Jake Knapp has spent years figuring out how to prioritize the things that matter in an increasingly distracting world. In this episode of our Creative Confidence Podcast, Jake, the author of Make Time and the New York Times bestseller Sprint, shares the methods he has developed to find focus in daily life, opening up the opportunity to have more impact at work and at home. He shares how he started his journey toward productivity and mindfulness, lessons from his experience designing products at Google, and how by focusing on fewer things, you can actually do more as an individual and a team.
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What does it mean to be productive? By today’s standards, many people might consider a full schedule a productive day, but Jake Knapp says productivity is more about being purposeful than prolific.
Jake, the author of the New York Times bestseller Sprint, released his new book, Make Time, to help people shift their mindset from doing more work to doing more important work.
“Busy is our default mode,” Jake says. But when we stop trying to cram as much as possible into every day, we can make room to focus on the things that really matter—the creative work that can have a bigger impact in the long run.
“With creative projects, there’s a part of our brain that always says you should do the more rational stuff,” Jake says. It takes work to shift your mindset from the default mode of reactivity—responding to emails and going to meetings just because they were put on your calendar—to proactively prioritizing.
Jake’s experience working at Microsoft and Google shaped his approach to team productivity, leading to the creation of the design sprint, and later his method for individual productivity with the Make Time process.
Focus Team Efforts With the Design Sprint
The design sprint is a repeatable five-day process for solving problems by coming up with new ideas and rapidly testing them. Jake led more than 150 design sprints while at Google Ventures to help startups get ideas off the ground, and he explains the process as a singular focus for each day of the week. To begin, he says it’s critical to start with a big problem—something important enough that you’ll get support to take five to seven people off of all other projects for a week. Then, get rid of all distractions. Clear your calendars of other meetings, turn off your phones, and set expectations with colleagues that you won’t be as accessible on email or in person since you’re working on a big project that week.
“There are all these defaults in work that end up eating up our time and attention and making it hard to do the important things,” Jake says. By carving out a week of intense focus, you can go from forming ideas to testing prototypes in front of customers in five days.
Jake is also realistic about what can be accomplished in one week. Your project might require several rounds of design sprints before getting to a final product. He recommends following up a full design sprint week with a lighter one—a three-day sprint to continue iterating on ideas—and taking time to synthesize and regroup, too.
The Make Time Process for Individual Productivity
As Jake began working on his first book, he started to think about ways to apply elements of the design sprint process to his individual work. During sprints, he realized that “having that focal point made it so much easier for the people in the room to know when to apply your peak energy and when to feel like you were done at the end of the day.”
He noticed his co-author, John Zeratsky, was choosing one big thing and writing it on a sticky note each day and seemed to be having success. Jake gave it a shot and was hooked. This became the central step in the Make Time process—choosing a daily highlight. Once you’ve got your highlight set, entering laser mode means you’re shutting off distractions and optimizing your energy level to get your best work done. Then, wrap up the day with a reflection on how it all went and start over again tomorrow.
When reflecting on your day, whether it went well or you didn’t manage to make the time you had hoped for, shake it off and learn from it. What distractions were especially hard to resist? How might you buffer against them in the future? Or if you did accomplish your highlight, how did it feel? As you practice this daily approach, you’ll get better at shifting into laser mode and you’ll want to find that feeling more often.
“It’s a big, difficult problem to figure out what we care about and make good use of our time as human beings, which is brief,” Jake says. When setting your highlight, look for something that is between a small task and a goal. Try reverse engineering your day—looking back at the end of your day, what one thing would you have wanted to do? Then block your calendar for 60 to 90 minutes to get it done.
“In the beginning, just use urgency,” Jake says. “It’s usually easy to know what’s urgent, but a lot of times it’s hard to actually do the urgent thing.” As you get better at choosing a highlight, you can shift from urgency to importance as the deciding factor.
There’s no doubt that choosing one thing each day is a challenge. Jake brings it back to a focus on doing purposeful work: “You’ll be forced to do less, but do it better.”
Stack Rank Your LifeStill struggling to pick one highlight out of a seemingly endless to-do list? Try applying one of Jake’s favorite prioritization tricks from the software design world, stack ranking, to your personal work.
“When I feel stressed, often the source of my stress is that my priorities are in the wrong order,” Jake says.
To stack rank your life, write out a list of all of your projects, focusing on big ones. Then rewrite that list in priority order. Now use that list to help choose a daily highlight, knowing that your highlight will be purposeful in helping you make progress toward a long-term goal. And don’t stress—you can rewrite or reorder this list any time. The important thing is that it reflects your priorities right now.
The thing about Jake’s method that sets it apart from other books on productivity is the noticeable lack of guilt-inducing language. Making time for creative work is hard, and prioritizing one important project over another very important goal will cause some tension. So give yourself a break if you don’t nail it the first time, he says. But in the long run, Jake appreciates being able to look back and feel like his time was spent on the work that matters. Because it’s not often someone else will ask you to take on the work you really want to do.
“There is this category of thing that takes a lot of focus, attention, and energy, and nobody is asking for it,” Jake says. “But those are the most powerful efforts.”