[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we discuss what it means when you mistake being busy with creating results. We take a hard look at time management and examine concrete strategies for carving out more time. We look at the dangerous power of defaults in shaping our behavior and how we can use them to our advantage. We examine how to have a healthy relationship with your e-mail inbox with our guest, Jake Knapp.
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In our previous episode, we explored the brain. Are the two halves of the brain really that different? What is this idea of whole brain thinking? How do you get your brain to do what you want it to do? Can we become more right-brained or left-brained if we want to? We also dug into the personal story of our guest, a neuro anatomist who suffered from a devastating stroke and how that experience transformed her worldview, with our guest Dr. Jill Taylor. If you want to understand how to get your brain to do what you want it to do, listen to that episode.
Now for the show.
[0:02:57.6] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Jake Knapp. Jake is the New York Times bestselling author of Sprint. He spent 10 years at Google and Google ventures, where he created the design sprint process and ran it over a 150 times with companies like Nest, Slack 23andMe, Flatiron Health and more.
Previously, Jake helped build products like Gmail, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Encarta and his work has been featured in TechCrunch, Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and more. Jake, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:29.2] JK: Hey, thanks for having me on, Matt. Appreciate it.
[0:03:31.4] MB: Well, we're very excited to have you on here today. I'd love to talk about and I think we're definitely going to dig into the sprint methodology that you've popularized and really executed for a number of years at Google. Before we dig into that, I'd love to start out and look at, I know you have a new project in the works right now. It's not coming out for a number of months, but you have a book about, the name is Make Time, and it's about how to prioritize and how to create the time and the focus for the things we really want to get done.
I'd love to hear what inspired you to create that book and what are some of the core themes that you want to explore with it?
[0:04:05.8] JK: Well, this topic of time is something that I've been thinking about for many years. It all goes back for me to when my oldest son was born. He's 14 now, but when he was born I was working at Microsoft at that time and I realized, “My God. I have got to spend my time better. I got to get better at doing this.” That led me on a long path of experimenting with personal productivity, experimenting with the ways that I did my work and ultimately, with doing the kinds of team practices that led to the design sprint.
Along the way to developing the design sprint, which is very much a tool for teams and businesses, I ended up thinking a lot about how I could manage my own efforts and energies in the day to have more satisfaction and to feel I was doing the things that mattered. My colleague at Google Ventures, who I worked with on developing the design sprint process, this guy John Zeratsky, he's a time dork just like me. In fact, we have a blog called Time Dorks, and we've been experimenting with some weird ideas of ways to really get control of the distractions and the busyness that plagued the modern world.
I mean, there are these amazing technological gifts that we all have access to, or many of us have access to and I've done my share of working on building those tools, but there's a lot to be done to actually make them – really put them in their place, so that we can put what we want to do first. That's what the book is about. To a certain extent, that's what the design sprint process is about too, so they go together.
[0:05:41.1] MB: Yeah, I'd love to hear even some of the lessons from Time Dork. What have you found obviously today's world are so many distractions and so much noise, pulling us away from what's really important. How have you personally dealt with a lot of the distractions that enabled yourself to be focused and productive?
[0:05:59.8] JK: Well, one of the big things is that we follow defaults in life. We have to, because it's how you get things done. When I say default, I mean, if you get a new phone, you get a new computer it's got default software on it, it's got a default wallpaper image on it, the phone's got a default ringtone, all those things when you get the phone, usually most of us the first thing we'll do is configure the phone to look the way we want, download the apps we want and maybe move the ones that we don't want, and put a photo of our kid, or something on the background.
That's the first step, but in life, a lot of the defaults that exist, we might not see them. A lot of them just stick around and they become part of our lives. For example, you start a new job. I think if you're lucky, you start a new job, you're excited about what you’re going to be working on, you come in the first day, you’re like, or else do this, you got your new e-mail address, you look in your inbox and there's no e-mails in there, because it's a new job, you look at your calendar and there's nothing on your calendar, because you're new. You're like, “Awesome. I'm here to do this.” There's something you're excited about some project. Let's do it.
You get into it and you start talking to people, meeting them, you start getting some one-on-one meetings on your calendar, you start getting some project updates, some stand-ups, some all-hands meetings. Pretty soon, the calendar is full of stuff and you can't make room to actually do your work. The inbox is full of stuff, and whether it's your inbox, or Slack, or whatever you're reacting all the time.
In modern life, we call this in the book the busy bandwagon. There's this expectation that's built-in by default, by the tools that we use and the structures that we use in our office culture. It's also a cultural norm. When you ask somebody how they're doing, they say usually, “I'm busy.” In the United States they’ll say, “I’m busy.”
That's good. People think like, “Oh, it's good to be busy,” and it is. I mean, it means you have a job. It implies that you're stressed out, and a lot of us are stressed out a lot of the time. Many of the changes that we talk about in the book and many of the things I've tried to do and it's hard, but it's questioning those defaults, and then trying to say – and I'm a designer. I've been a designer for 20 years. I try to think, “What's a way to redesign this, so that it works well for me? Works better for me?”
To give you an example on the iPhone, you don't have an iPhone. The default is you can have e-mail on the phone, you're going to have a web browser on the phone, you'll have Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. I realized several years ago, it's actually about six years ago, I was playing with my kids and I had this moment when I realized that I just was not – I was not present in that moment, because I kept looking at my phone. I was checking to see if I had a new e-mail, or I don't even really know what I was doing, but I had this moment when I was like, “Oh, my God.”
My older son was I think eight, my younger son was just a baby and I was like – I've seen the older son be a baby and go past that. I know that time passes by in a blink. I'm sitting here and I'm like, this this moment's going to be gone. Why is the phone so important to me? I'm not really consciously choosing to do this, it's just controlling me. In that moment I said, “I can take control of this. I can redesign this.”
