How to Read a Book Analytically to Build Understanding

How do you read a book?  You know how to read, of course, but have you paid attention to the purpose or the method of your reading?

We read in different ways at different times.  The way we read is influenced both by what we are reading, and why we are reading.  We can read for entertainment, for information, or for understanding. Appreciating the distinction between these modes will allow you to pull more value from the reading material you choose.

The classic text on how to read a book is (funny enough), How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.  Adler outlines his goals and methodology in his preface:

How to Read a Book attempts to inculcate skills that are useful for reading anything. These skills, however, are more than merely useful—they are necessary—for the reading of great books, those that are of enduring interest and importance. Although one can read books, magazines, and newspapers of transient interest without these skills, the possession of them enables the reader to read even the transient with greater speed, precision, and discrimination. The art of reading analytically, interpretively, and critically is indispensable only for the kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more, and for reading the few books that are capable of being read with increasing profit over and over again. those few books are the great books—and the rules of reading here set forth are the rules for reading them.

Purposes of Reading

The first question when reading is to understand why you are reading. Adler first divides reading into (1) reading for amusement and (2) reading for knowledge.  Reading for knowledge, in turn, consists of (1) reading for information and (2) reading for understanding.

Let’s break this down.  There are times we read casually or light material – magazines, vacation paperbacks, mystery novels.  In these moments, you are reading for amusement.

You might also casually read for information – a newspaper or weekly periodical, for example.  This requires slightly more attention than reading for entertainment, as you might commit new facts to memory. Reading a newspaper, however, does not require an analytical approach to the text itself.  You read the newspaper for the facts it contains, but rarely for the language or the structure of the piece.

Reading for amusement or for information are perfectly fine.  They are the most common types of reading, and it’s still better than a lot of things on which you could waste your time.  It’s a question of your goals.  If you have a goal of getting better, building skills, gaining a competitive advantage, you need to improve your understanding.

Reading for understanding is reading to learn.  This type of reading requires thinking and analysis on your part, because you’re spending time with the book to find its insights and its essence.  Books present us with the opportunity to improve ourselves and to get smarter.  To do that, however, you need to work. You need to challenge yourself by finding books written by people smarter than you about subjects you don’t fully understand.

Four Types of Reading

Adler defines four types of reading:

1. Elementary – This is basic entry-level reading.  It answers the question, “What does this sentence say?”

2. Inspectional – Inspectional reading is skimming or superficial reading.  It answers the question, “What is the book about?”

3. Analytical – Analytical reading is the beginning of higher-level reading. It answers the question, “What does the book mean?”

4. Syntoptical – This requires a comparison of a book to other texts. It answers the question, “How does the book’s meaning compare to other books?”

Tools of the Active Reader

I particularly like Adler’s focus on the “kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.”  It breaks down a demanding task to an understandable and concrete objective.

How do you read a book inspectionally, analytically, or syntoptically? Adler offers a fantastic list of questions and approaches to help you work through a book.

Inspectional Reading

While inspectional reading may be a superficial skimming of the book, it may also be the initial “pre-read” that paves the way for a deeper second look.  Look at the title page and read the preface to determine what type of book it is.  Study the table of contents and index to gain an understanding of the book’s structure, key terms, and topics.  Reading the opening and closing pages of key chapters can be helpful.

I have always been of the belief that many books should not be finished.  If you’re choosing the right books, this won’t happen very often, I hope.  But if you determine that a book isn’t worth the time it will take to finish, put it down.  There’s plenty of other things to read.  I was glad to see Adler echo this thought, writing that “many books are hardly worth even skimming.”  As for the rest, “some should be read quickly,” and only “a few should be read…quite slow…for complete comprehension.”  As a result, you need to develop different reading speeds.

Analytical Reading

Reading analytically requires work, but the framework is simple and straightforward.  Adler outlines four questions to ask about any book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? (i.e., what is the subject?)

