Too Much to Do? These Two Books Can Help

I recently finished two books that I found helpful, and I think busy nonprofit marketers can learn from them too. They approach productivity in two very different ways, but there are definitely some common elements too. I’m not going to summarize the books for you — you can read other reviews that do that. Instead, I’m going to focus on the few things in each book that I found especially helpful and memorable.

The first book is Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality by Scott Belsky.


I realized a few months ago that several of the projects I wanted to pursue in 2012 were ideas that I’d first had two or three years ago. It made me wonder if there was some skill I was missing about bringing ideas to fruition, so Making Ideas Happen caught my eye.

The problem with creative people (and many creative people are drawn to nonprofit marketing) is that they have plenty of ideas, but they don’t necessarily follow through on all of those ideas. Great ideas are common; great execution of ideas, on the other hand, is rare. Belsky examined the habits of people and teams who are both creative AND productive, and shares what he learned in the book.

To implement ideas, Belsky insists you focus on Action Steps, and how to set up systems around you that lead to action. For example, he says you should never end a meeting without a list of action steps assigned to specific people. If you don’t have any, then the meeting was purely FYI and could have been done via email. In fact, Belsky recommends that you end every meeting by going around the table and having each person repeat their action steps out loud so the group knows what is being done next and by whom.

This helps build accountability to each other, which is really the core message of the book. Much of the book discusses ways to build accountability in creative teams, and for those of you working alone, how to use your broader network in the same way. One tip is to make nagging each other, and responding to that nagging, part of your social responsibilities to each other (squeaky wheel gets the grease).

Another is to essentially “just do it” without too much planning (the idea behind another favorite of mine, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries), while also encouraging people to constantly challenge your ideas, which forces refinements as you go, and also helps to quickly weed out ideas that really aren’t that brilliant, or would distract too much energy from higher priorities.

He also talks about the power of “committal benefits.” When you publicly commit to completing a project for example, you are more likely to finish it, because you know others are watching. But something else happens too, as Belsky says: “When you publicly commit yourself and take on risk to make an idea happen, you garner Committal Benefits . . .the increased likelihood of others to take a risk of their own — financially or with their reputations — to support your projects.”  That support helps you continue toward more action.

The second book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman. Beth Kanter recommended this one.

Other time management books focus on how to get it all done. That’s impossible, says Bregman, so instead he tells us how to focus on getting the most important things done and to forget the rest. He suggests several ways to cut back on the to-do list:

Play Start Over. If you deleted your to-do list and schedule entirely and started from scratch, what would go back on? What would you leave off?

What Alienates You? Bregman points out that we are likely to avoid the tasks that we really don’t want to do, because they make us feel bad, or embarrassed, or alienated. Instead of continuing to bump them down the list, face that you simply aren’t going to do them, and remove them entirely. He also suggests creating a No or Ignore List, where you consciously list tasks or projects you are going to avoid.

Survive the Buffet. Just like overeating at a buffet simply because it all looks so good, we often put more on our to-do lists than we can really handle (trying out every hot new social network just because other people are is a good equivalent). Use a smaller plate and only fill it up once to survive the buffet. Limit yourself to just five core goals that you want to achieve over one year. To make sure you give those goals priority, tag each thing on your to-do list by one of your five goals.

Pour Your To-Do List into Your Calendar. This is my favorite tip, and the one that is having the biggest impact on my workday. While I have always used some form of time blocking, I would often “cheat” by leaving several items on the to-do list for the day, but not scheduling time for them, assuming that I would magically be able to squeeze them in. Doesn’t work that way. I’m making the to-do list and the calendar match up. It’s brought an incredible amount of realism to my day, and I’m much less stressed out and disappointed when evening rolls around.

Hourly Check Ins. Bregman recommends that you set a timer to beep you once an hour as a way to remind yourself to take a deep breath and to check in on how you are spending your time. Were you distracted by something and need to refocus? Were you trying to multitask, which means you haven’t actually completed anything yet? Since I tend to book out my day with appointments and time blocking, I use the audible reminders on those appointments as my check-in reminders. This is where the 18 minutes in the title comes from: 5 minutes in the morning to plan, one minute check-ins for 8 hours of work, and 5 minutes of reflection at the end of the day.

Give It Three Days. If you find an item being bumped around from day to day, stop after the third day and re-evaluate. If it’s something you really do need to do, schedule it in the future when you have the right amount of time for it. Or maybe it’s just not something you are going to get to, so go ahead and delete it, or put in a “someday” list so it is out of your face, but not forgotten entirely.

Avoid the Allure of Unproductive Busyness. I love this phrase. I know exactly what it means for me, and you probably know what it means for you too. Common examples include constant inbox or Facebook refreshing, or checking email or website stats several times a day. Decide on a reasonable number of times to check those things, and stick to it. Perhaps only do it when you have scheduled time for it on your calendar.

I found it very interesting that both authors quoted passages from an all-time favorite book of mine, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.  In Making Things Happen, Belsky quotes Lamott, who quoted E.L. Doctorow on what it is like to write a novel: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Says Belsky: “Along the journey to turn ideas into action, you must keep up the momentum, even if you can only see a few yards ahead. Most entrepreneurs will admit that the value of having a masterful, business plan is overrated. What matters most is your ability to keep moving and pushing your ideas forward, yard by yard.”

In 18 Minutes, Bregman quotes the story behind the title of Bird by Bird. Lamott’s brother was tasked with writing a report on birds. He’d been given three months, but waited until the day before to start on the school project. Immobilized by the huge job ahead of him, their father told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Says Bregman: “That’s what happens when we’ve got too many things to do. We look busy. We seem to be moving. But in reality, we get very little done. We need a way to disperse the fog of overwhelm. We need to break down the tasks into chunks and begin to work through them.”

I think I need to re-read Bird by Bird!

If you’ve read these books, or plan to, please share your perspectives in the comments.

All book links go to Amazon.com.



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  • These are great reviews of two books that have recently gotten onto my list to check out. Thanks so much Kivi, it really sounds like the 18 minutes book is something I need to check out.

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  • Books sounds like valuable reads. Peter Bregman is evidently a very smart guy.  Thanks for such a detailed review of his book.  I will add that to my list.  Am also a big fan of Anne Lamott.  Great post.  Glad I found your blog, Kivi.

  • “18 Minutes” sounds like exactly what I need to read right now. And the “Bird by Bird” reference made me chuckle — I enthusiastically checked it out from my library last year but returned it unread, because I never got around to starting it (how ironic). I think the universe is telling me to get both of this books to the top of my must-read list…