Tag Archives: book review

Top 5 books of 2017

Unlike my top 5 blogs of 2017, this post was much easier to do. I set myself a goal of reading a book per week during 2017. It didn’t work out perfectly, but it averaged out at about that rate.

However, despite having almost fifty to choose from, it was really easy to pick the standout ones for me. 

Tools of Titans

I wrote a full review of Tools of Titans earlier in the year because it made such an immediate impact on me. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it certainly will help you ask better questions. If you take nothing else from it, the whole book is a fascinating insight into how top performers in every field think and behave. When it comes to their beliefs, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, but there are certainly some patterns worth taking note of.

All The President’s Men

Technically this was an audiobook, but that still counts. In the current political world, it was a fascinating insight into the time and effort required to maintain democracy. Being British, I didn’t really know much about Watergate, but reading this did give me hope that ultimately, as long as good people keep doing hard work, there will be a day of reckoning for all those politicians and fat cats who perpetuate lies to benefit their own agendas.

The Year of Living Danishly

I loved this book. It was funny, quirky and a staple in my general mission for 2017 to declutter and strip my life back to the basics of what I really want and need. Given that I love hot weather and the sun, I didn’t think there would be anything about the physical location of this book that would appeal to me. But it’s about more than just daily temperatures and hours of sunlight. It’s about what makes you happy even when conditions are extreme. Simplicity is a great way of working out what gives you joy when many of the distractions are gone.

Black Box Thinking

If you want to learn from your mistakes and actually benefit from them, then Black Box Thinking is a must read. Whether you’re self-employed, a cog in a big machine or at the forefront of any decision making, this book will make you see why you can’t always trust yourself. The examples involved are often extreme and terrifying. Can’t understand why people won’t back down when the facts are so clearly stacked against them? You will after reading this.

Turtles All The Way Down

Whilst the others were all non-fiction, Turtles All The Way Down had to go on the list. Technically a YA book, it’s also wonderful for adults. This book vividly brought to life how the crawling compulsion of OCD feels. It was beautifully written and deserving of all the accolades and positive reviews heaped upon it. It’s great to see John Green publishing again after the phenomenal and crippling success of The Fault In Our Stars.

So there you have it. The best books I discovered in 2017 and why. Feel free to tell me others I really should have read in the comments section below so I can add them to my 2018 list.

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Books for writers: Shadows Beneath (Writing Excuses Anthology) review

With NaNoWriMo only a week away, instead of my usual ‘book for entrepreneurs’ review, I thought I would focus specifically on a book for writers.

Most writers (aspiring and published) have read Stephen King’s On Writing. I love that book, but most of the engaging content is the autobiographical stuff, rather than the writing parts. So I thought I would take a look at a much more hands on, practical book: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.

The book was released in 2014 and often gets overlooked as being a short story anthology, rather than a practical guide to writing. It follows the writing process of the four main Writing Excuses hosts from story concept to finished work. Side note, if you’re a writer and haven’t checked out the Writing Excuses Podcast then go there now. It’s one of the best ‘craft’ podcasts out there in a realm of marketing ones.

The first part of the book contains the completed short stories. This means that those who aren’t interested in the writing process can just enjoy reading some quality fiction. For writers, it is the second part that is interesting: the ‘making of’ section.

For each of the stories, we can read a transcript of the Writing Excuses episode where they brainstormed ideas. For people who wonder where ideas come from, this is gold in itself. Then there is the first draft of the story, transcripts of workshopping discussions and intermittent drafts and commentaries from the authors. Finally, there is a version showing all the edits from the first draft to the published edition, full of cuts and additions.

So why read this book?

During NaNoWriMo, the idea is to take an idea and write. Write each day and get 50,000 words down by the end of the month. Editing has no place here. Often at the end, we are left with 50,000 words that need some pretty serious work. Shadows Beneath is a great way to see that even without these crazy time pressures, the first draft is never perfect. It can be hard to imagine that our favourite, successful authors struggle to write a first draft and that it often doesn’t work. It can be hard to believe they reach out to others and say ‘hey, I’m struggling with this and could use some help’. This book will teach lessons in craft and development, but it also shows the spirit of community and encouragement.

Which, when you think about it, has always been at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

You can buy Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology here. If you can, I’d recommend getting the print edition, as it allows you to flip back and forth much easier when following the revision process.

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

How to create a successful morning routine

Why set up a morning routine?

These are a few benefits I’ve found from my own routine over the years.

For many years, a corporate job took most of my time and energy. I would come home from work and have nothing left to give for things that were important to me. I wanted to be a writer, but I never actually wrote anything. This all changed when I dedicated just an hour every morning to my writing. Having a morning routine allows you to dedicate time to the things that matter to you most.

Precious alone time. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with interruptions, whether in real life, social media or any other online input. A successful morning routine, one that was clearly defined, gave me a definite course of action, so I always knew what to do next. That removed ‘check twitter’ from my list of options. That space gave me time to think about what was important and also sheltered me from negative bombardment from the moment I woke up.

There are many other benefits, but those two give the biggest returns for a happier and more fulfilling life.

So how do you set up a morning routine?

It’s easier than you think.

Firstly, ask yourself what you hope to achieve from doing this. Everyone will have different objectives. Is it to make time for your creative projects? Is it to make sure you get in a good workout each day? Or perhaps it is to read or work on personal development. What matters most to you will make up the core of the routine.

