Read an Excerpt
18 Minutes Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done
By Bregman, Peter
Business Plus Copyright © 2011 Bregman, Peter
All right reserved.
Hover Above Your World
I started my business in 1998, out of a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walk-up apartment. My dream was to build a multimillion-dollar global management consulting firm filled with consultants, trainers, and coaches who would help people lead, manage, work, and live more successfully. A big dream.
Meanwhile, I had no clients and my company’s only physical asset was a single computer. I survived on my savings for the first six months as I tried to build the business with little success. I didn’t have enough work to sustain myself, let alone a team of consultants.
Then I won a large contract with a well-known investment bank. This was my big break, the project I could use to build my business. I needed to quickly assemble a team—six consultants at first and then, if all went according to plan, fifty more. I remember sitting in my two-hundred-square-foot living room/dining room/kitchen with Eleanor, my girlfriend, filled with the excitement of possibility and the trepidation of the test; could I pull this off?
I brought in an initial team who did a tremendous job meeting the client’s expectations. Then, as the project expanded, so did the team. From New York to Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. And as the team expanded, so did my client base.
I had built my dream company in an unimaginably short period of time. It was everything I had hoped for, everything I had planned for.
That first year, I ended up making more money than I had in the previous three combined. The second year, I doubled that, and by the third year, I began to fantasize about retiring within the decade.
And yet, in the midst of all this success, I realized there was one thing I hadn’t planned for: my happiness.
Somehow, I was missing that feeling of I’m doing the right things with the right people in the right way to make the most of who I am. At the time, I didn’t know why and I was too busy to figure it out. Plus, everything seemed to be working just fine; why mess with success? So I kept doing what I was doing.
Then everything crashed; the dotcom revolution, the financial services industry, the demand for consulting, and, with it, my business.
By that time, Eleanor and I were married, Isabelle had been born, and we were in a tough spot. Bills were accumulating and my income was rapidly shrinking. I was stressed, but I also had a strange and quiet sense of relief. Now I began to fantasize, not of retiring, but of doing something else completely. Of reclaiming my life.
So I took acting classes, considered applying to medical school, actually applied to rabbinical school, started a phantom investment fund (with play money to see if I liked it, and if I was good at it), and continued to consult on my own. I was searching.
I slowed down my activity, reversed my forward momentum, paused before making choices, took more time off, and let my mind wander. I began to look more carefully at myself—at the world around me—and I began to notice hidden sides of me that felt unused, sub-optimized. I began to feel a growing power within me. A sense of untapped potential.
I wasn’t yet sure what that potential was, but I was absolutely certain that it was worth cultivating. So I kept experimenting, kept noticing.
I had, in effect, pressed my FIND ME button. And when I did, I was thrown into the sky and offered a bird’s-eye view of my world.
What I saw—what the pausing and the noticing and the recognizing enabled me to see—was that while I had gotten off track, I wasn’t far off, and there was a safe way back down. I saw the path that would help me reclaim my life and allow me to bring my whole self into my work and my life. To spend my time on the things that mattered to me, the things I was good at, the things I enjoyed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Because now, in part 1 of 18 Minutes, you’re about to be thrown into the air. You need that bird’s-eye view. And to get it, you need to tap the FIND ME button, and then pause, as you let yourself fly high and hover above your world, preparing to land exactly where you want to be.
Slowing the Spin
Reducing Your Forward Momentum
I was moving as fast as I could and not getting anywhere, a feeling I’m well acquainted with. This time, though, it was deliberate: I was on a stationary bicycle.
When the towel draped over my handlebars fell to the ground, I tried to stop pedaling and get off. Tried being the operative word. I couldn’t stop. There was simply too much forward momentum. The pedals seemed to be moving by a force of their own. It took me several moments of slowly backing off my speed before I could coax the pedals to stand still.
Momentum is hard to resist.
For example, fifteen minutes into a political argument with a friend, I realized I wasn’t sure I agreed with my own position. But he was arguing so harshly that I found myself taking the opposite side, vehemently supporting ideas I didn’t know enough about. And it was hard to stop.
It’s especially hard to stop when you’re invested in being right, when you’ve spent time, energy, emotion, and sometimes money on your point of view.
I have several friends who got married and divorced within a year or two. Every one of them told me they knew, at the time they were getting married, that it wouldn’t work. But they had gone too far and they didn’t know how to stop it. It’s the same story with people I know who made some investments that seemed to be going south. They knew things weren’t working, but they had already invested so much that it was hard to face the mistake. In some cases, they put more money in and lost it all.
