Find Something Useful and Do It

Find Something Useful And Do It

For SK, who is probably overwhelmed today.

When I was a teenager, Saturdays were for cleaning and housework. Each week it surprised me. I would stumble bleary-eyed into the kitchen, fumble around for coffee. I would ask my mother (who would be fully alert, having woken at some sick, masochistic time like nine) the same question… What can I do? Each week, she gave the same answer:

Find something useful and do it.

To my mind – with raging, undiagnosed ADHD and enough hormones to take out a herd of bison – this was insane. Surely we required a strategy. There was laundry and dishes and vacuuming. Groceries, dusting, extracting 14 towels from my brother’s room.

We were in a holy war with chaos, and THIS was the strategy?

Find something useful and do it?

When my mother has a plan, it’s really not worth arguing. Each week I rebelled against her logic, sometimes out loud and sometimes in my head. Each week, eventually, I stopped fighting, found something useful, and did it.

And each week, it worked. I couldn’t always see it at the time, but it was true.

At the end of the day, it was always better than when we started. And it was better than it would have been if we’d spent an hour paralyzing ourselves with strategy.

Most things do not require a strategy.

I’m a strategist at heart. (Who am I kidding? I’m a strategist everywhere.) I hate tactical thinking. I want a nice, neat plan that extends from now until forever. Ideally, I want to do nothing but strategize until I am certain I have a method that eliminates every bad thing and maximizes every good one.

As tragic as I find it, though, most things do not require a strategy.

Sure, a very few things need one. (Your book launch, for example.)

A number of things could benefit from one. (Your editorial calendar might be easier with a strategy, but it’s not necessary.)

But most things? Most things are actually worse with a strategy, especially if you’re a worrier or an over-thinker.

What order should you clean the rooms of your house? It doesn’t really matter. Sure, if you do your bedroom first, you’ll thank yourself tonight. But honestly? Life is long – you’ll get over it.

What order should you make your phone calls? Well, unless one involves getting your gas turned back on, it really makes no odds.

What order should you tackle your inbox emails? I guess you might want to answer the money ones on the sooner end, but if you plan to get to them all anyway, an hour here or there ain’t the end of the world.

But doesn’t planning save time in execution?

It has been said that every minute of planning saves 10 minutes of execution. (Or something like that.) The quote is attributed to everyone from Brian Tracy to Napoleon. And it has a lot of merit. I have lived a lot of my life by that quote.

But it only works if you don’t get mired in it.

If you actually spend 10 minutes planning, and you actually save yourself 100 minutes doing? That’s fantastic. If that’s you, close this window with my hearty congratulations. You’re awesome.

But for a lot of us, that’s not what happens. We spend 100 minutes planning and by the end are so overwhelmed, exhausted, and probably late for something that we figure we’ll do the doing tomorrow.

Repeat for three decades. This is no way to live.

So if you find yourself in a boat like this today, I want to make a friendly recommendation. If it’s helpful, take it. If it’s not, ignore it.

Consider making a small sign that says Find something useful and do it.

Put it where you stress out the most. (If you’re like me, this means you’ll have to make more than one.)

And see if you can’t get just a little more done because of it.

Just try it, just today.

The Siren Call of Other Peoples’ Stuff

I gave up my phone

Once upon a time, I told my partner that I wanted to get rid of my phone.

I wanted to get rid of the text messages and Candy Crush and the constant access to the internet.

I wanted to go back to a space where an internet browser wasn’t always there to indulge my every wondering and wandering, where questioning what movies were playing didn’t mean I instantly reached to find out.

He didn’t love the idea.

“You need it,” he said.

“I need you to have it.”

“It’s so convenient.”

“What if we need Google Maps and my phone is dead?”

“What about your people?”

“You can’t run a company with no phone.”

“What if I have to get in touch with you?”

“Isn’t it nice when I go to the coffee shop and they’re out of your soup and I can text you and ask you what you want instead?”

Fair points, all.

So I kept my phone.

Flash forward to last week.