Secondly, decide how much time you want to devote to this activity. Be realistic. If you want to do a thirty minute workout but have to go to the gym, then include the travel time and showering afterwards. No one will thank you if you run out of time for that. The amount of time required will impact on how early you need to get up in order to complete the routine before beginning your existing obligations.

Thirdly, don’t start too big. Habits take time to become routines and the more you add in, the more likely you are to become overwhelmed and give up. My morning routine started out with a simple, single task: write 1000 words before breakfast. Over time, that has developed into a multi-step routine, but I needed to get used to doing that single but significant task first.

Be in it for the long haul

So what does my routine look like now? It combines several elements that I have seen successful authors, businesspeople and entrepreneurs confirm as being instrumental for them.

1) Begin with a pint of water. I used to go straight to coffee, but never underestimate the power of rehydrating after 7 hours of sleeping.

2) Write 1000 words. That’s still my big goal after 6 years of doing this.

3) Morning Pages – adapted from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. You’re really supposed to do them before anything else, but for me they have actually always been more effective after my half-asleep writing session. The last page always contains three things I am grateful for that morning.

4) 20 Pushups. Really not many, but it makes me feel like I’ve at least done something physical and makes me more likely to do other activity throughout the day.

5) Affirmations and visualisations. Yes, I still feel like an idiot sometimes saying these things out loud, but they do work. I’m shy and introverted by nature, so this gives me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone when I need to.

6) Goals review. Don’t work hard to climb that ladder just to discover it’s up against the wrong tree. Work out what you want and remind yourself every day to stay focused on what matters, rather than what simply feels urgent.

7) Calendar review. It doesn’t matter what grand goals you have for that day if your calendar says you have back-to-back meetings. Again, be realistic.

8) Task list review. By the time I’ve reviewed what matters (goals) and what’s immovable (calendar), it makes it much easier to delete, delegate or defer tasks on my list. What remains still needs to get done, but this way I don’t waste my energy on unnecessary tasks before I get to them.

The power of a morning routine means that these tasks take less time as you repeat them. The whole process above now takes somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. That’s from 6-8am at the latest. That gives me a whole hour to have breakfast, get showered and be at my desk by 9am.

I’ve already achieved things that matter to me and mentally prepared for my day by the point most people are just thinking about booting up the laptop.

None of this will work unless…

A meticulously planned morning routine with all the best intentions and activities will still fail unless you actively set yourself up for success the night before. Unless you have the luxury of being beholden to no-one, you’re going to have to sacrifice some morning sleep to get this done.

A successful morning routine means ensuring you go to bed early enough to get the quality sleep you need. If there are any objects/spaces that are essential to your routine, then these should be found or made clear the night before to remove as much friction as possible and ensure you can make every minute of your morning routine count.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas about how to set up a morning routine and how to grow it into something that makes a huge difference in the level of success and satisfaction you get from your day. If you have any questions or thoughts then drop them in the comments section below, or you can get in touch with me by email at realist@sherrinicholds.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.

How I Did It: The Realist’s Guide to Sugar Free

After almost a year of being sugar-free, I’ve finally written a book about it. You see, despite being stubborn and competitive (mostly with myself), living a life without sugar was hard. Really hard. Despite understanding all the associated health risks, I still struggled to give it up and then remain virtuous in the face of temptation.

Let me tell you something about myself: I don’t like failing.

Every self help book will tell you failure is necessary. Trying and failing is how you learn what works and what does’t. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. So despite several epic failures that resulted in a large tub of ice and a spoon, I have been determined to find a way to remove sugar from my diet, yet still live in the real world. Along the way I’ve been keeping track and it is the results of my journey that I’ve put into this book.

therealistsguidetosugarfree-2

This is not a cook book. It is not a detox plan. It is a step by step programme of strategies to help you eliminate sugar in the face of the temptations life will throw at you. Knowing how to cook a delicious four course sugar-free meal won’t help you at all if you don’t actually find the motivation to do it on a daily basis. Most people I know are too busy working or chasing after small children to be able to put that kind of time into planning and prepping a meal. It’s a nice idea, but it just doesn’t work for most of us.

So if you want a humorous and honest guide to eliminating sugar from your life, then this is the book for you. Even if you’re not sure you want to quit sugar completely, the easy to understand information will still help you make better choices when faced with the temptation and sweet food marketing you’ll encounter every day.

Blurb:

A humorous and honest guide to eliminating sugar from your diet. For good.

Quitting sugar in the real world is hard. Sugar is everywhere and your friends think you’re mad for not eating cake. You’ve done the 8 week detox plan and part of you still craves chocolate so much that you develop a mild twitch when you see a brightly coloured wrapper on the shelves in front of you.

Deeply addictive, sugar is everywhere. Even added to the most unlikely foods, the majority of us exceed the recommended daily intake without even realising it. Instead of teaching you how to cook fake cake, or pretending that quinoa really is an exciting grain that will revolutionise your view on salads, this book guides you through the myths about sugar in our food and through the realities of addiction. The 9 step action plan then helps you make the change and really stick to it.
Even if you’re not quite ready to eliminate all sugar from your life, this book contains practical tips to help you shop wisely, create good habits and sustain better lifestyle choices.

Available at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk