Proactive, Not Reactive

Most of us operate on what Paul Graham calls the manager’s schedule. We spend our days responding to the demands of others. Especially in business, so much of what we have to do on a day-to-day basis is based on damage control. Someone has a question; answer it. Someone has a problem; solve it. But there’s a different type of schedule that’s common among creative types that might be better suited for some of us.

The maker’s schedule is based on being proactive, not reactive. It puts what you need to create first, and damage control second. It prioritizes individual, creative work. You can imagine why it’s so popular among programmers, writers, and artists.

The problem is this: our natural human reaction is to suppress things that are important to deal with things that are urgent. Playing with your kids becomes less of a focus when your house is on fire. Fair. But our threshold for urgency is way too low. Today, going to the gym becomes less of a focus when there’s email notifications coming in. This is a problem.

In the greatest motivational video of all time, Eric Thomas tells the story of a wise old mentor who holds his protégé’s head underwater. When you’re underwater, drowning, what are you focused on? he asks. “The only thing you trying to do is get some air. You don’t care about no basketball game, you don’t care what’s on TV, you don’t care about nobody calling you, you don’t care about no party. The only thing you care about when you’re trying to breath is to get some fresh air. That’s it. And when you get to the point where all you want to do is be successful as bad as you want to breath, then you’ll be successful.”

But my boy ET misses the mark. He’s trying to convince us to treat important goals as urgent. But an urgent desire (like drowning) and an important desire (like a good career) operate in completely different ways. You’ll never feel the same way about an important goal as you do about drowning, because there are other important goals competing with it. And that’s good. You’re a multilayered person with lots you want to achieve. Rationally putting those goals in order is a topic for another day, but the trick today it to eliminate the urgent stuff that doesn’t contribute to what’s important to you. Drowning should go to the top of your list (you won’t accomplish many of your important goals if you’re dead). Responding to every email in 22 seconds probably shouldn’t.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. It’s something you need to find your own balance with. Beyond consciously examining which urgent interruptions in your life are unnecessary and can be eliminated, here are a few tips I’ve used that have seemed to help:

1) Work at Weird Hours

Right now it’s 6:00am and I’m sitting at Starbucks. It’s empty. Nobody’s on Facebook. Nobody expects me to respond to email. Creative work like writing is a struggle; your mind will squirm to find excuses to focus on anything else to avoid doing the work (see Pressfield’s excellent War of Art for more on this). Don’t give it any excuses.

I’ve found early mornings are best for this, but others (like Tim Ferriss) prefer to work late at night. Whatever works for you.

2) Kill Notifications

Fortunately, you aren’t legally obligated to be notified when “urgent” tasks pop up. My phone is in my bag and I made sure not to ask the cute girl behind the counter for the WiFi password.

With long-term foresight, it’s easy to see that these notifications aren’t really urgent. So don’t let your future, short-term self get deluded. Your email can wait until you’re ready for it. Which brings us to…

3) Batch

There’s a switching cost to jumping back and forth between tasks. Especially in doing creative work, it takes some time to get into a state of flow. Urgent tasks notoriously pop up one at a time, requiring very little actual effort but substantial switching costs. “Oh, I’ll just respond to this one email. What’s the harm?”

There is a harm. Because I’m a weirdo, I spent a month tracking how many minutes a day I spent responding to email. When I responded to them one at a time, it took almost triple the total time as when I waited until it was convenient with me and dealt with them in a larger chunk.

4) Do Less Stuff

This is a major one for me. I tend to jump into any opportunity that sounds cool pretty quickly, without much thought for the commitment. And, I’ve realized, the more commitments I have, the more I’m pestered with urgent tasks. It’s taken a serious conscious effort for me to focus on less things, more intensely. It helps.

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