4 steps to make time for your most important work: An interview with Make Time author John Zeratsky

If there’s anyone whose productivity advice you probably want to listen to, it’s John Zeratsky.

For years, John and his writing partner, Jake Knapp, have been obsessed with reshaping how we spend our days in an effort to take back control over the unrestrained busyness of the modern workplace.

Early on, the self-described “Time Dorks” recognized that in the rush to do “more”, we’ve lost sight of our larger goals. Instead of chipping away at our life’s great work, we exhaust ourselves with emails, meetings, and every other ping, ding, and notification imaginable.

In short, we’ve traded purpose for responsiveness. And as a result, most of us end up asking: “What did I really do today?”

In their new book, Make Time, John and Jake outline a 4-step process for taking back control of your day. Make Time isn’t just another productivity Wonder Diet (you’re destined to fail). It’s a simple formula to make time for the things that mean most to you.

Want a free, signed copy of Make Time? John and Jake will send out free books to the first 2 people to leave a comment about the post below (don’t forget to include your email!)

How cultural and technological “defaults” shape our days, guide our actions, and take our time

Meet the Time Dorks

For most of his career, John didn’t know he had a productivity problem. In fact, if anything, he thought he had the opposite issue.

As a former newspaper designer who “had just enough self-awareness to realize it probably wasn’t going to be the greatest long-term career path,” John made an early career pivot and dove into the world of startups.

But compared to his newspaper days of daily deadlines and clear tasks, his new job didn’t offer as much clarity.

“Because I had worked on a newspaper, which was literally done every day. I think I had an expectation that a startup would be the same. But it wasn’t. In companies—especially software companies where you can constantly gather new information and iterate—those products are never done.”

“I found myself chasing something, without knowing there really was no finish line.”

With that realization, he dove into the world of productivity systems. He read David Allen’s Getting Things Done and started following it religiously. He gave up on reading the news, hacked his body to become a morning person, and redesigned his system of to-do lists.

And while each productivity hack seemed to work, John couldn’t help but feel like “a machine punching the checkboxes on a list of things to do.”

He realized the problem wasn’t in his personal systems. It was in how the default behaviors of the workplace had changed. Instead of having clear daily goals, his default behaviors became busyness. Uncertainty. Long hours chasing difficult problems. Stress.

As a designer, John was used to looking at problems and saying “Ok, this isn’t right. Now how do we fix it?” So he started applying that line of thinking to the “defaults” that governed his time like his calendar, routine, digital tools, and to-do lists.

“When you know those defaults are changeable—they’re not laws or rules but just a collection of behaviors and habits that have stuck after years of use—that’s when you can start to do something about them.”

The goal of Make Time is to change those defaults. To redesign your day around acting with intention, not simply going along with “how things are.”

Here’s how it works:

Make Time Step 1: Define your daily highlight (your most important work for the day)

The first step in Make Time is to write down what’s called your Highlight. This is the one thing you’re going to try to make time for that day.

A highlight isn’t a lofty goal. It’s not really just another task, either. It’s the missing link between the two. As John describes it:

“A highlight could be something that needs to get done, that you’ve been meaning to get to, or even just something fun. We think the sweet spot is something that’s going to take 60-90 minutes, as it’s big enough to hold some weight in your mind and on your calendar, but still small enough to find time to fit it in.”

The idea of the highlight was directly inspired by their previous book, Sprint—a guide to the design sprint process they developed at GV.

Early on in their research with teams like Slack and Blue Bottle Coffee, John and Jake came upon an obvious, yet overlooked insight. People do better work when they focus on a single goal and have permission to ignore the busyness of the workplace.

So when they started experimenting with Make Time, they took a similarly focused approach:

“During a sprint week, there’s only one thing you’re supposed to focus on. And in Make Time, we call that the highlight—the idea that every day you should think about the one thing you want to make time for.

“Of course, you’ll do more with your day. But the highlight is the one thing that will make you feel like you spent the day in a meaningful way.”

