Taking 18 Minutes Day Towards A Year-Long Focus | Beth's Blog

Taking 18 Minutes Day Towards A Year-Long Focus

Personal Productivity, Reflection, Resilience

Flickr Photo by Sebr

Over the holiday break,  I read  18 Minutes:  Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman who blogs at at the HBR.  This book is a gem.  Each chapter starts with a personal story that illustrates a concept related to managing unproductive distractions.   What’s refreshing and different about this book is that it isn’t about trying to get everything done efficiently.  Instead he guides you on how to focus on what matters and ignore the rest.     He offers both daily techniques that help you reach longer-term goals.

He suggests setting year-long goals.   His strategy for that is how to survive a buffet.    There are so many good choices with a buffet that you end up stuffing yourself and over-eating.  The way to avoid that discomfort is to limit yourself to putting five items on your plate.   That forces you to be strategic about what you pick.   The same discipline applies to setting an annual goals.   He identify 5 things to focus on for the year.

Bregman also suggests picking an overall theme for year.  I love Bregman’s idea.    The theme he selected for the year really resonated with me:  Slow Down.   Bregman talks about benefits of this theme:

My thought was that if I focused only on slowing down, everything else would improve. And, so far, it has. And what I thought would be a downside has actually been a positive: Slowing down has meant that I can’t get as much done. Which has forced me to make strategic choices about what to spend my time on and what to ignore. I’m more thoughtful, less scattered, and enjoying my work more fully. Counter-intuitively, I’m more productive.

That’s what I need.    So, I’m going to make that my theme, too.  This past year of writing the book “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit” with KD Paine and editor Bill Paarlberg,  I got a taste of slowing down.   Writing a book required  a much deeper level of focus and paying attention.  I want to sustain that focus throughout the year and apply to what I do — from content curation to blogging to facilitating trainings and developing curriculum.    Be more of a focusing lens versus a fire hydrant.

Here’s some areas that I want go slow with:

  • Teaching and Learning: These terms are really one – you need both to be a good instructor or trainer.     My goal is to learn how to design the best learning opportunities for nonprofits to embrace networked ways of working, measurement, or strategic social media.    This will be a big focus of work at Packard in the coming year and what I want to blog more about.    Learning is also important – both what the learners are learning and also my own learning.  I’m not a happy camper unless I’m learning something and for me learning is about reflection – which includes blogging and establishing rituals like the 18 minute process that Bregman shares in his book (see below.)  To be successful in either teaching or learning, you have to slow down.
  • Measurement and Content Curation:   These are two focus areas that I want incorporate into my social media training.   They are content areas but also skills.  I’ve been immersed in writing about measurement and testing instructional frameworks this year.  Now, I want to refine those in more workshops and peer group learning opportunities.  I’m also interested in content curation and have been practicing it and teaching it, but want to take that to the next level.
  • Networked NGO:  I’ll be combing the two above in all my training work during 2012.  I will be designing and facilitating capacity building programs in the Middle East, Africa, and India.  I want to learn as much about how networked ways of working are used outside the US context.

Having a focus helps you say no to activities that fall into “all the rest” bucket.   Saying no is a muscle that needs to be exercised daily.    This year I’m incorporating a couple of techniques.   First, I’m going to create an ignore list in addition to my to do list.    Second,   I’ve always kept gratitude journals, but now I’m also to keep a “no thanks” journal  or record what I’ve said no to.

But keeping your focus day in and day out for an entire year can be a real challenge.   Bregman has a method for that.  It is the 18 minutes in the title of his book.  The 18 minutes refers to the importance of creating a daily habit of reflection and focus on what you want to accomplish, knowing that you won’t get everything done.   Here how it works:

Step 1:    Morning Minutes (5 minutes)
Before your turn on your computer, plan ahead for the day.   Decide what will make the day successful and that will further your focus for the year.  Put that on your calendar and don’t take more than three days to do it.

Step 2: One of Reflection for Each Hour (8 minutes)
He suggests setting a watch or timer to remind you each hour.  When you hear the beep, reflect and ask yourself if you’ve been productive in the last hour.  This is similar to the pomodoro technique

Step 3:  Evening Minutes (5 minutes)
Shut off the computer and review how your day went.  What did you accomplish?  What could be improved? What I have learned?

It’s a simple, powerful technique to help you select your daily focus deliberately and wisely and remind yourself of this focus throughout the day.  But  your daily ritual needs to support an annual or yearly theme.    This is the time of year to ask and answer:  What is the year about?   It is the time of year to create good daily habits so you achieve it.

What’s your year about?  What new habits will you create so you have the focus to reach your goals?

25 Responses

  1. AJ says:

    Great post, Beth! I’m looking forward to reading 18 Minutes- one of the hardest parts about managing a business or a non-profit is knowing the distinction between and overlap of working smart and working hard. Building in a habit of guided reflection seems like it would work extremely well to refocus before, during and after your day. It’s like The Artists Way, for professional productivity!

  2. Beth says:

    @AJ – I love that analogy – thinking about it as an artist would. I find that I have to do this so I don’t overwhelm myself.

  3. Lisa Colton says:

    I had thought my new years resolution was to read more fiction to balance the parenting and business books. But I’m making an exception here because this sounds so up my alley and valuable. Slowing down and focusing (less multi-tasking too) is a big goal of mine for 2012 — as much personally as professionally. Thanks for the recommendation. Now, I need a good novel recommendation to balance this out too! Happy 2012, Beth!

