Review: The Seven Minute Difference

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business/entrepreneurship book of interest.

the 7 minute differenceA few weeks ago, I wrote a post about overcoming the tendency to lie to yourself about money. In it, I strongly encouraged people to set microgoals for themselves, pushing themselves towards small successes that would eventually build into a bigger pattern of success in their lives.

After writing that article, I was contacted by a reader who strongly encouraged me to pick up The Seven Minute Difference by Allyson Lewis. The book, the reader claimed, focused on exactly what I was talking about: building towards big successes through little changes – microgoals building into short-term goals and eventually turning into major changes in life.

The Seven Minute Difference basically argues that you can trigger major changes in your life in as little as seven minutes a day by planning, clearly stating, and committing to a change that can be broken down into little pieces. The dust jacket uses the example of wanting to read more books – just set a microgoal each day of reading ten pages – that might take ten or fifteen minutes or so. But by doing that, you’ve basically found a schedule where you’ll complete a book every month or two, adding up to some pretty impressive reading over time. Give yourself a couple years and you can have a pretty strong understanding of a topic or covered a wide range of literature.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What can an entire book have to say about it?

Discovering Your Purpose – and Passion
The book opens with what I think is a brilliant exercise for everyone to try – a microgoals notebook. Here’s what you do: get a new spiral-bound notebook and spend some time thinking of about ten goals you’d like to accomplish over the next few years. They can be personal goals or professional goals. Here are eight that I came up with while thinking about it.

1. Get down to the target weight my doctor suggested for me.
2. Work on an exercise routine until I find one that feels completely natural and fun for me.
3. Improve my ability to cook quick, tasty meals without recipes.
4. Improve the quality of food that my family eats throughout the year.
5. Increase the readership of The Simple Dollar.
6. Improve my writing in other areas besides short personal finance essays.
7. Keep up with a steady diet of personal reading on challenging and diverse topics.
8. Seek innovative ways to increase the gap between our spending and our income.

Then, on each page in the notebook after that first one, list a very simple thing you can do today to reach that goal. Start with a date at the top of the page, then for each big goal on that first page, list a microgoal for today that moves you towards that big goal. Here are mine for today.

1. Do a rung on the fitness ladder.
2. Jog for fifteen minutes.
3. Make a croque monsieur variation (without a recipe) for lunch.
4. Get some extra tomatoes at the farmer’s market for winter use.
5. Spend fifteen minutes writing exceptional correspondence to individual readers.
6. Work on my current “project” (it’s kind of a secret for the time being).
7. Read at least twenty five pages in a book (usually, I go way over this).
8. Make a new batch of homemade “simple green” laundry detergent.

Although the chapter goes on to discuss finding a balance between your passions and your skills and using that balance to figure out what your most valuable mission in life is, I found the simple “microgoals notebook” idea to be quite powerful – in fact, I’ve adopted it myself.

Expanding Your Possibilities for Growth – Seven Minutes at a Time
It’s great to have these microgoals each day, but where can one possibly find the time to do all of this stuff in the flow of a busy work day and a busy home life? Lewis shares a very clever tactic from Stephen Covey’s First Things First (and also used to great effect in Zen to Done).

Lewis basically advocates for defining a small number of key tasks (two to five or so) for the next day in advance. For example, my key tasks for today are writing four posts and doing a correspondence session. Then, around them, have a bunch of short, small tasks that you can do in the gaps, and this list of tasks should include those microgoals for the day you defined earlier. Covey likes to refer to these as “rocks” and “sand,” terminology which makes a lot of sense – your day is like a container, and inside that container you first place some rocks (big tasks), then you pour in sand (small tasks) that fill in the space around those rocks.

Choosing Success – Every Day
Act with confidence. Even if you don’t have it. That’s basically the point of this portion of the book, which encourages much of the same advice as How to Win Friends and Influence People and Never Eat Alone. Act confidently around clients and peers in the workplace. Make an effort to make new connections with your peers, both inside and outside of your organization. Put time into maintaining old connections.

Why do this? How does this fit into the broader context of the stuff mentioned before? Lewis argues that such socially confident behavior helps you open doors that would have been unavailable to you before. The person who gets something valuable is not the person who quietly sticks to themselves – it’s the person out there confidently talking to others, building new relationships and cementing others.

