Book Reviews

Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

Make Time is an excellent, clear and sometimes provocative book that gives plenty of ‘aha’ moments along with easily actionable advice to help ensure that you get to do the things that matter most to you in a busy world.

The successful applications Gmail and Youtube both have something in common – their developers use time viewed as a key performance indicator: that is, in their eyes the longer a user spends on Youtube (or Gmail or Facebook or Twitter for that matter), the more successful the product is. 

This sort of thinking has informed and shaped most social media that is around today. Articles such as ‘Facebook is hacking our minds’ have become commonplace as we discover more about their efforts to feed us dopamine hits by notifications, likes and whatever else. As users, we have been slow to respond, with our lives becoming more dictated by these outside commercial forces fighting for our attention. However, let’s be realistic – how can we possibly expect to fight back against billions of dollars of research? Moreover, should we even bother – after all, it’s quite enjoyable using social media.

There’s another thing that Gmail and Youtube have in common. The two authors of the book Make Time worked there. While quick to state that Google isn’t an evil company (almost as though the Googley Eyed Beast were watching), they say that inherently the metrics these companies have come to use to measure success are useful for stakeholders, but not healthy for humans. 

So when these chaps write a book about how to find time to do the things that matter most to us I think we ought to sit up and listen: especially when these members of the Gmail / Youtube teams advise us to remove email and Youtube from our phones completely.

Key concepts

Make Time’s subtitle is ‘How to focus on what matters every day’. The premise is that for most of us, our time is already taken up by external demands placed on us by default. If we’re not careful, we can go from day to day simply responding to these demands, and never doing the things that ‘matter most’. Examples they cite include writing a novel, learning a language, spending (quality) time with family, playing Mario Kart. 

I find this very appealing. I’ve got a Trello board full of stuff that I want to do, and often find myself frustrated when I can’t find time for any of it.

The four fundamental concepts are Highlight, Laser, Energise, Reflect. Each chapter presents multiple ideas on how to achieve these concepts, somewhat like a recipe book, enabling you to dip in and out whenever suits you.

  1. Highlight – choose one activity to aim for and protect in your calendar 
  2. Laser – how to focus and beat distraction to find time for your highlight 
  3. Energise – how to keep charging your batteries
  4. Reflect – a daily check-in to determine what works and what doesn’t

For example, the ‘Laser’ section is broken into themes such as ‘Be the boss of your phone’, ‘Make TV a sometimes treat’. 

A clear, optimistically written book

I think it would be quite easy for this book to become a dystopian book with analogies of us fighting the corporates for our freedom one choice at a time. But it isn’t like that at all. Instead, Make Time is a thoughtful, clear book — and a pleasure to read. 

Whether intentional or not, the clarity and tone of their writing had the effect of making me feeling optimistic right from the outset. Charming cartoons and diagrams are drawn in a friendly style by one of the two help things along, and the writing is in small, digestible chunks rather than long and unwieldy prose.

There is also a sense of humility to their writing — while clearly, they are writing with advice to give, they acknowledge that they’re still learning, self-experimenting, and there are points at which they disagree with one another (it’s quite refreshing to see both sides of an argument written down in one book with no preference stated). Rather than an irate ‘my way or the highway’, it felt as though they had respect for other mindsets and ideas that may work just as well or better than their own.

We need help dealing with technology

Admittedly, the premise of this book is pretty heavy on the self-help side of things, though they’ve been careful to steep this in data where possible. These sorts of books can seem a bit extreme. 

The interesting thing is just how much we need direction in these matters, particularly where technology is involved. Some of the points might seem blindingly obvious to you — don’t drink coffee after 4, if you’re getting up early go to bed early but in reality, we can all struggle and I think it’s useful to take a look and potentially reset some aspects of our lives that have drifted. 

Standing the test of time

I pre-ordered this book at the end of summer 2018, and skimmed through it September. Since then I have introduced some of the principles outlined over a couple of hectic months. I had reached a point where I was exhausted from trying to do too much all at once, and I was frustrated at the nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting anything done (I don’t think this was true, but agency work can sometimes feel a little relentless).

In particular, the ‘distraction free phone’ tactic has made a marked difference to my screen time and overall output in things that I prefer to work on. I’m much less likely to sit on the bus watching Netflix (that latest series of Daredevil was so good though) or drifting through an endless sea of Instagram, Email and Facebook posts, but instead might be reading a good book or jotting down ideas for my next short story or another project. 

I may write another post about the distraction-free phone tactic as I believe it has probably helped me more than anything else in the book.

It hasn’t been easy, and I’m due to do another read through to pick out a couple more ideas to try, but it has genuinely made a marked difference to my mental health over the last few months, as well as to my ability to find time for things I want to do (but perhaps don’t need to do). Now I have to work on how to prioritise those crucial things so that I can make progress, particularly on bigger projects which can seem so large that progress may not even be particularly apparent over a few weeks. 

While it probably seems that this book is all about projects and productivity, that’s probably more my takeaway as I am wired that way. For you, it may be about making time for less quantifiable things like quality time with your partner. 

Make Time provides clear, achievable insights that I believe are invaluable in our ‘always-on’ culture. Highly Recommended.