Sometimes it’s not so dramatic. It might be an argument about which resources to put into which project. Or a decision about whether or not to continue to pursue a particular opportunity.
When you have the sense you’ve made a mistake but you’ve already pushed so hard it would be embarrassing to back out, how do you backpedal?
I have two strategies that help me pull back my own momentum: Slow Down and Start Over.
Slow down. As I found on my stationary bike, it’s almost impossible to backpedal hard enough to reverse direction on the spot. It helps to see it as a process. First, just stop pedaling so hard. Then, as the momentum starts to lose its force, gently begin to change direction.
In a discussion in which you’ve been pushing hard and suspect you might be wrong, begin to argue your point less and listen to the other side more. Buy some time by saying something like: “That’s an interesting point; I need to think about it some more.” Or, “Tell me more about what you mean.” Listening is the perfect antidote to momentum since it doesn’t commit you to any point of view.
If it’s a financial investment you’re unsure about, reduce it some without taking everything out, so that literally you have less invested in being right.
Start over. This is a mental game I learned from a friend who’s a successful investor. I was hesitant to sell an investment that was doing poorly. My friend asked me the following question: If I were starting from scratch at today’s price, would I purchase the investment? I sold it that day.
It’s inevitable that our history impacts our current decisions. If I hired someone and invested energy and money supporting his success, it would be hard for me to admit he’s not working out. But knowing what I know now, would I hire him? If not, I should let him go. Same thing with a project I’ve supported or a decision I’ve promoted. I imagine I’m a new manager coming into the project. Would I continue it? Invest additional resources? Or move on?
I’ve seen people’s inability to admit they’re wrong destroy their marriages and decimate their businesses and professional lives. In many cases, they tell me it’s because they didn’t want to appear weak. But it takes great strength of character to admit you’re wrong or even to question your own views. And others perceive this as strength, too.
Great leaders have enough confidence to look critically at their own perspective and stay open to other people’s points of view, using the technique of Slowing Down. Even when they know they’re right.
Dr. Allan Rosenfield, past dean of Columbia’s School of Public Health, was one such leader. He died in 2008 after spending more than four decades helping to shape the public health agenda, making a particularly huge impact on the lives of women and the lives of people with HIV. Columbia named its School of Public Health building in his honor.
I remember watching Allan in a conversation about whether children should be vaccinated, a public health issue about which he felt strongly and was clearly an expert. One of his friends, Lee, was arguing against vaccinations. Allan offered statistics on the millions of hospitalizations and deaths that have been averted in the past forty years because of vaccines for polio, mumps, measles, and so forth.
Lee then cited some research from an unnamed source on the Internet claiming that vaccines were doing more harm than good. Allan, one of the greatest public health experts of all time, would have been justified if he’d laughed. If he’d told Lee to get his information from more reliable, credible sources. If he’d repeated his arguments about the good that vaccines had done. But Allan didn’t do any of that.
He simply looked at Lee, slowed down, and replied: “I haven’t read that research. Send it to me. I’ll look at it and let you know what I think.”
Reducing your forward momentum is the first step to freeing yourself from the beliefs, habits, feelings, and busyness that may be limiting you.
The Girl Who Stopped Alligator Man
The Incredible Power of a Brief Pause
I am alligator man, a dangerous amphibious monster. I swim quietly toward my prey, a seven-year-old girl named Isabelle, who also happens to be my daughter. Sensing the danger, she nervously scans the surface of the pool. Suddenly she spots me. Our eyes lock for a brief moment. She smiles, screams, and lunges in the opposite direction, laughing. But I’m too fast. I push off the bottom of the pool and pounce. When I land within a few inches of her, she turns to face me, gasping, hand held up in the air.
“PAUSE!” she yells.
“What’s the matter?”
“I swallowed water,” she sputters.
So, of course, we pause.
Which gives me a few seconds to think: Why don’t we do that in real life?
We’ve all hit the SEND button on an email and immediately regretted it. So many of us do it regularly, in fact, that Google has added a feature to Gmail called UNDO SEND, which you can enable through Gmail settings. Once you hit SEND, Gmail holds the email for five seconds, during which time you can stop it from going out.
What’s interesting is that, apparently, a five-second pause is all most people need to realize they’ve made a mistake.
With an email, hitting UNDO SEND can save a tremendous amount of time, energy, and backpedaling. But in real time—in person or on the phone—there’s no such button. Sometimes, like a judge who tells the jury to ignore what a witness just said, we try to undo send. But once the words come out, there’s no turning back. As my mother is fond of saying, “I forgive… but I don’t forget.”
