A little time for self-improvement…

4secondsFour Seconds:  All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want.

Peter Bregman

2015.  HarperOne.  258 pgs with acknowledgements, notes and index.  More resources to accompany the book can be found at:  http://www.peterbregman.com/four-seconds.

Other books I’ve read by Bregman:  18 Minutes:  Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done.  Bregman is also the author of a popular blog on the Harvard Business Review website.

I’ve been a fan of Bregman’s thoughtful, emotionally honest writing about improvement in business for some time.  When his new book, Four Seconds came out, I knew I had to get it and read it.  Who knows, maybe his advice will help me carve out more time for reading Guardian 1,000 titles!

One of Bregman’s constant themes is trying to answer the question of how can we be effective as leaders when we are crushed by mounting deadlines, avalanches of information and constant distraction?  The answer in his latest book is to pause for as few as four seconds and replace negative reactions with positive and productive actions.  This simple premise is the heart of the whole book — and while it sounds too basic to be helpful — Bregman fleshes it out with a multitude of rich, specific advice and examples.  The book is organized into three broad areas of focus:

  • changing your mental defaults,
  • strengthening relationships, and
  • optimizing work habits.

Each of the three sections is chunked into further small sections which explore a specific sub-theme.  Further, each sub-section is summarized in a box at the end of the sub-section, delivering that idea in a summary of about three-four sentences.  Talk about efficiency in writing!  I know I’m going to be browsing through these summaries on a regular basis.  Some of the advice is as specific as:  check your email only three times a day, or stop venting to co-workers, while other is broad-based:

Setting goals isn’t always a beneficial habit.  Identify and spend your time on areas of focus instead and you’ll get where you want to go more effectively.

By the way, if you are interested in more books about productivity, check out Productivity Porn! a list I curate over on GoodReads.

Livritome’s Short List: Brain Food and More


Photo credit:  Dan Tentler.  Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Dan Tentler. Creative Commons license.

To balance out these great long challenge reads, we need some sources for tasty short treats.  So for this week’s Short List, I’ve gathered a list of great sources for quick, thought provoking reads that you can gobble up during a commute or on your lunch break.  Bon appetit!

  • Farnam Street blog.  Canadian blogger Shane Parrish produces this treasure-chest of links, organized around the concept of getting smarter.  His Sunday newsletter, Brain Food summarizes his latest finds.  My only problem with this site is that it is so rich I could get lost for hours!  Check out this issue to get an idea:  there’s generally a theme, a list of associated links and also more links to what Shane is reading, which is cool.  Brain Food led me to a great article from the New Yorker on how walking helps you think.
  •  Another source I’ve been noticing is LinkedIn’s Pulse.  I’m just getting into it, but apparently LinkedIn is morphing into a publishing platform  — in addition to providing the business networking it is already famous for.  If you already have a LinkedIn profile, then Pulse will offer a customized news stream, or you can peruse and search on your own. Using Pulse, I found a short, interesting read on how to be more effective in meetings.   I’ll definitely be keeping my fingers on Pulse.

And here’s one more to digest:

Enjoy, busy readers!  See you next week with an update on one of my longer reads.  I’m three-quarters of the way through with Five Days at Memorial and taking a quick look into Trainspotting, which is one of the Guardian 1000 Challenge reads.  As usual, way too much to bite off…

Love, L.


Focus by Daniel Goleman

Focus by Daniel Goleman coverFocus:  the hidden driver of excellence

Daniel Goleman

Harper Collins.  2013.  311 pgs with acknowledgements, resource list, index.

Other books I’ve read by Goleman:  none, but he is famous for 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence.  Goleman was once a science writer for the New York Times.

Since I’m always wondering why I can’t get enough done, why I can’t concentrate on everything that I need to accomplish — including why I can’t read more of my Guardian list books, I thought I would find out what Goleman had to say about focus, “the hidden driver of excellence.”

Goleman has ton of insights:  some based on brain science, a lot based in management science and then quite a large section of his own semi-philosophical musings.  Plenty to dig into.  Turns out our brains aren’t really set up for big-picture problem solving and long-term focus.  They are set up for alerting us to rustling in the bushes that might turn out to be a predator.  This is why, according to Goleman, we all get a rush of adrenaline when we get a sudden scary shock, but we can blissfully auto-cruise in the face of global warming.

Goleman asserts that successful leaders have “triple focus”:

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN11 - Daniel Goleman, C...

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN11 – Daniel Goleman, Co-Director, Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, Rutgers University, USA, speaks during the session ‘The New Reality of Consumer Power’ at the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2011. Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Michael Wuertenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Listening within, to articulate an authentic vision of overall vision … that energizes others…

Coaching, based on listening to what people want from their life, career and current job.

Listening to advice and expertise; being collaborative and making decisions by consensus ….