Exceeding Your Customers’ Expectations
Here, Lewis argues that at least a few of your long term goals in your notebook should be geared towards exceeding your customers’ expectations. That way, you’ll have a few microgoals each day geared towards making very happy customers. The value of this comes not in the immediate sense – you’ll simply turn an existing customer into a more positive existing customer. The value comes over the long tail, when that customer is out there speaking positively about your organization and your products. They become something of a mini-advocate for you, and that helps you slowly acquire more customers and grow.

For me, this takes the form of taking the time to write a few detailed, heartfelt messages a day to readers who write in and ask me questions. I try to answer as many as I can in this way, because I know not only am I helping them with their immediate problem, but they’ll also look at The Simple Dollar afterwards in a much more positive light and are more likely to share the site with their friends, which brings in new readers. The drawback, of course, is an overstuffed email inbox and a lot of tough decisions with regards to what the priorities are.

Powering Growth through Momentum
Many people look at long term goals and think that they’re just too big, that they could never really achieve something like that. The real key to making it work, according to Lewis, is simply finding a clear starting point and then pushing it forward over and over again with microgoals.

Take one reader’s stated goal of understanding philosophy better. The starting point here would be reading a book that provides a very general grounding in philosophy, something like my personal favorite book of that type, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. From there, just follow what interests you and makes you think, as that basic book will point you in a lot of directions.

You can take that basic principle and apply it to any number of big goals. Take my own desire to learn how to cook things without recipes. The obvious starting point is to get in the kitchen and master how to make things from recipes, then start making simpler, common things without recipes, then gradually move on from there, making complex things from recipes, then moving on to trying similar things without recipes. A big key is just finding that starting point.

Pushing Past the One-Yard Line and Breaking through to Peak Performance
The central idea here is stepping back and looking at how you can make things more efficient in your life. Are there common tasks you can centralize, such as perhaps only doing one email session a day? Perhaps your energy bottoms out in the early afternoon – maybe you could move your tasks during the day around to take advantage of that fact, or maybe you can schedule an exercise session during that energy valley.

If you can eke out an extra 5% or 10% performance by making little changes like this, that’s an extra 5% or 10% of your day you can devote to making those big goals happen. If you can dig out an extra half hour in your day by optimizing things, then you have time to invest in three or four microgoals – reaching out to customers, taking care of a personal task, or improving your own skills.

Life-Changing Decisions, Life-Changing Actions
Things change in life. Two years ago, if you told me I would be writing full time in the spare bedroom of my four bedroom home, I would have laughed at you. Four years ago, if you had told me I would have two kids already, I would have thought you were joking. Seven years ago, I was waist-deep in interviews at Microsoft and plotting a move to the West Coast.

That’s where the big goals come in. Most of them should help build up your personal skills and connections so that no matter what twists life hands you, you’re prepared for them. Improve your skills. Build a financial backbone that you can rely on. Seek lots of connections with a wide variety of people. All of these big goals will help you deal well with whatever big life changes might come your way.

Some Thoughts on The Seven Minute Difference
The “daily microgoals list” idea is very solid. It’s one that I’ve already started implementing electronically in a spreadsheet with two wide columns. The one on the left has my big goals. The one to the right is where I list my microgoals for the day. It works quite well.

Most of the book does an effective job of pulling out useful key pieces from other works. I saw elements of a bunch of time management books, business books, networking books, and other things in there. Lewis does a very good job of synthesizing all of these different elements and putting them together in a general context.

The conclusion, that preparation now for the big decisions that may come later is invaluable, is one I wholeheartedly agree with. After all, that’s really what the whole spend less than you earn idea is about. You’re putting away resources now for the big opportunities and situations later on.

Is The Seven Minute Difference Worth Reading?
Lewis takes the fundamentals of a lot of different books and ideas and synthesizes them here, making the overall point that it only takes a few minutes a day to start making changes in your life (and that you can find those few minutes). This is a really empowering message for people that have a big dream but simply feel like they don’t have the time to even attempt achieving it.

The nice part is that the ideas in here work. Lewis does a very good job of putting together little elements of time management, networking, personal growth, and goal setting into a package that really fits the need of that overly busy person with a dream.

If you identify with that description – a person with a very full plate in their professional and personal life, but with a big dream or two you’d like to find space for – The Seven Minute Difference really fits the bill. It actually is a synthesis of a big pile of good books – How to Win Friends and Influence People, Never Eat Alone, First Things First, and Getting Things Done were all strongly evoked here, among others – but that may be perfect for some readers who want a nice overview of how to accomplish their dreams. The others can fill in gaps later on.

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