18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done - by Peter Bregman

Reducing your forward momentum is the first step to freeing yourself from the beliefs, habits, feelings, and busyness that may be limiting you.

A brief pause will help you make a smarter next move.

"The key is cognitive control of the amygdala by the prefrontal cortex," Dr. Gordon told me. So I asked him how we could help our prefrontal cortex win the war. He paused for a minute and then answered, "If you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response." Why a breath? "Slowing down your breath has a direct calming effect on your brain." "How long do we have to stall?" I asked. "How much time does our prefrontal cortex need to overcome our amygdala?" "Not long. A second or two."

Regular rest stops are useful interruptions. They will refuel your body and mind, naturally reorient your life toward what's important to you, and create the time and space to aim your efforts more accurately. I'm not talking about a stop as much as a ritual of self-imposed brief and strategic interruptions. A series of pauses to ask yourself a few important questions, to listen to the answers that arise, and to open yourself to making some changes--maybe big ones, maybe small ones--that will help you run strongly. That will ensure you're running the right race. And running it the right way. That will position you to win.

The world changes--we change--faster than we tend to notice. To maximize your potential, you need to peer through the expectations that limit you and your choices. You need to see the world as it is--and yourself as you are.

Choose rituals that have meaning to you and do them religiously. Most important, be consistent--doing the same thing repeatedly over time solidifies your identity.

Don't settle for being less than you are. It won't serve others and it won't serve you.

Focus on the outcome, then choose your reaction. event → outcome → reaction When an unsettling event occurs, pause before reacting. In that pause, ask yourself a single question: What is the outcome I want? Then, instead of reacting to the event, react to the outcome.

There is a much cheaper, easier way to place a person--you or anyone--in a position to succeed. Ask one question: What do you do in your spare time?

People are often successful not despite their dysfunctions but because of them. Obsessions are one of the greatest telltale signs of success. Understand your obsessions and you will understand your natural motivation--the thing for which you would walk to the end of the earth.

Don't waste your time, your year. Spend it in a way that excites you. That teaches you new things. That introduces you to new people who see you at your natural, most excited, most powerful best. Use and develop your strengths. Use and even develop your weaknesses. Express your differences. And pursue the things you love. There's no better way to spend your year. Your year will be best spent doing work that you enjoy so much, it feels effortless. You'll always work tirelessly at your passions--hard work will feel easier.

Want to increase your own performance? Set high goals where you have a 50 to 70 percent chance of success. According to the late David McClelland, psychologist and Harvard researcher, that's the sweet spot for high achievers. Then, when you fail half the time, figure out what you should do differently and try again. That's practice. And, as we saw earlier, ten thousand hours of that kind of practice will make you an expert in anything. No matter where you start.

Instead of worrying about what life is going to be like tomorrow, focus on these three things today. Answer these three questions:

  1. Are you working on something meaningful and challenging--something for which you have about a 50 percent chance of succeeding?

  2. Are you relating to other people at work or socially--people you like and to whom you feel close?

  3. Do you feel recognized for the work you are doing--paid or unpaid? Can you influence decisions and outcomes?

If the answer is yes in each case, great. You'll be motivated. Wherever it's not, create those opportunities immediately. Make sure you have clear goals and the autonomy to achieve them. Make sure you are working on something you find challenging and interesting. And find opportunities to collaborate (and celebrate) with others.

Sound contrived? Maybe. But it still works. And sometimes it takes some contriving to get what you want. Especially if the future is uncertain, your goals are not clear, and you feel paralyzed in terms of moving forward. Perhaps you don't know exactly what this next year should be about. Perhaps you're not crystal clear about your goals for the year or what you want to achieve. That's okay. As long as you create the right environment--one in which you feel challenged, loved, and respected--then you'll be motivated enough to keep moving in the right direction. Even without a plan. Even without a destination.

The time to judge your successes or failures is never.

Focus your year on the five areas that will make the most difference in your life.

Each morning, I ask myself some questions: Am I prepared for this day? Prepared to make it a successful, productive day? Have I thought about it? Planned for it? Anticipated the risks that might take me off track? Will my plan for this day keep me focused on what my year is about?

Reduce your overwhelm by putting your tasks in an organized to-do list, focused on what you want to achieve for the year. There's another list that's useful to create: your ignore list. These two lists are your map for each day. Review them each morning, along with your calendar, and ask: What's the plan for today? Where will I spend my time? How will it further my focus? How might I get distracted? Then find the courage to follow through, make choices, and maybe disappoint a few people.

Managing our day needs to become a ritual. A ritual that's simple enough to do each day. Clear enough to keep us focused on our priorities. Efficient enough to not get in the way. And comprehensive enough to incorporate what we've learned in the last few chapters about what works, and what doesn't. That ritual should take a total of 18 minutes a day:

  1. STEP 1 (5 Minutes): Your Morning Minutes. This is your opportunity to plan ahead. Before turning on your computer, sit down with your to-do list and decide what will make this day highly successful. What can you realistically accomplish that will further your focus for the year and allow you to leave at the end of the day feeling that you've been productive and successful? Then take those things off your to-do list and schedule them into your calendar. Make sure that anything that's been on your list for three days gets a slot somewhere in your calendar or move it off the list.

