Category Archives: Book Reviews

You’ve got 12 weeks to complete your 2017 goals

12 weeks? Is that all?

I know, 2017 has sped by in a bit of a blur. However, there are still 12 weeks left to make progress on those goals you’ve spent the majority of the year procrastinating on. The good news is, with a bit of planning and forethought, that’s plenty of time.

Learn to think in 12 week years

If you’ve not read The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran then go and read it now. You can also check out my 12 Week Year Book Review post if you want to know more.

Prioritise

Okay, so 12 weeks is plenty of time to get things done, but it’s not enough time to get everything done. Work out which goals will give you the biggest impact and leverage then discard the rest. If you’ve not done anything about them so far, they can probably wait another few months anyway.

Engage

Don’t do anything you don’t care about deep down. If you want to make 2017 your best year ever, then do the things that will give you satisfaction and a sense of pride. Obligation and guilt are not the motivators here.

Plan, plan, plan

I don’t care if you do it in an app or on paper, but you need to write down a plan. Between now and the end of the year, social and family obligations shoot through the roof, there are holidays and for many of us, lots of shopping. Don’t pretend this won’t zap your time and energy. Open the calendar and plan the work.

Get specific. Plan the tasks that get you to the goal, not just vague references that make you feel like you’ve written without really having to think about it.

Execute

The hardest part of all. Now you have to act on those tasks you’ve defined. Each day, make sure that you’re working towards the goal, rather than getting distracted by lesser tasks that feel like work, but don’t actually get you anywhere.

Finish strong

Although the end of the year is approaching at break neck speed, it really isn’t too late to make it a great year for your productivity. There may be the temptation to put everything off until the New Year, but if you do, then you’ll find reasons not to start then either. Take the first few, small steps and the rest will follow. Plan the work, work the plan.

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5 lessons learned since The Realist’s Guide to Sugar Free

It has been one year since I published The Realist’s Guide to Sugar Free. So much has happened since it’s almost hard to believe.

My goal in writing the book was to help people understand the dangers and extent of processed sugars being added to our lifestyle. So what have I learned in the year since?

As I’m a compulsive reviewer and improver, I sat down and came up with 5 key things.

1. Falling off the wagon is inevitable

Sugar free living is hard. Really hard. If it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t have written the book. Even with the knowledge and experience I have, in the time since I have fallen off the wagon more than once. So what do you do when this happens? You forgive yourself and learn from the experience.

There are two ways sugar creeps back in. External circumstances beyond your control make things difficult. Then there is personal choice/poor impulse control. The first often leads to a prolonged period of the second.

Unless you have total control over your food, then it is likely that you will encounter a processed meal or two. On its own, it can be fine. A few days of extended travel and it’s back to square one. Your body wants to continue eating the delicious food and the pull is irresistible. Sugar addiction is back in full swing and it takes dedicated effort to get back to healthy eating and stick with it.

So, you will slip up and you need to forgive yourself. Don’t beat yourself up, but put a plan in place to start again. Don’t keep listening to the voice that justifies one more cupcake.

2. Discipline begets discipline

The times when I have been most rigorous about being sugar free are the times when I have been on top of things in plenty of other areas too. Sloppy behaviour has a way of spilling over and the opposite is true.

I’m not saying that going sugar free is the key to solving life’s problems. However, if you want to begin a cycle of self-improvement, pick one cornerstone habit and allow yourself to build from there. For me, that is the physical health that I have always found easier to put on the back burner.

3. ‘Big Food’ is already taking advantage of us

Several well known personalities, especially in the UK, have begun to promote the benefits of a reduced sugar lifestyle. Governments are discussing sugar taxes and health providers are finally coming round to the dangers of sugar, rather than a blanket ban on fats. With increased awareness, you might think that we’re getting closer to an easier shopping experience.

You’d be wrong.

