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18 minutes to tame your busy hours

© Digital Vision

18 Minutes

By Peter Bregman

(Business Plus, 261 pages, $27.99)

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Click here to read an excerpt from 18 Minutes


Peter Bregman loves buffets. And like many of us, when the New York-based consultant gets there, he tastes everything in sight. He inevitably leaves the buffet uncomfortable, exhausted, and regretting his consumption.

The challenge he faces (and fails) at the buffet table is the same challenge most of us face when managing our time. There's so much we can do, so many inviting opportunities, that it's hard to choose. Instead, we try to have it all.

Time management systems don't really help with this problem, he notes, because they are focused on how to get it all done in less time. And as happens at the buffet, we end up overwhelmed.

"The secret to surviving a buffet is to eat fewer things. And the secret to thriving in your life is the same: Do fewer things," Mr. Bregman writes in 18 Minutes.

He focuses on five things over a year, three work-related and two personal. They are large, important catch-all categories – not goals, but wide areas of focus, and of course they would vary from person to person.

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The author's three work categories are: Do great work with current clients; attract future clients; and write and speak about his ideas. On the personal side, his aim is to be present with family and friends; and to have fun and take care of himself.

These aren't measurable notions, but Mr. Bregman makes sure that 95 per cent of his activities fit his slots. He's going to the buffet table with a smaller plate, and selecting the nourishing and tasty offerings.

His daily to-do list is a series of six boxes, in which he slots the intended activities into his five categories. If they fall outside, they go into a box labelled "the other 5 per cent" (such as changing the oil in the car or buying a new printer).

He says this structure helps him to carve his overwhelming list of tasks "into manageable, digestible chunks. And it ensures I'm spending my time where I should. Because saying I want to focus on something is meaningless unless I actually spend my time there. And my to-do list is my plan for where I am going to spend my time."

When in doubt between two alternative uses for his time, he seeks balance. He picks the one in the category he has been spending less time on recently.

He also keeps an "ignore" list – things to be avoided. He believes it has never been more important to learn to say no – no I won't read that article, no I won't sit through that meeting, no I won't take that phone call. We keep thinking the next piece of information may be the key to our success.

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But he argues our success hinges on the opposite: Our willingness to risk missing some information. Otherwise, we exhaust ourselves.

A to-do list isn't enough, however. You need to decide when you will actually do those wondrous, important things on the list. To-do lists can capture a long list of items; calendars, by contrast, are finite, with only so many hours to fill in, as we realize when we try to cram too much in.

"Since your entire list will not fit into your calendar – and I can assure you that it won't – you need to prioritize your list for the day. What is it that really needs to get done today?" he says.

The author also applies a three-day rule to items on his to-do list.

If something has lingered for that length of time, he either tackles it immediately (which to his surprise, often works, the item taking little time); schedules it; lets it go by deleting it; or puts it on his "some day/maybe list," where it will usually die a slower death, since he only checks that list about once a month and, as the items age, rarely takes action.

Each day, Mr. Bregman spends 18 minutes making sure he is on the right course, a process that gives his book its name. Before he turns on his computer, he takes five minutes to schedule the items on his to-do list for the day. Every hour for his eight hours at work, his watch beeps and he takes a minute to refocus, asking himself if he is being the person he wants to be, in manner and action.

At the end of the day, he answers a series of questions: How did the day go? What successes did I experience? What challenges did I endure? What did I learn – about myself, and others? What do I plan to do – differently or the same – tomorrow? Whom did I interact with? Is there anyone I need to update, thank, ask a question of, or share feedback with?

The book is broken into short chapters (they were mostly blog postings), with charming anecdotal openings that lead seamlessly into useful messages about organizing our lives. It's a tasty buffet, and you will want to feast on all of it, so pace yourself.


Instead of yammering away at his seatmate on a flight to Europe a few years ago, Neil McOstrich decided to use the eight hours at his disposal to put the lifetime of stories swimming in his head on paper, and share them with the rest of the world. Marketers are natural storytellers, and the result is a mélange of interconnected and unconnected anecdotes and observations about work and advertising campaigns. Once Upon A Plane (171 pages, $15.95) is independently published, and a reminder that sometimes such ventures are handsomely designed, with unique creative touches.

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