2. What is being said in detail, and how? (i.e., what terms does the book use and how are those terms interpreted?)

3. Is the book true, or partially true? (i.e., how do you evaluate the book?)

4. What of it? (i.e., why does it matter and what is the significance?)

Seizing a Book and Making it Your Own

If you’re reading a book for knowledge and understanding, you should have a pen in your hand.  Adler recommends a list of common-sense actions:

-underline key sentences
-mark key sections with vertical lines
-star in margins
-insert page numbers in margin to parallel or contrasting sections
-note key words, phrases, and terms
-margin notes

You might have notes that are structural, about the content of the subject. The next level of note taking will be conceptual, concerning the truth and significance of the book.  Finally, dialectical notes will mark the shape of argument in the larger context of the topic.

One tool that works particularly well for me is to create my own index of important topics on or near the title page.  The beauty of this type of index is that the topics and entries are entirely up to you.  I try to save these index entries for definitions of the author’s key terms, beautiful quotes, and other important themes.

Remembering What You Read

If you read a book with a pen in your hand, asking yourself Adler’s key questions along the way, you will already be ahead of the game of reading to improve your understanding and knowledge.  Unless you have an encyclopedic steel trap of a memory, however, you’ll pull even more value from books if you have a system for cataloguing and cross-referencing the material you read.  I use a commonplace book.

When I finish a book, I put it and all of my notes, dog-eared pages, and post-its down for at least a week.  Two weeks is preferable.  After that time has passed, I review my marked passages and notes.  Some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme. Themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”

Make Better Resolutions by Understanding Your True Goals

With the turn of the calendar year, it’s resolution time for many people. The New Year feels like a clean slate, a world of opportunities, a chance for new successes that have eluded us.  An unknowable number of resolutions are made come January 1st, many of them falling into the familiar and repeated: to lose weight, to get more sleep, to eat more healthily, to exercise more, to spend less time at the office and more time with family.

Plan for Better Resolutions

Will you succeed?  The University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology reports that just a measly 8% of Americans are successful in making and implementing their annual resolutions. Why is this?  Presumably a person chooses a resolution that is important to her life, that she wants for herself, and which she believes would represent a positive change.  Why such a poor success rate?

1.     Know Your True Objectives

Buster Benson offers a mental framework to use to make and keep better resolutions.  Benson starts by encouraging us to know our true objectives. Success in sticking to your resolutions requires an understanding not only of what you think you want to change in your life, but why you want to make the change.  In other words, what is your real objective?

The traditional resolutions I listed above appear at face value to be positive changes.  Who doesn’t want to improve their health?  Who wouldn’t want a more fulfilling work-life relationship?  Who can argue with spending more time with family?  Standing in a vacuum, however, these resolutions are actions without objectives.  The objective is the “why” of the resolution.

In making your resolutions, spend some time thinking about your objectives.  If you have a practice of a weekly, monthly, or annual review, where you reflect on past performance and set future goals, you should already have a good sense of these.  Think about the objective behind the resolution.  If it is not a goal that you are committed to, that will fuel your days, weeks, and year, you’re probably not going to get very far with the resolution.  Picking resolutions that align with your goals is the task here.

2.     Understand your personal environment

Your life is like no one else’s.  Your familial, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial, and geographic situations combine to form a unique environment in which you operate.  That environment will influence your ability to change or alter certain aspects of your life and routines.  Understanding your personal environment will provide you with a much greater insight into what resolutions you actually have a chance of sticking to.

This is the point that so much self-improvement and productivity systems literature ignores, as Benson adeptly notes:

This is why goal-achievement is so difficult to prescribe from afar. The goal-achievement self-help industry cannot create personalized instructions for them to grow in 7 billion different environments, and so the instructions often ignore the environmental conditions entirely saying simply:

  1. Take goal out of box
  2. Water at the goal every day for 21 days
  3. Make sure it doesn’t die
  4. Success!

Step 3 is usually left purposefully vague — just commit yourself, they say. Go ahead and throw out any how-to manuals that you have (including this one). Growing a goal requires that you put on your own gardening hat and gloves and pay attention to the soil that you and you alone have to work with.