  4. Beth says:


    I’m embarrassed to say that I only read non-fiction books and I don’t own a Kindle.

    But, that said, this book was wonderful. And I think you’ll enjoy the way Bregman writes and his stories.

  5. Roger Carr says:

    Beth – I just ordered a Kindle version of the book based on your review. I look forward to reading and applying it.

    I like the theme idea. I will have to think about what mine will be. I will be completing my MBA this summer so I will soon have more time to apply to my passions and relationships. Time to start reading and focus on the new year…

  6. Meg says:

    Beth – This is spot-on! I’ve begun the habit of framing each year around a word. This year my word is “listen” (http://wp.me/pBAjN-jz). It sounds like the book you read has some great ideas about what it means to slow down and be more productive — especially in a world that moves so quickly.

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  8. Zara Brunner says:

    What a great blog post to share for the New Year. I absolutely support the strategic focus and love the tips here. It’s right in line with Jim Collins’ “stop do list.” Thanks for a good book recommendation, too.

  9. I’ve downloaded this book to my Kindle — sounds terrific.

    Inspired by Chris Brogan, I went through a similar exercise of selecting “3 Words to Frame My Year” and wrote about it at Heartspoken.com. My three words for the year are FOCUS, CONNECT, PLAY. The book you discuss will give a better framework for keeping my three words on the radar screen.

    Here’s to a great year!

  10. Beth says:

    Roger: So nice to hear from you! Happy New Year! Wow, congrats for MBA completition! What an accomplishment. I enjoyed the book, I enjoy Bregman’s column on HBR and the advice is so useful. The book is a great read. Short chapters, key point summarized at the end. Great stuff to put into practice.

  11. Beth says:

    @Elizabeth Cottrell: I love your three words … in fact I wrote them down on today’s journal when I did my 5 minute reflection this morning. Connecting and playing are important to me too – but keeping in balance with focus so that you are strategic with your playtime and making connections. I play and connect are also about serendipity. And that happened to me this morning when I landed on Michelle Martin’s blog post about Brenne Brown’s research on making connections. She points over to her Ted Talk and summarizes the research. Worth a read, but interesting to see what holds us back from making connections.


  12. Beth says:

    @Meg: Just read your post and it is terrific! You can incorporate that into many aspects of your life and work – and social media too!

  13. Beth says:

    @zara – thanks for the reference to Jim Collins – another great leadership thinker. What do you do for NIST?

  14. Ashley Messick says:

    @Elizabeth Cottrell: I love your words too! I wrote them down to put next to my desk and keep in mind 🙂

    This past year I have been so busy that I have become very lax of the idea of “Paying yourself first” that I know you have written about previously Beth. My time for learning has been all too hurried and squeezed in that I was altogether not even digesting anything I read. I need to also slow down and remember to pay myself first.

  15. David Delp says:

    Great Post. I’m all for that. Making a week’s plan or a day’s plan takes so little time and pays for itself immediately. I have to plug because it’s so exactly pertinent and your readers might find these processes very useful. I hope you agree.



    My best to you Beth. Keep it up. -David

  16. Holly says:

    Hey Beth – Ah, the new year! Time to try and get focused again! This is a great post. I especially love the part about daily reflection. I’ve come a long way in terms of managing my inbox and using my calendar to block my time. The reflection part is the next step for me in becoming more purposeful in my work!

  17. Grace L says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Beth. It was a refreshing and inspiring read, and I’m going to try and implement some of the book’s tips this year. My theme of the year is to not sweat the small stuff! It’s challenging but I know it will be good for me and everyone around me in the long run. I think it will mostly involve remembering what’s most important in life and being intentional about stepping back in situations where I’m getting worked up and asking myself whether the negative energy (which probably feels good in the moment) will really matter a few years down the road.

  18. Beth says:

    Holly: I have found reflection to be the single most valuable thing I do in my life and when I don’t do it – I get into trouble and get cranky. I found an incredible resource on formal reflection processes that can be done as a group or individual and am working that into all my training/peer learning design: http://www.bethkanter.org/connect-inspire-engage/

  19. Beth says:

    @ashley – I have had the same problem too – that’s why I want to slow down. Also, the paying yourself first idea originated with Jeremiah Owyang – a psot from 2007

  20. Kivi says:

    I am approaching the point where reading about productivity is taking more of my time then actually doing the tips, but this one looks good so will download. Thanks!

  21. @ Beth and @Ashley…glad the “words” were helpful. I agree with @Kivi about burning out on 2012 resolution tips, but there are some great ones out there.

    Beth, thank you so much for your article link. Unbelievably, another person sent me a link to Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talk. Her scientific research confirming the importance of Connection to human satisfaction and happiness was a powerful hug from the universe that my blog theme is worthwhile. Great to get unexpected validation from time to time.

  22. Beth says:

    @kivi, I’m tired of the old approaches to productivity too especially trying to get everything done. This book is wonderful, in part, because of simplicity – and it helps you really focus on what is meaningful – not getting stuff as efficiently as possible.

    I’m also rethinking what is productivity is .. not just crossing stuff off your to do list. Adding refleciton to it.

  23. Excellent site. A lot of helpful information here. I am sending it to several pals ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you to your effort!

  24. Matt says:

    I’m reading the book now, thanks to this post, and I must say I’m very much enjoying it. I’m turning thirty-three in just a few days, and I’m using that day as the starting point of my year. Can’t wait to get moving!

  25. […] Over the holiday break,  I read  18 Minutes:  Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman who blogs at at the HBR.  This book is a gem.  […]