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In the twenty-first century, two very powerful forces compete for every minute of your time. The first is what we call the Busy Bandwagon. The Busy Bandwagon is our culture of constant busyness—the overflowing inboxes, stuffed calendars, and endless to-do lists. According to the Busy Bandwagon mindset, if you want to meet the demands of the modern workplace and function in modern society, you must fill every minute with productivity. After all, everyone else is busy. If you slow down, you’ll fall behind and never catch up. The second force competing for your time is what we call the Infinity Pools. Infinity Pools are apps and other sources of endlessly replenishing content. If you can pull to refresh, it’s an Infinity Pool. If it streams, it’s an Infinity Pool. This always-available, always-new entertainment is your reward for the exhaustion of constant busyness.
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Willpower isn’t the way out. We’ve tried to resist the siren song of these forces ourselves, and we know how impossible it can be. We also spent years working in the technology industry, and we understand these apps, games, and devices well enough to know that they eventually will wear you down. Productivity isn’t the solution, either. We’ve tried to shave time off chores and cram in more to-dos. The trouble is, there are always more tasks and requests waiting to take their place. The faster you run on the hamster wheel, the faster it spins.
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We are Jake and JZ.1 We are not rocket-building billionaires like Elon Musk, handsome Renaissance men like Tim Ferriss, or genius executives like Sheryl Sandberg. Most time-management advice is written by or about superhumans, but you will find no superhumanity in these pages. We’re normal, fallible human beings who get stressed out and distracted just like everyone else. What makes our perspective unusual is that we’re product designers who spent years in the tech industry helping to build services like Gmail, YouTube, and Google Hangouts. As designers, our job was to turn abstract ideas (like “Wouldn’t it be cool if email sorted itself?”) into real-life solutions (like Gmail’s Priority Inbox). We had to understand how technology fits into—and changes—daily life. This experience gives us insight into why Infinity Pools are so compelling, and how to prevent them from taking over. A few years ago, we realized we could apply design to something invisible: how we spent our time. But instead of starting with a technology or business opportunity, we started with the most meaningful projects and the most important people in our lives.
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Then it hit me: Being more productive didn’t mean I was doing the most important work; it only meant I was reacting to other people’s priorities faster.
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Be proactive not reactionary
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he saw that part of the problem was rooted in the huge disconnect between our hunter-gatherer roots and our crazy modern world. He looked through the lens of a product designer and figured this “system” would work only if it changed our defaults, making distractions harder to access instead of relying on willpower to constantly fight them.
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The first step is choosing a single highlight to prioritize in your day. Next, you’ll employ specific tactics to stay laser-focused on that highlight—we’ll offer a menu of tricks to beat distraction in an always-connected world. Throughout the day, you’ll build energy so you can stay in control of your time and attention. Finally, you’ll reflect on the day with a few simple notes.
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As I reflected on my missing months and what helped me stop the blur of time, I began to understand something: I loved thinking about big, lofty goals and I was good at getting things done hour by hour, but neither was truly satisfying. I was happiest when I had something I could hold on to in the present—a chunk of time that was bigger than a to-do but smaller than a five-year goal. An activity I could plan for, look forward to, and appreciate when it was done. In other words, I needed to make sure every day had a highlight.
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Trust Your Gut to Choose the Best Highlight Which strategy should you use on any particular day? We think the best way to choose a Highlight is to trust your gut to decide whether an urgent, joyful, or satisfying Highlight is best for today.2 A good rule of thumb is to choose a Highlight that takes sixty to ninety minutes.
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Urgency satisfaction and joy
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Here are the tricks I’d share with any night owls who want to start waking early. Start with Light, Coffee, and Something to Do
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At first, Gmail was up against Web-based email services such as Hotmail and Yahoo. Eventually, as more people started sending messages through social networks, Gmail competed for attention with Facebook. And as iPhones and Android phones spread, Gmail had to compete with smartphone apps as well. For YouTube, the competition was even more fierce. YouTube doesn’t just compete with other video websites; it competes for your time against music, movies, video games, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And, of course, it competes with television; the average American still watches 4.3 hours of good old-fashioned TV every day.2 Far from fading away, television shows keep getting better, the result of a constant race to crank out the best, most binge-worthy series. Gmail and YouTube didn’t “win” those competitions, but the challenge pushed them to evolve and grow. In 2016, Gmail had 1 billion users. In 2017, YouTube announced that it had reached 1.5 billion users and that on average those users spent over one hour per day watching videos.3 Meanwhile, the competition for people’s eyeballs keeps getting tougher. In 2016, Facebook announced that its 1.65 billion users spent an average of fifty minutes per day across its services. The same year, Snapchat, a relative newcomer, said its 100 million users spent an average of twenty-five to thirty minutes in the app. And that’s to say nothing of other apps and websites. Altogether, in 2017, studies showed Americans used their smartphones more than four hours per day.4 This competition is the third secret ingredient that makes modern technology so compelling. Each time one service rolls out an irresistible new feature or improvement, it ups the ante for its competitors. If one app or site or game doesn’t keep you riveted, you’ve got an infinite number of options two taps away. Everything is up against everything else all the time. It’s survival of the fittest, and the survivors are damn good. The fourth reason Infinity Pools are so addicting? All these technologies take advantage of the natural wiring of our brains, which evolved in a world without microchips. We evolved to be distractible because it kept us safe from danger (check the flash in your peripheral vision—it might be a stalking tiger or a falling tree!). We evolved to love mysteries and stories because they helped us learn and communicate. We evolved to love gossip and seek social status because that allowed us to form tight-knit protective tribes. And we evolved to love unpredictable rewards, whether from a blackberry bush or a smartphone notification, because the possibility of those rewards kept us hunting and gathering even when we returned home empty-handed. Our caveman brains are the fourth secret ingredient.
