Why you should just say no

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Are you hardy enough to disappoint to the expectations of other people? Today’s column describes why you should be prepared to say “no” to meet your own writing goals.

How do you find the time to write?

  • Do you wake up early in the morning so you can write before the phone starts ringing and the kids start screaming?
  • Do you shut the door of your office and turn off your phone so you can write away from the bustle of the workplace?
  • Do you stay up late, writing into the dark and quiet of the evening?

Well, what I’d like you to do this week is to question your assumptions about what it’s okay to do — or not do — so that you have a bit more time for writing.

But before I say more, let me tell you about a woman who works for Microsoft Research in Boston (pictured above). Her name is danah boyd (she always writes her name in lower case), and her story is not about writing — it’s about going on vacation. But it has a serious message.

Back in December, danah had to move from California to Boston. She turned it into a driving holiday and decided to really enjoy herself before she started her new job at Microsoft.

Oh, and she turned off her email. Yep, turned it off. For a month.

I heard about this from my friend Paul, who read about it in a forum. Anyway, I decided to go looking for danah to find out more. A few clicks on Google and I had her email address. Here’s what she wrote to me:

“I’ve turned off my email multiple times when I vacation and I’m a big believer in this approach,” danah wrote. She made the decision when she calculated how much email she’d receive while away and how long it would take her to go through it.

“I was really perturbed that people would send emails that started with, ‘I know you’re on vacation, but when you return. . . ‘ I didn’t think that it made sense for people to put things in my queue while I was trying to take a break and refresh.”

For the most part, she says, her tough stance was a big success — despite some complaints from the disgruntled. “I’ve been accused of being self-righteous . . . [but] personally, I think it’s pretty rude that folks think the asynchronicity of email gives them the right to pile things onto my plate like a huge to-do list,” she says.

So, now, here’s my question for you: If danah is prepared to say no to email for an entire month because she’s on holiday, what are you willing to drop, so that you can write?

Do you want to write badly enough to live without email for a week or a day — or even an hour?

Are you willing to take a little flack from your coworkers so you can get your writing work done? (And here, I mean writing work — I don’t mean blogging or fiction, unless that’s your job.)

Are you prepared to turn off the TV, stop your net surfing and yack less on the phone — so that you can write?

Remember: you choose how you spend your time. If you want to have something written, well, then you must write. I’m not convinced that writing takes buckets of time. But it does take some time. And you need to clear that in your schedule. Otherwise you won’t get it done.

Be brave. Be like danah and take charge of your life so that you have the writing time you need.

 

P.S. After this post went up, readers emailed me to ask exactly how they could “turn off” their email. Here is danah boyd’s response: “The thing is that I’m a UNIX geek so I use procmail to filter all of my mail,” she said. “Instead of filtering them to different mailboxes, I just filter them to /dev/null which is the graveyard in UNIX.

“Since email setup is quite diverse, there’s no universal story of how to do this. The simple way would be to alter the “vacation” message to indicate the death of email and then filter everything to Trash. This isn’t as effective, but it will probably work for most people.”