The key, in real time, is to avoid the unproductive SEND in the first place.
Those five seconds Google gives us to undo our mistake? Maybe we can use them before we hit SEND. Perhaps that’s all we need to avoid making the mistake. Five little seconds.
“Pause,” Isabelle yelled when she swallowed the water. Stop the action for a few seconds and let me catch my breath.
There’s no rule that says we need to respond to something right away. So pause. Take a few breaths.
One morning, due to a miscommunication about timing, I missed a meeting with Luigi, one of my clients. Later that day I was in the hallway in his office building when suddenly I heard him yell, “Hey Bregman, where were you?”
Immediately my heart rate shot up. Adrenaline flowed. And emotions flooded in. Embarrassment. Anger. Defensiveness. Who does Luigi think he is yelling across the hall at me like that in front of other people?
I spoke to Dr. Joshua Gordon, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at Columbia University, about my reaction. “There are direct pathways from sensory stimuli into the amygdala,” he told me.
“The amygdala is the emotional response center of the brain,” he explained. “When something unsettling happens in the outside world, it immediately evokes an emotion.”
That’s fine. But pure, raw, unadulterated emotion is not the source of your best decisions. So how do you get beyond the emotion to rational thought?
It turns out while there’s a war going on between you and someone else, there’s another war going on in your brain between you and yourself. And that quiet internal battle is your prefrontal cortex trying to subdue your amygdala.
Think of the amygdala as the little red person in your head with the pitchfork saying, “I vote we clobber the guy!” and think of the prefrontal cortex as the little person dressed in white telling you, “Um, maybe it’s not such a great idea to yell back. I mean, he is our client after all.”
“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.”
There we have it. Google’s five seconds is a good rule of thumb. When Luigi yelled at me in the hall, I took a deep breath and gave my prefrontal cortex a little time to win. I knew there was a misunderstanding and I also knew my relationship with Luigi was important. So instead of yelling back, I walked over to him. It only took a few seconds. But that gave us both enough time to become reasonable.
Pause. Breathe. Then act. It turns out that Isabelle’s reaction might be a good strategy for all of us.
“Ready?” I ask Isabelle once she seems to have recovered.
“Set, go!” she yells as she dives back into the water, clearly refreshed and focused on the stairs she’s trying to reach.
I give her a five-second head start and then dive under the water after her.
A few seconds. That’s all we need. To intentionally choose the direction we want to move. To keep ourselves on track once we’ve started to move. And to periodically notice whether—after some time has passed—we’re still moving in that right direction.
A brief pause will help you make a smarter next move.
The Day Andy Left Work Early
Stopping in Order to Speed Up
On a Friday afternoon almost twenty years ago, soon after I had started a job at a New York consulting firm, I was working on an important presentation with Dr. Andy Geller, who ran the office. We had promised to deliver it Monday morning, and we were running behind.
At two o’clock, Andy told me he had to leave.
“But we’re not done,” I stammered. Andy was not one to let work go unfinished, and neither was I.
“I know,” he said, looking at his watch, “but it’s Shabbat in a few hours and I need to get home. I’ll come back Saturday night. If you can make it, too, we’ll continue to work together then. Otherwise, do what you can the rest of today and tomorrow night I’ll pick up where you left off.” I decided to leave with him, and we met again at eight o’clock Saturday night. Refreshed and energetic, we finished our work together in record time.
A little backstory: Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath; it starts at sundown on Friday and ends when it’s dark Saturday night. The exact start time depends on sundown—it’s earlier in the winter, later in the summer. For observant Jews, it’s a rest day. No work, no travel, no computers or phones or TV. The way I heard it once, the idea is that for six days we exert our energy to change the world. On the seventh day the objective is simply to notice and enjoy the world exactly as it is without changing a thing.
Observant Jews spend Shabbat praying, eating, walking, and spending time with family and friends.
They’re on to something.
This life is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, each day is a marathon. Most of us don’t go to work for twenty minutes a day, run as fast as we can, and then rest until the next race. We go to work early in the morning, run as fast as we can for eight, ten, twelve hours, then come home and run hard again with personal obligations and sometimes more work, before getting some sleep and doing it all over again.
That’s why I’m such a fanatic about doing work you love. But even if you love it, that kind of schedule is deeply draining. Not an athlete in the world could sustain that schedule without rest. Most athletes have entire off seasons.
So if we’re running a daily marathon, it might help to learn something from people who train for marathons.
Like my friend Amanda Kravat, who told me she was training to run the New York City Marathon. She’d never run anything before. I asked her how she planned to tackle this herculean feat with no experience.
