Making Time at Work with Connor Swenson

by John Zeratsky

Since the book came out in 2018, many readers have asked the same question: How can I use Make Time at work? We shared a bunch of ideas in 2019: tactics like Block As a Team, Have a Contact Contract, and Schedule Office Hours.

But sometimes you need more than a list of tactics to make changes that stick.

That’s where our friend Connor Swenson comes in. After leading workshops and coaching teams at Google, he left in 2020 to start Forgewell and focus full-time on helping teams with burnout, focus, distraction, and resilience.

We’ve been working closely with Connor since then, and he’s helped hundreds of teams apply the Make Time framework in their day-to-day working lives. As we approach the third anniversary of our collaboration, we thought it was a good time to properly introduce you!

Read more about Make Time at Work or schedule time to chat with Connor.

JZ: We both worked at Google and that’s where you began facilitating and training. Tell us a bit more about that.

I’ve always been a curious person and when I joined Google, I started to take every class and workshop on offer. A few years after joining, I participated in Search Inside Yourself (SIY), which is a wildly popular 2-day training on emotional intelligence and mindfulness. 

At that point, I had been practicing meditation for a couple of years, but it was mainly something I did to benefit myself outside of work. As a way to relax and destress.

But through SIY, I learned more about the neuroscience behind both meditation and emotions. I saw how mindfulness could improve my attention and awareness, and could be applied in my everyday life. As I started using the tools I was taught in the program, I saw they really helped me.

Around the same time, I had started giving a few talks and facilitating workshops on time management and productivity for entrepreneurs that were part of our Google for Startups’ programs. I was sharing the lessons I had picked up from years of self-experimentation and the feedback I received from folks was really positive.

Then I received an amazing opportunity to join an internal teacher training program for Search Inside Yourself. I jumped at the opportunity. It was through this 6-month training journey that I fell love with the art of facilitation, and this definitely was a catalyst towards the path I’m on today.

JZ: You’ve been working with Make Time for almost three years now, can you share more about what that has looked like?

Yes! It’s hard to believe but just last week was the 3-year anniversary of the first-ever Make Time workshop I delivered to a group of Google execs in Sao Paulo. Of course, I had been following the ideas of you and Jake since we met at GV, and had been using Make Time in my daily practice for a couple of years at this point.

Since early 2020, I’ve been leading Make Time at Work, which is our team dedicated to bringing Make Time to businesses and organizations and help them apply the framework and tactics so their teams can focus on what matters most.

To-date, we’ve partnered with a variety of incredible companies, spanning the likes of Google, YouTube, Squarespace, L’Oreal, Klarna, and more. We’ve delivered keynotes, workshops, team coaching, 1:1 coaching, as well as some blending learning programs utilizing The Highlight Course with live, facilitated sessions. We’re always experimenting, iterating, and improving how we share the Make Time message.

Last year was an exciting one as we expanded the team and trained three new facilitators, Ros Croad, John Puts, and Katie Stoddart. My business partner and wife Claire was instrumental in making that teacher training a success. My favorite part of having more teachers has been learning from the diversity of experiences they bring.

Outside of your work with Make Time, you’re running your own training company. What other topics do you focus on?

Yes, I run an education and training company with my wife Claire called Forgewell, and our mission is to stop burnout and build strong resilient teams ready for what’s next. 

We work with teams to equip them with science-backed practices to improve productivity and satisfaction, to support mental health and well-being, and to foster healthy, human-focused company cultures.

Ultimately, we’re just obsessed with helping teams develop healthy, high-performance cultures.

We provide courses, content, and coaching to make this happen. We draw on science-backed and industry-tested programs like Make Time, Search Inside Yourself and Mixed Mental Arts, but also develop our own content and curriculum based on a client’s needs.

There are obviously a ton of people who want to help teams get better and smarter about how they work. What is unique about your approach?

I’ll start by saying that I don’t believe there is one “right” approach to helping teams get better and smarter but I do believe there are some principles that are universally applicable.

First, we need to take care of ourselves, mentally, emotionally, physically, even spiritually, if we want to perform at our highest level. I always like to take this holistic approach and remind people that we’re humans, not robots. 

For example, many people neglect rest and recovery and focus too much on productivity. This might work in the short-term, but if you want to sustain performance over time, you need to factor in time to disconnect, relax, and recharge.