Goleman talks about systems thinking and mindfulness, but I didn’t really get a clear idea about how that was all tied together with the concept of focusing on larger problems.  I understand that systems thinking is the ability to see how interconnected parts work together and impact each other, but Goleman lost me in how focus ties into this.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Goleman’s discussions on brain science.  Our older, bottom up brain is intuitive, impulsive, involuntary and “the manager for our mental models of the world” while our top-down brain is voluntary, effortful, and able to create new models and plans.  According to Goleman, it is the bottom up brain that might deliver a sudden flash of insight after the top down brain has been grappling with a thorny problem.  The problem is, we need unstructured down time to allow those insights to bubble up — a commodity that most of us don’t have enough of.

My only other comment is that I found the book poorly organized and ironically, sometimes unfocused.  I wish Goleman had used fewer-briefly mentioned examples and more deeper explorations of examples of good and poor focus.  Still, glad I took time for Focus.

Habits of Power

habitThe Power of Habit:  Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Charles Duhigg

Random House.  2012.  400 pgs.

I read a free download from my public library — and wow, no playing around with due dates on these things!  This was my third attempt to finish an ebook from the library — they usually expire before I can complete them.  Its not as though you can “forget” and pop them in the return bin a few days late…..

Well, one of the habits I need to cultivate is getting back to my reading challenge and my Livritome blog.  I’ve missed it so much!  With school, work, life….it has been tough.  Maybe reading this book will help me kick some of my time wasting habits and get more accomplished.

Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom–and the responsibility–to remake them.  Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

Duhigg, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, takes us for a fascinating exploration of habits — how they are made and re-made — and anchors his study with many powerful examples of both the destructiveness and power of habits.  I found the stories  of true and sometimes famous lives — to be one of the strengths of this book:

  • How the birth of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama began with a simple refusal of one woman to give up her seat on a bus — but how the power of social habits of church, family and businesses in the African American community were harnessed by leaders such as King, Abernathy and E.D. Nixon to spark an entire social movement.
  • How changing one “keystone” habit like smoking turned one woman’s entire failed life — including many other destructive habits– around.
  • How Alcoholics Anonymous changes the habits around drinking — such as substituting the companionship of a bar for meeting friends at an AA meeting — in order to beat a powerful addiction.

Duhigg discovered that all habits are composed of three elements that work in a loop:

  • A cue, which is a trigger telling your brain to go into automatic mode
  • A routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional.  It might be having a drink, sitting down in front of the television — or it might be destructive feelings or thoughts
  • A reward — which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worthwhile remembering.

If the reward satisfies a powerful need, then a habit is born.  When a habit emerges the brain stops taking deliberate action because it is easier for it to rest and focus on harder tasks.  In a sense, the brain goes on automatic and lets this particular loop take over.  This made total sense to me and explained why I am constantly infuriated at myself for mindlessly eating a bag of M & Ms at 3:00 pm every day — even though I had vowed that morning I wouldn’t do it.

Fighting bad habits must be a very deliberate process.  First, you must have a plan in place to intercept the automatic loop.  For example, I should study my cue, routine, reward loop involving my daily trip to the candy vending machine at 3:00 pm.  What do I need at 3:00 pm — is it a break from my desk, a stimulant, or merely the act of getting up and walking around?  I need to experiment and at 3:00 pm tomorrow get up and visit a friend — or get a cup of coffee — or walk over to the window and look out for a while.  If I can observe my own feelings after trying one of these alternatives and discover I have a new “reward” I can use that new routine in place of the M & M routine.  A new, better habit will be formed!

Sometimes change takes a long time.  Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures.  But once you understand how a habit operates — once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward — you gain power over it.

A great read and one that made me realize how much more deliberately I need to be living.

Indispensable You: Seth Godin’s Linchpin

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Linchpin:  Are You Indispensable?

Seth Godin

Penguin.  2010.  244 pgs.

I follow and enjoy Seth Godin’s blog, so I thought it was time to check out one of his books.   In Linchpin, Godin  throws down some really interesting ideas.  I’ve tried to capture a few:

  • Workers used to be classified as two types:  management and labor, but Godin talks about a new type:  the linchpin.  These are the people who make a difference, stand out from the pack, and take responsibility for their own (and their organization’s) success.
  • The death of the industrial age means that the entire system we are all familiar with — bosses and workers, teachers and students, the factory and cogs/widgets,  — are gone forever.  This is scary but it also creates huge opportunities.
  • Charting a path is a choice, and what everything is about.
  • The linchpin is the person who can invent, create, connect, and see farther than today.  This is the person who is totally present and also has their fingertip on the future.  This could be you!
  • Becoming a linchpin is about recognizing your gift, and seeing yourself as an artist.
  • Art is anything that changes someone for the better.  It could be an interaction with someone.  It is focused on gift giving.
  • Linchpins must be brave and must stand up and stand for something.   They must give their gift.  They are the individuals who can point the organization toward the future.  Linchpins do not wait for instructions.
  • It’s hard to be a linchpin because it’s scary.  We all have a “lizard brain” that tell us to keep our head down, go with the flow, wait for instructions, and stay the course.  Part of this tendency hearkens back to patterns found in the educational system where it is a whole lot easier dealing with 30 kids filling out worksheet than it is with 30 kids with lots of ideas and questions.  As products of that system, many of us are afraid to discern our true gifts and become linchpins.
  • Linchpins have the following super powers:  leading customers, inspiring staff, providing deep domain knowledge, possessing a unique talent, delivering unique creativity, managing situations of great complexity, and providing unique interface between members of the organization.