Quick tip: How to find highlight-worthy tasks

“As you get experience with Make Time, choosing your highlights will be more of a ‘you’ll know it when you see it’ scenario,” explains John. But as you’re just getting started, here are a few strategies they suggest for discovering highlight-worthy work:

  1. Is it urgent? Your highlight might be one of those things that has to get done. A lot of people prioritize tasks this way automatically. But using urgency to choose a highlight can put a little spark in something that otherwise feels like a mundane obligation.
  2. Is it satisfying? Everyone has those tasks—both work and personal—that they’d like to get to someday, but aren’t urgent. Choosing one of these tasks as your highlight is a powerful way to change the default.
  3. Will it bring me joy? A highlight doesn’t have to be work. John and Jake realized that sometimes it’s a great use of time to do something fun—even if you have other things to do.

Picking a highlight that isn’t work-related can seem counterintuitive to most productivity systems. But, as John explains, it’s also a way to reframe your day and force yourself to be realistic in how much else you put on your plate.

For example, the day before Make Time launched, John chose “Going to a baseball game with my wife” as his highlight.

“It wasn’t something I needed to get done. But it helped me reframe the whole day and look at what I needed to do so I could really enjoy this fun highlight. Rather than being wrapped up in work and not leaving any mental energy or headspace for enjoying myself at the end of the day.”

Make Time Step 2: Lazer your focus and get rid of distractions

Now that you know what needs to be done, the next question is: How will you make time for it?

It’s a seemingly simple question with a deceptively complex answer. The truth is that there is no one way to avoid distraction. We all work in dynamic environments and it’s impossible to try and control everything that happens. So, instead of prescribing a set path to distraction-free bliss, John and Jake share 44 tactics to help you:

  • Find flow
  • Optimize your daily schedule
  • Make your phone distraction-free
  • Avoid “Infinity Pools” (swipe-to-refreshed contest sources like Instagram, Twitter, and the news)

The goal is to experiment with a few tactics each day to see how they affect your ability to spend time on your highlight.

RescueTime helps you focus by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Find out more and sign up for free here

Quick tip: The two times a day you should check email

It’s easy to block distractions in your personal life. But much more difficult when you’re talking about workplace distractions like emails and Slack.

“Really a lot of the mindless default behavior we find ourselves doing in the office comes down to email. But while email is just as distracting as Instagram and Twitter, the problem is that it also feels productive.

“You know it’s work. You want to behave as a good and valued employee and stay on top of your email and get back to people right away.”

There’s a whole section in the book on handling emails, but John swears by two simple changes:

  1. Reduce the number of times you check email throughout the day
  2. Move the bulk of your email time to the end of the day

Not only does this give you more time to focus on your highlight. But email fits in better into the end of the day as a lot of our creative energy has been zapped by that point.

“A little extra nudge to have us spend a little less energy and time on email is good, not just for us. But for everyone we work with.”

To flip the script, you need to be purposeful in when you let email into your day. In the book, Jake suggests a simple email schedule: Check once at 10:30am (for anything urgent) and then again at 3pm (when your energy is already low and you want to keep momentum on projects).

Make Time Step 3: Energize your body and mind throughout the day

Most productivity systems treat people like machines. They ignore the fact that we’re flesh and blood. And as such, we not only have to compete with our changing energy levels but also with everything from how much sleep we get to what we eat. (Just try having a productive afternoon when you gorge on a 5lb burrito for lunch!)

As they write in the book:

“If you can increase your energy every day, you’ll turn moments that might otherwise be lost to mental and physical fatigue into usable time for your Highlights.”

The third step in Make Time is all about increasing your energy through a few simple changes such as:

  • Adding more movement into your day
  • Eating real food
  • Optimize when you drink caffeine
  • Getting off the grid and disconnecting from work
  • Spending time being social
  • Getting restful and restorative sleep every night

Quick tip: “Central Park” your plate for more post-meal energy

There’s a reason most of us hit a mid-afternoon crash. Not only are we hitting a natural energy low, but the majority of people don’t refuel with the right things.

In Make Time, John and Jake emphasize that keeping your body properly fueled is one of the easiest ways to stay focused and have time to complete your highlight. One simple technique they use is called Central Park your Plate.

Here’s how it works: Put salad on your plate first and then add everything else around it. That’s it.

“It’s just like Central Park in New York City: You’re reserving a big piece of territory for greens before you develop around the perimeter. More salad means less heavy food and, most likely, greater energy after eating.”

Make Time Step 4: Reflect, adjust, and keep experimenting

The final step in the Make Time process is a simple daily reflection, where you answer a few short questions:

  • What was your highlight?
  • Did you make time for it?
  • What were your focus and energy levels (on a scale of 10)?
  • What tactics did you try today and how did they go?

