Interview with Allyson Lewis, author of The Seven Minute Difference
Allyson Lewis is a motivational speaker, a business coach, and the author of The Seven Minute Difference: Small Steps to Big Changes, which tells readers how to change their lives using micro-actions.
The Renegade Writer: Since we’re all freelance writers, I think a lot of us are going to be interested in how you came up with the concept for The Seven Minute Difference.
Allyson Lewis: Well, a long time ago when I wanted to write my first book, several people said to me your books will come out of what you teach. I teach public seminars and basically the first 197 pages of my book was verbatim the class that I teach. I think the easiest thing that you can do is teach… it forces you to create content that people want, and then you take that content and translate it into the written format.
RW: How is your book doing?
AL: The book came out two years ago and it’s done fairly well. Most people understand that with the average business book, only 2% will sell more than five thousand copies in the entire time in publication. So business books are pretty tough because there’s not a huge market for them. This book has actually done fairly well; it sold forty thousand copies, maybe a little more. For a young author who is new, I think that’s pretty exciting. But where you really make your money as a writer is on the speaking circuit, and there’s a huge need for educational content from writers who have a message.
RW: How did you get on the speaking circuit?
AL: You have to have a very strong niche. I’m in the financial services industry; I’ve been there twenty-six years now. I actually created some software in 1993 and they hired me to go out and teach technical software. I found out while I was teaching about this technical stuff that what people really wanted was life skills — which is what The Seven Minute Difference is about. They wanted to find out how they could be more productive, enjoy life more, and understand their purpose. But we are all so busy, so how can we do that with a laser focus in seven minutes at a time? That’s where the idea of micro-actions and really intense focus came in, and that’s what The Seven Minute Difference is about.
RW: Why seven minutes? Why not six or ten or eight?
AL: There was a Harvard study done and they found that the average length of attention span for a corporate executive is seven minutes. So I felt we have to work within what we have — and I would say that in my industry, the financial services industry, seven minutes might even be stretching it. Writers are probably the same way. We’re so creative that we work for about two or three minutes, then our mind goes on a mental vacation. It was a great breakthrough for me when I realized I wasn’t crazy, I was just unfocused.
RW: How can you lengthen your attention span if you’re at two or three minutes like most of us writers?
AL: I think it’s discipline. I work with a kitchen timer — actually now I work with my iPhone timer — and I would start out with ten minute increments and would say to my team, no phone calls, the door is closed, I’m going to work on this project for ten minutes. I would get more done in those ten minutes than I would get done all day. Then I started lengthening it and said okay, I’m going to try it now for fifteen minutes. Then I would lengthen it to twenty minutes until finally I can actually concentrate for up to an hour at a time but without interruption. It probably tripled my productivity.
RW: That’s a great idea. About the micro-actions, what if you have a task that you can’t get done in the seven minutes?
AL: Yes, life isn’t actually a seven-minute field, obviously. Like if you’re writing a book, you can’t do that in seven minutes. But what I do think you can do in seven minutes is I think you can create game plans, I think you can create time tables, I think you can get rid of clutter that’s holding you up. There are a lot of little minor obstacles that we use as excuses every day, to say “I can’t write my book.” The best thing I get done in seven minutes is to have what I call a written plan of action. The worksheet is on our website and it’s the one page that has changed my life. It’s called The Daily Progress Report; I have it sitting on my desk right this second.
My goal is to come in at the end of the day, at 4:30 before I leave, and write down the three, four, five things that I need to get accomplished the next day. The little exercise of writing down three or four things that I have to get done takes two minutes; it doesn’t even take seven minutes. It does take another five minutes or so to clean off my desk because the human brain cannot stand unfinished tasks. Even if you just have to hide it from yourself or file it, start out the day with a clean desk. The only thing that’s on my desk is this Daily Progress Report with three, four, or five things.
My goal is to come in and do what we call the five before 11: We’re supposed to accomplish five important tasks before 11 o’clock each morning. If I can do those five before 11, I assure you I’m way ahead of where I used to be. Then the rest of the day is mine to be creative, to explore, to not be under such pressure. So the seven minute part of it is getting the list together the day before so I can come in and know what I need to do.
RW: Do you use your timer for the five before 11?
AL: I don’t use a timer on that unless I have a project that’s going to take long enough that I have to specifically be timed. Here’s something else I use the timer for: I don’t like to be late to anything. In fact, I like to arrive about ten minutes early to every meeting or every call. So I’ll set my timer for about 15 minutes before I need to leave or about 30 minutes before I have to drive somewhere.
RW: When set the timer for 15 minutes before you need to leave, it must help you focus because you’re not always thinking, “Oh, I have to go soon, I have to go soon.”
AL: I like to work right until it goes off, and then I just stop. It is hard sometimes to just stop midstream but you can come back and pick it up.
RW: What is the Two Percent Rule?
AL: We’ll see writers write these great outlines for books, or great book proposals but they won’t write the query letters. They won’t do the last step right. We call it the Two Percent Rule: We’re good at doing 98% of the work but somehow we can’t finish the last 2%. I think what we have to do is we have to find mentors, like you — someone who has done it before us. And we have to be trained to close that final loop in our work lives. If we’re going to do something, don’t do it until it’s good enough, do it until it’s finished. Don’t do it 98% of the way, do it 100% of the way on every task…finish every task so you don’t leave things open all across your work life.
RW: Are there any productivity tools or tips that you’ve heard that don’t work for you?
AL: The to-do list is my biggest problem…I would start a to-do list and it would just roll over and roll over and roll over. I don’t do well with twenty things on a
to-do lists because I’m just frozen. I do so much better with two or three things with an accountability person looking over my shoulder saying, “Hey, I want you to finish this tomorrow, let’s create our top three or four priorities and let’s do them.”
I just think we have to do what we say we do. Everyone can have a to-do list but a to-do list is of no value if we don’t do them.
RW: In your book, you talk about checking your goals and working on them every day.
AL: The theory comes from Brian Tracy. He thinks that you have to have long-term goals. I feel better working from ninety day goals. You need to write them down every day because they burn them into your mind. It’s the same goals, you’re just restating them again and again and when you restate the goals, they must be in present tense as if they’ve already happened: “I am a best selling author; I am a best selling author. I am in the best physical shape of my life; I am in the best physical shape of my life.” So you’re just searing them into your brain until you’re basically forcing yourself to believe them.
RW: Do you have any advice for freelance writers?
AL: I am a freelance writer: I write for Morningstar.com and for Advisor Today magazine. I think really the only thing that matters for an article is the title. I think that the title is going to drive readership and the title has to be very specific as to what it is. I don’t think we have to be so clever with innuendos; the best titles are those that say exactly what you’re writing about and draw the reader in. The Seven Minute Difference is a great title because that’s what it is, it’s about making a difference in your own lives…I don’t want to be the same tomorrow as I am today, but I am a busy businessperson — so how can I do that seven minutes at a time? Working from the title down has been the best thing I can do. [lf]