Yesterday I talked about how we can sometimes get a little too narrow-minded in pursuit of goals, filtering out everything extraneous and “irrelevant.” As writers, though, we need to be exposed to new ideas, new thinking, alternative points of view, so that our work can stay interesting, worthwhile and meaningful.
It can be hard to know what’s “useful” and what’s “useless” information. When I started training in the martial arts, I had no way of knowing that what I learned would guide me through the next fifteen years, shape my writing career, and help me survive some really tough times. I often wonder what my life would be like now if I’d just kept walking instead of stopping in front of the dojang and going inside.
One of the things I learned back in the days when I went to an office and had a boss and co-workers was to open the office door. I think this concept is useful even for those of us who work alone and don’t have co-workers who’ll stop by to bring us up to date on projects and good gossip. The more I kept the door closed so that I could work on my work, the more I missed out on information and relationships that were as important to my work as my actual work. I learned that occasional interruptions were a small price to pay for staying in the loop, keeping on top of what was happening in the company, and generally maintaining a reputation as someone willing to help troubleshoot and commiserate.
But if you keep your office door open all the time, you can get overloaded, lose focus and not do the work you really need to do. So, herewith, some suggestions for staying open to “irrelevant” or possibly “useless” information that may in fact turn out to be extremely important to you:
1. Set aside certain times for keeping the door closed. I take the first two hours of the day to work on my urgent priorities. I don’t answer the phone or respond to emails during this period; I just work on the priority. Since I do it at the same time every day, I’ve trained the people who work regularly with me to connect with me later in the day.
2. Set aside certain times for keeping the door open. We often take ourselves to task for surfing the internet aimlessly, but in fact creative people sometimes get their best ideas and make their most interesting connections doing this. Just keep your open hours within limits, and you’ll be fine.
3. Have one hobby not related to your main source of income-generation. When I first started training in martial arts, that was my one hobby. I met tons of interesting people I wouldn’t otherwise have met in graduate school. When martial arts became my work, I focused on another hobby, joined an organization related to that, met new and interesting people, etc.
4. Focus on your core group but include random variables. For example, I read a number of blogs related to publishing and writing, and on Twitter, I follow writers, agents, publishers and other people who can help me do my work. But I also follow random interesting people, like some guy from the Bronx, and a couple of science nerds. Makes for a very interesting mix.
I find that the random people often end up offering extremely useful information. For example, I read the Study Hacks blog not because I like reliving my grad school days, but because Cal Newport is a smart man with good ideas. Read his post on deep procrastination: he may be talking about college students but what he’s describing is familiar to practically everyone who is old enough to click on the link. It’s especially applicable to creative people. But I would never have found his useful site if I were only willing to read blogs related to publishing and writing.
What do you do to stay open without getting overloaded?