167: Make Time with John Zeratsky | Tanya Dalton
John Zeratsky podcast interview on The Intentional Advantage
March 24, 2020   |   Episode #:

167: Make Time with John Zeratsky

In This Episode:

Have you ever thought about choosing your goal for the day from the very get-go when you wake up? Think about this for a second, what if you started your day by planning what you want to be the highlight, and then worked backward to make sure it happened? That’s one of the things that today’s guest, John Zeratsky, shared in this episode. John is the co-author of Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. He shares his wisdom on not living our life by default, and how things, like the busy bandwagon and infinity pulls, are tugging away at our attention. He explores what he’s learned over the years about productivity optimization, and how he uses the four-step structure of Highlights, Laser, Energy, and Reflect to help build his day.

Show Transcript:

The Big Idea

Find a highlight for your day.

Questions I Answer

  • How can I be more intentional?
  • Can productivity help me be more mindful?
  • What can I do to make my day feel manageable?

Key Topics in the Show

  • How John’s boating trip taught him two tremendous life lessons

  • The negative consequences of the busy bandwagon

  • Cutting off the infinity pulls at the source, so we’re free to choose what to focus on

  • John’s four-step structure of Highlights, Laser, Energy and Reflect

  • His three strategies for selecting a highlight to concentrate on day by day

Resources and Links

Show Transcript

This is Productivity Paradox with Tanya Dalton, a podcast focused on using productivity not just to do more but to achieve what’s truly important to you, and this season is all about you, You 2.0. To learn more about yourself, take Tanya’s 

free quiz and discover your own productivity style at Tanyadalton.com. 

And now get ready. Here’s your host, Tanya Dalton. 

Tanya: 

Hello. Hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, 

Tanya Dalton, and this is episode 167. So let me start off this episode by telling you I totally lied to you last week. Okay, technically I didn’t lie, but I’ve changed my mind because last week at the end of the show I told you that this week we were going to be talking about grit and willpower and after I recorded that episode, I had the most amazing conversation and interview with John Zeratsky and in having this conversation with him and talking about his book, which is called Make Time, I thought, you know what? This fits so well with what we talked about in last week’s episode 166 about quitting and constraints and how that makes you more productive and I thought, you know what? We’re going to switch 

things up. You know why? Because we can. So instead of talking about grit and willpower, this week we are going to be talking to John Zeratsky so that episode on grit and willpower will shift to next week. 

Let’s dive into this though. Let’s talk to John because I feel like he has so many great insights as to how you do create and make more time 

through constraints, through not living our life on default as he calls it. So I don’t want to get too much into what he talks about because I want you to hear it from him. But let me first give you a little bit of insight into who he is. John’s Zeratsky is a veteran technology designer, keynote speaker and bestselling author of Sprint and Make Time, How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. His writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Harvard Business Review, Wired, Fast Company and so many other publications. And he’s appeared on stage more than 200 times, including at Netflix, at IDEO, and at the London School of Economics. Now he and his wife Michelle have lived in Chicago and San Francisco before spending 18 months traveling through Central America aboard their sailboat. And then they moved to Milwaukee in 2019, let me go ahead and have you meet John. 

Now, John, I am so excited to have you here on the show today

John: 

I’m excited to be here. Thank you, Tanya. 

Tanya: 

Well good. Well, now I know you and your wife have spent several years, I think from like 2017 to 2019, sailing around the coastal regions of Central America in your boat called Pineapple, which I love the name of, 

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and you kind of touch in the book about building the sailboat, you actually built your sailboat, and creating that space in time kind of got you started on this path. Would you say that that was a big influence for you and your lifestyle today? 

John: 

This is the first interview that I’ve done that has started by asking about that. So I’m excited and I appreciate that, this is great. Just to clarify one thing for all the hardcore boat builders in the audience, I’m sure you have a few. 

Tanya: 

We have a rabid following of boat fanatics. 

John: 

So we did not build our boat. We went through an extensive process of fixing up and preparing our boat in order to get ready to leave for this extended journey and any boat owners will recognize the necessity to put in lots of time to get a boat ready, because you got to be prepared because you don’t know what’s going to happen when you’re traveling, you’re far away, you can’t get parts, whatever. So we did spend a lot of time working on the boat, but we did not build it. That said, that caveat out of the way, the trip that we took in 2017 to 2019 was really more of the, it was almost the end result. It was sort of buildup, it was the thing that we had been wanting to make time for for years. 