I deleted Instagram, Facebook, Twitter off the phone. I figured out how to disable Safari off the phone. I deleted the e-mail account, which is really hard for me, because I used to work at Gmail. I mean, I've worked on that product. I really love that product actually. I realized, I don't need to have access to those things all the time everywhere I am. One of the new defaults in the world is that we have access to everything all the time, and that's part of what we have to get control of.
[0:09:42.1] MB: I love that idea of the busy bandwagon. It's so true. It's almost like a badge of honor in today's society to be busy, busy, busy, going from here to there, and all this stuff going on. I feel like most of the people want to appear busy, but they're mistaking busyness with actually creating results.
[0:10:01.2] JK: Absolutely. One of the things that's really key and in the book in Make Time and also in the design sprint process is focus, and it's being proactive and intentional about what the most important thing is, prioritizing ruthlessly on that one thing. In Make Time, we say every day you should pick a highlight at the beginning of the day. When I say highlight I mean, if I look back at this day when it's over, what would be the highlight of the day?
It could be something that's actually about work. Maybe you have some job that you just – you've got to get it done, but getting it done will be satisfying, because that it's important, it's urgent and I've just got to do it. It'll feel good to know that I got that chunk of that thing done. Or maybe it's something that actually bring you joy. It could just be that at the end of the day, I want to know that when I was with my family this evening having dinner, or when I took my kids to the playground, whatever it was, I was present during that moment. I was at full strength too. I had my best energy during that moment.
We think that starting off with that a little bit of intention and saying this is this one most important thing, if you just have one, then you can design your day around it. You can make sure that your energy level is high, you can make sure that your phone is away, that you're not being distracted during that moment.
Similarly in design sprint, we would craft each day around one big activity. I should say briefly what a design sprint is; it's a five-day process. It's highly structured to get rid of a lot of those bad office defaults and replace them with some really intentional steps that take advantage of things that we learned through the evidence of running the design sprint process over and over again, and also things that we learned from reading about psychology and reading about studies people had done, and really tried to apply. If you do these steps in this order, you'll basically get good results, you'll eliminate a lot of biases and you'll basically learn whether your project is on the right track.
In the sprint, on Monday you make them the whole team work together to make a map of the problem, on Tuesday of the team, each person sketches a competing solution, on Wednesday the team uses a structured process to make a decision, although it's not a democratic decision. On Thursday you build a prototype, on Friday you test it.
Anyway, it's one thing per day. Part of that idea of focusing on one thing per day I've seen work over and over again for all different kinds of teams. I've seen it work also for individuals and we found that when we applied that every day for ourselves, it just led to greater satisfaction and also greater accomplishments. I mean, you can do the kinds of things that you want to do only if you eliminate 90% of the stuff that we're reacting to that causes that appearance of busyness.
[0:12:39.0] MB: I love that, the idea of ruthless prioritization, and really being very, very cognizant of what our priorities are. Tell me a little bit more, for somebody who feels like they've got so many things going on and they have to do this and that and family life and all these other things, how can they step back and get clarity about what priorities are truly important?
[0:13:02.3] JK: Well, in the book we have over 80 different tactics that you can try, and we do not expect anyone to use all 80 tactics, because neither John nor I uses all 80. In fact, some of them are contradictory. There's some things that I have a certain approach to solving a problem that we have in the modern world. John is a different one and they actually compete with each other.
John does all these things to get up really early in the morning and do his highlight first thing before anyone's, any sane person who's woken up. I can't do that. I have kids. There's no way I'm getting up early and actually doing something productive. I got to do that in a different time. We talk about there's no secret solution for everyone, but there are a lot of different things you can try.
One thing that I love that's made a huge difference for me is starting off and stack ranking the big things in my life and doing this activity periodically, re-ranking the stack. For me, it's about saying, “Okay, what are the big projects?” I actually list – I mean, and this is going to sound really oversimplified, or maybe even callous, but I'll say family; that's a project, or writing a book, that might be a project.
I might have a project at work. Maybe I’ll just say work as a category as a project, or maybe I’ll be a little bit more granular, but I won't go down to the task level. It's at a pretty high level if I'm a runner, so where's running fall on there? I'll list out these four or five things that are the biggest things that are going on for me. Then I put them in order. After listing them out, I look at that then I say what's the most important thing right now? Then what's the second and what's the third and what's the fourth what's the fifth? I keep this list on my phone and I'll refer to it periodically and it's a tiebreaker for me.
One of the things that's really important is making that decision and saying like, “Look, for right now, things are going well with my family. Maybe I'm going to put my family second actually,” which sounds really awful, but there are times when your family comes first and there are times and realistically you've got a big thing going on, something you're trying to do and you need to put most of your effort most of the time into some other project, that's okay.
Sometimes the family does go out up there and obviously, they're always near the top of my list, if they're not on the top. It's about where, honestly where does the most of my energy need to go to right now? Then every day when I'm making a list, I use something that I call a burner list, and actually if your listeners can search for this post, I wrote a post about this called The Burner list. It’s my form of to-do list.
My to-do list only has two columns. The left column is my top priority project at that time, so whatever is the number one thing on that stack rank. The right-hand column has – half of it is the number two project and the other half, or the bottom of that second column is just miscellaneous stuff. That's it. If there's any other things that come up, any other tasks I just have to tell the person, “I'm sorry. I can't do it.” I have to say no.
I use that sheet of paper, that physical sheet of paper to limit what I can do. It's a combination of those two things making that list so that I know what the priorities are. Then just saying if it doesn't fit on the paper, it doesn't fit in my life. I found that that's actually a good representation of what I can pay attention to and do.
