Redesign Your Day: Four Lessons from the Design Sprint Laboratory

by Jake Knapp

This is an excerpt from Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.

While working at Google, I created something I called a “design sprint”: basically a workweek redesigned from the ground up. For five days, a team would cancel all meetings and focus on solving a single problem, following a specific checklist of activities. It was my first effort at designing time rather than products, and it worked—the design sprint quickly spread across Google.

In 2012, I joined Google Ventures and started working with my co-author John Zeratsky. Over the next few years, we ran more than 150 of these five-day sprints with startups in the Google Ventures portfolio. We had the chance to redesign the workweek and learn from hundreds of high-performing teams at startups including Slack, Uber, and 23andMe. Here are four lessons we learned.

The first was that something magic happens when you start the day with one high-priority goal. Each day in a sprint, we draw attention to one big focal point. Each day’s goal is ambitious, but it’s just one thing. This creates clarity and motivation. When you have one ambitious but achievable goal, at the end of the day, you’re done. You can check it off, let go of work, and go home satisfied.

Another lesson from our design sprints was that we got more done when we banned devices. Without the constant lure of email and other distractions, people bring their complete attention to the task at hand, and the default switches from frazzled to focused.

We also learned about the importance of energy for focused work and clear thinking. When we first started running design sprints, teams worked long hours, fueled by sugary treats. Late in the week, energy would plummet. So we made adjustments, and saw how things like a healthy lunch, a quick walk, frequent breaks, and a slightly shorter workday helped maintain peak energy, resulting in better and more effective work.

Lastly, these experiments taught us the power of, well, experiments. Experimenting allowed us to improve the process, and seeing the results of our changes firsthand gave us a deep confidence that we never could have built just by reading about someone else’s results.

Our sprints required a whole team and a whole week, but we could see right away that there was no reason we couldn’t redesign our days in a similar way. We began experimenting with dozens of new tactics for making time every day.

Of course, it wasn’t a yellow brick road to perfection. Although some of our tactics turned into habits, others sputtered and failed. Despite our stumbles, this new approach was resilient. We found ourselves with more energy and headspace than we’d ever had, and we were able to take on bigger projects: the kinds of “someday” things we’d never been able to get around to before.

We were so excited about our results that we started blogging about the techniques that worked for us. Hundreds of thousands of people read the posts, and many of those readers wrote to us. People experienced dramatic changes from tactics such as removing apps on their smartphones and prioritizing one task each day. The experiments worked for lots of people, not just for us!

We realized that everything we were learning—from our readers, our own experiments, and our design sprints—could fit into a framework of four daily steps. We decided to call it Make Time.

1. Highlight: Start Each Day by Choosing a Focus

The first step in Make Time is deciding what you want to make time for. Every day, you’ll choose a single activity to prioritize and protect in your calendar. It might be an important goal at work, like finishing a presentation. You might choose something at home, like cooking dinner or planting your garden or reading a book. Of course, your Highlight isn’t the only thing you’ll do each day. But it will be your priority. This ensures that you spend time on the things that matter to you and don’t lose the entire day reacting to other people’s priorities.

2. Laser: Beat Distraction to Make Time

Distractions like email, social media, and breaking news are everywhere, and they’re not going away. You can’t go live in a cave, throw away your gadgets, and swear off technology entirely. But you can redesign the way you use technology to stop the reaction cycle. Simple changes like logging out of social media apps, turning off your Wi-Fi, or scheduling time to check email can have a huge effect.

3. Energize: Use the Body to Recharge the Brain

To achieve focus and make time for what matters, your brain needs energy, and that energy comes from taking care of your body. That’s why the third component of Make Time is to charge your battery with exercise, food, sleep, quiet, and face-to-face time. This isn’t about becoming a fitness freak or adopting a wacky diet. It’s about making simple shifts for the immediate reward of having energy for the things you want to do.

4. Reflect: Adjust and Improve Your System

Finally, before going to bed, you’ll take a few notes. You’ll think back on your energy level, whether you made time for your Highlight, and what brought you joy in the day. You’ll do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.