So we used a lot of the tactics that I have written about and then I teach people and the stuff that you talk about as well, the stuff that you teach people about prioritization, about ways of focusing on what matters, on avoiding distractions and saying no to things that are less important so that we could continue moving in the direction of being ready to go on this trip. And eventually we got to a point where there was a certain time of year we needed to leave based on the weather and we had wrapped up things in our jobs, we both left our jobs when we took this trip. And so then there was sort of a no turning back moment and we were out there, once we were traveling. That was a whole different chapter and it was very difficult to anticipate or predict what that was going to be like. And we dealt with all sorts of challenges from the typical challenges of extended travel, but also down to just identity issues and status issues and going from two people who were very fortunate and very successful. 

And then all of a sudden just being these two people who the folks that We would meet while we were traveling, they didn’t care what kind of job we had. They didn’t care what city we used to live in. We were just two people on our own and we didn’t have the framework of identity to hold on to in the same way. And so sort of the big lesson from the travel experience was, really two big lessons. One was kind of showing ourselves what’s possible when you do make time for what matters in a dramatic way, if you really questioned the defaults of how life is supposed to work. So seeing you when you kind of go through those 

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things for not just days or weeks or months, but really go through those things for years and really live that system and that approach, what can happen. But then the other big lesson was what happens when you step away from normal life and when you create just a huge amount of space in your lifestyle to reflect and to take care of the basics and to allow things to emerge. 

And that was something that I did not expect at all. But when you’re traveling and you can, you don’t have to go on a sailing trip to get this, you can get this if you go for a long walk in the woods without headphones in or whatever. But when you create space in your life to allow your brain to just work, to allow for passive thought, to allow for what I call emergent thinking, which is where ideas and thoughts about what matters to you and your values can really emerge from those moments, it can really create a lot of clarity for what you want to do. When you return from that from that moment, and go back into sort of so called normal life. 

Tanya: 

Quote unquote normal. 

John: 

Yeah. That’s it. 

Tanya: 

I love how though so many people talk about this idea of, we have a lot of things going on and let’s make time for what matters and yet you did that. This boat, this trip, which is an extended amazing trip, really was the fruits of that. That you actually live the things you talk about it. I feel so often that we see these experts who are talking about things and you’re like, all right, you’re not doing any of those things. You did it. Which I think is amazing because it is hard to make that time. In your book you talk about the idea of infinity pulls and the busy bandwagon. 

These are the two things that are constantly fighting and pulling against each other for our time. 

John: 

Yeah. 

Tanya

Can you dive into what those two things are? Infinity pulls and the busy bandwagon. 

John: 

Sure. I’ll start with the busy bandwagon and that is really the culture and the norms and the expectations around immediate response times around being constantly connected, always online, always available. It’s the thing that leads us to say when a friend asks how we’re doing, to say, I’m busy. 

Tanya: 

We love using that word busy. 

John: 

And when we say that, I think what we mean in the best of cases is my life feels very full and gratifying. I’m spending my days with a lot of good 

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stuff. But I think what it means in the worst of cases is I feel like my life is not my own and I feel like I am being pulled in a million directions, I’m jumping from fire to fire, trying to put those fires out. And then at the end of the day asking myself what about me? Like what happened? | finally did all this stuff I was supposed to do and now I can do the thing that I really want to do. So that’s the busy bandwagon and it’s really more, it’s more cultural and it’s more around expectations that other people have of us and how we buy into those expectations. 

Tanya; 

All right, so right now my listeners are like mm-hmm (affirmative), I know why she likes him because we call it the badge of busy, but it’s the same 

concept, the same idea of being pulled into what other people want us to do or other people think we should be doing or other people’s priorities and putting those above our own. 

John: 

Yeah. And I love visual metaphors. So like if you imagine a bandwagon, you imagine like imagine a parade and you’re watching the parade and there’s this really kind of chaotic, wacky, wagon coming, this float coming and it has a band on it and people are a playing all different instruments and they’re all just super chaotic and you sort of see it coming and people are like, Oh, I got to jump on that. I’ve got to be a part of that. That‘s the thing that everybody’s doing. 

Tanya: 

Yes. 

John: 

But if you instead chose to turn around and walk away and go and do what you want to do, you have the ability to choose to not jump on the bandwagon. 

Tanya 

Amen to that. 

John; 

You also asked about the infinity pulls and this is a equally powerful but very different force that pulls at our attention and pulls at our time. 

And that really is, infinity pulls really come from our technology. And so any app that you can pull to refresh, any website that has a feed that reloads automatically and says, click for updates, anything that streams, So YouTube, Netflix, anything where there’s an infinite pulls of content, that’s what we call an infinity pulls. And so the idea is that you can always jump back in the pulls. There’s always something more there for you. And these are things that we often opt into without really thinking about them. Some of them come installed on our devices by default. You get a brand new phone, you set it up for the first time. One of the very first things you do is you sign into your email account and you’ve got an email app pre-installed by default. 