Last week, we spent a week in the woods with the endlessly hospitable James Chartrand. The reception on my phone was spotty, so I turned it off.

It was a nice week.

We said our goodbyes and I cracked a joke, one of those meaningless jokes that accidentally house painful truths.

“I’ll see you later,” I said. “I’m off to face the music.”

Sometime on the drive home, I realized reception had improved. I could turn my phone back on. I reached into my pocket, pulled it out, and stared at the little airplane icon in the corner.

I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t turn it back on.

I felt sick at the thought.

I told my partner. I told him I didn’t WANT to face the music.

“Well, maybe you should keep it off.” (Maybe the week in the woods had softened him. Highly recommended, by the way.)

So I did. I left it off.

I called my mother when I got home and told her to get in touch with me some other way. I told a couple of key people (and, admittedly, forgot to tell quite a few key people). But I just turned it off and didn’t turn it back on again.

I was telling Jenna about my decision. Apparently she has been talking about this stuff on her blog lately. She references a post by a woman (Dr. Jessica Michaelson) who chronicled her first 48 hours of phonelessness. (She kept the phone part, but ditched all the internet-y stuff.)

Dr. Michaelson talks about withdrawal, body tension, stress. Fidgeting and not knowing what to do with herself. She said, “My brain and body had gotten so used to a predictable pattern of behavior to get a quick hit of satisfaction, that I was in physical discomfort because I wasn’t completing the circuit, I wasn’t resolving the urge for satisfaction.”

Maybe that would have happened to me, too, if I’d done it in my natural environment. But I didn’t feel any stress at all. I felt blissfully, giddily calm. I felt like I was standing under a waterfall and I never wanted to leave. I felt like the lawyer who threw his Blackberry into the ocean and holy hell, did it ever feel good.

It’s funny. In this industry, we’re obsessed with TIME.

We talk about getting off Facebook or Twitter or Instagram because it’s a TIME suck. So we restrict the TIME we spend, but it doesn’t seem to help.

The siren call of other peoples’ stuff still messes with our heads, even when we’re not there.

I thought Jenna said it really well. She writes:

“Although I’ve mostly managed to prevent online activities from interfering with my actual designated writing TIME, I’m aware that having my mind occupied and distracted and busyified with other people’s stuff and other online BS takes away from my clarity of mind and my ability to explore my own ideas, which can interfere with my writing.”



Anyway, if you’ve tried to call me, sorry about that.

And if you’ve ever thought about giving up – Facebook, or text messaging, or Safari, or whatever it is that pulls at you – I just wanted to give one dissenting voice.

I was afraid to give up my stuff because I was afraid it would be hard. I was afraid I would chew my arm off. I was afraid it would be like it was for Jessica at the beginning, and that I wouldn’t be able to hold. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get to the place where “my soft spaciousness didn’t have to be invaded by random consumption of other people’s stuff.”

You might be afraid of that too.

If so, I want to give one dissenting voice. If you’ve ever thought about giving up other peoples’ stuff…

It might be really hard, like it was at first for Jessica. Or it might be really easy, like it was for me.

(Also, if you can get yourself a friend with a cabin in the woods… )

Are We All Just Hacks? Steven Pressfield Has Thoughts

war-of-artI finally got around to reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

(“Reading”, here, is defined as “reading ALL the words”. As opposed to, say, looking at it in Chapters… and Barnes and Noble… and Waterstones…. and FNAC… and EVERY SINGLE TIME wandering off for a coffee.)

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. It’s one of the most highly talked about works in this industry, and it’s not new – it’s been on the shelves since 2002. But there was one part that spoke to me in particular. This is where he quotes his friend, screenwriter Robert McKee. It’s called “The Definition of a Hack”.

According to his definition, I’m a hack, and so is almost everyone I know.

Passages and concepts like this are divisive. There’s a part of all of us that wants to heed his words. We cry out, YES! That’s true! And we don’t want to be hacks. We reel when we consider how much we’ve sold out.