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Product designers like us have spent decades removing barriers to make these products as easy to access as possible. The key to getting into Laser mode and focusing on your Highlight is to bring those barriers back.
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24. Block Distraction Kryptonite Most of us have one especially powerful Infinity Pool we just can’t resist. We call it “distraction Kryptonite.” Just as regular Kryptonite overwhelms Superman, distraction Kryptonite gets past our defenses and sabotages our plans. Your distraction Kryptonite might be something common and obvious such as Facebook, or if you’re an oddball like JZ, it might be some obscure Yahoo Group for sailboat nerds. Here’s a simple litmus test: If after spending a few minutes (or, more likely, a few minutes that become an hour) with this website or app you feel regret, it’s probably Kryptonite. There are a number of ways to block Kryptonite, depending on how serious you want to get and how serious your addiction is. If your Kryptonite is a social network, email, or anything that requires a password, logging out might be enough to slow you down (#18). If your Kryptonite is a specific website, you can block it or turn off the Internet altogether during your Laser time (#28). To step it up, you can remove the app or account or browser from your smartphone (#17). A reader named Francis told us about the experience of blocking his Kryptonite, Hacker News, a website packed with stories about tech startups. When he went cold turkey, Francis said, he missed the interesting articles and intelligent discussion on the site’s comment boards. But the reward was a surprising boost to his emotional well-being: “I’m no longer refreshing the site forty times a day and comparing myself to a highlight reel of startup exits.”
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30. Watch Out for Time Craters When Jake was a kid, his family took a road trip to a place called Meteor Crater, Arizona. Meteor Crater is not just a cool name; it’s a real meteor crater in the middle of the desert. Tens of thousands of years ago, a 150-foot-wide chunk of rock smashed into the earth’s surface, blasting a crater about a mile in diameter. A young Jake stood on the blistered rock and imagined the awesome force of impact. The crater is thirty times the size of the meteor! It’s crazy to think about such a small object making such a big hole. Or maybe it’s not so crazy. After all, the same thing happens in our daily lives. Small distractions create much larger holes in our day. We call these holes “time craters,” and they work like this: Jake posts a tweet. (90 seconds) Over the next two hours, Jake returns to Twitter four times to see how his tweet is doing. Each time, he skims the newsfeed. Twice he reads an article somebody shared. (26 minutes) Jake’s tweet gets a few retweets, which feels good, so he begins mentally composing his next tweet. (Two minutes here, three minutes there, and so on) Jake posts another tweet, and the cycle begins all over again. A tiny tweet can easily smash a thirty-minute crater in your day, and that’s without switching costs. Each time Jake leaves Twitter and returns to his Highlight, he has to reload all the context into his brain before he’s back in Laser mode.9 So that time crater might actually be forty-five minutes, an hour, or even more. But it’s not just Infinity Pools that create time craters. There’s also recovery time. A “quick” fifteen-minute burrito lunch might cost an extra three hours of food coma. A late night watching TV might cost you an hour of sleeping in and a whole day of low energy. And there’s anticipation. When you don’t start your Highlight because you’ve got a meeting coming up in thirty minutes, that’s a time crater, too. Where are the time craters in your life? That’s up to you to figure out. You can’t avoid them all, but you can definitely dodge some of them, and every time you do, you’ll make time.
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31. Trade Fake Wins for Real Wins Sharing tweets, Facebook updates, and Instagram photos can create time craters, but they’re dangerous for another reason: They’re fake wins. Contributing to the conversation on the Internet feels like an accomplishment, and our brains tell us, “We’ve done some work!” But 99 times out of 100, these contributions are insignificant. And they come at a cost—they take up time and energy you could be using on your Highlight. Fake wins get in the way of focusing on what you really want to do. Like time craters, fake wins come in all shapes and sizes. Updating a spreadsheet is a fake win if it helps you procrastinate on the harder but more meaningful project you chose as your Highlight. Cleaning the kitchen is a fake win if it burns up time you intended to spend with your kids. And email inboxes are a never-ending source of fake wins. Checking mail always feels like an accomplishment even when there’s nothing new. “Good,” says your brain. “I’m on top of things!” When it’s time for Laser mode, remind yourself: Your Highlight is the real win.