And by default that’s going to check for new messages automatically, even when you don’t ask it to. And it’s going to send you a notification 

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when a new message comes in. And so that’s not something that you chose, that’s just something that happened by default. But it encourages a sort of paying attention to the time-sensitive and the urgent instead of the important. But then of course we install Instagram and Twitter and we install breaking news apps and at the end of the day we veg and we watch Netflix and now of course Netflix starts playing the next episode within like five seconds. 

Tanya

Yeah. I mean it is within five seconds. Like you don’t have chance to say no, I don’t have the opportunity. Yeah. 

John; 

It feels like an act of cultural resistance to pause, to stop Netflix instead of letting it go on. 

Tanya

Cultural resistance to pause. I love it. Yes. 

John: 

Yeah. And so the good news is that these things are, compared to the busy bandwagon, these things are actually pretty easy to push back against because we can just uninstall them. 

Tanya: 

Yes. 

John: 

And one of the most powerful tactics that my coauthor and my good friend Jake Knapp and I have come up with and shared with our readers is the distraction free phone. And there’s lots of advice about how do you make your phone less distracting? And people talk about notifications and little sort of tweaks, rearranging your home screen or even I’ve seen people advise, there’s a setting on your phone that you can turn the screen gray scale. And so people have all sorts of little different tricks. But the most powerful thing you can do, if you feel like you’re spending too much time on your phone is to actually uninstall the apps that are tugging at you. To really get to the core to cut it off at its source, that breaks the entire sort of habit loop. So I’ve studied habit formation a bit in support of the work that I do and the habit researchers talk about this idea of friction, of making it more difficult to complete some action and nothing is more difficult than just not having the app in the first place. 

Tanya: 

That definitely adds an element of difficulty too, for sure. 

John: 

You get that urge to check Twitter and then you realize Twitter is not on my phone and if I want to check Twitter, I’m going to have to actually wait until I’m on my computer and I can open up a new tab and I can log into or whatever. And so those are the infinity pulls and they’re obviously very powerful but there are fairly straightforward ways to cut 

ff at the source and sort of reset those technological defaults so that we’re more free to choose what we want to focus on. 

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Tanya: 

Yes, you’ve been carrying a distraction free zone since about 2012, right? So for quite some time. But what I think is so fascinating to me is that you and your co-author Jake, you guys have worked at some of the most recognizable tech companies. Google, YouTube, where I mean, you worked on tech that was insanely addictive and that drive us into that distraction. 

John: 

Yeah. 

Tanya: 

I love that you have this very, very healthy way of looking at technology, It’s not about getting rid of it. It’s not about trying to live like you’re Amish or something like that. It really is this healthy harmony of spending time on technology but being very intentional with it and then choosing not to. Really actively making those choices in your life. I think that it’s so fascinating because I feel like so often we feel like the people who say you have to do a detox of digital detox or whatever. It’s these people who are like so anti technology and you’re not that way at all. 

John: 

Not at all. And in fact, we are tech enthusiasts. We are nerds. We didn’t work in tech because it was good money or whatever. We worked in tech because we just really loved technology and we were fascinated by the potentials of it. And I think that our perspective having worked in technology is, there’s two things that are sort of unique and valuable about it. One is that we have a unique understanding of how these apps and these devices were designed and built and which helps us sort of understand how to disable them, how to create barriers around them, how to add that friction in. But there’s also this work, this book Make 

Time and our work with the design Sprint process, which is a sort of a process for teams to come together and focus that really, I mean it’s to some extent that was kind of selfish because here we were working in the tech industry, which in addition to making these products is also the most eager adopter of those products. 

So tech companies, they want to use all the latest, coolest tools and working, especially at a company like Google, there’s people who are dedicated to creating internal tools, special software platforms that are only used inside of Google. So you’re really just completely inundated by new technology, by information. There’s tons of email, there’s tons of meetings. And Jake and I both went through a period of our lives where we were really obsessed with productivity optimization and just trying to be as efficient as possible, but found that with that pursuit we really just became faster and faster at reacting to all the pings and all the requests and all the demands on our time. And so our work with this stuff really started with just trying to make time for ourselves within that crazy environment. It wasn’t like we wanted to step outside and be whistleblowers. 

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It was really like, ‘Hey, we‘re living in this crazy environment and we have this sense that it doesn’t have to be this way and there are things that we want to make time for. We want to be good at our jobs, we want to make time for the work that matters, but we also want to make time for things outside of work.’ And so we needed to develop these ideas. We needed to come up with this framework and this approach so that we could survive. And so that we could thirve that as workers in the tech economy. 