Processed, cheap food is about making profit, and marketing is about making more profit for the same experience and calling it a lifestyle. Big Food marketing to undermine consumer’s attempts at sugar free that I’ve already seen includes:

  • X% less sugar than before! Yes, you’ve made it X% smaller and are still charging me the same price (or more, blaming Brexit). Nice try.
  • Only natural sugars! Yes, you’ve started using fruit sugars instead, but your sugar content is just the same. A particular favourite when it comes to children’s snacks.
  • Sugar free/zero sugar! This takes advantage of the increased desire for sugar-free food, whilst still containing a tonne of the worst kinds of artificial sweeteners. 

4. I want to help people, even though I’m an antisocial introvert

More of a personal one, but worth mentioning. A huge surprise has been the enjoyment I’ve had from people reaching out to me for help. I don’t always have the answers, but I love to point people in the right direction. So if you want to help people, don’t think the only way is to become a keynote speaker or ‘in person’ counsellor. The world always needs more positivity and compassion and this can be done in a million tiny ways.

5. Education is key

I’ve been contacted by people all over the world and it is clear that understanding the ingredients of your food is hard. Food labelling still has a long way to go. Manufacturers will not make it easy.

‘Serving size’ is frequently misleading and makes it hard to calculate % sugar (a particular problem in America, although much easier in Europe). ‘Added sugars’ can refer only to the white stuff, rather than fruit sugar syrups. The phrases ‘healthy’ and ‘low sugar’ are poorly defined and frequently unregulated, making it easy to mislead the consumer.

I’m not going to lie, constant vigilance is exhausting. It’s a long road ahead, but we’ll get there.

Several people have asked for the book to be updated to include recipes. The reasons there aren’t any there already are quite simple. Firstly, I’m no chef. Secondly, people want recipes in cookbooks to be interesting and beautiful. Going sugar free is mainly about mastering the mundane, everyday foods. However, if there is an updated revision, then I will consider including some.

Until then, you can of course sign up to get the first week meal plan I’ve followed to get back on the wagon when I’ve fallen off. It’s basic, but it works for me.

Books for entrepreneurs: Tools of Titans review

Tim Ferriss does not know how to write short books. Don’t let the fact his paperback versions could be used to bludgeon someone to death put you off. He’s a master of the soundbite.

He’s just collected more of them than anyone else.

Tools of Titans is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to try life-hacking. It works because it doesn’t expound a single point of view. Instead, Tim has interviewed hundreds of top performers and asked them what they do. As he says, it’s all in asking the right questions:

“What do these people do in the first sixty minutes of each morning? What do their workout routines look like, and why? What books have they gifted most to other people? What are the biggest wastes of time for novices in their field? What supplements do they take on a daily basis?”

Of course, this results in some contradictory approaches. But it never seems like he is doing this to cover all bases and therefore always be right. Instead, it’s clear how certain techniques suit different personality types, or specific sets of circumstances. This allows you to cherry pick the ones that work for you. And if they don’t work, a quick flick through the book and you’re sure to come up with a Plan B.

The book itself is divided into three broad sections: healthy, wealthy and wise. There is fluidity between them all, as certain tips and tricks can be applied effectively in all three life areas. It gives the book a sense of structure though that allows you to start where you need the most help. Tim’s writing voice is quite distinctive, so if you don’t gel with his podcast style, you might struggle with reading. I find him to be a highly engaging speaker, so I went through all 674 pages in a week. Most sections contain direct quotes from his interviewees, so there is plenty of variety to keep your brain engaged.

This is one of those books I would recommend without hesitation to anyone who wanted to level up their life. If you’re looking for productivity tips, diet and exercise hacks, habits and routines, meditation and yes, even raw and candid advice for those who are depressed to the point of suicidal, then this is the book for you.

You might even find the thing you didn’t know you really needed along the way.

