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Why the inventor of design sprints doesn’t want you to be ‘productive’

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Dec 24, 2019
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Jake Knapp now thinks “productivity” is a dirty word. Yes, the New York Times best-selling author of Sprint has a new perspective on time management and he’s sharing it with everyone in his book Make Time.

Ultimately, the big idea behind Make Time is proactively designing your life so you can be 100% focused and mindful when engaging in your priorities. While the methods vary from person to person, everyone has the potential to marshall the physical and mental energy to fully engaged in what matters. It’s not about productivity: It’s about reclaiming your attention and time to achieve your dreams and goals.

A man of his word, Jake even found an hour to discuss his book and his newfound distaste for the P-word on a recent episode of the Design Better Podcast.

The problem with productivity

According to Jake, productivity’s big problem is that it’s usually reactive.

It’s too easy to spend time responding to emails as they come in and attending meetings that pop up in your calendar. While Jake admits checking items off his to-do list can make him feel productive (and great!), he’s realized it’s not the best use of his time.

Too often, he’s put his priorities on the backburner to tackle these reactive tasks. But now, instead of aiming for optimal “productivity,” he’s purposely choosing to place his attention on what’s important… And here’s how he thinks you can, too:

Define the highlight of your day

While leading design sprints at Google Ventures, Jake and his co-author, John Zeratsky, focused on what they call “highlights.” These were daily priorities the team focused on (e.g. mapping, sketching, prototyping, or testing.)

They found this to be both energizing and satisfying and began to experiment where else they could apply the technique.

“John started to do this in his own day-to-day life,” Jake explains. “When we weren’t in a sprint, he would write down: What’s the one big thing that I want to do today? What’s the thing that matters the most?”

Eventually, they came to define their ideal highlight as about 60 to 90 minutes of focused activity prioritized above everything else, something between a to-do list task and a goal. It could be a work thing, like diving into usability notes, or even something personal, like hanging out with your kids or going to dinner with friends.

“Even if it’s for an hour to an hour and a half a day, I think that can make a huge difference in what you’re able to do and how good you feel about how you’re spending your life,” Jake says.

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For Jake, it’s all about looking back at the day’s end and being able to say: “That was the thing that brought me the most joy or the most satisfaction.”

Stay out of the “infinity pool”

Jake also purposefully steers clear of what he calls “infinity pools,”  those ever-refreshing apps like Facebook, Instagram, and even Gmail.

Jake actually deleted these apps from his phone—which is pretty ironic, since he helped create Gmail. He says it makes a huge difference in his life to only be able to access email on his computer. “When it’s on your phone, you could be up to date on your email inbox at any time, for 24 hours a day, wherever you are, which isn’t necessary,” he says.

Sure, companies like Apple and Google have introduced tools to help people control their device usage. But Jake says there’s a big difference between dialing down usage on your phone a few notches and actually going all the way to zero.

After deleting all the infinity pools from his phone, he magically had more hours in his day. He found himself spending more time with his family and even began working on side projects. “Without all that stuff, it cleared up a huge amount of stress and divided-attention from my head, and I felt like I had more attention,” he said.

Now, when Jake wants to accomplish something, he won’t hesitate to shut off any and all distractions. “Once I create a little bit of space, then I can get into what we call laser mode. Then I can be 100% focused.”

Unplug from the workplace

Of course, not everyone can delete Slack, skip meetings, or let e-mail go unanswered for a couple of days. But Jake thinks employees at any level can create space in their days for controlled focus.


Management certainly wants its employees to limit task-switching and better focus, but they also want open lines of communication. So this focused “highlight” time can be the best of both worlds, Jake says, since focused time gives employees more agency in their work. Additionally, it limits the amount of time each day when reactive tasks can pop-up.

Boss won’t sign-off on a daily team-wide highlight session? Jake says to make them yourself: Block off big chunks of time on your calendar for focused work. He suggests even occasionally scheduling a full design sprint if needed.

Control your calendar (don’t let it control you)

While Jake says the best way to get control over you calendar is to quit your job, he acknowledges that’s not an option for everyone. Rather, he recommends looking at a calendar not as a “tool to push us around,” but as a “tool to help you focus.”

Other than blocking out deep work time for yourself, he suggests also designing your calendar around your most effective hours. Many people are freshest in the morning, so, for them, that would digging into their “highlights when they get to work, and waiting to schedule meetings or answer emails until after lunch.

Limit “time craters”

Jake refers to the 20 to 30 minutes before and after a meeting that don’t lend themselves to deep, focused work as “time craters.” One of the most common causes of these time wasters are midday meetings, which he likens to throwing a heavy rock through a pane of glass.

“It’s not just going to put a perfect hole in there, he says. “It’s going to shatter a bit.”

To optimize your working hours and limit “time craters,” he recommends batching meetings into one or two days a week and carving out fully blank days on your calendar.

Start small (then go all in)

Jake gets it: Changing behaviors is inherently difficult. That’s why he recommends starting with a highlight that you want to do, and look forward to doing. That way, not only will you immediately feel gratified by your work, but you’ll also ride that high the rest of your day and build momentum to complete longer-term goals.

If this idea of making time for yourself resonates with you, check out the full podcast episode with Jake and learn more about Make Time here.