Figure out the details, advantages, and hurdles of your environment.  If you are single, you will have distinct time advantages in your environment than someone with many small children in the house.  Note your work schedules, your family commitments, your responses to stress (eating? drinking alcohol? skipping the gym?), your commute time, and anything else that stands as a contour that you must navigate in your daily life.  Once you’ve done this, you might revisit your resolution choice.

Consider swapping your original resolution with one focused on changing the environmental condition that has the most potential to prevent the success of your original resolution.

As an example, two of my objectives this year are to increase the number of posts on this blog to at least three per week, and to read at least 100 books.  My personal environment includes family commitments to two young children, who wake up early and require a lot of attention during their waking hours.  I could have simply “resolved” to write and read more.  But this wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere, as it is conclusory and doesn’t detail an actionable step given my environment.  Thinking about the details of my life, a more focused resolution is to get up earlier.  So I’m going to try to move my wakeup time from 5:45AM to 5:00AM this year.  If I’m successful, that will give me nearly an entire hour additionally to myself in the morning, before the kids get up, to read and to write. Hopefully, it will give me more time to reach my objectives.

3.     Remember, review, and revisit your resolutions.

If you’re going to successfully make some change in routine or habit, you can’t rely on just blind memory to help.  You need to use tools and reminders to check in and remind yourself of your objectives.  First, you need to identify your goals for the year as part of a reflection and planning process.  Then, you need to revisit those goals on a regular basis.

Pick a review interval that makes sense for your life.  You might consider doing different types of reviews at different intervals.  For example, I start each day with a morning ritual that consists of a workout, a short journal entry making notes of opportunities and gratitudes (similar to this), a short mindfulness meditation, and a review of my to do list for the day.  On a weekly basis, I block out about two hours on my Friday afternoon for a weekly review, where I gather all loose information and to-dos from all the places they collect over the week, and review the status and to-dos for all projects, both personal and professional.  I check my progress against my goals for the week.  Then I set three goals for the following week.

I do the same thing on a monthly and annual basis on a higher level.  Monthly reviews allow for a review of goals and targets, including the resolutions and habit changes I’ve set for goals.  There’s no magic to this pattern, and you might find that a completely different review process works better for you.  You must make the time, whatever method you choose.   It is only through regular review of progress against goals that you will understand whether you are on or off course, and be able to identify any needed changes in course.

4.     The Point of Any Resolution Is to Increase Your Quality of Life

There is no secret universal blueprint for great resolutions that will work for everyone.  Remember that the point is to increase the amount of time in your life that you consider to be high quality.  That may be family time, it may be more time for yourself, it may be more time focused on a new project or business endeavor or hobby.  Whatever it is, spending the time to identify your goals and priorities will allow you to understand what it is that really makes you happy.  Once you know that, you’ll be able to think about discrete, meaningful changes you can make in life that will help you take small steps every day toward those goals.

Good luck!  Have a great 2016.

photo credit:Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prepare for Success Next Year by Reviewing and Reflecting This Year

How was your 2015?  Did you achieve your goals and make progress in the ways you envisioned twelve months ago?  Were there areas in life where you struggled or found distraction?  If your year was anything like mine, you had a wide variety of experiences ranging from fantastic victories to complete failures, and touching upon all varieties of outcomes in between.  Do you know why certain projects went well and why others failed?  Have you set aside any time at year’s end to try and understand the difference?  Have you thought about what decisions you need to make and actions you need to take to achieve the greater levels of success you have in mind?  You should.

At the end of every year, I take the last week or two to review the past year, and think deeply about what I want for the next year.  Achieving the successful outcomes you have in mind for the future requires making time to review your accomplishments against your goals.   It also requires you to set clear and compelling goals going forward.  This is easy to say but requires real and dedicated thought to accomplish.  Why?  Because setting clear and compelling goals requires you to understand what you really want.

