We’re all swimming in a world which is prone to providing us with two competing problems which affect our ability to get things done: busyness and distractions. We see busyness in all of our attempts to create to-do lists, reminders and project plans: as soon as we tick-off an item, three more take its place. Distractions come in many forms, the most dangerous being the so-called “Infinity Pools” which are offered by most modern social media apps and news websites. You think you’re done? Keep scrolling and there’s more.

The book we reviewed last week, Four Thousand Weeks, was a wake-up call to the fragilty of life and the desire to focus on what really matters to us. Make Time helps us to work out what matters, and then offers almost a hundred ideas about how to carve out the time to make sure it happens.

Pick your daily highlight in advance

Creating tasks, goals and to-do lists for ourselves is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, if we create tasks which are small and short-term, we’ll be creating them in such a volume that it’s difficult to see past them to what we’re really trying to accomplish. On the other hand, if we try to align ourselves with our long-term goals, these are often too abstract or distant for us to be able to make any visible progress in the here-and-now.

One of Make Time’s big ideas is the creation of what they term your “Daily Highlight”: At the beginning of any given day, you should define something that you want to accomplish that day - potentially at the expense of other activities - to move you closer to your longer-term objectives. In essence, rather than waiting until the evening and asking yourself “What was the highlight of my day?”, try setting your highlight as a target at the start of the day.

When picking a highlight, consider following one or more of the following criteria:

  • Importance - What is urgent or critical to get done today? (Think of something sizable, of maybe 60-90 minutes in length, rather than something which can be completed without any thought.)
  • Meaning - What work will make you the most satisfied to complete? There’s always going to be work that needs to be done, which is unavoidable and will therefore get scheduled regardless. This criterion is a reminder that we should also pick up work that we want to do; the sort of work which always gets postponed because of all the must-do work.
  • Joy - What will make you feel the happiest or most fulfilled? Rather than focusing on the mere completion of a list of tasks, our goal is to live a more joyful existence, so try putting that as the centre of your highlight and see what happens.

Find focus to make your highlight happen

Once you’ve selected your daily highlight, the next challenge is to create the time to enable it to be completed. One way is to reserve time in your calendar to focus on your highlight, ensuring that nobody else can lay claim to your time while you’re in highlight mode. If you’re working in a meeting-heavy environment, you could try moving some of those meetings around in order to create a sizable space, or asking “does this have to be a meeting?”.

Alternately, you could try to make yourself into more of a “morning person” or a “night person” by identifying times during the day when you’re currently unproductive - for instance, if you’re prone to falling into a Facebook rabbit-hole in the evenings, consider claiming this time back for your highlight. But don’t let this encroach into your sleep time, or undertake an activity which will affect your ability to drop off when the time comes.

As for those pesky apps that want to consume your time? We’re too accepting of the “default settings” which were chosen by our handset manufacturer or the app creator, which are geared towards sucking you in as often as possible. Your strategy to make your device distraction-free will vary depending upon your life or your needs: you could disable notifications, uninstall apps or block websites which you know to be time sinks. You can also seek to increase the friction of noisy apps, for example by logging out of your social media accounts (so that the effort required to access them allows you to stop and think “do I really want to be doing this right now?”)

Along the way, you’ll need to make sure you remain energised in order to be capable of working effectively and avoid burnout. Make Time offers a variety of ideas to help with retaining your energy, or recharging when it’s lost. Many of these are sensible facets of modern living: eating well, exercising, fostering social connections, and retaining a healthy sleep regime. None of these necessarily need to consume a lot of your time, and some of them could be multi-tasked: for instance, sharing a meal with a friend, or going for a walk/run in a busy park.

There’s no single solution, and that’s the beauty of it. Make Time professes to offer a “cookbook” approach to productivity: you don’t need to try all of the recipes at once, and you can always tailor the ingredients to find something which is the perfect solution for you.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Pick a meaningful highlight that you want to achieve each day - and complete it. Every day.
  • Make your calendar work for you, to create focus time to achieve your highlight.
  • Understand what gives you energy, and harness this to give you a boost at the right time.