I think it's about finding those kinds of things starting to figure out where your – where is the edges of your capacity. You can use the tricks that I use, or some of the other tricks in our book if you like, but it's about that knowledge about yourself and figuring out what works, what doesn't work for you, but really where is the boundary of your time. When you know what's important and you know where the boundary is, then you can do the most important thing and say no.
[0:16:32.4] MB: I want to get into how to say no, because I think that's such an important skill and one that I feel in many ways it's almost lacking in modern-day society, but before we dive into that I just want to say that I really like the idea of just carving out even a little bit of time to get clarity on what you want to focus on. Even 30 minutes a week of just a – to borrow the term from Charles DeWitt like a contemplative routine of just saying, “Okay, what am I working on? What's going on in my life? Where should I be spending my time? What's working? What's not working?” Just even that tiny activity can sometimes create a lot of clarity.
[0:17:08.3] JK: Yeah, and I have found it's things like that, usually they sound good, but they're hard to put into practice. It sounds like, “Yeah, I should take some time to contemplate. It’s like, I should take some time to meditate. I should take some time to exercise, or do these things,” but it's really hard to do. A lot of what we try to do and Make Time was to take things that are hard to do really for real humans, because part of the challenge in life is that we hear so much about people like Elon Musk, who's the CEO of two companies and going to Mars.
Yeah, like Tim Ferriss. Tim Ferriss is a dude doing all these things, hyper optimizing his body and everything. We hear these things about these people and it’s great, they're impressive and we can learn from those people. It can't help, at least for me, but sometimes you just feel like, “God, I suck.” I look at what I'm doing and I'm like, “Man, I haven't launched zero rockets. I haven’t optimized my muscle tissue at all today.
That super humanity that we’re exposed to a lot makes it hard sometimes to even begin with the things that we need to do. The truth is I think that most of us, we’re not superhuman and we probably don't want to be. I'm not sure that most of us would be happy with those lifestyles. I think that this practice of reflecting and deciding what's important can become a part of your routine. For me, it's the routine is built into, again to my to-do list. Because I make my to-do list on paper and I think a lot of people do, chances are most of your listeners are not going to adopt my form of to-do list. You’re welcome to try it, but you probably keep doing some variation of your own thing.
When you rewrite your to-do list, if you do it on paper, that's a powerful moment, that's a moment when you can say, Okay, I'm going to put a little bit of structure on this. What's the most important project?” If you just write the name of the most important project on your paper and you give that a lot of the space on the paper and then you write the next most important project below it with a lot of room already eaten up, then you've already done half the job. You've already told yourself what was most important.
Now by default, you'll fill those things in, giving most of your attention, most of your priority to that number one thing. For me, that's the routine. It's just like every time the to-do list gets full, it gets a little bit stale. I've crossed a lot of things off and I'm redrawing it, I reconsider what's number one. In that way, it doesn't feel this hard-to-do artificial activity, it's quite natural.
[0:19:27.3] MB: I think in many ways that strategy is echoed by in a number of different realms, or fields. Even people like Tim Ferriss who talk about your most important tasks for the day, etc. Even if you can just accomplish the most important thing on your list, oftentimes just doing that is enough to create meaningful results, as long as you've selected the right thing to prioritize.
[0:19:47.7] JK: Absolutely. I think that while in the beginning, for me it was challenging to figure out each day what was the number one thing. A part of it is we like to think about the space that's between a task and a goal. There's not really a word for it. Task is very granular and it is easy in life to get caught up in reactive tasks, because they're so small.
Somebody e-mailed me and asked me to update the spreadsheet. I'm going to do that. Or somebody, I've got to run this this errand. It's easy to lose track of the goals, but the goals are so far off that they're hard to act on. You think what's the connection between this task and the goal.
In the book, we talked a lot about the space in between. That's what we call a highlight. We think that what you should try to go for each day is something more than one task. It's something that's a meaningful chunk. You should think in terms of clearing 60 to 90 minutes. We think if you can clear 60 to 90 minutes, if you can make that time and that's where the title of the book comes from, if you can make that time available to yourself, then you can do really remarkable things, and you can feel like you're doing the – you're living the life that – not the life that you always talk about putting off, “Someday we'll do that. Someday I'll get to that.” You can do that stuff now. It can happen now.
It's really that idea of making time that comes from you're either going to recover that time by literally moving your calendar around, and if you know that 60 to 90 minutes is what you want to get every day, then you start to block it off on your calendar in advance, you're proactive about it. Or you look ahead and you start to squeeze meetings and push them out of the way. You can bulldoze your calendar.
Or a lot of times we can recover time in our day by being more mindful of our energy, or by actually eliminating distraction. So much of our time is often destroyed by reacting to e-mail, reacting to social media, reacting to the news and controlling those things a little bit can also give you time back. We think it's actually you don't necessarily have to be more busy to get more done. It's about taking more control.
[0:21:54.5] MB: I really like the idea, or the insight of the space between the task and the goal. Tell me a little bit more about that.
[0:22:02.4] JK: This comes from a experience that my co-author John had. He talks about living in Chicago and the winter in Chicago and feeling the winter was just this blur of sleet and snow and freezing commutes. That he felt time was blurring by, and he and he realized at some point, he's like, it's not such as the weather. Actually, I'm just constantly reacting to what's going on in my e-mail inbox. I have these long-term goals.
The first thing he tried to do to get out of that rut of what felt like this work blur, and I’ve certainly, I've experienced it's like a lot of the years of my life, my working life, I couldn't tell you what really happened during those months, because it's just this work blur of meetings and e-mail. I think it's quite natural to have that go by. We can't remember every single moment of our lives, but you also don't have to totally accept that, right?
He started feeling the way out of this is long-term goals. I'm going to figure out what my long-term goals are and make sure I'm not just reacting to this forever. He started thinking about that, those goals. He felt there was this gap between those goals, which were really exciting and they were out there in the distance and what was happening for him every day. To turn this into a personal story, for me, for years I wanted to write. I want to write books.
