Monica Rozenfeld

Content Strategist and Milwaukee Product Brew Organizer

Redesign Your Time: The Design Sprint Co-Creator on Getting Things Done

Topics: Cream City Labs.

“Nobody accomplished anything great by being the first to respond to email,” says John Zeratsky, co-creator of The Design Sprint and bestselling author of “Make Time,” at the July Milwaukee Product Brew event hosted at Cream City Labs.

As someone who was obsessed with productivity optimization and “Inbox Zero” – clearing all emails by the end of the day – John realized he had become really good at reacting to other people’s priorities but wouldn’t accomplish all that much of his own projects by the end of the day. His calendar would look like this:

And his phone, well…

While at Google Ventures, he partnered with fellow designer Jake Knapp to redesign their days, making them more intentional and dedicated on projects that require focus for long periods of time. They called it “design sprint,” a framework that has since been adopted by many organizations, from Fortune 500 companies and non-profits to government agencies, in order to accelerate innovation and bring products and services to market quickly.

John shared how he has since applied this same framework to be more productive in his everyday life; simple steps anyone can adopt:

  • Do away with default settings.
    Default settings are all around us, designed to distract and steal our time. Our phones come pre-installed with pesky notifications alerting us of breaking news and every email that comes through. At the office, the default is for just about anyone to add meetings to our calendar and, as the default, we agree to every one of them – leaving us with 15-minute time slots to get real work done.

    The good news is you don’t have to accept the default. You can create a new system to redesign your time, such as by turning off your phone notifications or deleting that one “vampire app” that’s always sucking your time and energy.

  • Move meetings and emails to the end of the day.
    Imagine a world in which the first 2-3 hours of your work day are focused on specific tasks you need (or want!) to get done — perhaps a presentation that’s due at the end of the week or writing the first chapter of that book you’ve been putting aside. That is the world John had created for himself, blocking those morning hours when he’s most creative and energized to focus on substantial work, and moving meetings and emails to the end of the day when he has lower energy. Trust that those emails can wait.

  • Select a daily highlight.
    This is the crux of John’s philosophy, “Make Time,” where every day you select one important task you want to accomplish – this could be at work or home. For example, perhaps you’ve been wanting to clean the garage, but three months have passed and you still haven’t done it. Make it your highlight this weekend – even put it in your calendar from noon to 2 p.m.

    What a highlight means, essentially, is that if you get nothing else done that day, you will have at the least knocked off a major item on your to-do list that you can feel good about accomplishing. Then, you can move on to another meaningful highlight the next day and each day after – all while having an organized garage you no longer have to think about.

    “Figure out what you want to spend your time on and design your day around that,” John says.

  • Make distraction difficult.
    Most of us will quickly pick up our phone the moment boredom seeps in. As someone who has built ubiquitous products like YouTube, John knows the amount of effort put in to making these platforms “sticky.” He suggests putting barriers back in – log out of an app every time so you have to re-enter your password; clear your home screen so you have to search for your “vampire” app. This will make you take a moment to question whether this is how you want to spend your time, rather than instinctively thumbing through social media or endless news stories. In other words, “Put a speedbump in front of yourself on the way to being distracted.”

  • Stay focused – but not for too long.
    It’s impossible to stay fully focused and energized all day on one type of task. Step away and rebuild that energy, John says. But that break shouldn’t be to go look at a screen, if that’s what you’ve already been doing for several hours straight. Go for a walk, grab a snack or water, or even look out the window for a while. This will help you reset and get new energy to keep going.

    John suggests the sweet spot for your daily highlight is 60 to 90 minutes. It won’t become overly exhausting, and it’s realistic you’ll be able to free up that amount of time each day. Based on his experimentation, it’s the amount of time people can stay fully focused before reaching for a distraction again. “Based on the design sprints we were running, we developed a framework that helps people make time for what matters most to them,” John says. “The best part is I don’t feel busy anymore. It feels like time is slowing down, but in a good way.”

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