“I’m simply going to follow the official marathon training plan,” she said. I asked her to email it to me. Here’s what I learned: If you want to run a marathon successfully without getting injured, spend four days a week doing short runs, one day a week running long and hard, and two days a week not running at all.
Now, that seems like a pretty smart schedule to me if you want to do anything challenging and sustain it over a long period of time. A few moderate days, one hard day, and a day or two of complete rest.
But how many of us work nonstop, day after day, without a break? It might feel like we’re making progress, but that schedule will lead to injury for sure.
And when we do take the time to rest, we discover all sorts of things that help us perform better when we’re working. Inevitably my best ideas come to me when I get away from my computer and go for a walk or run or simply engage in a casual conversation with a friend.
So one of the upsides to rest days is that they give you time to think. But there’s also a downside, and it’s serious enough that I believe it’s the unconscious reason many of us resist taking them: They give you time to think.
My friend Hillary Small broke her foot and was confined to bed rest for several weeks. “The cast gave me a time-out card, which I never would have taken on my own,” she told me, “and when I did slow down, I felt a deep sadness. I had nothing to distract me from the feeling that I had been living a life in which my needs were never a priority.”
So it was hard for her. But it also gave her renewed energy to focus on her priorities. When we rest, we emerge stronger. There’s a method of long-distance running that’s becoming popular called the Run-Walk method; every few minutes of running is followed by a minute of walking. What’s interesting is that people aren’t just using this method to train, they’re using it to race. And what’s even more interesting is that they’re beating their old run-the-entire-distance times.
Because slowing down, even for a few minutes here and there and even in the middle of a race, enables you to run faster and with better form. And, as a side benefit reported by Run-Walkers, it’s a lot more fun.
Life, too, is a lot more fun when it’s interspersed with some resting. A short walk in the middle of your race. A pause. A breath. A moment to take stock. To realign your form. Your focus. Your purpose.
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.
Faster, better, more fun? The only downside being time to think? You don’t have to believe in God to realize that slowing down is a good idea. But you do have to be religious about it.
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.
Frostbite in the Spring
Seeing the World as It Is, Not as You Expect It to Be
At the very end of ski season, with the sun shining and little buds emerging from tree branches, I got frostbite while skiing. Not just a little frostbite; several of my toes were snow white. Thankfully I didn’t lose any, but it took ten minutes in a hot shower for them to slowly and painfully return to their normal color.
Here’s what’s crazy: I ski all the time in the winter without getting frostbite, usually in temperatures well below freezing. So what happened?
Well, it turns out, it’s precisely because it was spring that I got frostbite.
You see, in the winter, when it’s cold, I wear a down jacket and several layers of thermal underwear. Most important, I use foot warmers—thin chemical packets that slide into my ski boots and emit heat for six hours. I need them because I have exceedingly wide feet and my boots are tight, which constricts my blood flow and makes me susceptible to frostbite when it’s cold.
This time, since it was the very last ski weekend of spring, I wore a light jacket and didn’t use my foot warmers.
Only the weather was below freezing. Twenty degrees to be exact.
Did I look at the temperature before I went out? Of course I did. I knew it was cold. My feet even started to hurt an hour into skiing, but I just kept on going. I simply ignored the data. Why? Because it was spring! I expected warmer weather. My past experience told me that this time of year was sunny and hot. Every other year at this time I skied in a T-shirt. And the previous weekend it was sixty degrees and I did ski in a T-shirt.
All of which overwhelmed the reality that, actually, it was cold enough to turn my toes white.
This was a good reminder of how easy it is to mistake our expectation for reality, the past for the present, and our desires for fact. And how painful it can be when we do.
There’s a psychological term for this: confirmation bias. We look for the data, behaviors, and evidence that show us that things are the way we believe they should be. In other words, we look to confirm that we’re right.
In the early 1990s, while working for a medium-size consulting firm, I went to Columbia University’s executive MBA program. Two years after graduating, I was still working for the same firm, and I was ready for some new challenges. I had a number of new skills—skills the firm had, in part, paid for me to acquire—and I wanted to use them.
But the firm didn’t see the new me. They saw the old me, the one they had hired and trained four years earlier. And so they continued to give me the same work and use me in the same ways they had before I earned my MBA.
Then a headhunter called and, since she hadn’t known me before, she saw me as I was, not as she thought I should be. Within a few months, I’d left the firm and joined one that wanted to leverage my new skills.
Our inability—or unwillingness—to see things as they are is the cause of many personal, professional, and organizational failures. The world changes and yet we expect it to be the way we think it should be and so we don’t take action.