This was a fun, thought-inspiring read.  At first I was a bit annoyed by Godin’s tendency to repeat himself — I chafed a bit thinking, this could all just be a shorter blog piece, not a full-length book.  But when I analyzed it, Godin doesn’t repeat himself as much as he weaves back and forth, connecting and re-connecting his ideas.  Godin provides lots of great examples of linchpins and this helps a great deal to enliven his concepts.

My main takeaway was, how can I be a linchpin?  How can I be the one who sees the future, connects others generously, and gives my gift without fear?  I work in a fairly traditional, hierarchical organization; Godin’s advice will be a challenge — but not an impossible one.

Making a list…checking it twice…

Checklist Manifesto coverThe Checklist Manifesto

Atul Gawande

Picador.  2011.  240 pgs.

I’ve read two other wonderful books by Gawande:  Better, about a surgeon’s search for improved performance and Complications (reviewed on this blog) about what can go wrong in medicine.  His newest book, The Checklist Manifesto, is his best yet, because its lessons are applicable to all fields of work.

In it, Gawande describes his quest for a solution to the common failures of surgery:  infection, bleeding, unsafe anesthesia and a fourth amorphous but deadly factor he simply calls “the unexpected.”  This investigation will take Gawande to such disparate settings as operating theaters, jumbo jet cockpits, building worksites, investment firms and restaurant kitchens:  anywhere where it is no longer appropriate for mere humans to rely on focus, daring, wits and the ability to improvise.  Gawande demonstrates that many work settings where we attempt to function are too complex and risky for professionals to rely on those afore-mentioned traits, despite our zeal, hours of work and training.

What is the answer?  Gawande proposes the humble checklist — a short, succinct list of questions that can be run through before and during any high-stakes endeavor — whether slicing open someone’s chest or taking 200-300 human souls up to 30,000 feet.  This isn’t Gawande’s original idea: he traces the history of successful checklist-based work from the early days of aviation to the present, and describes how the ” miracle on the Hudson” — Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger’s successful landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 — was actually due to calm and professional work from a checklist for engine failure and water-based landings.  Gawande describes how the use of complex checklists, with the addition of required communications and cross checks between teams, are what enable the construction of skyscrapers.  He interviews successful financial investors who shared their use of pre-investment checklists, ensuring that every financial report is plumbed for the signs of risk — particularly in the areas of debt leverage —  in order to avoid what one financier described as a “cocaine brain” rush to invest in the next sure thing.

Of course, Gawande writes primarily about his own field, surgery, and he describes his work with the World Health Organization to come up with the Safe Surgery Checklist — a two-minute check of vital pre- and post-surgical factors directly linked to the common failures of surgery.  One of the most interesting aspects of the checklist was the incorporation of communication:  having the entire surgical team introduce themselves to each other and formally, but quickly, share any concerns about the patient.  Gawande describes how the introductions and rapid but effective team bonding empower all team members to speak out, particularly nursing staff who may observe risks before surgeons do.  In fact, nursing staff can read off the checklist and in some cases, will prevent a surgeon from picking up a scalpel if a key checklist component has been missed.  The Safe Surgery Checklist was tested in eight hospitals around the world, and was featured in an early release article in the January 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.  It has been linked to significant, statistical improvements in care — and Gawande bravely and humbly describes how the checklist prevented a death in his own operating room.

One of the signs of a great book is that it changes you for the better.  One of my personal quests is to become a better manager.  The Checklist Manifesto made me ask the question:  what are the common failures of management?  I thought of two:  failure to communicate a vision and lack of connections between staff and manager.  Would a checklist help me try to avoid these pitfalls more consistently despite the complexity, shifting priorities and general madness of each day?  I hold weekly status meetings with each staffperson and I started to wonder, since I already prep before meeting with staff, would a checklist help?  Here is my proposed pre-meeting checklist for my regular meetings:

Do we need to meet?  Did we meet informally earlier in the week and could our time be better spent without the meeting?

Review notes and assignments from last meeting.  What needs to be followed up on?

Review emails from and to the employee over the past week.  What has happened?  Did something unexpected come up?  Is there a new priority on the horizon?

Are there outstanding questions I need to address?

What role is the employee playing with any long-term organizational goal?  Where are they on that?

What are my concerns about this employee?  Should I bring them up?  What might theirs be — I’ll be sure to ask.

The Checklist Manifesto teaches us that it is not a weakness to lean on a humble tool when stakes are high and risks are many.  As usual, Gawande presents a clear and compelling vision and this time his lesson is that we need all the help we can get to be fully human and fully successful in the increasing complexity we live in.

Atul Gawande