It was something that was this long-term goal and I figured – I never even really defined when some day was. It was in the back of my head. It was like this thing I want to do someday. I took a creative writing class in college, didn't like my writing very much. I didn't like my own writing and thought, “I don't know if I'm really good at this. I'm going to keep doing what I know how to do, which is computer stuff.” I put it off.
Having that thing as a long-term goal, it's good to know that you have a long-term goal to do something. If you're not actually working on it, if you're not taking steps on it, then it effectively doesn't exist. For John, the switch became figuring out that if he taped one thing to focus on each day, he could build enough meaningful traction on that thing to get something done, to actually start to make meaningful progress on his goals.
One of his big goals has been sailing. For him, he was just trying to figure out like, “Okay, what do I need to do to start to get better at sailing, so that I'm a more confident sailor?” For me it was about, with writing, it was finally 12 years after I dropped that class in college when I was in my early 30s working at Google I realized, “If I don't start writing that book now, I may never do it. I need to start clearing the time. I need to start making the time to do it every day, and I'm going to start doing it in the evening.”
Then once I that I'm doing that thing I'm so excited about and I'm clearing a meaningful chunk for it, then I was motivated to try to figure out how to make that work, how to create that time. I think the same was true for John. Once you started to have that goal, not be a someday far-off thing and you started to say, “I want to do it now,” you want to do more than just a little task. You want to do more than just a little piece of it. You want to do something meaningful. That motivation is part of what makes this whole idea work.
It's the same thing with our design sprints. We felt like, if a team was trying to make some subtle change in the way they worked, it's a lot harder. When you have one really important thing that you're excited about and you can channel that excitement and then you can – it's actually easier to make a bigger change, because you're excited. You're not doing it, because you feel you have to. When we talk about exercise and we talk about exercise a bit in the book, but it's not exercising because you have to do it, or because it's going to make you healthy, it's because it gives you energy to do the thing you want to do today. That's a reason to do it.
If you want to eat well, it's because eating well will give you energy to do the thing you want to do today. I believe that's actually much more powerful for behavior change than talking about there's a study and people performed this way, or that way. If you can actually make a real meaningful connection, and I've seen that happen again and again and again for all kinds of different teams in our sprints, that they're able to really muster their best efforts, their best energy and transform the way they work when that is associated with a near-term meaningful chunk of work, that's it's more than a task and it gets them on the road to that goal that they're excited about.
[0:26:11.3] MB: I think that's a great idea. I love the idea of tying goals to creating meaningful connections to your goals that helps create motivation. I'm curious, I want to circle back to a comment you made earlier, which I think is really, really important as well, which is the fact that there's this opportunity to recover time within our days by spending less time in a reactive state.
[0:26:34.0] JK: Yeah, so one of the things that I've noticed that happens for me is I wake up in the morning and I want to check my e-mails so bad. I love e-mail. I have loved e-mail since I was a kid. When the first time I saw e-mail, and I think it's about the first and almost anybody saw e-mail, maybe except for Al Gore and Vint Cerf, or something.
In the early 90s, I had a friend who's way into computers. He's like, “Check out this thing. It's called e-mail.” I was amazed. At first, the only person I could e-mail was my friend, Ian. Even only being able to e-mail one person who lived a couple miles away from me, I was just like, “This is fantastic. This is the best thing ever.”
I've tried to convince girls to talk to me on e-mail and this is in high school and which was not effective, even though I told them. It’s like, “This is so cool. It's the future.” Yes, but they were not into it. I think had more to do with me than with e-mail. Eventually, e-mail obviously caught on and I have loved e-mail for my whole life. I spent years working on the Gmail team building features for Gmail.
I don't know. I love it. I don't know why. It's really amazing to me. I think for a lot of people, we are either tied to it, or addicted to it for different reasons. I actually love it. I think it's a miraculous communication medium. When I wake up in the morning, I want to check so bad to see what's new. I know that there's going to be new stuff. Somebody probably and maybe another time zone might have wrote me an e-mail.
If there's not a new e-mail, there's certainly something new on the news, or on Twitter. I love Twitter. I know that one of those things is going to have something new for me and it's going to take very little effort for me to get interested in something and feel caught up. That feeling of caught up is what I want. I want that feeling of newness and caught upness. That's what I'm going for in the morning. If I do that, I've also recognized and I'm sure many folks can relate, if I do that in the morning, then all of a sudden I have broken.
I didn't recognize I had, which was silence. When I woke up in the morning, in my brain there was silence. It’s sprung up like a reset. There's quiet, I have this chance to set my intention for the day and start doing what I want to do without reacting to what the world wants me to do. As soon as I open that e-mail inbox, as soon as I even look at the news headlines, or skim through Twitter to see what people are talking about, I'm starting to react. My attention has become plugged with Swiss cheese holes. The foundation that I might have for my day is now a weak one. It's Swiss cheese, it's not concrete, it's not that solid stable calm base that I woke up with.
It took me a long time to even recognize that that was happening. Even though I know that that will happen, I still struggle every day to not do it. It's a challenge. That’s a very strong temptation. In fact, I uses a software called Freedom. Freedom is a software that lets you – you can actually schedule turning off your internet access. I used to use a vacation timer. I would plug my internet router into the vacation timer and just set it, so the default again, as a designer I want to control the default and I want to make the default – it's off. I don't want that to be the first thing I do. I don't even want it to be a temptation.
I want to keep my quiet bubble until 10:00 AM, maybe noon when I've had the chance to do some work. That's just all about my intention in the morning. That's some concrete example of how I approach that every day.