This is my process for ending the year positively with a clear understanding of where I am, how I got here, and where I’m headed next.

Reflect on the Past Year’s Accomplishments

The first step in an annual review is to sit down and reflect on the year’s accomplishments.  This takes real time to do properly, because chances are that you’ve done a lot over the past twelve months.  I start with a review of my client-based practice.  I review my year’s calendar, project list, and task list for all of the client projects that I’ve completed, as well as those that remain open at year end.  I consider outcome, revenue, speed to completion, efficiency, and client satisfaction.  I identify key decision moments in each project, and ask myself if the outcomes of those decisions were consistent with or different than my predictions.  I make a list of the successes I had.  I repeat then repeat this exercise for the management of my business, my personal goals, financial goals, and family goals.

Reviewing experiences leads to insight, and this exercise will let you identify the principles and habits that led to success.

Be Honest about Failures, and then Move on

My year wasn’t all success.  I bet yours wasn’t either.  I find it important to think honestly about the places where I didn’t achieve my goals, made bad decisions, or otherwise experienced a bad outcome.  The point here is not to wallow.  Just as with accomplishments, a review of negative experiences will create insight and let you create new habits to strengthen these problem areas as you move forward.  Just as important as identifying failures, though, is moving on after you’ve found insight.  The goal of this entire process is to put you in the right frame of mind to move forward and achieve, not to end the year caught in negative traps.

Express Gratitude

I ask myself two questions after reviewing accomplishments and failures.  First, what am I thankful for this year?  Second, what do I want to be thankful for at this same time next year?

This might be the most important step in the process of reflection.  Regular expression of gratitude is shown to improve relationships, physical health, psychological health, self-esteem, and mental fortitude.  Write down a list of the things you’re thankful for.  I guarantee you’ll be in a better frame of mind when you finish the list.  And you’ll probably have a clearer understanding of what’s truly important to you.

Cut Excesses

Time is our most important resource because it is nonrenewable.  You’ll never get this moment back again.  The key to being productive, fulfilled, and rested is to avoid wasting your time on things that don’t matter and things that you don’t care about.  More difficult to realize is that it also means avoid investing your time in things you do care about, but which are not delivering the results you need or want.  Give some careful thought in this process about whether there are projects or engagements you should cut from your life.  Your decision-making heuristic for projects should be “Hell, yes!” or “No.”  Do not invest yourself in projects that you are 51% excited about.

Set Compelling Goals

Specific goal setting is the key to achieving the results you want.  I think this is where most people encounter the greatest difficulty in the process of finding happiness and success.  It’s not enough to set a vague, conclusory goal, such as “I want to be financially independent,” or “I want to get in shape.”  These are fine visions of a life, but they will not serve you as a goal because they are not specific.  They do not tell you what you need to do each day to succeed.  Instead of, “I want to get in shape,” your goal might be, “I will join a health club and exercise three times each week before work.”  Keep your goals specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

To succeed in this goal setting process, I think hard about the most important values I want to focus on for the coming year.  This lets me visualize the way in which I will interact with the world, my work, and my family.  For example, in 2016, I intend to value presence, mindfulness, health, decisiveness, curiosity, and honesty.  These values form the frame of mindset for the year.

I then look at my top three targets in life, and how I will get closer to them.  These include goals for family and personal relationships, health, and intellectual work.  I then consider what my top three goals are for the next three years.  These goals are more specific and granular than my life targets.

Break it Down

It is awfully hard to wake up each morning and decide what your important tasks are if you only have an annual goal.  Success requires breaking down your annual goals into manageable, measurable, and specific quarterly or monthly goals.  If you do the type of big picture framing described above, it becomes much easier to set compelling and measurable goals for the next calendar year.  Sit down and chart out the year.  What does each season look like?  What does each quarter of the year feel like?  What are the must-do actions that you must take each month, week, and day to keep you on course for the year?  These goals then become the framework for your weekly, monthly, and quarterly reviews as the year goes on (more on that process another day).

