probably check and look what it is, you know? It might be a tree falling, or it might be a large animal. It might be something you need to be aware of. Whereas today, most of the distractions are not actually important.
We also evolved to value what psychologists call variable rewards or random rewards. Sort of the classic example of this a slot machine, where you pull the handle, and it’s really easy and low cost to pull the handle, and most times, nothing happens, or nothing good happens, but on occasion, something amazing happens. There’s always the chance that something great is going to happen when you pull that handle.
If you think about it, that’s exactly what these infinity pool apps are like. We sort of evolved to value those things, as well, because imagine you’re hunting, you’re gathering, you’re trying to find food that you need to survive. Some days, you might go out and come back empty-handed, but every once in a while, something great happens. Every once in a while, you make a big kill, or you come across a bush that’s full of berries, or you find some ripe fruit or something like that. So, really deep in our DNA, we’ve got this appreciation for and this love of these variable rewards.
Brett McKay: I mean, the other thing about infinity pools, the whole goal of Make Time is to have more of these moments in our life or that we remember. I think with infinity pools, if I look back and I think, I’ve been using the internet for, I don’t know, however long, 15 … I don’t know, I can’t even … That’s the thing. It’s all slipped by me. It’s all amorphous. But I can’t remember a moment being on the internet and being like, “I remember when I read this Reddit thread, and it was awesome. I remember when I scrolled through Instagram, I saw this cool thing.” That never happens, right?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. That’s totally true. I think the combination of these innate human characteristics with just the sheer convenience, just the fact that these things are in our pockets, are in our handbags or right in front of us, is just kind of this perfect storm. It’s just this really powerful cocktail that tends to suck time away from us in a way that we don’t even notice is happening.
One of the things we talk about a lot in the book is this idea of defaults, how these behaviors are not necessarily things we decided to do. It’s not like there’s some grand master plan for the best way to spend your time every day, but because these infinity pool apps have become the defaults in our world, many of us just kind of find ourselves mindlessly checking them, or we pick up our phone for a quick check of something, and we end up doing something else. What Jake and I have done, and what we encourage people to do, is to think about ways that they can change those defaults.
Brett McKay: Right, so I mean, some of these are pretty drastic. Some was like just remove your email app from your phone. Remove your web browser from your phone.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. They’re all based on the same idea, which is that the best way to avoid distraction is to make it more difficult to get distracted. So, to remove those … or sorry, to create barriers to distraction. Designers like us, we’ve spent years and years trying to remove the barriers, trying to make apps like email, and Facebook, and Twitter, and YouTube as easy to get into and as easy to use as possible. You don’t have to sign in. You stay signed in. You don’t have to even think to open the app, because there’s a notification on your phone that reminds you about it.
We believe that by creating barriers to distraction, you can take willpower out of the equation. You can take self-control out of the equation. You don’t need to constantly resist the urge to check these things, but by removing apps from your phone, by signing out of websites that are very distracting, even doing things like rearranging your living room so that the TV is not the focal point, can just make it a little bit more difficult to get sucked into these infinity pools, and they have the result, then, of freeing up that time for others things, freeing up that time for your highlight.
Brett McKay: Right. I think one tactic, like people are like, “Man, how could I ever get by without email on my phone or a web browser?” I mean, like with email, I actually, I don’t have email on my phone anymore, either. What I kind of finally realized, got me to remove it is, I never answered email from my phone, ever.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. All you do is look at it and get stressed out about all the things you’re not answering.
Brett McKay: Right. So yeah, I guess just be thoughtful about the apps you have on your phone. You guys also give suggestions. You have a website, right? What’s the website, Make Time?
John Zeratsky: Oh, yeah. For the book, the website is called maketimebook.com. That’s the domain.
Brett McKay: But you also offer app suggestions, that you can block certain things on your phone. That’s all useful. The idea is just figure out what your defaults are, and then rearrange those defaults to put obstruction between getting into these infinity pools.
John Zeratsky: Yeah, and as you touched on, it can be pretty daunting or pretty extreme to think about, “Wow, no email on my phone. That’s crazy.” But we encourage people to think about, when it comes to infinity pool apps, we encourage people to think about, what’s the underlying value or purpose for using that thing? Because we start using an app, or a service, or a tool for a reason. There’s obviously something good about it.
So for example, you might be thinking about Facebook, and you might think, “Well, I like using Facebook, because it allows me to keep in touch with my family, and I can see pictures of my friends’ kids,” or something like that. Kind of follow that thread through to the conclusion of like, “Well, will I still be able to do that if I don’t have it on my phone, if I don’t have it at my fingertips at every moment?” The answer, in most cases, is yes. I use Twitter for a lot of kind of work-related stuff. That’s how I promote my work, and talk to readers, and answer questions. But I don’t need it on my phone. I don’t need to have access to it 24/7 to do that. I use Twitter on my computer. I use it for a limited time each day, and when I’m done with it, I log out, and I close the tab, and I go on with my day.