[0:30:05.0] MB: I think that's great. I mean, as somebody who's obviously been intimately involved in building the Gmail app, I think it's a great insight in how to have a healthy relationship with our inbox. There's a great tool that I use as well called Inbox When Ready, which I think is probably very similar, but it's really, really simple. It's a little button at the top of your Gmail that you can click it at any time and just show your inbox. The default is just to hide your inbox.
Now instead of sitting down on a computer and see my inbox and suddenly get sucked into 45 minutes of e-mail, it's hidden and I'm saying “Oh, what was that project I was going to spend 45 minutes on? Okay, perfect. Now I can come back to my inbox when I'm ready to get roped into that reactive state.”
[0:30:45.6] JK: Yeah, those defaults are so powerful. The thing is that there's a lot of talk about this and there's a lot of people smarter than us. I don't mean smarter than you and I, but smarter than me and John and talking about – they’re not smarter than you Matt, but smarter than me and John talking about what should the social media companies be doing and which of these big tech companies be doing on and so on.
It's an important conversation to have. Our take on this is that – I mean, having worked inside a lot of these companies and having friends inside the ones that I haven't, if I haven't actually worked inside them, I probably know folks who have. They're good people. The people who work at tech companies like me with e-mail, they're passionate about technology and they want to bring the future to life, and they want to bring the future to their customers.
I think 99.999 times out of a 100, you've got folks who want to do well. They're building products that actually do for the most part, improve our lives. I mean, the things that you can do with a smartphone are amazing, and I'm so happy to go on a run and listen to a podcast. I'm so happy to be in a foreign city and be able to navigate it with maps. There's all these things that are really futuristic and amazing with our phones. The problem is we have to take all of it all of the time. We can complain about the tech companies and say they need to be more mindful of our attention, they need to give us better defaults. We should do that, we should demand better defaults. That's good.
I believe that the tech companies will get better at this over time. It's hard to know though what's the right thing for every person. It's hard to know exactly how much you should give the customer control versus how much you should mandate control. Our approach is to say, as a consumer of these things, as an individual, you need to decide what's right for you, and then you need to create your own default. Don't wait for somebody else to do it for you. Don't wait for everybody to make your life perfect for you with tools. Do it now and figure out what you want now and today and start today.
In some cases, it is a matter of applying tools to the phone, or the computer, or whatever to take control over it and mandate those defaults for yourself. In some cases, it's about using paper instead of a screen when you can. In some cases, it's about just having that daily intention. All of those things start to set your own intention and your own defaults ahead of what the world has organically grown to demand a view, which is your attention on this, your attention on that.
You have to make your own choices and put those first.
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[0:34:29.2] MB: I think that comes back to something we touched on a moment ago, which is when the world is putting all these demands on us, especially in a professional context, what are some of the strategies we can use to say no?
[0:34:42.3] JK: Yeah, saying no is super hard. I think there's good advice for saying no out there, but a lot of it – the advice that I've read comes from people who are either so successful that it makes sense that they're saying no. I've heard a lot of examples of like, here’s how this billionaire entrepreneur says no. I'm like, “Well, I can't say no like that. People know why that person is saying no, but I can't say no to my friends, or somebody who wants to have a meeting with me, or something. I can't say no in that same way, because I don't have that same – it's not obvious that I'm busy. I'm not Steven Spielberg. I'm not that busy.”
Then there's another kind of saying no that's just really blunt, like being really blunt. That's good. It's good to be honest, but that's also hard for me. I’m a little bit of a softie, like if somebody asked me to do something, I want to say yes. I want to be helpful. We talked about this a little bit in Make Time, and the approach that we try to use is to have a prepared statement, a prepared line that you're going to use ahead of time.
You can you can figure out what you're going to say and be prepared for how you're going to say no. For us, this is something that we learned from a friend of ours, a colleague of ours at Google. Her name is Kristen and she's really good at saying no, but she also does it in a way that is socially, I think really smooth. It doesn't feel bad when Kristen says that she can't come to a certain meeting, or take on a project. She does it in a way that everyone respects.
She calls it a sour patch kid. She says the idea is that you're going to be when you eat a sour patch kid, if anybody seen that the commercials for sour patch kids, so the first taste is sour and then it's sweet on the inside. It’s sour in the beginning and sweet ending. For Kristen, you just say like, “I can't do that. I have too many commitments right now to do that project. What I can do is offer you this other suggestion. I might know another person for whom this might be a good opportunity, or at the very least I can say this sounds like a really exciting project and I wish you the best with it.” Or if it's true that you want to work with the person again sometime in the future you say, “Look forward to having another chance to work with you in the future.”
What's key about it is that the sweet part at the end is sincere. If you offer something, if you offer another connection, it has to be useful and you have to really believe that that person will be a helpful resource to the person you're saying no to. If you say that you'd like to work together again in the future, don't say it unless you mean it. A sincere sour patch kid, we think is a really good way to say no.
You start off by saying like, “I can't do this. I don't have time to do it,” but you offer something else. For me, using that technique has allowed me to feel a lot better about saying no. I've also found that I will – when I find myself in situations where I'm in person, sometimes it's a lot harder for me in person to say no to people, because all of my instincts to want to say yes are just it's just harder for me in person.
I mean, it's tough. It's tough to say no to somebody's face. I'll hedge and I'll say, I have promised to myself that I won't commit to things in person until I’ve had a chance to think about it. Then I'll get back to the person over e-mail. Sometimes I'll still say yes, if it's something that I really wanted to do. Sometimes just creating a bit of separation is helpful. You know who you are. If you're like me and you are likely to want to please other people and say yes to them, then you want to have those strategies ready in advance, so that you don't get caught off guard. Because saying yes to something is a really effective way to not do your own priorities.
It's a really effective way to have those someday projects remain someday projects. You’re saying yes to somebody else's project can create – John, my co-author calls them barnacles. They're like barnacles on the hole of your of your ship. They don't go away. Barnacles really just don't go away.