Second, I focus on simple, accessible practices that we can fit into our everyday lives. Too many systems or approaches around productivity and performance are overly complex and they set people up for failure. This is one of the reasons I love Make Time, and I feel it resonates so much with people—it’s simple, straightforward, and actually fun to implement.

Third, I believe we’re wired for connection as social primates and so I blend this insight into our learning programs. Many people I coach already “know” what they want to be doing. And a lot of them even “know” the value of the practices I’m recommending. But they struggle to implement them. What’s so powerful in this instance is to build a system of accountability and mutual support. That’s why I love working with teams, because they can set up rituals and routines to reinforce the learning and continue to improve upon it long after I’m gone.

I love how you infuse your advice on productivity and time-management with insights and practical tips to improve mindfulness. Where did this approach come from, and why do you think it’s an important perspective?

It really came from trial, and a lot of errors, in my own life. Going back to when I joined Google in 2013, I was always trying to optimize my work and become super productive, but I didn’t think much about my mind. I was far more focused on my latest productivity app.

But in 2014, I was introduced to meditation as a way to improve my mental fitness. After just a few weeks of practicing, I started to feel a little more focused at work, and a little more emotionally balanced at home. 

After a couple years of practicing mindfulness meditation, I started to see how closely linked it was to my output and attitude at work. 

There is a great old adage that says, “the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” What that means to me is that left unchecked, our mind can cause us all sorts of problems. However, with proper understanding and training, it can really work for us.

I see mental and emotional training, including practices like mindfulness, as the foundation of a healthy and productive person. Without this mental fitness, it’s hard to manage our time, stay productive, let alone achieve our highest performance.

Do you have a core set of philosophies or tactics that you come back to again and again? 

My philosophy is simple: never multitask, maintain a growth mindset, and start everyday with something beautiful. Of course, it’s important that you develop your own personal toolkit. We’re all different. What’s the old Bruce Lee adage? Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.

Let’s break it down. First off: One thing at a time. In our distracted world, it’s easy to get pulled in a million directions, but research shows us we’re better off keeping it simple and doing one thing at a time.

Next up: Start with something beautiful. That means doing what’s most important to you first. Giving it priority. That could be reading in the morning, writing an article, or going for a walk.

And finally: my personal motto is attitude is everything. I learned this from my dad. I believe having a positive attitude and a growth mindset are not just helpful, but necessary, when it comes to maximizing your performance.

When it comes to Make Time, my go-to tactics are:

  • Schedule Your Highlight (#8)
  • Log Out (#18)
  • Ignore the News (#25)
  • Set a Visible Timer (#52)
  • Eat Without Screens (#225)

What advice do you have for teams who want to improve how they work together, how they spend their time, and how they live?

First, spend quiet time reflecting on what matters most to you. It’s easy to get caught up in the web of expectations, but the clearer we are on our own values and priorities, the easier it will be to make the tradeoffs required in today’s world. 

Tip: Pick a partner at work and make a monthly date to do Stack Rank Your Life (Tactic #3).

Second, have real conversations. When we’re busy, we don’t stop to really listen to each other. This has tremendous downstream implications when it comes to trust and psychological safety, both critical foundations to teamwork according to Google’s research.

Tip: Try using Red Yellow Green for an efficient way to check in,

Third, give yourself a break. I mean that in two ways. One is that you actually need to take real breaks during the day. I aim for at least one 20-minute break mid-morning and one in the-afternoon, along with plenty of shorter micro-breaks whenever I feel myself losing focus. 

Beyond physical breaks, I’d encourage you to give yourself a break. I think self-compassion is a highly underrated skill when it comes to developing new habits. Sure, you want to push yourself to achieve but don’t become your own worst critic.

Tip: Start a mindfulness practice and learn to be kinder to yourself. I’d recommend “Mindfulness Daily” — a new, free 40-day course with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield on Insight Timer.

Other than booking a Make Time workshop with you 😉, how can readers find out more about you and your work?

I write a newsletter called One Percent Wisdom, so that’s a great place to start. It’s a simple, short, practical idea each week to help you live and work better.

I also just launched a new course called Sustainable Productivity which is my latest thinking on how to approach getting things done without burning out.

I also hang out on Twitter and LinkedIn, so say hello on either!

p.s. If you want to learn more about Make Time at Work, you can book a free 30-min call with me here.