Identify New Ideas

It’s a new year.  You’re not limited to your existing project list.  Brainstorm about new ideas. Incorporate them into your goals and plans.  Pick one new habit for the year that you’ll incorporate.

Schedule the Year

How often do you hear someone at the office say, “I really need a vacation but I don’t have time.”  How often do you say the same thing.  Do you know why you don’t have time for vacation?  Because you never set aside the time.  Do it now.  Schedule your year, including time for vacations, reflection, quarterly and annual reviews.  Consider adding a brainstorming day each quarter or “Think Week,” where you shut off all outside inputs and focus on reading, considering new ideas, and fostering creativity for your business.  Think you’re too busy?  Bill Gates makes time for it, you can too.

Unplug

This process takes me about a week.  Some people can get it done in a day, but it will take time.  It will also take effort and hard work.  When you’re done, unplug from it all.  You should finish the process revitalized, happy about achievements, grateful for much in your life, and excited to begin again.  So take some time to appreciate that feeling.  I take the last week of the year off to enjoy family and rest.

I hope this encourages you to do some thinking and reviewing this holiday season.  It’s an extremely valuable process in achieving what matters most to you next year.

What Kind of Thinker Are You?

I love this piece from the Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchak and Elisa Steele on different modes of thinking within an organization.  Separating individuals on continuums of both focus and orientation, Bonchak and Steele propose that to be most effective, individuals should have thinking roles that complement or coordinate with their doing roles.

Depending on whether individuals orient themselves to “big picture” or “details,” and whether they focus on “ideas,” “process,” “action,” or “relationships,” the authors identify eight thinking personality archetypes.

When you know your thinking style, you know what naturally energizes you, why certain types of problems are challenging or boring, and what you can do to improve in areas that are important to reaching your goals.

Trying this exercise will provide some insight into your own methods of thinking.  Trying it with your team will hopefully allow you to gain a better understanding of each member’s role within your organization, and to refine those roles to enhance satisfaction and productivity.

Protecting Time for Your Most Important Work

The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil or paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

Focus on One Project at a Time

We live in an age of seemingly endless multi-tasking.  At any given moment, our conscious minds are being bombarded by the firing of neurons, reminding us of our professional obligations to our superiors and subordinates, client calls to return, due dates, deadlines, the wants and needs of our children, financial concerns, personal relationships, and our own personal well-being.  We all need to navigate these choppy seas, and the habits of routines and setting daily goals are helpful to focus us on a short-term basis.  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney urge in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength a simple lesson: to maximize your success, “Focus on one project at a time.”

This begs the question, though, of on which project should you focus?  Responsible business, family, and personal management will require some amount of attention to daily operations and maintenance.  But are you directing any time and attention to your bigger strategic goals?  The big projects, the ideas that fill your daydreams and pop up in your mind while you shower, run, or suffer through a daily commute?  These opportunities are important but not urgent, and thus often take a backseat to the reactive mindset of responding to daily asks.  These short-term needs all claim to be urgent, but closer inspection will show that they range greatly in terms of actual importance.  And at the end of the day, you’ll probably find that dealing with very few of those “emergencies” will actually advance you towards accomplishing the goals that are most important to you.  Charting a successful course requires us to protect time for our minds to think about, process, and progress towards our strategic goals and important projects.

Prioritize Your Life, or Someone Else Will

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown observes, “In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.”  In other words, it is impossible to develop focus on the things most important to you and your long-term goals unless you are able to separate from the daily urgencies of life.  McKeown recounts the efforts of Sir Isaac Newton undertaken in writing Principia Mathematica, the three-volume book in which Newton published his laws of motion and universal gravitation, forming the basis of classical mechanics.  Between May 1684 and April 1686, Newton was so single-handedly devoted to the pursuit of his mathematical studies that he often forgot to eat, sleep, or change clothes.  His notebooks related to his chemical experiments have no entries for this same time period, demonstrating his abandonment of other projects and studies.

