036. How to Make Time with John Zeratsky

John Zeratsky was a designer in the tech industry who became obsessed with the idea of redesigning time. He is the bestselling author of Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days and Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day.

John’s writing has been published by The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Harvard Business Review, Wired, Fast Company, and many other publications. John has appeared on stage more than 100 times, including at Harvard University, IDEO, and the Code Conference.

For nearly 15 years, John was a designer for technology companies. At GV, he helped develop the design sprint process and worked with close to 200 startups, including Uber, Slack, Flatiron Health, Pocket, Foundation Medicine, One Medical Group, and Nest. He was also GV’s in-house copywriter, editor, and content strategist; he created and edited the GV Library, which has attracted million of views since 2012. Previously, John was a designer at YouTube and Google, and an early employee at FeedBurner, which Google acquired in 2007.

Originally from Wisconsin, John and his wife Michelle have lived in Chicago and San Francisco. Today they split time between their sailboat “Pineapple” (currently in Panama) and their home in Milwaukee.

Key Points from the Episode with John Zeratsky

  • John has been in the startup space for years, having been part of the team at FeedBurner when it was sold to Google.
  • At Google, he started to work at Google Ventures, which inserted him into companies they invested in to help those companies scale toward success.
  • Through those experiences, he learned a lot about productivity, and decided to dive head-first into it to find ways to become even more productive. He was focused on efficiency so he was making the most of his time while working. He saw this as a good thing, at least at the time.
  • Until he realized you can’t just keep pushing productivity as, eventually, you burn out. That inspired him to look for something more sustainable. This is what lead to the journey to his current book, Make Time.
  • The trick to making time, if there is one, is to spend less time on the default behaviors we fall into so we can focus more of our time on what matters.
  • Mindfulness is a big piece of this approach, but it’s not the only aspect as finding yourself doing something mindlessly might suggest you need to try harder and use will-power to stop doing that. John does not see will-power as a long-term strategy, and I agree with him.
  • Instead, he says we should make it harder to get distracted. We need to create the space to become more mindful with the time we have.
  • It starts with the idea of self-responsibility, since no one cares about you more than you do.
  • Rather than focusing on grit and execution, we should focus on structure that helps us succeed. Instead, we would see ourselves as failures or incapable if we don’t succeed.
  • Make the path to success the path of least resistance. As he says, if you are a compulsive gambler, you don’t live next to a casino. Make choices in the structure of your life to make it easier to get to where you want to be.
  • He shared the basis of his first book, Sprint, which is about bringing software engineering design sprints into making teams more productive. It was an experiment with redesigning time for teams. Some of what they learned became the framework for his new book, Make Time.
  • Speaking of which, what is it? Make Time is a book, but also a strategy for how to make time for the things you want to be doing. It is filled with 87 concrete tactics, but it boils down to four daily steps, which are in a daily loop. They are:
    1. Highlights – what is the highlight of your day that you want to see accomplished, and then build your day around that.
    2. Laser – make the structural adjustments to your technology and physical environment to cut back on the activities you get into mindlessly that you don’t really want to do, like, “Today, I want to spend three hours lost in my Facebook feed.” It’s about adding friction and barriers back oil so you make better choices.
    3. Energize – you can’t make good use of your time if you’re tired, don’t have energy and are worn out. This is about concrete ways to build energy for your body and mind through different things you can do to take care of yourself. These are simple, concrete things you can do in a given day. For example, he shares small ways to bring movement into your day like walking to work at least part of the way (which brought up a convo about my idea of #CUYOP – Commuting Under Your Own Power), or not ordering online but going out to a store to get what you need.
    4. Reflect – look back on your day and note what went well and what didn’t, and think about what you can do differently the next day.
  • We talked about a lot of pressure from “Musts” in our life, especially around exercise. You don’t have to workout for an hour to get benefit, and some is better than none, so do something. He cited some research that shows that the majority of the benefit of an hour of cardio comes in the first 20 minutes. And he shared other insights that, if you aren’t doing anything now, try to do just 15 minutes a day, which is a great start, builds consistency, and will start to have impact. You don’t have to stare at a huge effort and cower in front of it and end up doing nothing (that is, Do a Day!).
  • John is all about breaking down the big things into small things we can do today. It may not get us where we’re going today, but will get us going towards it, and if you don’t start, you’ll never get there. Looking at something that’s 60-90 minuets seems to be a good place to start. It’s long enough to be a big deal that you have to make time for purposefully, but not so big that it’s impossible (like an all-day effort).
  • We also talked about the idea of Someday vs. Today. It’s never “Someday,” but is instead always, “Today.” This is central to Do a Day, so of course I loved it. If you focus on “Someday,” you will never start since it’s always in the future.
  • This is really useful for New Years Resolutions, especially. Break down those “Someday” goals into “Today” actions.
  • We always know that there is something that we want to be better at, but we don’t always know quite what that would look like if we haven’t started. John talked about the idea of treading water. You know you want to get to land, but you can’t really see around you to know where to go or what getting there would entail. Sometimes, you need to start, get your head above water, and as you get going, you will see more clearly where that goal point is.
  • John shared a personal story of doing exactly that. While he and his wife were living in San Francisco and were busy, they started to find that they were having trouble finding the space for what they wanted to do. They started (the key!) to create space for doing just that, and used it to get into sailing, which they enjoyed. The more they did it, the more they were able to make time to do it, and over the course of years, this turned into a complete change in their life. They moved out of San Francisco and onto their sailboat, and cruised their way down to Panama, where their boat is today  and they spend their summers (and they are in Milwaukee, WI the rest of the year). They didn’t start with the plan of doing any of this, but made time, and the goals started to come together toward their current life.


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