You can buy Tools of Titans on Amazon and all other good retailers. For more information about Tim and his work, check out toolsoftitans.com

Books for Entrepreneurs: Essentialism

Greg McKeown’s infamous book, Essentialism, has been on my reading list for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard about it, but those who mentioned it always spoke of its life changing effect.

When you read a lot of business and personal improvement books like I do, you get used to people waxing lyrical about how things will never be the same after adopting strategy x. This may turn out to be one of those rare occurrences where it happens to be true. The constant doing more, but achieving less. Never feeling satisfied or that the day was meaningful.

As I began reading, I was relieved to discover I already had quite a few essentialist habits. I discovered the underlying cause of friction I felt on many projects: my broadly essentialist approach versus the non-essentialist approach being taken.

This meant that in addition to completing the task itself, I had to work out the true intent and purpose of the project. Where some people are happy to just complete any task (usually just taking the easiest route to something approximating done), I have never accepted mediocre as the target to aim for. Instead, I would rather take longer to work out how to provide a valuable outcome.

But although I was embracing essentialism in many areas, in others I was getting woefully distracted. My personal life, especially, was in free-fall at the time of reading this book. In no small part this was due to the mental exhaustion that came with battling work tasks handed to me that were governed by non-essentialist principles.

So how has this book helped me? Largely by giving me the confidence not to accept a task without getting those in charge of the project to clarify their thinking about it first. Sometimes, the person handing out that task is me. As a freelancer or entrepreneur, understanding essentialism is vital for avoiding burnout.

It’s hard to ask difficult questions sometimes, but it gives me the boundaries to not only do good work, but also valuable work.

The best part of this is that I ultimately freed up valuable creative energy to expend into my personal life and projects. I developed a new infrastructure for 2017 that allowed me to be location independent and travel.It also gives me the framework to consider carefully my side projects and see which ones are ready to move from hobby to business and which ones simply need to be cut from my life, no matter how enjoyable they seem on the surface.

For the first time since reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I have experienced a fundamental shift in what I believe is achievable and what my life needs to look like to get there. The confidence comes through in the decision making process. Whilst success is never guaranteed, I am giving myself the best possible shot at living a meaningful life, rather than a purely busy and productive one.

With challenging economic and political times ahead, Essentialism is one of the books I would recommend for anyone who wants to make the most of future opportunities in the changing workforce.

Essential books for entrepreneurs: The 12 Week Year

As someone who implemented David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology back in 2009, I’m no stranger to the review process. The weekly review is the element that keeps the system running. Over the years, I moved from just a weekly review to also implementing monthly and quarterly reviews. To top it off, an end of year review and goal setting day seemed to be a significant amount of personal time given to strategic thinking and planning.

Yet somehow, I still didn’t always achieve my most important goals.

The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran is an interesting take on how to achieve greater success and results, rather than being purely a productivity system.

Near the beginning of the book, Moran offers up this truth: there are always more ideas than you can effectively implement. Any entrepreneur or freelancer trying to build a business will have experienced this. It is more often than not the source of that subtle source of procrastination – with so much you could do, where do you start?

“The number one problem is a lack of execution”

Moran’s answer is to begin by getting rid of the annual goal setting process. His underlying reasons for this actually make a lot of sense. With a whole year ahead, it is easy to overestimate what you will do and fill your plan with projects that will never come to fruition. Twelve months feels like a long time, whereas twelve weeks is in the foreseeable future. You can complete a major project in twelve weeks, but you are less likely to attempt three or four that then linger with the faint whiff of failure associated to them.

Instead, the twelve week year is designed to give you a tactical framework to shift your mindset. It is a system that creates accountability, deadlines and focus on key opportunities.

By working only on activities that focus you on the main goals for that twelve week sprint, rather than a longer term vision, he argues that you will achieve as much – if not more – than you would with a set of yearly goals that continually get deferred until the final quarter.