Newton’s work on Principia is an extreme example of focus, no doubt.  The lesson is of great value nonetheless.  As McKeown pointedly states, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”  Making progress on your long-term goals requires setting aside time to focus on them.  In another example, Baumeister and Tierney describe Raymond Chandler’s practice of developing focus in his writing through a method called “the Nothing Alternative.”  Frustrated with his lack of progress on a writing project, Chandler set about to develop greater focus and avoid distraction.  Of course, in trying to force focus artificially, Chandler discovered what you likely have experienced at one time or another – that attempting to force focus only results in your mind feeling even more distracted.  In other words, you can’t fake it.  To deal with this resistance, Chandler gave himself permission to write, or to do nothing.  He did not allow himself to do any other work.  In alleviating the pressure to “do something,” Chandler gave himself space to think in a focused environment, with an outlet channel of writing during the assigned time.

How to Find Time to Focus

Methods for finding distraction-free time are many, and include creating a workspace conducive to focused work and eliminating outside interruptions and alerts from colleagues and technology.  The most important step is simply committing to the time.  Set aside time on at least a weekly basis for uninterrupted thinking and work on your long-term goals.  If you can do it more frequently, do it.  Put it on your calendar today.  Make sure others know it is time that you need to and will protect.

Creating a To-Do List that Actually Does Something for You

My father told me years ago, “to be conscientious about one thing only means that you are ignoring many other things.”

I am sharing in this post the tool that I recently discovered that has made more difference in writing a daily to-do list that is effective in both (1) knocking items off my list of action items, and (2) ensuring that the action items completed are balanced across multiple long-term goals.  That tool is Peter Bregman’s six-box to-do list.

Over the course of my career, I have tried many, many different systems for to-do lists.  I have tried notebooks, index cards, Getting Things Done (“GTD”), a dozen different task list apps on my phone and computer.  After about 15 years of practicing law, I settled in large part on GTD in a paper notebook, because the “capture it all” and “context for every item” aspects were invaluable to me.  For those who are not familiar with the details of David Allen’s GTD system, the system depends upon a few pillars.  First, all information in your life needs to be collected.  This represents to-dos, calendar appointments, projects, and items you have delegated or are waiting on.

Once items are collected in the GTD system, they are categorized and organized into contexts.  First, what is the item?  Is it a project, an appointment, a task, or an item for which you are awaiting a response?  Second, for whom is the item to be completed, or with whom are you working?  Is it for your business partner, your associate, your assistant, your wife, your child?  Third, when do you need to complete it?  Now, soon, later, or someday, or are you waiting on it?  From these data points, you can construct a list each for projects, action items, and waiting on items.  For action items, you will have separate lists for each area of responsibility in your life: office, computer, errands, home, wife, etc.  These categories are completely subject to your discretion.  Once up and running, you will have a calendar for appointments, and a series of lists in GTD.

I have run a GTD system for a number of years.  But I still kept running in to the same key problem. First, with a project list in the dozens, and action item list in the hundreds, I struggled with prioritization.  I usually can complete approximately 4-6 important items per day.  If I have 40 items of high priority, which items win out?  What criteria can I use to make that choice?  How do I ensure that the work I focus on advances the goals that are important to me?

I made two changes during this past quarter that have drastically helped with this problem.  The first, is that I abandoned my paper notebook GTD system and moved it to Evernote.  Evernote provides a very large advantage over paper: it is searchable and sortable.  Each day, I can search and sort my action items in Evernote by priority and context.

