Conventional wisdom dictates that if you want to get more done, you create a whiz-bang action plan, cram it full of tasks, tuck your chin, hit the ground running, and go go go to "get 'er done." And that's wrong, according to Peter Bregman, author of the new book 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. In fact, you should learn to interrupt yourself. That's a radical enough idea to warrant further explanation.
Q: I found your argument that interruption helps us master our time and keeps us focused rather than provocative. Can you explain?
A: We are constantly distracted by interruptions. People call or knock, e-mails come in. And we interrupt ourselves unproductively all the time...surfing the Web or getting something to eat when we're not hungry. We need to combat these unproductive interruptions with a few productive ones, strategically placed throughout the day.
I say disrupt yourself every hour to ask yourself whether you're spending your time in the right way. Those short but strategic interruptions are valuable in keeping us focused and on track, and catching us if we've been distracted. They're gentle reminders to come back to the things that are most important to us and often the difference between finishing the day fulfilled or frustrated.
Q: Which brings us to the title of your book. Not 10, not 15, not 20, but 18 minutes a day is all we need to find our focus and master distraction...spent how, exactly?
A: To be strategic about how we intentionally spend a day, we need five minutes in the morning to identify what the day needs to look like in order to be meaningful and productive, one minute each hour to refocus and make sure we're staying on track, and five minutes in the evening to review how the day went and learn from it, to plan for tomorrow, and to tie up loose ends. That process takes just 18 minutes a day.
Q: It's hurry-up world, with more to do and less time to do it in, but what you suggest implies slowing down. Why does that help?
A: We rush into doing things without thinking about whether they're the right things to do, and whether we're doing them the right way. That wastes a lot of time, and we end up doing things that aren't so important, and taking longer to do them. But if we slow down and really think about what's most important, we can make better choices about what we're going to work on and how we're going to go about it.
Q: Help me with the "how?" of slowing down.
A: Basically, you identify your top five areas of focus for the year—five things that are meaningful to you and that, if you spent your time on, would make the year satisfying and fulfilling. Those five things form the structure of a to-do list that will force you to prioritize the tasks that move you forward in your five areas of focus, while deliberately choosing not to work on the things that don't. It turns out that the most productive people don't get everything done, they get the right things done.
Q: How's that different from the good old “to-do” list?
A: The traditional to-do list is a big data dump. Too many things land on them, things that we think we need to do but don't move us forward, and, in fact, distract us from the things that are most important to us. We can't possibly accomplish everything on our lists but, because we haven't structured the list based on what we want to focus on for the year, we end up making the wrong choices.
Q: So what's the alternative?
A: I suggest a six-box to-do list. Identify no more than five things that you want to focus on for the year and write one at the top of each box on the page. Then, generate your daily to-do’s in those boxes. You should spend 95 percent of your time in those areas. Take anything that doesn’t fit into one of those areas of annual focus and get it off your to-do list. The sixth box labeled “the other 5 percent” is like sugar—a little might be OK but your day should never contain more than 5 percent of the activities that don’t fit into your five areas of annual focus.
Q: How do we determine what is important and what should be ignored?
A: Ask yourself: What’s not worth doing? Almost everything that doesn’t fit into one of the main boxes of your to-do list should go into an "ignore" list. That’s the list for everything you’re willing to disregard. These things are a distraction from the things that are most important to you. I posted a "No, Thank You" list on my website—a brainstorm of 30 things I have found it valuable to say "no, thank you" to—and people have been adding their own "no thank you's" in the comments section. Your ignore list makes space to be able to say "Yes, please" to the things that matter most.
Q: I like your "3-day rule." Can you share how it works?
A: Too often to-do lists are guilt lists—a catchall for everything we aren't doing. The 3-day rule simply ensures that no item on your list ever stays there for more than three days. Anything that has been on your to-do list for three days either gets a slot somewhere on your calendar or gets moved off your active to-do list. It's another way of making strategic choices about what to do and what to ignore based on your five areas of focus.
Q: You talk about the importance of having a ritual. Why is it so important?
A: Because it's so easy to lose focus. A ritual becomes a habit that transforms our behavior. But it's even more than that. A ritual lifts your everyday, rushed, "hit the ground running" frenzy into something more transformational. Our time is all we have. It is sacred, so we should treat it that way. A ritual, in this case a series of pauses and a question or two throughout the day, helps us become more aware of the choices we are making and to recognize the importance of those choices.
Q: Can you cure me of my tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to the important things?
A: Well, I could probably diagnose it. My bet is you procrastinate on the most important things because they're the hardest. But also, the things that are most important often carry a deep psychological weight. What if you fail? So rather than risk failure, we procrastinate. The problem is that when we do that we commit our hopes and dreams to a slow death of neglect.
Q: Why was it important for you to write this book?
A: Because I needed this book myself—as did many of the people around me. We live in a world that will take what it can from us. We need to be more strategic about what we want to give it.