I confront this challenge in my coaching all the time. The most challenging aspect of any coaching assignment isn’t helping someone change—that’s comparatively easy. The hard part is getting the people around the person to change their perception of him. Because once we form an opinion, we resist changing it.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, having built its two-hundred-year franchise selling massive books, was blindsided by digital media and probably will never recover. Kodak had been so successful selling film since 1888 that it couldn’t imagine how quickly and completely it could be made irrelevant by new digital competitors.
Why do we fall into the trap of being fooled by expectations?
Usually our expectations are right. In the spring, it’s warmer. People don’t usually change drastically. And a two-hundred-year-old franchise is, well, two hundred years old. That’s pretty solid.
Which makes us feel good. Safe. Right.
But sometimes we’re wrong. Perhaps at one time we were right, and then things changed. But now, maybe, we’re wrong and we don’t like to admit that. We don’t even see it. Because we’re too busy looking for evidence to confirm our previous ideas.
Unfortunately, while confirmation bias makes us feel better, it makes us behave worse. So employees leave. Businesses falter. And I get frostbite.
How do we avoid falling into the trap of being fooled by expectations?
Instead of looking for how things are the same, we can look for how they are different. Instead of seeking evidence to confirm our perspectives, we can seek to shake them up. Instead of wanting to be right, we can want to be wrong.
Of course, this takes a tremendous amount of confidence. Let’s face it, we’d all prefer to be right rather than wrong.
But here’s the irony: The more you look to be wrong, the more likely you’ll end up right.
So next time you look at an employee, ask yourself: What’s changed? Instead of focusing on what she’s doing wrong, try looking for something new she does right that you never noticed before. Same thing for any relationship you’re in.
And as you look at your industry, ask yourself how it’s changed and why that might mean your business strategy is off. Ask others to argue against you. Then listen instead of arguing.
Same goes for how you spend your time. Resist the temptation to accept the time-starved predicament you might be in. Do you really need to do everything you think you need to do?
Here’s another great question to ask: What do I not want to see?
And next time you go outside, no matter the time of year, stick your hand out the window first and feel the temperature.
Because until you test your assumptions, you don’t know for sure whether they’re right. But once you question an assumption, once you open up to the possibility that things might not be the way they’ve always seemed, you need to be mentally prepared to be, well, wrong. Which is often a good thing. Because if you are wrong, it means there is a whole new set of possibilities open to you that you probably hadn’t considered before.
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.
Multiple Personalities Are Not a Disorder
Expanding Your View of Yourself
One evening, a woman working for France Telecom sent an email to her father. Then she walked over to the window on the fourth floor of her office building, opened it, stepped through, and jumped to her death.
The email read: “I have decided to kill myself tonight… I can’t take the new reorganization.”
If this were an aberration, one depressed woman’s inability to handle change, we could dismiss it. But so far, dozens of France Telecom employees have killed themselves. And many more than that have tried. One man stabbed himself in the middle of a meeting.
When confronted with this high rate of suicides, management at France Telecom claimed that, because of the company’s size, the number wasn’t that surprising. But there is something unusual happening, and not just at France Telecom. According to America’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, work-related suicides increased 28 percent between 2007 and 2008.
It’s tempting to blame the companies. A good article in The Economist pointed to a variety of things—the drive for measurement and maximizing productivity, recession-driven layoffs, poor management communication—that contribute to a disheartening, depressing work environment. The article concludes that “companies need to do more than pay lip service to the human side of management.” I agree. Certainly there are things leaders can and must do to handle employees with more care, compassion, and respect.
But the problem is deeper and more complicated than a callous management team that cares about nothing except profits.
The problem is also in us.
It’s in how we see and define ourselves. It’s in our identities.
The first question we ask when we meet people is inevitably, “What do you do?” We have become our work, our professions. Connected 24/7 via BlackBerry, obsessively checking email and voice mails, we have left no space for other parts of ourselves.
If we spend all our time working, traveling to work, planning to work, thinking about work, or communicating about work, then we will see ourselves as workers and nothing more. As long as work is going well, we can survive that way.
But when we lose our jobs or our jobs are threatened, then our very existence is put into question. “Establishing your identity through work alone can restrict your sense of self, and make you vulnerable to depression, loss of self-worth, and loss of purpose when the work is threatened,” Dr. Paul Rosenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, told me in a recent conversation.
Excerpted from 18 Minutes by Bregman, Peter Copyright © 2011 by Bregman, Peter. Excerpted by permission.
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