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35. Schedule Email Time To help establish a new end-of-day email routine, try putting it on your calendar. Yes, we want you to literally add “email time” to your calendar. When you know you’ve got time set aside later, it’s easier to avoid wasting time on email now. And if you schedule your email time before a firm commitment such as a meeting or leaving the office, you’ll get an additional boost: When email time is done, it’s done. Do as much as you can in the allotted time, then move on.
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TV, we love you. You give us the experience of traveling through time and space to experience other people’s lives. And when our brains are totally exhausted, you help us relax and recharge. But this step in Make Time is about taking control of our attention. Remember that statistic back on this page? Americans watch 4.3 hours of television every day—4.3 hours per day! That number is astonishing. Sorry, TV, but we’ve gotta say it: You take too much damn time. As we see it, all that TV time is a gold mine: a large pile of perfectly good hours just lying there, ready to be reclaimed. As usual, all you have to do is change your default. You don’t have to throw away your television. But instead of watching every day, make it a special occasion. Or, to borrow from a phrase Jake and his wife use with their kids to explain why they don’t eat ice cream every day, make it a sometimes treat.
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43. Don’t Watch the News If you make only one change to your viewing habits, cut the news. TV news is incredibly inefficient; it’s an endless loop of talking heads, repetitive stories, advertisements, and empty sound bites. Rather than summarizing the most important events of the day, most TV news offers up anxiety-provoking stories handpicked to keep you agitated and tuned in. Instead, make a habit of reading the news once per day or even once per week (see #25).
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Knowing all this, Ryan devised a perfect system that allowed him to enjoy as much coffee as possible, maintain steady energy, and not fry his nerves or disrupt his sleep. In the end, his personalized formula, backed by science and proven by experience, was crazy simple: Wake up without caffeine (in other words, get out of bed, eat breakfast, and start the day without any coffee). Have the first cup between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. Have the last cup between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.
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that the half-life of caffeine is five to six hours. So if the average person has a coffee at 4 p.m., half the caffeine is out of the bloodstream by 9 or 10 p.m., but the other half is still around.
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Even when I use the Make Time tactics, I still hear the siren song of Infinity Pools. After a good hour or even fifteen minutes of productive time, I’ll often think to myself: “Man, that was a solid chunk of work. I should reward myself by checking Twitter!” But it’s amazing how the smallest speed bump can thwart that impulse and remind me to take a real break. For example, when I try to visit twitter.com on my computer and see a log-in screen, I remember: “Ah, yes, I should take a real break.” This has become my new routine and my new default.
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The tactics in this book are eighty-seven experiments for testing these hypotheses. We’ve tried them on ourselves. But only you can test them on you. And for that, you need the scientific method. You need to measure the data—not in a double-blind study of unwitting university students or in some sterile laboratory—but in your own everyday life. You are a sample size of one, and your results are the only results that really matter. This kind of everyday science is what “Reflect” is all about. Take Notes to Track Your Results (and Keep You Honest) Collecting the data is super easy. Every day you’ll reflect on whether you made time for your Highlight and how well you were able to focus on it. You’ll note how much energy you had. You’ll review the tactics you used, jot down some observations on what worked and what didn’t, and make a plan for which tactics you’ll try tomorrow.
Take Notes to Track Your Results (and Keep You Honest)
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We also recommend setting recurring reminders on your phone to help reinforce your new Make Time habits. This is as simple as saying “Hey Siri,1 every morning at 9 a.m., remind me to choose a Highlight” and “Every evening at 9 p.m., remind me to take notes on my day.”
Further Reading for Time Dorks
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FURTHER READING FOR TIME DORKS The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin This book will make you happier. You would be crazy not to read it. Brain Rules by John Medina A fun and fast overview of brain science, easy to understand and easy to remember. (For a much harder read with a lot more detail, check out The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen.) Deep Work by Cal Newport Packed with opinionated and often unusual strategies for doing focused work. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss Tim is a superhuman and we’re not, but we still learned a lot from this book. Getting Things Done by David Allen A seriously intense organization system. We’ve fallen off the wagon more times than we can count, but even if we’re not GTDers anymore, David Allen’s philosophy is still with us. How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb Deeper analysis of the latest behavioral science and smart recommendations for how to apply that science to your daily life. The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath The Heath brothers explain why moments have an outsize influence on our lives, then show how you can engineer great moments in yours. Read this book and tackle your Highlights with renewed vigor. Headspace app starring Andy Puddicombe Andy does more than guide you through meditation—he teaches a great mindset for the modern world. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg Use this as a guide for converting Make Time tactics into long-term habits. Mindset by Carol Dweck Habits are very powerful, but sometimes you need a mindset shift to change your behavior. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan There’s no better guide to building energy by eating like a hunter-gatherer. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari Many of the Make Time tactics are based on the idea of learning from ancient humans. Sapiens is a detailed, remarkable history of, well…humans.