The 12 Week Year does not dismiss vision and longer term strategy entirely. It is essential to have some higher level overview to determine which projects are the vital ones for the next twelve weeks.  The subtle shift is changing the emphasis so that a failure in the current twelve week cycle can’t be ‘made up’ later on in the end of the year. Instead, daily habits and actions build momentum to achieve the ‘end of year’ success in a quarter of the time. To make sure the days are planned with tasks that are actionable and measurable, rather than drifting through towards some vague goal, is essential to staying on track. It becomes about clarity and adding value, rather than simply completing a task list.

My one major criticism of the book is that it doesn’t give enough emphasis to the potential dangers of burnout. Renewal is hugely important, especially when you are working for yourself and there is no forced cut off time at 5pm where you forget about the day. As an entrepreneur it is more likely that your projects feel more like passions, which in turn means you are more likely to push on to the point of exhaustion.

This book encourages the reader towards working frequent cycles of high intensity activity, but doesn’t address the dangers of this in a balanced way. Working consistently on a project at a high level requires more than giving yourself  ‘a weekend off’ at the end of the twelve weeks to recover.

However, I’ve used The 12 Week Year to complete a significant number of projects that have been hanging around on my yearly goals list for a while now. The techniques have been proven to produce results. For anyone starting out who needs to take charge of their own career, or for those who want to finally achieve things they’ve been dreaming of for years, I would thoroughly recommend this book.

It’s quitting time: How Jon Acuff’s Quitter changed my life

I first read Jon Acuff’s Quitter 3 years ago on vacation. I even wrote a review on it.

I loved the book. It had many useful insights. So, did I come home from that sunny beachside view, walk into the office and hand in my notice?

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No, I did not.

Why? Not because I didn’t want to. At the end of the book, when you feel the glimmering possibility of quitting your day job for your dream job, there is a pop quiz. One that gives you an idea of whether or not you’d make it in the real world.

I answered the questions and, despite knowing doing so wouldn’t give me the answer I wanted, I answered them honestly. The result? I was putting in some work, but not in enough areas to enable me to quit. I was annoyed with the outcome, but only because it was telling me what I already knew. It wasn’t giving me a quick out. It wasn’t giving me any kind of false hope.

The false hope is a common flaw of many business / self-help books. Their purpose is to sell you a concept. The promise that the book will change your life forever if you just follow their new approach or idea. Life isn’t that simple. Especially when it comes to quitting a stable, good job in a tough economy.

So I went back to work, but I also looked seriously at my side projects. My passion projects. Instead of keeping them as hobbies, I made them into real, practical things. Hobbies are great, but they don’t come with obligations and deadlines. You don’t hustle on a hobby. Writing for fun is the best thing ever, but I had to understand the difference between that and writing things that would allow me to follow my dreams.

pexels-photo-62471

Every year since that first experience, during my two weeks looking out over the ocean, I read the book and took the quiz again. Each year, my score got a little higher. It was slow, but it was progress.

Then one day, without that sunny view, I could feel the change in the air. It was a normal Tuesday morning, but something tickled the back of my mind. I grabbed the book and before work, I took the survey. I got a score of 65. That seemed pretty good. Higher than ever before. I flicked to the scorecard to double check.

The answer: it’s quitting time.

Still, felt like I had some work commitments and loose ends to tie up. It seemed like the decent thing to do. I also see there was a little bit of fear involved with quitting. A reason to put it off for a little while longer.

Now, after so many years of wishing it was time to quit, I finally have.

In four weeks, it will be my last day with my present company before going it alone for a while. It will be tough, but it is the most exciting thing I have ever done. Persistence has paid off and Quitter gave me the framework to create my best chance of success, rather than an impulsive leap into the unknown.

Thanks Jon!

You can find my original Jon Acuff’s Quitter review here.

7 books that changed my life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I just haven’t been reading enough. It is one of my goals for the year, but in amongst everything else it just seems to keep slipping. I find myself really struggling to get into anything new.

