Focus on what matters everyday
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While we are constantly busy, there seems to be a never ending list of things to do. We often feel guilty that important things, relating to work, finances, relationships and health, do not progress sufficiently. This post shares the framework and tactics I use that help me. I draw upon productivity ideas detailed in the book Make Time by ex-Google employees, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.
There are two major time sinks: Busy bandwagon (endless tasks) and Infinity pools (endless distraction). Being permanently busy is a badge of honour for many. We try to squeeze more output by spinning our wheels faster. This is stressful and can lead to burn out. The second time sink is Infinity pools which have an infinite supply of constantly refreshing content, e.g. social media, news, services and games. They perpetually seek our attention.
Without a framework for managing our time and attention we rely on willpower which is often ineffective. Habits often win over willpower. We need a system we can build our productive habits around. That’s where the Make Time framework comes in. It is based on a four step process that gets repeated every day: Highlight, Laser, Energise and Reflect. The Make Time book outlines 87 tactics which readers can try out and see what works for them. In the following sections, I share tactics which I use.
What do we want to make time for? A Daily Highlight is the most important thing to work on that day. The highlight can be anything. It could be going for a walk, finishing off a piece of work or spending time with a friend. It’s not likely to be the only thing we do with our day.
Focusing on a daily highlight stops the tug of war between Infinity pool distractions and the demands of the Busy bandwagon. It reveals a third path of being intentional and focused about how you spend your time. - Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
Make Time has 16 tactics for choosing your highlight and making time for it. Here are four I use:
#1. Write it down. Every day, before you start work, write down your Daily Highlight. Place it somewhere that is visible, e.g. in your calendar or a Post-It note. The act of writing something down makes it far more likely to happen. It is fine to repeat your Daily Highlight from the day before, if it was not completed. I set a daily highlight at the beginning of each day and block time in my diary to focus on it.
#3. Stack rank your life. A technique for establishing what your Daily Highlight should be is: 1. Make a list of things that matter to you, 2. Choose the most important thing by considering what is most meaningful, rather than most urgent, 3. Choose the second to fifth most important things, 4. Write a list in order of priority and highlight/emphasise the top one, i.e. your Daily Highlight.
#4. Batch the small stuff. Small, similar things should be batched together. This reduces swapping and ramp up time between activities.
#12. Just say No. Saying yes to something new often results in saying no to something else of higher value (the Opportunity cost). It could be something you have committed to or you have yet to become aware of. Over-committing your time or focus limits your effectiveness. Saying No should be handled with consideration, e.g. by offering an alternative solution.
The next step is to defend our time by erecting barriers to those time sinks. The Make Time book includes 43 tactics and here are three:
#31. Trade fake wins for real wins. Sharing updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feels good in the moment, but can be a real time sink. Constantly checking email feels like an achievement, but it’s a fake win. By contrast, completing your Daily Highlight is a real win.
#32. Turn distractions into tools. You can only be distracted if you know what you are trying to focus on. As mentioned, social media and email can be time sinks if used in a mindless way. However, used in right context and deliberately they can become useful tools. For me, a great deal of what is on Twitter is useless. That said, it also has some highly insightful posts and I use it to share my own content, e.g. @plamartin and @PlayScarper.
#48. Shut the door.
The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business. - Stephen King.
If your work requires focused attention then you owe it to yourself to find the right environment where you can be effective. I talked about finding your Bliss Station in my Creative momentum post.
The Make Time book includes 27 tactics related to energising yourself and I share a few here:
#61. Exercise every day. This is great for physical and mental health. Every day I walk between 3 and 15 miles, having clocked up 1,400 miles in the past year. I talked about this in my Creative momentum post.
#81. Spend time with your tribe. We are social animals, even those, like me, who would prefer reading a book to going to a party. A great deal of our time is spent in front of screens, particularly so during the Covid pandemic. It is important that we nurture relationships with colleagues, friends and family. When we engage with energy giving people then we and they feel better for it.
#87. Put on your own oxygen mask first. We need to take care of ourselves by eating well, exercising and resting to be in a position to help others. This is particularly important when we have children, elderly parents or others that depend on us.
We should look back every day and take notes on what worked for us. The Make Time book suggests 87 productivity tactics we can explore. Our time, attention and energy are ours to experiment with. We should establish and evolve our own system.
My Favourite Productivity Book video by Ali Abdaal
Make Time book summary by Productivity Game
This post explored the Make Time framework and which of the 87 tactics I find most useful. Next Sunday’s post will explore why I think personal websites are important and how I developed PhilMartin.net.
Until next Sunday you may wish to experiment with some of the tactics to highlight and make time for the important things in your life. Please let me know what you think.
Great article Phil - This is close to my heart for me. Distractions and always-on culture is impacting everyone, some of these techniques resonate well with myself. In the last month or so I shut down all notifications around me to entirely focus on work, because constant On states kill creativity and learning focus hence... Not ideal for my job and life.
But I like also what you said about making space for yourself and recharge so you can engage and refreshingly see others... When I try to squeeze in meetings with people to keep in touch, it doesn't re-energise me, but it feels as another task I got to do. So, all around, definitely a great article!