The 30 Second Habit With A Lifelong Impact

What follows is a beautiful Essentialist practice in a gorgeous piece written by my friend Robyn Scott (one of WIRED’s 50 People About to Change the World). Enjoy.


There are no quick fixes. I know this as a social science junkie, who’s read endless books and blogs on the subject, and tried out much of the advice — mostly to no avail. So I do not entitle this post lightly. And I write it only having become convinced, after several months of experimentation, that one of the simplest pieces of advice I’ve heard is also one of the best.

It is not from a bestselling book — indeed no publisher would want it: even the most eloquent management thinker would struggle to spin a whole book around it. Nor is it born out of our world of digital excess and discontent. Instead, it was given by a man born in the 19th century, to his teenage grandson, today in his fifth decade.

The man in question, an éminence grise of the business world, is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He has helped devise brands that are household names. These days, working only when he feels he has something to offer, he is parachuted in to solve stock price threatening corporate crises. Occasionally, when he’s sufficiently interested, he pens speeches for Fortune 500 CEOs and politicians, his words billed out at six figures. He is exceptionally well read, and also writes prolifically. Novels. But just for fun: on completion, he destroys them. He does not see the point in being published, or of seeking publicity in general. Amongst his friends are some of the most powerful people on the planet — from business leaders, to politicians, actors and other luminaries of the arts. But Google him, and you will find barely a ripple on the cyber seas.

I met him first over a coffee in his apartment, to discuss the strategy for a highly political non-profit working in Africa. Around his table sat an eclectic mix of very vocal people. Our host, making the coffee, said almost nothing. But on the few occasions he did interject, with a brief question or observation, it invariably clarified exactly what mattered— politely sweeping away the sludge of opinion that clogs such discussions. It was masterful: like watching a conductor of the London Philharmonic coaxing a small town student orchestra into shape.

So when he shared some of the best advice he’d ever received, I was captivated.

If you only do one thing, do this

He was in his early teens, about to start senior school, when his grandfather took him aside and told him the following:

Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds — no more, no less — to write down the most important points. If youalways do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay.

He did, and he was. In everything he has done since, with such accomplishment, and with enough room still to experience life so richly. He later inducted into the pact both his sons, who have excelled in their young careers.

I’ve been trying it out for a few months. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  1. It’s not note taking: Don’t think, just because you write down everything in a meeting, that you’re excused from the 30 second summation. Though brief, this exercise is entirely different from taking notes. It’s an act of interpretation, prioritisation and decision-making.
  2. It’s hard work: Deciding what’s most important is exhausting. It’s amazing how easy it is to tell yourself you’ve captured everything that matters, to find excuses to avoid this brief mental sprint — a kind of 100 metres for your brain.
  3. Detail is a trap: Precisely because we so often, ostensibly, capture everything, we avoid the hard work of deciding what few things count. So much of excellence is, of course, the art of elimination. And the 30 second review stops you using quantity as an excuse.
  4. You must act quickly: If you wait a few hours, you may recall the facts, but you lose the nuance. And this makes all the difference in deciding what matters. Whether it’s the tone in someone’s voice, or the way one seemingly simple suggestion sparks so many others, or the shadow of an idea in your mind triggered by a passing comment.
  5. You learn to listen better, and ask better questions: Once you get into the habit of the 30 second review, it starts to change the way you pay attention, whether listening to a talk or participating in a discussion. It’s like learning to detect a simple melody amidst a cacophony of sound. And as you listen with more focus, and ask better questions which prompt actionable answers, so your 30 second review becomes more useful.
  6. You’re able to help others more: Much of what makes the 30 second cut are observations about what matters to other people. Even if the purpose is to help better manage different interests in future conversations, it also helps you understand others’ needs, and so solve their problems. This does not surprise me: in months of interviewing people who make generous connections, I’ve been struck by how many have their own unconscious version of the 30 second review: focused on the question of how best they can help.
  7. It gets easier and more valuable: Each time you practice, it gets a little easier, a little more helpful, and little more fun.



Read the original post: The 30 Second Habit With A Lifelong Impact – Linkedin Blog


16 thoughts on “The 30 Second Habit With A Lifelong Impact

  1. Mario Kroll says:

    Thank you for sharing this. This seems like very helpful advice. I just started using this, and have used it in the past, but not as consciously as you outline here. I think you are absolutely spot on. I’m finding that scanning my notes, putting them in Evernote and ensuring I do a brief summary of either core points, next actions or simply distilling the most important things from the call or meeting has been tremendously helpful to make sure I listened fully engaged, started to transfer the information to longer term memory and also identified any logical next steps or immediate applicability.

  2. Vuyiswa Ncontsa says:

    I am keen to put this to practice as I often take long notes that make me lose focus on what is being said and then not remembering without referring to the notes!

  3. Jonathan says:

    Simple, powerful and revolutionary. The 7 point explanation for why this is valuable was very helpful. i particularly appreciate #5. Any activity that helps one lister better and ask better questions is already worthy of attention and attempt in my opinion. I’m going to try this….

  4. thierry koehrlen says:

    Thank you Greg. Great tip with huge potential benefits.
    In addition, it also looks like a good brain (and senses) exercice, to be super concentrated to do the exercice correctly.

  5. kaushik panchal says:

    Thanks for this post it really resonates with much of the way in which I work. In fact over the last few years I have created a project which is all about helping take a step back form the day to day details and look at why you did something, instead of just what you did. In many ways it is very similar to the technique you described in your post. The process of reflection is difficult and it often requires a tool to help a person make the space to have that time to reflect. The project is called 168 (the number of hours in a week). Take a look and please let me know what you think.

  6. Toby Jenkins says:

    Thanks so much Greg and Robyn!

    “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience.” by John Dewey is one of my favourite quotes.

    I’ve been trying to do a reflection as the end to my daily ritual, but this 30 seconds after every meeting takes it to a new level.

    Thanks again!


  7. Kyle C says:

    Interesting, simple idea. Adding to the bottom of all personal agendas for the next month — we’ll see what comes from it!

    Thanks for sharing, Greg… Great stuff, per the usual!

  8. Luminita Cristina Simion says:

    Dear Greg ,
    Thank you for this interesting column ; I am not so young ,but I will follow this advice and start practicing this habit ; very useful and very simple , but meanwhile very difficult as you need discipline and will to do it .

  9. John says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed reading this! I think most people have a elder member of the family who likes to pass along wisdom they have learned through scar based experiences. Although the content can vary from family to family, usually there is a common link. These bits of wisdom aim to make your life less complicated. It could be “honesty is the best policy” (save yourself time by not having to dig yourself out of a lie later), or “Do what makes you happy” (avoid the mental anguish and constant wish for finding something that satisfies each of the 50 criteria you believe is important and focus on “does it make you happy? Yes,? Do it.”

  10. Douglas Brown says:

    Great idea. And add whatever action is required to move forward on the the important point to your calendar.

    Having said that, this retrospection should not divert you from publishing a fairly detailed version of the meeting notes.
    (a) Most of the people in the meeting won’t write anything down. No wonder actions don’t get followed up on; why should they? Nobody remembers what they were … until the next meeting, when they remember things rather differently from what they did agree to and everyone else already starting acting accordingly.
    (b) One of the key people will likely not be there. Life is that way. Decent meeting notes will let them know where everybody moved to while they were out.
    (c) At some point in the future there will be turnover. A quick read through of the notes of actual meetings, even of 50+ weekly meetings, will bring a person up to speed much faster than poring over dense and probably unused policy manuals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *