Do you ever get to the end of a busy day only to realize that next to nothing has been taken off of your “to do” list? What if you could take back some of the hours in your day?  What would you do differently? The problem is that many business owners don’t know what to do about their lack of productivity. Or, like everything else, they put off their commitment to get things under control.

In 18 MINUTES: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, author Peter Bregman delivers a series of quick-hitting chapters that teach us how to navigate through the never-ending chatter of emails, text messages, phone calls, and endless meetings that prevent us from focusing our time on those things that really matter.

Today, Peter has answered some of my questions here at The Successful Soloist and he will be joining me for an in-depth interview on The Million Dollar Mindset at 2pm ET. Make sure to join us there or download the podcast at a later date.

Q. In 18 Minutes you encourage your readers to focus on things that matter to them; things that have specific meaning.  You suggest exploring what matters, what’s working well, what we feel neutral about, and what alienates us.  What choices do you feel a solopreneur has if certain aspects of managing his business don’t appeal to him?
A. One of the great advantages to being a solopreneur is the ability to structure the business to match - almost perfectly - what I call the 4 elements: the particular strengths, weaknesses, differences, and passions of the solopreneur. And with the accessibility and availability of outsourcing, that’s never been easier.   The first thing to do if an aspect of your business doesn’t appeal to you is to ask whether it’s essential to the business. If it’s not - or if you can change the business to make it less important - then get rid of it. If it is important and it doesn’t appeal to you, outsource it if at all possible. 

All of us succeed - this is especially true for solopreneurs - when we work at the intersection of the 4 elements. If you can structure your business so it allows you to leverage your strengths, embrace your weaknesses, assert your differences, and pursue your passions, you will be playing the game you know you can win.

Q.  Peter, your book is filled with insightful messages intended to help the reader find the path to happiness and fulfillment. Do you believe that individuals who are productivity-challenged are simply on the “wrong” path?
A. Any of us can be productivity challenged, even when we are in exactly the right place, doing the right things, with the right other people.   In fact, sometimes I become productivity challenged precisely because I have too many right things to do. It’s an interesting dynamic I’ve recently discovered - When everything is important, working on a single task becomes psychologically difficult because it means we are choosing not to work on all the other things that we know are also important. So we end up watching TV or eating ice cream or buying running sneakers instead of doing the work that’s important to us. It doesn’t make any sense and yet it’s a dynamic I’ve found myself in and watch other people struggle with all the time. 

There’s another dynamic at play: the more important your work is to you, the more likely you are to procrastinate on it. This is because you have more at stake in work that’s close to your heart. Failure might leave your very identity in question. Maybe you can’t be a writer/solopreneur/online marketing maven/technologist after all. And so you don’t get started.  All these are examples of being productivity-challenged while being on the right path.

The solution is in creating a system that gets you to focus on the most important things - that’s what my six box to do list and my 18 Minute process are all about.

Q.  You suggest that the secret to thriving in life is to do fewer things – the things that are most important. How does a busy solopreneur determine what to choose?
A. I suggest that everyone choose five things that they most want to focus on in a year.    Five things that put you at the intersection of the four elements - Strengths, Weaknesses, Differences, and Passions - and that are most meaningful.   I specifically discourage people from trying to find their mission in life. If you have one, great. But if not, it can be paralyzing to try to find it. So simply focus on what you want to spend your time doing in the next year. I ask three major questions in my book - What is This Year About? What is This Day About? What is This Moment About?  It’s critically important to answer the first question before the second. Otherwise we’ll spend our days frantically working but not getting us where we want to go.  Once you place yourself at the intersection of you strengths, weaknesses, differences, and passions then you will naturally be working on the things you’re good at, make you happy, and have meaning to you. Choose those things to spend your time on.

Q.  I appreciate your “3-day rule”- nothing stays on the to-do list for longer than 3 days.  Do you find that there is any specific psychology behind allowing things to stagnate on our lists for days, weeks, even months?
A. Yes. Many of us are afflicted with a disease called FOMO or Fear of Missing Opportunities. So we add things to our list and, even though we are unlikely to accomplish many of them, we keep them there. Unfortunately, that quickly transforms our to do list into a guilt list; a list of everything we think we should be doing but can’t get to. Which then makes it hard to identify the things that are most important to us.  The answer to this is to make more intentional choices about what we are going to do and what we are going to ignore. It’s hard to say “no” to something we’d like to do - but if it doesn’t reasonably fit into the areas we most want to focus on in a year, then it’s a distraction and we need to pass it by.

Q.  Peter, many of my clients are faced with email overload. Can you suggest a few steps to address/manage this problem?
A. One thing is to delete liberally - If you have an inkling that something is not critical, don’t read it. Also, be very careful what you reply and to whom. You can either keep a conversation going or politely close it - choose carefully which you want to do for a particular email.  Finally, I find it is much less efficient - and far more distracting - to answer email as it comes in. Instead, choose email times and go through them all at once - you’ll be much better at making decisions and responding if you’ve cordoned off the time.

Q. Entrepreneurs are notorious for losing focus. With so much information coming at us how can we avoid constant distraction?
A. It’s hard. It helps to resist the temptation to multitask. Because multi tasking simply doesn’t work - it slows us down and makes us lose focus. Apple’s new operating system has integrated full screen views into many applications - so, if you want, you can make the thing you are working on the only thing that appears on your screen. That’s a great tool to fight distraction.  Another thing is to avoid interruptions. Use a timer and decide how long you are going to work on something and then, no matter what, don’t change your focus until your timer goes off. 

Researchers watched people work and noticed, on average, that people were interrupted four times each hour. But here’s the interesting part - they often didn’t go back to what they were working on before they were interrupted. And here’s the really, really interesting part: the more challenging the work was that they were doing before they were interrupted, the less likely it was that they would return to it after the interruption.  In other words, we’re most likely to lose focus on our most important work.

Q. Lastly, many solopreneurs work from home. What are some important factors in creating a workspace that is conducive to high productivity levels?
A. Put a lock on your home office door. I have three young kids so that helps tremendously.   I also find it’s helpful to define times during the day when you aren’t going to work - breaks, lunch, errands - which creates a boundary around your work time. This way you can stay focused, knowing exactly when that break is coming up. 

Also, know your rhythm. I do my best writing in the morning - so if I cordon off a few hours to write before I even look at email, I know I’ll be productive. Once you know your rhythms, schedule your day around them. That’s the key to all of this really - especially solopreneurs - know yourself well and build things around you so that you can bring the best of who you are out into the world.|

Don’t forget to tune into my interview with Peter on The Million Dollar Mindset where he reveals more about 18 Minutes and productivity solutions that could result in making you a top producer!