In this Deep Dive I chat to John Zeratsky about habits, success, and making time for what matters. The highlights from our discussion can be found below, links to the books we've mentioned, as well as time-stamps if you fancy listening to us talk :)

John worked in the tech industry for almost 15 years working initially for a startup called FeedBurner which was acquired by Google in 2007. Whilst at Google, he designed the YouTube Channels platform and from 2011 to 2017, he was a design partner at venture-capital firm GV, where he helped develop the design sprint process.

🙍🏼‍♂️ John   💻 Website / 🐤 Twitter / 🔗LinkedIn / 📚 John's Books: Make Time, Sprint

Books Mentioned


01:35 – John’s Career
04:25 – How do you figure out what your mission is?
08:40 – How did John develop his mission and vision to help people make time for what matters?
11:15 – Make Time Discussion Begins
12:40 – The 4-Part Framework of Make Time
18:40 – The Importance of the Making Time Framework
20:05 – Part 1 of the Framework – Highlight
20:45 – How should you figure out what your highlight should be?
24:35 – Philosophies on Goals
32:30 – The Might-Do List
39:00 – What are the differences between Make Time and Getting Things Done?
42:00 – Personal Sprints
46:40 – Becoming A Morning Person
55:30 – What is your advice for people who struggle to start?
59:55 – How do you manage tasks that don’t have a deadline?
01:03:15 – Infinity Pools
01:10:20 – TV Habits, Cheat Days + Willpower
01:16:00 – Laser Soundtracks
01:18:50 – Part 3 of the Framework – Energise
01:19:15 – 20 Minutes of Exercise
01:23:20 – Snack Like A Toddler
01:25:00 – Inconveniencing Yourself
01:29:40 – Part 4 of the Framework - Reflect
01:32:20 – The Value of Storytelling
01:37:30 – A Million Miles in a Thousand Years Discussion
01:38:20 – The Value of Travel + Near-Future Plans
01:45:50 – John’s Highlight Course
01:50:00 – Closing Thoughts

Highlights From Our Discussion

How do you figure out what your mission is? What is the difference between your mission and vision?

  • “A mission and vision are very different. A mission is the underlying why. It’s the ‘why do I care about this and what change do I want to see? How do I want the world to be different as a result of my work?’. The next layer below that is opportunities…and from those opportunities stems the vision. A vision is a mental picture of specifically what that mission would look like if I pursued that opportunity and was successful. A vision is helpful because it is solution oriented – it’s easy to look at and think ‘what would that look like and what could I do to get there’. But it’s worth spending time to think about what the underlying mission is and working out what your why is. For me, it’s always come from having space in my life or in my days. It’s been during unscheduled time when thoughts about mission and vision have emerged from. I think of it as ‘emergent thinking’”.
Getting all the stuff done, is not the same as doing the ‘right’ stuff

“We bristled at standard productivity books because they were very prescriptive. We wanted to make ‘Make Time’ more like a cookbook with lots of different recipes that you could use depending on what worked for you. That’s why there’s 87 different tactics in the book and we put a framework around it”.

The Four-Part Framework of Make Time

  1. Highlight – Being proactive and starting proactively with your day. Working out what is the one thing that you want to bring your best focus and energy to in any given day. It’s a bit different than other systems – it’s not about doing as much as possible, it’s about choosing one thing that you want to concentrate your focus on.
  2. Laser – Whilst highlight is more about offence, laser is more about defence in terms of how to manage your attention. The philosophy in this section is to try to understand the mechanisms behind the modern day distraction engines so that you can break them off and you don’t have to rely on willpower to resist checking stuff.
  3. Energise – Based on the idea that when we are reading about or thinking about how we are spending our time, we tend to focus on our brains. But we’ve all experienced the struggle that ‘if you’re body’s not well, your brain doesn’t work’ but our culture doesn’t encourage us to think of our bodies and brains of being one system so that’s why energise is all about simple ways to take care of yourself so that you have energy for that stuff that you really care about.
  4. Reflect – This section is all about looking back every day and making notes on what worked for you. This is the personalised section where you critically reflect on what tactics or strategies worked for you on a given day and which didn’t.
You need some sort of framework or system to how you are going to spend your time. If you don’t someone else will decide for you.

How should you figure out what your highlight should be?

  • Don’t overthink it. It’s meant to be an intuitive process. Baked into the philosophy of Make Time is that we should trust our intuition. If we are giving ourselves enough space to do that passive thinking, we will have a good sense of what our highlight should be.
  • By using the highlight as a focusing tool, you can not only make sure you are bringing your best to that one thing, but you can also use it to help work out where your attention should be directed and design what you experience of that day should be.
  • It’s not always a new thing that is getting added to your day – sometimes it’s valuable to identify something that needs your best attention and your best energy.
Our experience of life is what we pay attention to – John Zeratsky

Philosophies on Goals

  • Destination based goals are not as valuable as directional based goals. Directional goals are helpful because you can translate them into the processes and actions that you’ll need every day to get to that goal.
  • We should think of goals as directions rather than destinations.
  • With destination-based goals, we cannot win – if you don’t get there, you’re dissatisfied because you didn’t get there but if you do get there then you’re left thinking – what now?
Goals should be stepping stones to designing our days – not the determining factor in what our days should look like. When we focus too much on goals, we put ourselves into a situation that we cannot win.
  • Goals can help us move towards things that need to be accomplished in a certain way, in a certain time.
  • Goals can become too prescriptive, restricting us to a certain path and preventing us from seeing opportunities that might benefit us over a longer period of time.