[0:38:42.1] MB: I'm a people pleaser as well. I always have a hard time saying no to people. I love the idea of deferring in person asks to a later time, because that gives you the space to really come back and say no at a later date when you're not face to face with them and feel this pressure obligation to say yes.
[0:39:01.3] JK: Yeah, there's also – this is one of the things we do in the design sprint process is try to construct a situation, where a team can make a really good decision. I'll take a little random tangent for a second into the design sprint process, because I think it's an important one to consider when people are asking you to do things. Whether it's at work, or in your personal life when people ask you to do things, really the reality is that you have many options with how you can spend your time. Even if you work in a very constrained environment, most of us still have some choice about how we spend our effort in the office, at home, wherever it might be.
You've got to, in order to make the best choices about your time, look at all of those options at once. There's many of those options as you can at once. To use the example from the design sprint, what we found was that and I experienced this over and over working on projects at Microsoft and Google, and I learned that this happens inside. I mean, the best startups in the world this happens – this is just human nature. You consider solutions to problems, usually one at a time.
Somebody comes up with an idea, you start talking about that idea and you say, “Okay, is that viable? Is that idea good enough? A lot of whether we consider the idea is good enough might have to do with when the idea is introduced. Are we ready to act on it now? Who introduced the idea? Do we have any biases about this person? Were they able to effectively give a verbal sales pitch for it, or they've able to effectively put together some kind of a presentation, or a prototype of it that shows the idea?
People have different abilities to do those things. They have different levels of credibility. A lot of times those biases and the timing and all those things will wrongly influence us towards making poor decision. If you can lay all of the possible paths out at once, you make a much better decision. There's been, I think a lot of the studies and a lot of just smart people talking about this, a book I love on this topic is Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. It's just about making good decisions in work and in life.
One of the key things is you got to consider multiple options at once to make the best choice. If somebody's asking you to do something, if they want you to – maybe you're being asked to take on a project at work, somebody wants you to give a presentation, or they want you to – even somebody wants you to mentor them at work, or somebody wants you to join a team, little things can quickly become these long-term ongoing commitments.
If you can take a step back and get out of that situation and then on your own quiet time have a moment to consider what are all the things, what are the things this competes with? Once I put this on my calendar and I see it on my calendar week after week after week, what does that actually feel like? Then you're in a much better situation to make a wise choice about what's best for you. As it turns out, it is also a lot easier to say no over e-mail.
[0:41:49.8] MB: Let's dig into that a little bit more. I love the idea of creating situations where people can make really good decisions. Tell me more about how to structure those environments and what some of the key factors are.
[0:42:02.6] JK: Yeah, sure. To do that, I'll dive in a little to the design sprint, because ultimately that's what the design sprint became. I mean, it started out for me as a way to – I was working at Google. I had been working on this project that ultimately became Google Hangouts. In the beginnings of that project, we went for so long just going nowhere. We were talking about these ideas. There’s this notion at Google on a 20% project, or at least there used to be. It’s been a long time, but I think it still exists.
You do something in your 20% time. 20% of your time, you could work on any project you wanted and a lot of times cool stuff would come from that. I think that that is originally how Gmail was started, with somebody's 20% project. Google Hangouts was also a 20% project in the early, early days. We could we could not get the project going. We were just working on it an hour here, an hour there. We talk about it, or make some mock-ups on the computer, or do some – little bit of hacking here and there.
It stretched out over a couple of years. Then there was this week where I was together with two other folks who were working on the project, and we were in the Google office in Stockholm and it was in January. If you've ever been to Stockholm in January, you would know that you have no reason to want to go outside. This is really dark and cold and miserable. At any rate, we just stayed inside for a week in this and we basically cleared our schedules for a week, the three of us and we made a prototype of the product and started being able to use it inside Google to do video meetings, and it stuck.
That was this catalyst, like this moment for that project, because it went from being this thing that was just an idea, an interesting idea to being something that people were could tangibly say, “Okay, that's what it would look like,” and it was in customers hands. Our customers in that case were fellow Googlers, but it was so different than what had happened the previous two years.
I thought about all the projects that I had worked on building software up until that point, and how there were these times when almost nothing happened, when you're just in a normal work routine. You’re chipping away and chipping away and chipping away, and sometimes there's churn, you get going one direction, you got to change direction later. What happened in that week was we were focused, we were all just doing the same thing. We weren't bouncing from project A, to project B, to project C. We weren't switching context. We had a deadline, because we knew we were only going to be physically in the same place for a limited amount of time, so we got an amazing amount done.
In the beginning with the design sprint, I just thought if I could recreate those situations where you've got some pressure to get something done, you've got everybody focused on one thing, not dividing their attention, and you have to for some reason create a prototype, make a decision, make forward progress and put this thing in the hands of your customers all in one week, it's actually possible to move that fast if you focus, and if maybe if I come up with the right recipe we could do this again and again.
That's where the design sprint originally came from was that idea, in trying to change the way Google started projects. It ended up being useful outside, to teams outside of Google as well. The thing that happened over time was that process evolved into really trying to figure out how can you help a team work together in the best way, and ultimately how can you help them make the best decision.
I think there's two big parts to making that decision well, and one of them is what I talked about a little bit, which is making sure that you're really considering opinionated, competing, conflicting solutions. You create an environment where it's healthy to have a disagreement. It's usually uncomfortable to disagree with people. If I disagree with someone in person, I find it uncomfortable to have that conversation. If you disagree on paper and you make it anonymous and actually in the sprints, we have every person – we don't do a group brainstorm where people shout out loud, because I found those yield very shallow results. Actually, a number of studies have found this as well if you do a group brainstorm and you compare that to individuals working on their own, the individuals will create better solutions.
