Following my own advice

I just uninstalled the Facebook app off my phone.

Shock! Horror! How could I do such a thing?

Well, yesterday I gave a class to some students on a professional writing course at the University of Suffolk here in Ipswich. The topic was time management, and my advice boiled down to the following key points:

  1. Distinguish between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’. Most things that come in appear urgent but are not important. Many things that are important (like writing the next book) do not feel urgent. Prioritise the important over the urgent.
  2. Create assets. Assets are anything that add value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both. A book is an asset if it boosts your reputation, or makes money, or both. (My first book The Swordsman’s Companion made me precisely no money between 2004 when it was published and 2013 when I self-published it. But it put me on the map as a swordsmanship instructor.) In the case of the students present their degree would be an asset, as would a blog they maintain, or work they do that can go in a portfolio to show clients. Facebook status updates? Not assets.
  3. Put first things first. Try to get some work done on an asset before checking email or anything else. Your inbox is everyone else’s agenda. Your assets are your agenda.

On Monday morning this week I followed my own advice to perfection. I got up and did my meditation, had breakfast with the kids and walked them to school, then came home and produced the final videos for my Footwork course (which is now complete, with students enrolled and everything), and edited some videos for my Medieval Dagger course (which is also now complete). After about two and a half hours of full-on creative and productive work, my computer was tied up rendering video, so I took a break. I did some breathing training, took a shower and got properly dressed… And checked my emails for the first time that day. My creative intention had not had a chance to get derailed.

Back in 2006, in the days just after publishing The Duellist’s Companion and right before my wedding, the server that hosted the school website and my emails broke. Five years of emails, my entire inbox, everything, gone in an instant. At a rather busy time in a self-employed person’s life. But you know what? I can’t think of a single bad thing that happened because of it. Not one. Everyone who mattered (such as my future wife) had other ways to get hold of me. Every important email got sent again by the person who hadn’t gotten a reply yet. The wedding went off without a hitch (she showed up and said “I do”. Everything else is a blur). There are two takeaways from this. 1. Backups are important for your important work, but probably not so much for your emails. 2. Very few emails are truly important.

Whenever I talk like this, people jump up and down about how critical their rapid email responses are to keeping their jobs. My answer is in the form of a book: Deep Work by Cal Newport. To sum up, firstly, your job probably doesn’t genuinely value your rapid response, they just expect it. Most knowledge workers don’t put “I respond fast to email” on their CVs. You can train your co-workers off treating email like instant messaging. Sure, I’m in an unusual position, but Cal is not- he’s a Computer Science professor, with all the admin crap that goes with that, so read his book and take his word for it. But you might find my contact page instructive in setting expectations. I’ll save you clicking and quote:

Hi! You can email me, which I prefer, or find me online on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and Twitter, or if you like, try this spiffy form. Whichever you choose, please bear in mind that I don’t have a secretary, but I do have family, students, books to write and a school to run. This means that I think I’m doing pretty well if I answer your email within three working days, and any social media message within seven. After that time has expired, and there is still no response, try emailing again!

Then, when I reply to someone’s email in two days, their expectations are exceeded and we’re all happy.

Secondly, do you really want a job in which your primary value is not doing deep creative work, but simply reacting to emails? Really?

Getting and staying out of a reactive mindset is critically important to getting serious work done. Reactivity is not creative. Sure, creative work is often done in reaction to something; protest art, for instance, but the process of creating that art is not reactive, and a wise artist doesn’t let anyone see their work until the first draft is done.

This goes to one of the most important ideas for living a worthwhile life: expanding your circle of control. Mr Money Moustache (one of my favourite bloggers) has written an excellent article on this here, but let me summarise it for you. You should spend your attention only on the things you can directly affect. By doing so, you become better able to affect the things you care about. Moaning about politics is a classic beginner’s mistake. Writing to your congressman or MP, voting, organising or taking part in protests, standing for office, are all much more effective responses. If you’re not planning on doing any of those things, then you shouldn’t burn any mental effort on thinking about it. And moaning about the weather? Come on. The weather doesn’t care. Either wear the appropriate clothing, or choose to do something else. By paying attention to the things you can affect, you become much more effective and your circle of control grows. Expending effort worrying about things you cannot affect takes away from those things that you can, and you become less effective, and your circle of control will shrink.

What has all this to do with Facebook? Well, 99% of the stuff in my Facebook feed I skip over. Of the 1% I react to, 99% is not stuff that I can directly affect. This is incredibly inefficient. But this morning I found I had checked my email and my Facebook feed before doing my breathing practice or working on an asset. And yet I had just the day before spent an hour being an ‘expert’ and preaching to these students about putting first things first.

The thing is, Facebook is staffed by hundreds of people who are way cleverer than me, and whose paychecks depend entirely on making the site sticky. They need our eyeballs on those ads or they are out of a job. They are naturally very, very good at getting and keeping our attention. The only way to win is not to play. Getting off the scroll-scroll-click dopamine drip is very likely to enable me to increase the value I put into the world. Of course I will keep my Facebook profile and pages- they are a useful aspect of my business and personal life, great for organising parties, keeping up with far-flung friends, and all of that. But by increasing the barrier to entry (taking it off the phone), I will only be able to get on Facebook on my work machine, which means after I’ve done some useful work (because, you know, self-discipline and all that. Lack discipline? Use an app such as Freedom that prevents you getting onto the internet altogether, or blocks certain sites until a time you set).

This is the great thing about teaching. You teach that which you most need to learn, and by being forced to set a good example to your students (because who wants to be a hypocrite?) you get better at the things you care about.

Right, that’s 1300 words of creative writing done. What next? Should I open up Scrivener and get to work on the next book? Or dash on over to Facebook and see who’s been getting up to mischief?


Originally published at Guy Windsor.

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