Which led me to pondering the question of which books have really touched my life. Perhaps if I can understand the things I’ve loved in the past, it will help me better choose what I want to read now. Once I started thinking about, it was tougher than I thought it was going to be. After all, how do you define such an impact? In the end, everything I selected met the following criteria: I have read them multiple times; they led to me doing something new or different and when I think about them, I instinctively feel they are comforting and familiar.

Only one on the list is non-fiction, so I’ll start with that.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

Perhaps this is the book that has had a direct impact on my daily life more than any other. I read it at least twice a year. I fall off the waggon about as often. But since I first read it, I have been able to organise my life and achieve way more than I would have otherwise. It allows my brain to feel less frantic in the work world, which is a gift in itself. Mind like water is still the goal.

Aiden Chambers, Dance On My Grave

I remember getting this book from the library when I was about thirteen or fourteen, venturing into the teen section. I didn’t really spend much time in the teen section as I moved straight to adult fiction fairly quickly. Yet this book about crazy, unpredictable, teenage love and the lengths it will make you go to when you lose it, opened my eyes. It also gave me the defining moment of what I wanted to have done after my own death, because I thought how useful:

“popped into the burning fiery furnace and reduced to manageable proportions, to whit: five ozs of fine grey ash, suitable for the making of egg timers”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Perfect writing, and memories of eating mint matchmakers at Christmas while reading story after story. I still do it most years. I’ve always been a little bit in love with the Holmes of the books, rather than the caricature of TV and film (Jeremy Brett excluded, obviously).

C.S Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

I am forever grateful to my parents for buying me the complete Chronicles of Narnia as a box set.

Still right here on my bookshelf

Still right here on my bookshelf

Mainly I’m grateful because I read The Magician’s Nephew first rather than The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, so the magical wardrobe made entire sense to me. I’ve been getting annoyed with people who haven’t ever since. It was probably this that gave me my first love of fantasy and the concept that reading could make you escape into another world. Probably still couldn’t read the scene where Aslan is killed without crying, either.

Anne Rice, Interview With A Vampire

A quick jump into much darker elements of fantasy. My Dad had a copy of this on the bookcase and it was probably the first of many things I read when I was too young. There were pretty strict controls over age appropriate TV in my house growing up, but books were (mostly) fair game. If anything, this book taught me the importance of voice; the narration throughout this book feels so authentic, you feel like you are there.

Barbara Vine, A Fatal Inversion

Interestingly, I think I watched the TV series of this before the book. Certainly whenever I read it, I picture the actors, even though they don’t really resemble the descriptions in the book. That being said, I have honestly lost count of the times I have read this. There is no doubt it influenced my dreams for impossibly long, hot summers and aspirations of freedom. Not murder though.

Mostly.

Michael Connelly, The Poet

Finally, this book was a gift for my 21st birthday. By then I was neck deep in an English degree and books had been sucked of all joy. I really didn’t enjoy reading at all. I couldn’t just read any more, I had to analyse. It was a bloody awful time. Then my Mom & Dad got me this book (have you got the sense yet of how big a thing reading was in my house growing up?) and it had nothing at all to do with anything that could be related to a course. It was a modern thriller and a way back into enjoying crime. I read it in more or less one sitting. It made me remember why I loved reading for reading’s sake, not just to pass an exam. It also got me back into enjoying crime fiction and mystery after a time away.

So, I’ve just taken that trip down memory lane and I’m not sure if it helps or not. It certainly doesn’t narrow things down to author or genre. I suppose I’m just looking for characters I can engage with, voices that are authentic and plots that I can’t predict. I’ve also realised I’m in much the same slump as I was back at university. I spend so much time editing these days (both work and personal) that I feel like I’m just seeing the words, never the story itself. It’s probably going to take a really good book to shock my brain out of that state again.

I just hope I find it soon.

Anyway, I can obviously recommend all of the books above if you haven’t read them already. If you have anything that you think can break through the ice in my brain, then leave a rec in the comments and I’ll gratefully take a look.