  2. STEP 2 (1 Minute Every Hour): Refocus. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour and start the work that's listed on your calendar. When you hear the beep, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour. Manage your day hour by hour. Don't let the hours manage you.

  3. STEP 3 (5 Minutes): Your Evening Minutes. At the end of your day, shut off your computer and review how the day went, asking yourself questions like: How did the day go? What did I learn about myself? Is there anyone I need to update? Shoot off a couple of emails or calls to make sure you've communicated with the people you need to contact. The power of ritual is in its predictability.

Don't fight yourself to change your behavior in the midst of the wrong environment; just change the environment. Your goal is to make it easier to do something you want done and harder not to. Create an environment that naturally compels you to do the things you want to do.

You need to be motivated for only a few seconds. Know when you're vulnerable and you'll know when you need to turn it on.

Fear can be a useful catalyst to change--then pleasure sustains it. If you need help getting yourself going, don't choose one or the other. Choose one before the other.

People tend to think of themselves as stories. When you interact with someone, you're playing a role in her story. And whatever you do, or whatever she does, or whatever you want her to do, needs to fit into that story in some satisfying way. When you want something from someone, ask yourself what story that person is trying to tell about herself or himself, and then make sure your role and actions are enhancing that story in the right way.

A good story--one you feel deeply about and in which you see yourself--is tremendously motivating. Make sure the story you tell about yourself (sometimes only to yourself) inspires you to move in the direction you want to move.

Your mind can help you move forward or can get in the way. Choose the fantasy world that supports you.

I propose a little test that every commitment should pass before you agree to it. When someone comes to you with a request, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Am I the right person?

  2. Is this the right time?

  3. Do I have enough information?

If the request fails the test--if the answer to any one of these questions is no--then don't do it. Pass it to someone else (the right person), schedule it for another time (the right time), or wait until you have the information you need (either you or someone else needs to get it).

Don't wait too long to bring something up. People can only respect boundaries they know are there. The first time someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I simply notice it. The second time, I acknowledge that the first time was not an isolated event or an accident but a potential pattern, and I begin to observe more closely and plan my response. The third time? The third time I always speak to the person about it. It's my rule of three.

When you shorten transition time, you create a boundary that helps you and others adjust to a new reality. If there's something you need to do that you find difficult--writing a proposal, having an unpleasant conversation with someone, or doing any work you consider unpleasant--try doing it first thing in the morning so you minimize the time you have to think about it.

When you take vacation--or any other time you want to be undisturbed--schedule a specific time to take care of the things that would otherwise creep into each and every available moment.

We don't actually multitask. We switch-task. And it's inefficient, unproductive, and sometimes even dangerous. Resist the temptation. How do we resist the temptation to multitask? First, the obvious: The best way to avoid interruptions is to turn them off. Second, the less obvious: Use your loss of patience to your advantage. Create unrealistically short deadlines. Cut all meetings in half. Give yourself one-third the time you think you need to accomplish something. Because there's nothing like a deadline to keep things moving. And when things are moving fast, we can't help but focus on them.

Don't settle for imperfect. Shoot for it.

The world doesn't reward perfection. It rewards productivity. And productivity can be achieved only through imperfection. Make a decision. Follow through. Learn from the outcome. Repeat over and over and over again. It's the scientific method of trial and error. Only by wading through the imperfect can we begin to achieve glimpses of the perfect. So, how do we escape perfectionism? I have three ideas:

  1. Don't try to get it right in one big step. Just get it going. Don't write a book, write a page. Don't create the entire presentation, just create a slide. Don't expect to be a great manager in your first six months, just try to set clear expectations. Pick a small, manageable goal and follow through. Then pursue the next. These smaller steps give you the opportunity to succeed more often, which will build your confidence. If each of your goals can be achieved in a day or less, that's a lot of opportunity to succeed.

  2. Do what feels right to you, not to others. By all means, read, listen, and learn from others. But then put all the advice away, and shoot for what I consider to be the new gold standard: good-enough. Be the good-enough parent. The good-enough employee. The good-enough writer. That'll keep you going. Because ultimately, the key to perfection isn't getting it right. It's getting it often. If you do that, eventually, you'll get it right.

  3. Choose your friends, co-workers, and bosses wisely. Critical feedback is helpful as long as it's offered with care and support. But the feedback that comes from jealousy or insecurity or arrogance or without any real knowledge of you? Ignore it.

Before you do or say anything, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What's the situation? (The outcome you want to achieve? The risks? The time pressures? The needs?)

  2. Who else is involved? (What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Values? Vulnerabilities? Needs?)

  3. How can I help? (What are your strengths? Weaknesses? Values? Vulnerabilities?)

Then, and only then, decide what you will do or say. Choose the response that leverages your strengths, uses your weaknesses, reflects your differences, expresses your passion, and meets people where they are and is appropriate to the situation you're in.

If you're going to work on a weakness, always choose a single, high-leverage one.