For example, you might write that you used a “distraction-free phone” today but still spent too much time on Twitter. This way you can track whether or not the tactics you’re trying are actually working.

Finally, there’s a section on gratitude, asking you to write down something—whether it was the highlight or something else—that was good about the day.

“We feel that if you look back on your day with that sense of gratitude, it feels like time is moving a little bit slower. Gratitude gives you motivation to keep making good decisions about how you’re spending your time.”

Quick tip: Small changes can have massive returns

One of the big themes in Make Time is that small actions matter. You don’t have to dramatically overhaul your life right away or even know what you want before you start. Instead, it’s a collection of small tweaks you can try today and start seeing the compound returns from.

And John’s seen it work firsthand. As he explains, even though he was enjoying his life as a designer, it wasn’t until he made space for other things that he could pursue larger goals:

“As I used the Make Time steps to slowly create space for other activities, that stuff started to take on a life of its own.

“Eventually, my wife and I decided to leave our full-time jobs and move onto our sailboat. I just think it’s so incredible that this wasn’t some big master plan. We didn’t set a 10-year goal and dissect what we needed to do to get there. We didn’t know what that plan was and what we needed to do until we started to make that space.

“The big takeaway for me is that all you need to do is start. You don’t need to know where you’re going to end.”


Make Time is a fantastic cure for the unsettling feeling that your days are getting away from you.

Check out the full book for more in-depth explanations, personal anecdotes, and 80+ tactics on how to find meaningful work, block distractions, stay healthy and focused, and feel gratitude every single day.

We’re sending out free copies of Make Time to the first 2 people to leave a comment about the post below (don’t forget to include your email!)

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

36 comments

  1. I’ve been having that “just checking the boxes” feeling lately. The concepts of setting an intention (aka Highlight) and reflecting at the end of the day are familiar to me, but this feels like a more accessible framework than others I’be read about. I also appreciate the focus on things like diet, sleep, and recreation. Looking forward to checking out the book.

    1. Thanks for the comment Brian! I agree that the framework is very accessible and hope you enjoy all the tips inside the book!

  2. Really identifying with the “There’s a reason most of us hit a mid-afternoon crash. Not only are we hitting a natural energy low, but the majority of people don’t refuel with the right things.” statement. I’ve just been feeling slow in the afternoons and evenings all week — but I look back at what I had for lunch, and it’s a bunch of carb-heavy junk. Today I had a nice salad with some hummus and pita and am feeling strong headed into evening. I’ll have to try the central park idea tomorrow, I love that model of choosing foods.

  3. I like the holistic approach, especially bringing in the diet and exercise. I’ve been working on my own ability to remain distraction free, and I find diet and movement make a big difference in being successful at that.

  4. I manage an IT team and this sounds like it could be a big help to us. Our jobs require us to be responsive to immediate needs and as technology becomes a bigger part of everyone’s lives, these demands increase as well. This makes it easy for us to get caught in the trap of focusing on the immediate instead of working on the priorities. No matter how many hours we work, it feels like there is never enough time to do everything.

  5. I’ve been trying to organize my work in a similar way, after checking off all the little items and realizing I didn’t really get much done on the stuff that matters. I look forward to reading y’all’s suggestions — I like the idea of incorporating these small changes incrementally.

  6. “To redesign your day around acting with intention, not simply going along with ‘how things are.'” I am always trying to live this statement, but end up doing the “redesigning” of my day on paper without actually embodying it in my real life… the busyness, emails, and reactivity always seem to creep in. I so want to shift into living this way and not just “planning” to live this way! I’m interested in checking out the book and learning more about this framework.

  7. I love reading the Rescue Time blog post (I classify reading Rescue time blog as productive). This particular article reinforce the things I was doing prompt by Rescue time tools, namely, keep a record of my daily highlights (normally more than 1); create focus time; and review the productivity history, and dynamically adjust personal priority. It is a good tool, which is easy to use, and encourage me to adjust my daily routines with evidence 🙂

  8. Setting intentions is definitely something I have a problem with, and I have lost countless days because of it. I love the question-based approach to both the daily highlight and the daily reflection, it seems really effective. This sounds like a book I could put to good use!