But the other part rails and rages. NO! That’s NOT true! We’re NOT hacks. We’re practical! We’re giving the market what they want! We’re feeding our families, paying off debt, building a better life.

Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum, here’s the passage. This is me quoting Pressfield quoting Robert McKee:

The Definition of a Hack

I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.

The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.

He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?

The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he takes a position. He’s a demagogue. He panders.

It can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.

Wise words to consider, yeah?

Thanks to the generous James Chartrand for lending me the book, and the patient Jenna Avery for tolerating me whenever I mocked her obsession with it. Mea culpa.

5 Time-Saving Hacks to Get Your Email Out the Door Faster

5 Email Hacks

So we’ve talked about emails you can send in no time at all. Now let’s up the ante and talk about five ways you can save time and get ANY email out the door faster.

Yay! Time!

1. Kill your images.

If you have images, that’s wonderful. Who doesn’t love a pretty, pretty picture? But if you’re struggling to get your email out, and pictures are a part of your personal torture, kill the image. Nobody cares.

When I have given this advice in the past, I’ve heard two types of reply. One, an incredulous “I can DO that?!?!” with an accompanying sigh of relief. Two, “But people say they really love my images!”

If you are in the latter camp, that’s great. Bring the image back next time. But just because people love an element of what you do doesn’t mean they’ll leave in a rage if you stop. It’s your picture, you can kill it if you want to.

2. Kill the template.

For the better part of 10 years I sent email in text-only. Every now and again I lusted after somebody’s gorgeous email template, but I realized that as a small business owner, I had better things to do.

It’s difficult for me to imagine somebody saying, “Well, I would read IttyBiz, but there’s no fancy formatting in the newsletter, you know?”

If you’ve got a great template that’s easy to use and takes virtually no time to format, fantastic. Keep it. But if the template is part of the problem, kill it, even only for today. When people see that it’s different, they’ll assume something went wrong with the formatting and they’ll just read the text.

3. Steal a subject line.

The subject line for my last email came from the cover of this month’s InStyle magazine. It was originally “Style Your Hair In Half The Time.” I changed it to “Email Your List In Half The Time” and as such, put all of three seconds of thought into the entire affair.

This also works if you don’t know what to write about. Go look at a magazine. Find a headline you like well enough. Change it to something that works for your list or blog. Now write the piece.

Be ready for the gym in half the time?
Make your bed in half the time?
Clean your desk in half the time?
Calm down in half the time?
Choose your dress in half the time?

No, they’re not going to win the Pulitzer, but they’ll keep your list warm and get you a bit of traffic. To quote Colin Firth from Love, Actually, “This isn’t bloody Shakespeare.”

4. Ditch the intro.

If you have ever said to yourself, “I don’t know where to start”, this one’s for you. The amount of time people spend on their introductions is often greater than the rest of the email combined. It’s shocking. If you don’t know where or how to start… don’t.

Truly, there is nothing wrong with starting your email with a reworded version of your title.

Go read the intro for this piece. See what I did there? Took eight seconds.

5. Kill unnecessary formatting.

Most formatting in emails does not need to be there, and making sure it looks “right” takes forever.

If you’re writing a short piece (less than 750 words?) you really don’t need much formatting at all.

Formatting exists to add emphasis and give the reader’s eyes a chance to rest in the midst of big blocks of text. So…

If you want to emphasize something, put it in all-caps. And give the eye a rest by breaking up your paragraphs – one or two sentences max. Bam. Formatting’s done.

(Incidentally, in a world where everybody’s reading on their phone, you want to break up your paragraphs anyway. Something that qualified as a perfectly reasonable paragraph when you were in college takes up more than a whole screen on an iPhone 5. Start getting used to shorter sections of text – your readers will thank you for it.)

(That last paragraph? A little too long for mobile. The ones right before it? A lot easier to read on a phone.)

So that’s it!

Five ways to eliminate the unnecessary and save precious time that you COULD be using to interact with us on Facebook. I’m just saying.

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