The Might-Do List

  • It’s almost productivity gospel that we have to have a to-do list. To-do lists tend to reward small wins and sets us up for disappointment because we tend not to finish everything on our to-do lists because we tend to be too optimistic.
  • The Might-Do list was designed to counteract this philosophy to a certain extent because it’s a list without any commitments to whether you are going to do something.
  • There shouldn’t be any ranking or prioritising.
  • The other important thing is that you don’t work off the list. It’s a bank that you can pull from when you are figuring out what you want to do on a given day, month or over a year.

What are the differences between Make Time and Getting Things Done?

  • GTD is a productivity system, it is meant to be all encompassing whereas Make Time is a focussing system. It can sit on top of other approaches or frameworks but it doesn’t require them. It helps you pan the spotlight and figure out what really matters to you and gives you a set of tools to focus on that particular thing with the emphasis on avoiding distraction and also building energy.

Personal Sprint

  • Idea comes from the design sprint process which was designed by Jake Knapp – the co-author of Make Time – to help get a new product off the ground.
The personal sprint is the idea that sometimes working on the same thing every day can have leveraged benefits. Let’s say you spend two hours a day for five days working on something. In theory that’s 10 hours of work but actually it’s the equivalent of 12-15 hours because when you work on something day after day you can build up some momentum. You can think of it as your short term memory or your RAM – you load all the data you need into that part of your brain that you have quick access to and then you don’t have to spend as long booting up the next day when you return to it.

Becoming A Morning Person

  • Think both about the focal point about why you are doing it as well as the background that you can do in order to support it.
  • You need to manage your night-time routine – you cannot have one without the other. For example, managing your caffeine intake throughout the day or turning off electronic devices which can be both physiologically and mentally or emotionally disruptive.

What is your advice for people who struggle to start?

John discusses two strategies that he adopts:

  1. Break down the large project into small things. It’s about translating a large intimidating thing into something that you can finish in a day. For example, instead of redesigning a website, you start with sketching the homepage layout.
  2. Start in the Middle. The idea is that you have a large project and there is probably an optimal way to go through it but giving yourself the freedom and self-permission to start in the middle and not try to be optimised about it. If there is something that is going to be necessary at some point but can help you start, then start there – don’t worry about where it comes in the process.

How do you manage task that don't have a deadline?

  • It may sound simple but creating deadlines for yourself. Artificial deadlines can act as a motivating force as well as serve as a useful means by which you can schedule time in your calendar to complete that task. In a similar vein, you can also ask somebody else to create a deadline for you.

Infinity Pools

  • The apps and services or anything that has an infinite supply of content that is always refreshing – for instance, any app that you can pull to refresh, anything that is streaming such as Netflix.
  • Everybody struggles with infinity pools – whatever app it is makes us powerless to resist. The philosophy from the book is that because those become habitual actions, you cannot rely on willpower alone to counteract that thought; when it’s habits versus willpower the habits are going to win. This can be frustrating if we have formed a habit around something that we don’t want to be doing.
  • The advice in the book is to try to restructure how we use and interact with the technology – for instance, logging out of apps or changing your password to a random, forgettable string of characters. It creates friction making a habit loop less likely to complete. You can also change your physical environment – if you don’t want to watch your TV, move it away from being the focal point of the room.
  • In essence, if there is something that you find yourself being drawn into again and again – try to create a barrier so that you won’t have to drain your willpower to fight back against that thing.
I try to compartmentalise these habits – I have a specific time of day to address certain things such as email, Twitter and LinkedIn. I have a few times a day when I check those sites and I only check them on a computer so I have a specific time and location where I will check them.

What does the idea of 20 minutes exercise come from?

  • We need to think of exercise in terms of building energy.
  • Usually we hear about the long-term benefits of exercise which are all good but it’s hard to motivate ourselves to do anything because of a vague long-term benefit.
  • If you go for a short workout, you feel reinvigorated and you get that energy boost. Our advice with exercise is to concentrate on those short things and if you can focus on doing something small every day, it becomes much easier to build a habit.
  • It also comes down to friction too. If you want to exercise more, make it as low friction as possible. If you can make it easy to do something very quick, you’re going to be more likely to do it.

Inconveniencing Yourself

The idea of inconveniencing yourself is not about never being efficient – it’s more about questioning the universal assumption that you should outsource everything you possibly can. Inconveniencing yourself is about stepping away from that assumption. For example, cooking for yourself rather than ordering a takeaway – it can help to make that boundary between work time and personal time.

What does your reflection process look like?

I think that we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to our time and how we spend it because it’s finite and precious. We are used to being critical and analytical with our own projects but when it comes to our time we seem to forget this. So if we can give ourselves a structure to stopping, pausing and reflecting, that becomes the mechanism for analysing what is / what is not working for us and then experimenting with other strategies that might be more optimal.

The Highlight Course

  • 5 week course that consists of a series of videos and lessons with a timing designed around forming and reinforcing some very specific habits. When you join the course, you get access to the Make Time community where we give feedback and people share stories which can be useful to learn from others.
  • It helps you to learn what is in the book and make it work for you as well as a support system.

Closing Remarks

You shouldn’t do what I say – this is where so many people go wrong. They look to experts, gurus etc and they ask what they should do, how do they do it. The reality is, we are all so different. There are some universal truths, but the most important thing is to establish your own system and believe that your time and attention and energy are yours to design and experiment with. You cannot just do what you’re expected to do – you have to take ownership of it. Make your time your own.