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Designer Jake Knapp on Creating and Maintaining Routines that Foster Focus

Jake Knapp

At Freedom, we love our users – not just because they use our product, but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, best-selling authorseditorsdeveloperscartoonists, star TV actors, academic researchersexplorers, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and efficient go-getters. We love to share their stories and advice, because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?

Meet Jake Knapp.

Jake Knapp is the New York Times bestselling author of Sprint and Make Time. Jake spent 10 years at Google and Google Ventures, where he created the Design Sprint.

He has since coached teams like Slack, Uber, 23andMe, LEGO, and The New York Times on the method of how to solve big problems and test new ideas in just 5 days.

Previously, Jake helped build products like Gmail, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Encarta. He is also currently among the world’s tallest designers at six foot seven and a half.

As a self-proclaimed “Time Dork” with years of personal productivity experiments under his belt, we decided to sit down with him this week to learn how he makes time for the things that matter most.

First of all, how did you become the bestselling author and designer you are today? What were some of the steps that you took to get there?

I’m doing the work I do today because many people mentored me and taught me and took chances on me along the way, because I was repeatedly at the right place at the right time, and also because I got really into a combination of things (product design and writing and drawing and time/attention management) that most people think is weird and just kept doing that combination of weird stuff over and over and over until lo and behold I had become an expert in it. The really key people in all of this are my parents, who encouraged this kind of behavior when I was a kid, and my wife, who has encouraged it since I became a grown-up. To the extent that I am a grown-up, which some might question.


Do you have a routine or a work ritual that helps you stay focused and productive? If not, what does an average work day look like for you?

I have a basic routine, and I also have an ideal routine, which is the basic routine plus some other stuff. The basic routine usually happens, the ideal routine sometimes happens.

The basic routine is to have breakfast with my family, take one son or the other to school, and go for a run. Those things build energy. Then, I decide what is going to be the “Highlight” of my day—the thing I want to focus my energy on. So I’m being intentional before I start. Those things—energy and intention—are really simple and important.

In my ideal routine, the next thing I do is meditate using the Headspace app, then resist checking email until after I’ve worked on a big project (often my Highlight). But I don’t always make it to the ideal routine, because things disrupt me or I disrupt myself. The new book, Make Time, talks a lot about the battles that both John Zeratsky (my co-author) and I have as we try to create and maintain the routines that will lead to focus in messy real life. The good news is that small changes can open the door to focus, and the ideal routing, while great, is not required. It turns out the basic routine is pretty good, too.


When did you realize that tech, devices, websites, and apps were taking a toll on your productivity? Or when did you realize you had to do something about it?

There was a sort of crystalizing moment when I was playing with my kids, or ostensibly playing with my kids, and realized I kept either looking at my phone or at least thinking about my phone instead of really being there with them. That was what really jarred me into action.

But another thing that was important—it’s less of a bolt of lightning from the sky, but it was very formative—was spending a year working in Switzerland and collaborating with a team in California. We were 8 hours ahead, so there were no emails or calls with our California colleagues in the morning, so people tended to come to work late and stay late—but as a parent, I was up early anyway so I would come in and it would be quiet and there would be no email. I got used to that magical situation of quiet every morning, and really got hooked on it. When I moved back to the US, the non-stop distraction cycle really smacked me in the face.


What are your biggest distractors and how do you fight them?

There are so many things. News is a big one, and Twitter can be, but email is the absolute king of distractors for me. I love email. I enjoy writing emails and helping people with their questions and whatever, just that little sense of progress, and I love, love, love it when I empty my inbox. It was very hard for me to accept that being on top of email was actually robbing me of doing more important things. Letting go of that feeling of productivity is hard. In fact, it’s so hard that I really can’t resist it on my own all the time—that’s why I took email off of my phone, and why I use Freedom, and why I do the routine to build energy and remind myself of what’s important. Battling distractors is an everyday thing for me, it’s not a finished battle.


What piece of advice would you give your younger self in regard to work and productivity?

Hmm, that’s tough. I really like the journey of learning the stuff the hard way, you know? But it would be fun to send myself the new book. Really, because I learned so many important things from books earlier in my career, and of course now too. But early on, David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Getting Real from the company Basecamp and many others… so basically the new book, Make Time, is the book I would suggest for a younger me who was coming along right now. Not that it’s the end-all-be-all of books on time and energy, but there need to be a lot of books on this topic, written from different perspectives and in different styles. And I don’t know if Make Time is for everyone—but I know that I would have really dug it.

Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

As someone who wears multiple hats, how do you prioritize what tasks, activities, or people get your time each day

That’s a big part of what Make Time is about, so I don’t want to give everything away, but I will say I use a few simple tactics that, together, help me to feel better about my choices each day. In addition to setting a Highlight every day, some of my favorite tactics (which you can find in the book) are called “Stack Rank Your Life”, “The Burner List”, and “Groundhog It”.


How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?

To the extent that I have a good balance (and that is not true every day, although it may be true most days) I’ve done it by changing a lot of defaults in my life to “offline”. I’ve removed apps from my iPhone, use Freedom regularly, intentionally slowed my email response time, and so on. Creating our own defaults is really important because so many forces are working to distract us. My dad used to say that money makes a wonderful servant but a horrible master, and today, I think you could say the same about technology—it’s wonderful when it’s working for you and horrible when it becomes your boss. We have to be the bosses of our phones and our laptops. I would say I’m the boss about, oh, 75 to 80% of the time. There’s room for improvement but I’m getting there.


What resources or tools do you use on a daily basis that you have found useful to your writing/work process?

I use Freedom, a Time Timer, and the Pages app (which I can use offline). I’ve also done a lot of writing—including all of my work on Make Time—in Google Docs, which is great for collaborating and luckily has a nice offline mode.


What project are you currently most excited about?

I’ve started writing a science fiction book. It’s extremely difficult for me, but also super fun. And it pushes all of my tactics and routines to the max because it’s so challenging.


Where are you currently based?

San Francisco, where I work from home, with my internet access disabled as much as I can. 🙂



To learn more about Jake Knapp, Make Time, or Sprint – visit his site at