Productivity is about purpose, not busyness

Jake Knapp, design sprint inventor and co-author of “Make Time”, offers practical tips for staying focused on the big picture

Black and white photograph of author Jack Knapp

Between going to meetings, answering emails, and responding to messages, It might feel like we get a lot done throughout the work day, but Jake Knapp—former Google Ventures partner and inventor of the design sprint—urges us to think about productivity a little differently.

In his recently released book Make Time, which he co-authored with fellow Google alumn John Zeratsky, Knapp and Zeratsky start by showing how people’s relationship with technology is wearing them down. We’ve become highly reactive, highly distracted, and down-right stressed. And they would know, they’ve spent the bulk of their careers not only using that tech but designing it. (In fact, Knapp is one of the people who helped build Gmail.)

Make Time is an ode to living and working more purposefully and a practical guide to remaining present—two things that are increasingly difficult for humans to get a handle on these days.

We spoke with Knapp about his perspectives on productivity and the tips from his own book that he continues to rely on to this day.

“Make Time is full of strategies for identifying and doing the big stuff. In the end, productivity is great if you’re a factory, but I want more from my days. I want to be purposeful instead of productive.”

– Jake Knapp, author and inventor of the design sprint
Jake Knapp
author and inventor of the design sprint
Slack: You very explicitly mention that Make Time is not a book about productivity, but it is about making time for what matters. What’s the difference?

Jake Knapp: Productivity means doing lots of work—literally “producing”. It can be a good feeling: ticking off to-dos, answering emails, going to back-to-back-to-back meetings, and answering messages. The problem is that the good feeling of productivity masks an ugly truth: instead of doing as much as possible, we should be doing what’s most important.

For me, productivity can get in the way of the bigger projects or longer blocks of focused work that are hard to start, but ultimately provide the biggest internal and external rewards. It’s hard to build a new slide deck, but easy to check my mail. So Make Time is full of strategies for identifying and doing the big stuff. In the end, productivity is great if you’re a factory, but I want more from my days. I want to be purposeful instead of productive.

Slack: What are some of the most common, and most dangerous, “defaults” we have when it comes to how we think about or approach our everyday work?

JK: Most offices default to jam-packed calendars and an always-online, instant-reply messaging culture. We say yes to others first and do what we believe is important last if there’s time, and if we still have any energy after ping-ponging off of our inboxes and different conference rooms with different people and different contexts all day long. It’s hard to pay attention, and it’s hard to get out of that frenetic mode when we leave the office.

Slack: A big theme in Make Time is around attention management—how you find and maintain focus and avoid distractions like “Infinity Pools” or apps designed to offer you more and more content, taking up more and more of your attention span. But these days we work in a world where the number of software tools we use for work has increased, and a lot of these tools use similar functionality to point our attention to notifications and updates that may be important to our work. As more software is used in the workplace, what kind of boundaries, guidelines, and standards do you think organizations and leaders need to set to ensure people aren’t consistently falling into time craters or over-working and burning out?

JK: In Make Time we provide a strategy for an individual to begin taking control of their own time, but managers and leaders can change the game much faster than an individual working alone.

Every leader should consider banning meetings for parts of the day (say, mornings) or week (say, all of Thursdays and Fridays). The Pinterest engineering team recently wrote about their three-day no meeting schedule and the resulting boost in important work accomplished.

Leaders should also mandate messaging-free times. Imagine if a CEO said, “No email or messages before 11 am.” What would happen? Of course, some work really does require messaging—but much much less than we think. The excuse that “we have to be online to function” is a very convenient way to trick ourselves into wasting time.

Slack: How do you create a culture of productive collaboration while avoiding the pitfall of defaults, time craters, and the busy bandwagon?

JK: Digital messaging allows us to say “yes” to lots of small things, and makes it harder to do the big things well. I’m a big fan of collaborating in big, meaningful ways (like in a design sprint) and saying “no” to all those little things that get displaced by the big stuff.

Slack: Throughout the book, you advocate that people examine their defaults, identify what works best for them, and optimize around that (for example, whether you’re a morning person or an evening person). How can teams find alignment, purpose, and motivation, while also respecting that every individual has a different work style or mode?

JK: The most important changes are messaging and meeting less often. I think those are beneficial to almost every team, regardless of work style or mode. I know that when I have told myself I thrive on context switching, I’m deluding myself.

Slack: Is it possible to optimize for both individual and team productivity? If so, what does that look like?

JK: Absolutely, yes. If individuals are doing purposeful work day in and day out, your team will be more successful.

Slack: Of all the new habits and techniques explored in your book, which are the ones that you still practice or adhere to most often?

JK: The “Highlight” technique is very powerful for me. When I start my day with intention, by choosing what’s most important, things go so much better. It’s not magic but it’s the closest thing.

Not so long ago, none of us had smartphones, and we didn’t expect each other or ourselves to be available for instant response all the time. And people did impressive, complex work back in those old days! Diseases were treated, software empires were built, spacecraft landed on the moon. JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter without email on an iPhone. Heck, Apple created the iPhone without email on an iPhone! So when I think about the modest things I’d like to pay attention to each day, I figure I can slow down a little and I’ll still be alright.

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