I don’t set New Year’s resolutions, but sometimes I spend some time in January thinking about what I want to achieve in the coming year and what I want to focus on. One of the things I decided I want to do this year was to learn more. That included some specific skills I want to develop and a vaguer wish to expose myself to new ideas and to develop critical thinking.
One way I decided I’d do this was to read more books. I haven’t read many books lately, and I haven’t kept any records about what I’ve read or what I thought of any books I did read, and I vaguely liked the idea of getting a book journal. But first things first. I have to read something, so I set myself a relatively low goal of having read 24 books by the end of the year – two books a month.
It’s the first week of March and I’ve read four books. I’m currently on number 5, which I have about 13 days to finish if I want to stick to the rough schedule of two a month. I have kept no records other than the title and authors, but I guess if this is intended to help me learn, I need to also make some sort of record of the main ideas of each book I read and what the key messages are for me. What better place than here?
So the first book I read this year was 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get The Right Things Done by Peter Bregman, published in 2011.
I first heard of Peter’s work through a presentation he did as part of an online productivity conference I attended parts of in January. (I do the best things in the summer holidays don’t I.) I was really interested in the ideas Peter spoke about, and went to the library to see what I could find that he’d written. This was the book they had, so this was the one I read.
The 18 minutes of the title refers to Peter’s suggested daily ritual, which is basically spending five minutes in the morning planning your day by scheduling things that you need to do to make progress in your areas of focus (which you have identified through exercises set out earlier in the book), setting a reminder every hour to stop and ask yourself if you spent the last hour productively, and to re-centre, and then five minutes in the evening to review your day and ask how you went and what you learned.
Obviously there’s more to the book than the 18 minutes, or you wouldn’t need to read it. It’s divided into four parts, and there are 46 very short (mostly 4-6 pages) chapters that introduce a key idea to help you do what the subtitle of the book says – find your focus, master distractions and get the right things done.
Part 1 is about taking a pause, looking at who you are and about where you want to be. Peter compares it to Google Earth locating you somewhere you’re not. so you hit the Find Me button, it zooms you out and over the earth, you hover for a bit before you zoom back in to where you are.
Part 2 is about finding out what you want to focus on, what is really important to you, and starting to make a plan to do this.
Part 3 moves into the more practical elements of planning your day, and Part 4 is all about overcoming distractions.
The main idea that I took from the book is Peter’s system where each year you set yourself a small number of important areas of focus – Peter says five is the optimal number for him, but it could be more – and you focus most of your energy on those things, rather than flitting between different projects and not getting anything done, or having so much to do you don’t know what to do first. Peter says that when someone asks him to do something, he’ll consider whether it fits in to his areas of focus, and would normally decline the request if it didn’t.
His to-do list breaks up tasks into each area of focus, so he can see what he’s spending most time on, and if there are areas he’s neglecting. He suggests 95 per cent of your daily tasks should be connected to your focus areas, and the other five per cent are the things you have to do to keep your life and family running smoothly (paying bills, grocery shopping etc).
18 Minutes has some really good ideas. I think I’ll find it difficult to use this system to cover both home and work, because the two are really quite separate, and I try to consider my hours at work as hours that aren’t available to me to focus on my own priorities. I’d almost need to run the system twice, once at home and once at work, but a single system like this could be really useful for someone who works for themselves.
The chapters on managing distractions in Part 4 have a lot of valuable tips, whether you put all, any or none of the planning strategies from earlier in the book into place. For example, “create an environment that naturally compels you to do the things you want to do”, so that you make it easier to do the things you want to do. Want to stop eating sugar? Get rid of all the sugar from your house. People aren’t filling in a form you need them to? Redesign it. Make it simpler. Make it so easy they can’t not do it. Want people to buy lollies at your shop? Put them near the check out.
I really enjoyed this book and got a lot out of it. I ended up buying my own copy because I wanted to explore the ideas more thoroughly than is possible in a three-week library loan. I like Peter’s friendly, personal style, and the short chapters make each idea very easy to take in and understand.