  9. I’ve recently “worked in a workout” to my daily routine. As a home-based business, I make sure I have a single exercise to do each day, once an hour, for ten hours. SO, i’ve done a hundred pushups or lunges by the end of the day. After reading this, I know I need to work that reflection time in too. Thanks for the insights.

  10. Thanks for the post. I have always been reading book how to boost my productivity, but lose track of the big picture, the most important thing. I tend to use less important tasks to procrastinate on the important ones. Hope I can put there advice to use and focus on the priorities.

  11. I love the idea of a highlight. Too often I try to devote a day to one big goal, but then this gets derailed by other busyness. 90 minutes seems realistic and also enough to make a big productivity difference. Looking forward to reading the book.

  12. Wow – This post couldn’t have come at a better time… I have so many systems in place and yet, when monkey mind comes calling, or shiny object syndrome creeps in, before long I end up going through the motions and “checking those boxes” just to get something (typically the wrong something, done). Of course, I beat myself up over it later. The idea of redesigning my day and my work with intention, focusing on a daily highlight, really resonates…thank you!

  13. I’ve been trying to hack my time use with RescueTime, Todoist and Beeminder, but keep falling into checkbox mode. I look forward to checking out the book.

  14. I feel a daily reflection on activities spent the day before is super important. Would be great if there was a way to trigger this using IFTTT. For example, would love to see this data via SMS or Push.

    Look forward to reading the book.

  15. I feel a daily reflection on activities spent the day before is super important. Would be great if there was a way to trigger this using IFTTT. For example, would love to see this data via SMS or Push.

    Looking forward to reading the book.

  16. What really resonates with my thinking is “we’ve traded purpose for responsiveness”, I’d been reflecting on how we consider time and energy as resources, but that is wrong, energy is required in function of the activity but we can’t increase time.
    It is great to see how we are re-thinking our “super busy” life style!
    Thanks for sharing

  17. This article pressed many buttons. I’m a fan of positive psychology including models such as Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, the last component – A – reflects achievement and, oh boy, can you imagine how much more one could achieve by wrangling ones email? I recently observed that more than 30% of my working week is spent on email. I’m determined to reduce that significant, and o think this book may help. Tha k you!

  18. I really enjoyed reading this article. I’ve been playing around with different time management techniques since I switched from a business role (management and marketing) to software engineering. Setting a daily intention has helped me in the last couple weeks, rather than keeping a strict to do list. One of my coworkers has said the issue with strict to-do lists in software dev is as you start a task you think you need to do X, but while doing it you realize you actually need Y and Z before you can even start X. I start my mornings now with a general to do list to follow, add to it as I need to and make my check-list goals a certain number of FocusTimes. Then at the end of the day I reflect and update the general task list. I also started closing my email and silencing Slack during FocusTime 🙂 My productivity is increasing and my general anxiety about not getting work done is going down.

  19. I’m really interested in reading their book, especially having enjoyed Sprint. I create to-do lists for the day and usually star the items I must get done but I like the idea of having one highlight and focusing time on that. I’m going try it.

  20. Hi Jory, not sure if I made it as one of the ‘first 2 to comment’ but all the same: love the weekly blog posts and content. (From a regular reader but non-commenter!)

  21. Sounds like a really interesting book! I work in an university and even there it is so hard to guard your schedule. Despite efforts my tactics are far from perfect. Nice to see this!

  22. Seem like an interesting book to get the most out that elusive mistress! Every day i feel that it is essential to get done what needs to be done to have more time for what’s important! Really interested about what this book has to teach! Cheers!

  23. I’m a sucker for ‘infinity pools’ – nice to know that these things have a name! I’d definitely like to check out what other tactics are in the book; it sounds really awesome. I’m a productivity nut, but there’s always new ways of approaching things.

  24. Sometimes I think that experimenting with the composition of the day and your own pretty unique set of distractions is more important than any predefined set of guidelines, so Step 4 might be the most important one.

  25. I’ve long thought that almost every time people say “I don’t have time,” they really ought to say “I haven’t prioritized that.” But the latter statement is harder to make, because it means owning responsibility. I really appreciate what the authors are doing here by (1) assuming responsibility and then (2) sharing their insights with the rest of us on what means. It sounds difficult (what valuable change isn’t?), but I’m encouraged by this: “All you need to do is start. You don’t need to know where you’re going to end.”

  26. Sounds like you wouldn’t need any productivity tools or rescuetime when successfully following this approach 😉 Sounds interesting!

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