This brings us to Bregman’s simple and ingenious six-box to-do list.  Given the overwhelming amount and complexity of the information in my Evernote GTD system, I needed a tool that would allow me to review my high-priority action items, and then decide what to do every day.  Bregman’s blueprint solved this problem for me.  Bregman advocates that each of us needs to spend time periodically determining what our top five long term goals are.  His suggestion is then that we should spend 95% of our time focusing on work that advances those goals.  The goals are up to you – a particular project, business development, writing a novel, finishing an advanced degree, learning Finnish – you are the master of your goal list.  The point is that if you have an important goal, you need to ensure that you are doing work each day towards those goals.

Bregman’s template requires you to divide an index card into six boxes.  The first five boxes are for each of your five long-term goals.  The last box is for “the other 5%.”  When I adopted this system, the five goals I had were: (1) work for existing legal cases; (2) obtaining and developing new legal cases; (3) researching and promoting my ideas; (4) presence for my family; and (5) taking care of myself.

Each morning, I open up Evernote, and I search for all tagged notes with high priority.  From those, I search across my context tags (@work, @calls, @wife, @home, @errands), to make sure that I understand my potential priorities across all spheres of my life.  I then select two or three items from my action item list for each of my five goals.   A sample list looks something like this:

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This allows me to make sure that as I accomplish my key 4-6 items per day, that I am working across multiple goals.  It forces me to do work on existing cases, while also developing new business, and while also protecting my time to work on research and writing.

The most important thing that this six-box list has done for me, though, is to create a visual cue to remember that the very most important things in life are things that can easily be squeezed out if you do not protect the time to do them.  Time with family, being present for your spouse and children, exercise, meditation, and new learning are all spheres of life that too often are ignored in favor of traditional “work.”  By identifying my specific goals across various areas of life, I have found that this system allows me to be both productive, but also fulfilled in all aspects of life that I have determined matter to me the most.

My father was right.  In being conscientious about one thing, you do ignore many other things.  The trick is to ensure that you do not ignore any part of your life that matters to you, and conversely, that you do not spend time on things that do not advance your goals, to the detriment of your goals.

You Need a Morning Routine

How does your typical morning proceed?  Is it a chaotic, random, angst-inducing race to get yourself and the kids out the door without being too late?  Can you envision it differently –  orderly, structured, regular, predictable, and reliable?  If your mornings are a source of anxiety and stress, it may be hard to imagine creating order during this chaotic time.  The key is spending a bit of time to create a dependable and repeatable morning routine.

Business literature is littered with articles describing ideas for things that successful individuals do in the mornings and at the beginning of each week.  These are great to peruse, and to see if you might be missing out on a practice that would benefit your morning (or any time of your day, for that matter).  It really should come as no surprise that morning exercise is a good practice to begin your day.  For one, it will start your day with increased energy and motivation.  Second, it ensures that you actually do it, and that exercise will not fall victim to an otherwise busy day.  Developing research is beginning to suggest that time spent meditating or visualizing in some form will drastically improve your ability to focus and carry through your day emotionally balanced.

The important point, though, is to figure out what adds benefit to your day, and begin making a routine of it.  Your mornings should be reliable and predictable, not a daily impromptu dance through disorganization.  Routine will eliminate the improvisation of the morning.  It is uncertainty that is a large part of the stress that you feel during morning hours if you are not organized.

My morning routine is this:

1.  Wake between 5:30 and 5:45.

2.  Dress for exercise.

3.  Meditate for 15-20 minutes.

4.  Run.

5.  Eat breakfast.  During breakfast, transfer the important items from my to-do list onto a daily index card that will guide my day.  (This will be the subject of a future post).

6.  Dress and head out the door on time.

Your routine should not look like mine.  It should be a reflection of the important practices that generate energy and focus for your day.  Spend some time thinking about it.  When you determine the proper routine.  Write it down.  Put it into your to-do list.  My routine is actually written and placed in Evernote as a daily to-do item.  It makes it material and concrete, and it ensures that I focus on it.  You may end up trying a few things and adjusting, which is OK.  The effort to establish routine will pay substantial dividends, and I encourage you to introduce it to your life.