Tanya; 

Yes, I love that. Survive and thrive and I love what you say there about it’s, people are living by default and a lot of the things we can do to get out of that default mode are really simple and easy to do. So I want to touch on that in just a minute. But first let’s give a quick break for today’s sponsor. Today’s episode has been brought to you by my new morning text club called Morning Momentum. It’s a way for us to 

connect every single day with a morning text message from me, not just a regular text message, but an audio text message with a little bit of momentum, a little bit of motivation, a little bit of inspiration to get you 

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And each one of these is designed to not only get you excited about your day, but to give you a little bit of energy and excitement for what you want to accomplish. There’ll be actionable tips and tricks, things that you can implement in your day that are really, really simple to do and take just mere minutes. I am a really excited about Morning Momentum because it’s a way for us to connect more often and to feel like we are all 

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Okay. As I mentioned before our break, it really is a lot of great tips in your book and they are really simple to implement and you have this four step structure of highlights, laser, energy and reflect that you go through in the book. Can you just give me like a quick overview of each of those and how that works? 

John; 

Sure. A lot of advice about avoiding distraction or staying focused really starts with the kind of the defense mode. It starts with how to block stuff out, how to stay disciplined. And we think that that’s important, but it’s obviously it’s not sufficient, it’s not the entire solution to the problem. And so we actually encourage people to start with offense. We encourage them to start by being proactive about what they want to make time for. And that‘s really the essence of the highlights step. So the 

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way it works is to ask yourself, what do I want to be the highlight of my day? And kind of plan backward from there. So instead of waiting until the end of the day, after all the meetings and all the emails and all the craziness to maybe hopefully if you’re lucky, get around to that one thing, plan your day around it. 

Even if it does end up being something you do in the evening, make sure that you identified what it was that you schedule it, you put it on your calendar and you really make that the building block that the rest of your day is structured around. So that‘s highlight. The second step is laser and it’s all about finding laser-like focus for your highlight and for all the other moments that matter. And this is really where we go deep into technology and into creating barriers around distraction. And like! mentioned earlier, we think it’s really important that people don’t just 

eliminate the cues or the sort of the active interruptions, our phone making a noise or showing a notification. We think it’s important that people find ways to actually cut off access to just distracting infinity pulls at the source to create friction to make it more difficult to get 

sucked in. We think that that is a far more successful approach to avoiding distraction. The third step is energize and this one is a little bit different than what you might find in a lot of kind of productivity writing. 

Tanya: 

I’m a fan of different in productivity writing. 

John: 

is based on the simple insight that our brains and bodies are connected, That if our brains aren’t right, our bodies don’t work well. And if our bodies aren’t well, our brains don’t work right. These things, they work together. And so while a lot of advice focuses on the decisions you’re making and what you’re focusing on and all this stuff that’s going on 

above the shoulders in your head, we think it’s really important to take care of your whole body so that you can have the energy to be present and be focused for those things that really matter to you. And so as part of the energize step, we provide a lot of really tactical specific advice on ways of building better eating habits, better opportunities for movement, connection to other people, things that can really help you build energy on a day to day basis. 

And then finally the fourth step is reflect, and this is connected to something that I know you talk about Tanya, which is really figuring out how to adapt advice and systems and frameworks to your personal life and what works for you because there’s so many one size fits all systems out there in the worl. 

Tanya: 

The magic button. 

John: 

Yeah. And I’ve tried a ton of them. 

Tanya: 

We all have. 

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John: 

I’ve tried setting up the crazy to do list and the crazy super detailed planner system and the project management apps and all that stuff. And ultimately, they are brittle, if they‘re not matched properly to what works for you, they‘re not going to be sustainable. They’re not going to work over the longterm. And so reflect is the way that we encourage people to pay attention to what works for them. And then just take a couple of quick notes and so we provide sort of a template for taking those notes where we ask people to write down what their highlight was, whether they made time for it, which tactics they tried that day, and what they’re going to try tomorrow so that they can hopefully make each day just a little bit better than the last. 

Tanya: 

I love it. I really do. And I love how you talk about the idea of the highlight that we’re basically revolving our day around, what’s this highlight? Whether it happens at eight o’clock at night or eight o’clock in the morning, it really is about creating that intentional space for that highlight. Here’s the thing, let’s be honest here. Some of the listeners right now are like, yeah, that sounds great, but I have too many things on my plate, so how can I just pick one highlight for the day? Now I know you go through, you have some great insights, three questions to be exact that help people hone in on their one highlight for the day. Can we touch on that just real quickly because I think this will really help clarify a lot of that idea for people? 