That's what happens in the sprint. Every person comes up with their own solution. They write it down in great detail on paper, so everyone is on paper, it's a level playing field and they're anonymous, so I can't tell whose is whose when they go up on the wall. Then you evaluate those solutions on the wall. A big part of it is figuring out which of those solutions do we think is the strongest. Now we've stripped away a lot of biases, we've run a process in the sprint to evaluate them really quickly so that to the degree we can, we mute the recency bias that would happen with talking about the one that we looked at most recently.
Then we have everybody vote for the one they think is the strongest and give their argument for which one, which solution they believe is the strongest. Then the decision-maker, there's one decision-maker who actually chooses. What we've done there is we've allowed the decision-maker to hear an argument from the different experts on her team. The engineering expert makes a pitch for one solution, maybe there's a product expert, or marketing expert who makes a pitch for a different solution, or maybe the same ones. Ultimately, the decision-maker has complete control over which solutions are chosen.
That decision-maker gets to choose two or even three different solutions. You prototype all three of them and then on Friday, you test them with customers. What you've done then is to make the decision even better by saying you don't have to narrow down to just one, you can choose two or three, and we're going to give you data right away. We're going to give you some really quick and dirty data about how people react to using this product.
The sprint effectively is this supercharged decision-making tool. It's very artificial and very different than the way humans normally make decisions in offices, or in teams, which is quite – it's often just by our gut, or by our emotion, or by our hunches. It's a way to really try to perfect those hunches. By really in a calculated, very specific way strip away biases and foster a constructive disagreement.
[0:48:01.1] MB: I love the idea of fostering conflicting opinions in a way that is healthy and it's easy to have those disagreements without the biases and the inherent challenges, that when somebody's pitching an idea verbally.
[0:48:14.5] JK: Yeah, it's an interesting thing that we want to agree with each other in person, a lot of us. Sometimes the people who do really well, they're really effective in leadership positions, it's because they're jerks. They're willing to disagree and they're willing to fight a little bit. I'm sure we've all had people like that in our lives in one way, or another. It can be really effective to disagree, but for many of us it's difficult. For most of us also, those kinds of situations where we're talking to somebody one-on-one, or we’re in a meeting and we have a disagreement are not comfortable.
Also, we're not all equally good at having those kinds of arguments. If you're introverted and you're in a meeting where an extrovert is making a sales pitch for their idea. Arguing down the criticisms about that idea, it can be hard to be effective in that situation. Or just the environment of the office, it favors people who are willing to argue for their opinion and who are also extroverted and are also – have for whatever reason, got this sort of people on the team have an opinion about them that they're – that they know what they're talking about, and they've built respect on the team, one way or another.
That respect is often, it's for a good reason, but sometimes it's not. What I've found is that by really deconstructing what do you want to have happen, well what you want to have happen is you want to allow people to consider multiple approaches. An example of this is we've ran a sprint with Slack. I talk about the story in the book and Slack was considering – they're going to be running a big ad campaign and this was early on in the history of the company, they knew that this ad campaign was a really big deal for them. They didn't know if they were going to have another chance to run a big ad campaign, to have as many new people coming in to Slack as they would at that moment.
For them it was a big moment, because they had had a lot of really fast growth right after the first year that Slack was launched, but it was almost all in tech companies. Tech companies were familiar with different kinds of messaging tools, tech companies had a lot of conversations among – people would talk friends to friends and other companies and say, “Hey, we're using this tool. It's really cool.” The word-of-mouth is really strong for them. They wanted to move beyond – they didn't want to be just a tool for tech companies. they want to move beyond that. In order to do that, they were going to have to reach new customers, this ad campaign was going to be super expensive, but it gave them a chance to have new folks coming in to slack.com saying, “What's this thing all about? I’ve seen a billboard. I've seen a magazine ad, or TV ad. What's this all about?”
They knew it's going to be tough to explain Slack to those folks, because slack is a thing, if you're listening, if you've used Slack at your office, it doesn't really work unless you're using it with your whole team. If your whole team is already using it, then it makes sense what the advantages might be over e-mail. If you're not, if you're just reading about it, it's a little hard to get.
What they decided to do in their sprint, ultimately they chose two competing solutions. You can imagine, first there's a team of six people, or seven people in the room and they each come up with their own solution for how this should be solved. One of those solutions is the CEOs favorite solution, and the CEO is a super smart guy, this guy Stewart Butterfield. He founded Flickr, so you guys might know Flickr, the photo sharing app. Then he also founded Slack and he's got great product sense.
He had this idea that was super clever. Actually his idea was what we're going to do to simulate having the experience of using Slack, is we're going to take a bunch of bots, we're going to program bots to act like they're a team, and you'll get dropped into Slack with these bots and they're going to share files with you and talk about that meeting that we just had and invite you to lunch, just as if this was a real team operating inside Slack. Super smart idea, super ambitious.
That was one of the solutions. Then there's these other competing solutions of the way other people's imagined solving this problem of explaining Slack to these people who have come in after seeing like a magazine ad for it. Their sprint, what they're able to do is not just have a conversation about what's the smartest idea, what's our best hunch, not just have the conversations based on, “Well, Stewart says we should do this, so we should probably do this.” Or try to have a faction of people.
I mean, and I'm just talking about what's happened in my experience. A lot of times, if I disagreed with a leader, I might try to get other people on my side, or try to as a designer make a really nice-looking, high-fidelity design of my solution and propose that as this high-stakes Hail Mary to change course. There's all these weird political things that might happen. Or we might just do what the CEO suggested. I mean, many of those things are possible.
In the sprint, what we try to do is say, “Okay, really quickly we're going to put some detail behind a bunch of competing solutions one from each person, and then we're going to evaluate those without knowing whose is whose, although we can probably guess.” We know the CEO’s favorite idea, like we've talked about that before, so we'll recognize it on the wall.