Email kind of fits into that, as well. There’s actually some pretty interesting research that we read about in the book, where people who spend less time on email actually get better at email. They’re able to respond, like the time that it takes per message to respond gets shorter and shorter when just do email at the end of the day, or just have a certain chunk of time when they do email. I think kind of the perspective that I’m talking through here is trying to be clear about why you use these things, and then ask yourself the question of whether it needs to be always on, always at your fingertips.
Brett McKay: All right, so this is one of these tactics you guys highlight about this laser focus part of the Make Time process. You have your highlights, and then you’re going to laser in on it, where you’re going to avoid distractions. So yeah, avoid these infinity pools, but you also talk about avoiding … I think that was a really interesting point you made in the book, because I’ve fallen in this trap, is avoiding getting caught up, like spending so much time on your productivity system that you actually don’t get actual things done, right?
John Zeratsky: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So it’s basically, avoid the fancy tools, because that can get really exciting.
John Zeratsky: That’s right. Yeah, and that’s another one that came directly out of my own experience, just nerding out on all the different to-do list apps, and the project management apps, and that kind of stuff. I think that these, I call them fancy tools, they feel like work, but they’re not actually work. If you have an idea for an app that you are thinking of building, instead of just grabbing a piece of paper and start sketching what the UI looks like, you think, “Oh, I need to have a fancy notebook and a really nice pen,” or if you want to start writing something, you have to go and download and install a distraction-free writing app, or one of these dedicated screenplay writing apps.
Those are just sort of a form of procrastination. They are things that I think are easy to get into, because they’re kind of fun, and they’re the path of least resistance, but when we really stop and think about it, they’re not actually what we want to be doing, what we want to be spending our time on.
Brett McKay: Right. They distract you. All right, so there’s pick your highlight. You’re going to laser. There’s a whole bunch of tactics. We’ve talked about some of them, avoiding the infinity pools. The next part of the Make Time process is energize, so this is like basically energy management. Why do you think that’s an important part of personal productivity?
John Zeratsky: I think that focusing on building energy is important, because it helps us avoid distraction in the first place, and kind of make better decisions in those moments, day-to-day, about what we’re going to do next. I’ve definitely been in a situation where I wake up, and maybe I’ve stayed up too late, or maybe I was watching TV too late, or I drank a little bit too much, or I had a huge meal or something like that. I wake up, and I feel groggy or sluggish, or not energized. On those mornings, I’m way more likely to jump into my email or open Twitter right away, instead of spending time on my highlight.
I think if you’ve ever felt really sluggish after a big lunch, or if you’ve ever felt kind of clear-headed and invigorated after going for a run, you can kind of see this connection between the energy that we create with our bodies and how that affects the decisions and the things that we do with our brains.
Brett McKay: Right, so basically, the advice is basically the stuff you’ve been hearing your entire life on how to live the healthy life, get plenty of sleep, eat right, exercise. Any other tactics that you found to be pretty useful in energizing you?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. The big categories, like you’re saying, are kind of the stuff that everybody already knows, so food, exercise, sleep, and then we also think that finding quiet, moments of quiet away from the noise of modern life, and spending face-to-face time with other people, we think that these are really important ways to build energy. But we also know that this kind of advice is everywhere, and everybody already knows about it, so we try to translate that into really concrete, specific tactics that people can try, and that it doesn’t represent some dramatically new, extreme diet or some super intense workout program, but kind of little things that you can fit into your day.
Brett McKay: Right, and also, could these things be a highlight for somebody?
John Zeratsky: It definitely could be. I mean, I think that there’s, depending on what you’re into and what you like, for example, cooking is, I think, an activity that, it can be a highlight. It can be something that improves the healthfulness of the food that you eat, and it can also be a way to give yourself energy by using your body, by moving your body. I actually took a lot of inspiration from some of your writing, Brett, about kind of the strenuous life, this idea of doing things, of having a DIY life instead of a remote control life, you know? Instead of ordering delivery, and using the laundry apps, and the grocery delivery, and all these things, all these conveniences are available, something like cooking kind of hits a few of those principles at the same time.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. I think that’s an interesting point. We did a series on Winston Churchill, and one of the interesting things about this guy, he had a weird schedule. He stayed up late. He slept in. He would dictate to his secretary while he was in his pajamas in his bed, or in his bathtub. Weird guy, but he worked hard. When he was working, he was working hard. But for a break, instead of just taking it easy, he would go build a wall in his garden, or go paint, and that energized him to go back to whatever else he had to do.
John Zeratsky: Totally. Yeah. I feel that, as well. I get a lot of satisfaction, and frankly a lot of energy, out of doing things the hard way, kind of choosing the manual route, doing things where there is a clear sort of convenient way to do the thing, but choosing the harder way. Walking is a perfect example. Obviously, it takes longer to walk most times, but it actually, I feel like it actually creates time, because I’m getting energy from that activity, but I also have additional mental space that is happening while I’m walking.