John: 

Sure. Yeah, there are three strategies that we recommend for choosing a highlight each day. We suggest that people look at urgency. So on a day when there really is something that needs to get done, then by all means make that your highlight. Make sure that you’re giving that thing its proper time and attention and energy. The second strategy is satisfaction. And this is really about those tasks or projects that nobody is asking you for, but you really want to get around to, they are important to you either because they’re going to be fulfilling or because they’re going to create new opportunities or new value at work. And so those are the things that that if you don’t make them a priority, nobody else will. So that’s satisfaction. And then the third strategy is joy. And this is really about making time for things that are just plain fun, things that you love, doing things that will give you energy. 

These are really important highlights to build in to maybe not every day, although ideally they would be every day, but, but certainly at least a couple of times a week to say, you know what? The most important thing for me today is having some friends over for dinner or going for a long walk outside along the lake or whatever. And so those are the three strategies that we recommend people start with. And I think it’s worth saying that the highlight is not meant to be the only thing that you’ll do because, like you said, everybody has a million things to do, but it’s really the one thing that requires and deserves your best energy and attention. It’s kind of the thing that you want to pay attention to you want to really 

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focus on. And our thinking on highlight is based in part upon some research that I read about years ago in a book called Rapt, R-A-P-T. It’s by a Winifred Gallagher. 

John: 

And the research that she describes in her book basically shows that our experience of life is not determined primarily by what happens to us, but rather by what we choose to pay attention to. And so the highlight is a way of directing that attention. It’s a way of saying, look, this day is going to be crazy. I’ve got a million things going on, but the thing that I choose to pay attention to is the thing that I’m going to remember. That‘s the thing that I’m going to perceive about that day. Not all of the craziness, not all the stuff that went wrong, but the thing that I really structured my day around that I chose to pay attention to and so highlight is just a way of giving people a mechanism to take advantage of that effect. 

Tanya

Oh, I love it. I love how you define that. And I love too that it’s not about like what’s always the screaming fire, right? Or what is it that I’m most stressed about? Those ideas of joy and satisfaction and really being present. I absolutely love that because it perfectly aligns with how we talk about productivity and how it needs to be customized. As. mentioned earlier, I think there’s like over 80 tactics, is that right, in the book? Something like that. 

John: 

There are 87 

Tanya: 

So it’s really great. It’s almost like going on a menu and you can pick and choose and try different things out, see what really works for you, customize it so it fits you and your life. I absolutely love the book. It was such a great read and it was a fun read, which is always refreshing. A fun read. So John, do you mind telling everyone how they can follow you or where they can find you online? 

John: 

Yeah, if people want to read more about this stuff and kind of dig into these tactics and find resources and learn how to get started using the Make Time framework, you should check out our website, which is maketime.blog. 

Tanya; 

I love it. Thank you so much for coming on the show

John: 

Yeah, thanks for having me. Tanya. 

Tanya: 

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely loved how perfectly aligned John’s message is with mine. The way that he’s talked about productivity and the way that he talks about being present, the intentionality and the choices that he talks about all marry so well with all that we talk about here on the podcast. So it really was such a treat to have him on the show. He and I chatted before the show and then after we did the 

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interview, we chatted some more. I think we just had such a great time nerding out on productivity and talking about how our brains work. We had a lot of fun. And so in that conversation, John very generously offered to do a giveaway for us and he offered to give away a signed copy signed by both him and his co-author Jake, a signed copy of his book, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day

So one of you lucky listeners can win a copy and here’s how you can do it. Simply snap a screenshot of this episode on your phone and then write your takeaway from this episode. What was one thing that you walked away from this episode excited about? And then you can post it on Instagram stories and tag me. John is not active on Instagram. He is active on Twitter, so I’m going to have this little contest or this giveaway on Instagram or you can also do it on Twitter. If you do it on Twitter you can tag me. Tanyal Dalton and also John whose username is Jazer, J A-Z-E-R. And you can post a screenshot there and tweet your favorite takeaway. Okay. Make sure you tag me on Instagram and tag John and me on Twitter for this giveaway and then we’ll send out a copy of the book signed by both Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. Love that he was so generous and I loved our conversation. I hope you did too. 

 

Now next week, as promised, two weeks ago, we are going to be talking about grit and willpower. We’re getting close to wrapping up this season on You 2.0 I’ve got a couple of great episodes heading your way so I cannot wait. So until next time, have a beautiful and productive week. 

 

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