Then the CEO decides. In this case, what happened is they decided to choose that idea of the team of bots, that really clever idea of having the bots talk to you and simulate what it's like to use Slack. Then somebody had done this really detailed straightforward little speech bubbles that came up and just told you what the key features of Slack were.
You would go into Slack and it would just be these little like, “Here's the channels and you can search through all this history across all of everybody in the company,” things like that. They prototype those two things and they built realistic prototypes of those two. For the prototype of the bot team, they had people in the sprint actually pretending to be bots typing not too intelligent messages to each to test customer who came in. Then they mocked up what the other one would look in a very realistic way, and then showed it to customers as if there were two finished products.
This is all a space of a week, so they've gone from zero to on Friday testing this with customers. It turned out actually that the CEO’s idea was super confusing to people. People who were in that simulation were like, “What is going on? Why is that person I don't really know, or is it a robot or is the computer talking to me? I don't want to go to lunch with a bot.” It just didn't make sense. It was an idea that sounded brilliant on the whiteboard and just did not translate to real life, even though it was a really faithful, realistic simulation of what that solution would look like.
It turned out that the very straightforward, well-written, very detailed idea for those speech bubbles worked great. The messages that person had chosen worked great. Now that's the solution that didn't sound very good and the abstract didn't sound very creative, it didn't sound very unique, wasn't flashy, but it worked really well. It was only through having the chance to put detail behind that disagreement, and not just have a verbal disagreement. It was only through anonymizing the solution, so we didn't know who's this was. Also through having the chance to not commit immediately to one solution, but keep multiple solutions alive that they were able to make what turned out to be the best choice.
That's what in great detail, what that really structured, active and constructive disagreement can look like. It doesn't look like disagreement. I mean, that actually feels a process it feels like a process of elimination. It's a really healthy process. Effectively, it's an argument. It's a really good, really detailed argument and an argument with a great result.
[0:55:51.8] MB: That's a great example, and really showcases why it's so important to create the environments that allow that conversation to happen. I'm curious, for somebody who's listening and wants to concretely implement some of the themes and ideas we've talked about today, what would be a starting point or an action item that you would give them to begin implementing some of the things we've talked about?
[0:56:13.3] JK: Well, the obvious one and this is very self-serving, but both of the books, the new one and sprint. Sprint and Make Time, and you can find both of them on Amazon, or wherever you shop for books, although you have to pre-order Make Time. They're both designed to be very actually actionable, so one thing that I've struggled with in reading books that had interesting ideas over the years is how I put them into practice. Both of those books are almost cookbooks. They're really meant to be DIY guides for doing the things that we think will help.
If you wanted to just take one step towards changing what you were doing in your daily life, or at work, the first step I would recommend people take towards doing a sprint is to do something called a lightning decision jam. This actually didn't come up with this. There's a consulting agency in Berlin called AJ&Smart who have converted their whole business actually to running, they just run design sprints now, and they have an amazing list of clients they work with; Lufthansa and Dita's and Lego, just amazing companies.
One of the things that they developed is this 30-minute, 60-minute process for making a decision. It is a microcosm of the things you would do in a design sprint. If you search for lightning decision jam either on YouTube or on Google, you're going to come up with a post, or this video about how to do it. It's quite easy to do. It's so much better than the way most meetings are typically run. It's just a very simple recipe for a meeting. That's a great way to start with your way towards running a design sprint at the office, just introduces those ideas.
Then the thing I would suggest for people who are interested in the Make Time idea and maybe you're waiting. The book comes out September 25th, so if you're listening before then, then book is not out yet. How it recommends trying a couple things. First one is to think about what is your distraction kryptonite, what's the one thing for you that just gets you? For me, it's e-mail, for some people it's Facebook, for some people it might be Instagram, could be Twitter, it could be all kinds of different things, maybe Snapchat, maybe it's the news. What's just the one thing? You don't have to change your life. What's the one thing that you feel like when you look at it, you feel regret, when you look at it on your phone maybe, you feel regret, you feel like you didn't spend that time well, and delete it and go without it for 24 hours, or go without it for a week.
Make a decision about how long you're going to go without it and delete the app, log off, maybe even if you're feeling really bad about it, delete your account, but you can make a choice to go away from it for a day, or a week and see what happens to your head. I think that's a powerful thing. That's been really powerful for me.
The other thing I'd suggest is just today, think about what's the one most important thing I'm going to do today, write it down on a piece of paper, put it on your desk, or if it's on a sticky note, stick it to your phone, or something and try to do that one thing by the end of the day and see how that feels. If that feels good, do it again tomorrow. I think those simple little kinds of changes like that can have a profound difference.
One of the philosophies that runs through all of the work I've done and the experiments I've run on myself and on these unwitting companies that had to come in and do design sprints on with me, is that we're actually often quite close to things working beautifully. We're often quite close to a situation where we can do the projects we want to do, be present with people who we want to be present with, make time for the things that matter the most to us. It's often a small shift that will get you there. It may not have to transform your life. It might be a really small thing that gets you on that path. Yeah, give that a shot.
[0:59:54.1] MB: Where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:59:57.6] JK: You can find me at jakeknapp.com and despite all my talk about distraction, I am on Twitter @JK. The Make Time book is available at maketimebook.com and you can find more about sprint on the sprintbook.com.
[1:00:14.6] MB: Well, Jake. Thank you so much for coming on the show sharing all this knowledge. Obviously you have a tremendous amount of experience creating and cultivating these environments where people can be more productive and effective. Thank you so much for sharing all that wisdom with us.
[1:00:28.4] JK: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on and for listening to me ramble. I appreciate it. It's a lot of fun.
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