Same with cleaning, or cooking, or carrying something home from the store. It creates kind of this meditative space, this opportunity to allow ideas to emerge, to start to kind of reflect on what you’re doing, how you’re spending your time. So yeah, for me, those sort of hands-on, almost those intentionally inconvenient approaches to everyday activities are really important.
Brett McKay: No, yeah. I’ve noticed that whenever I do nothing, it always sounds appealing, but then, doing nothing can often just be exhausting. I don’t know why. So, if I actually do something on like a break, I come back to work more energized. It’s bizarre. I don’t know why it works that way, but that’s the way it works.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. Taking a break from work and checking Twitter is kind of like the classic example of that. It’s like, “Oh, this’ll be a cool break. I’ll catch up on what’s going on.” Then, you get done with it, and you’re like, “Wait, that wasn’t a break. I don’t feel refreshed. I don’t feel renewed. Now, I need a real break.”
Brett McKay: Yeah. Right, a real break. All right, so just basically take care of yourself, so you can be more productive when you’re working on the things that are important. So, there’s highlights, laser, energize, and then there’s this reflect. What does that reflection process look like?
John Zeratsky: Yeah, so reflect might be the most important part of the whole thing. The idea is that you’ll spend just a couple minutes every day thinking back on how your day went. What was your highlight? Did you have time for it? Which tactics did you use? Are there things from the book that you tried, and did they work well? If they didn’t work well, what do you want to try again tomorrow? For me, this is something that I’ve been kind of thinking about this stuff for so long, and I’ve been on this journey for so long, that I do a lot of this reflection kind of intuitively. I have space in my day where I’m walking, or I’m not actively engaged in work, and I’m always thinking about just how things are going. But I know that I’m a little bit weird in that way.
At the same time, there’s a lot of advice out there, I think, about journaling, and about stuff like that, that can feel pretty overwhelming. So, we’re trying to offer people a very small, very bite-size activity that they can do to basically answer a couple of questions and put themselves in this experimental mindset, put themselves in this way of thinking that doesn’t have perfection as a goal, doesn’t have the perfect application of this 20 part system, but just has this spirit of just get a little better every day. Just do something a little different every day, and see how it goes for you.
Brett McKay: Here’s a question for you. How do you keep this up day in and day out? Because that’s the problem I found with productivity systems, like Getting Things Done, for example. I did that too, back in whenever, 2007, 2006, whenever it came out.
John Zeratsky: Sure. Yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s like, “Yeah, this is really cool.” I went out and bought all the stuff, and I did it for like two weeks. Then, it was just like, “No.” I got that collection of GTD stuff sitting there now. With this, how do you keep it up day in and day out?
John Zeratsky: Yeah. I mean, I think that, as much as possible, it’s helpful to try to make some of these things automatic. I know there’s a lot of advice out there about creating habits, and I’m certainly not an expert on that, but I think to the extent that you can create habits around these activities, that’s really helpful. I think even just shifting a mindset can really reinforce certain behaviors.
But at the same time, I don’t know that there is necessarily an easy answer to that question. I think part of it has to come from an external sense of motivation, a sense that you want to change things, or that you want to work toward something better. I think that that’s one of the results of this approach to making time, that as you start to create a little bit of space every day, you start to get a clearer view of where you’re headed and what’s important to you.
For example, when my wife and I were just starting to get into sailing, and we were spending time learning about our boat, and fixing up our boat, and taking short trips on the boat, we didn’t necessarily have some grand plan that we were working toward, but the more time we spent on it, and the more we used these techniques to create space in our days, the stronger motivation we were able to build about what we were working toward. So, I don’t have a perfect formula for how to change your behavior overnight, how to make these changes stick, but I do think that starting to slow things down and create a little bit of space every day is the first step.
Brett McKay: Well John, where can people go to learn more about the book? We already talked about it, Make Time Book, right?
John Zeratsky: That’s right. Yeah, maketimebook.com. A great place to go just to follow everything that Jake and I are doing and writing about is Time Dorks.
Brett McKay: Time Dorks.
John Zeratsky: That’s our newsletter. It’s all about experiments in time management. Then, perhaps ironically, I would suggest that people follow me on Twitter, as well. My user name is Jazer, J-A-Z-E-R.
Brett McKay: It’s when they’re taking their fake break, they can check you out.
John Zeratsky: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Well hey, John, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for coming on.
John Zeratsky: Yeah. Thank you so much, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Zeratsky. He’s the coauthor of the book Make Time. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about the book at his website, maketimebook.com, all one word. You can find links to tools and free resources there. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/maketime, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic and to put it into action.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com, and if you enjoy this show, you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you, and please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.