Action > Reaction

By Lachlan Hardy
1621h Sunday, 27 July 2008 Permalink

Over the last few months, people have begun asking me: “How do you do so much? How do you keep up with it all?”

Now, I don’t think I do as much as some of you think I do. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anywhere near the things I should have lately, so I began thinking about those questions.

I do a lot of thinking. I like it. It’s one of my favourite things and I like to think that I’m good at it.

But where do thoughts come from?

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a blathering of random metaphysical esoterica. What I mean is: ‘Why do I have these thoughts?

On thoughts

The answer is that thoughts stem from various external stimuli. From the conversations I have with the smart and talented people I’m honoured to call my friends and colleagues; from the blogs I read (also written by smart and talented folks, as far as I can tell); from the emails I receive: personal, business and mailing lists. From all these places and more, my thoughts spring. They tumble together in little parcels of disjointed meaning, scattered threads of random thought that bounce against each other constantly and gradually weave into cogency or are discarded.

On distractions

I’ve written before that I don’t enjoy the quiet stillness inside my mind, but that’s untrue. I have plenty of other reasons to dislike being alone with my thoughts, which are neither quiet nor still.

I don’t own a portable music-player of any description, because I tell myself that would be a distraction, that my brain needs a rest from incessant stimulation. The result is, of course, that I check Twitter from my N95 approximately forty times on my forty-five minute trip to work.

It’s odd that music, which aids me in so many facets of my life, can distract me so thoroughly from the rush and scurry in my brain. Or perhaps that is precisely the point. Music abstracts me from the current flow, insulates me, and allows me to achieve particular tasks with a stronger focus than if it were absent. Without those tasks, it just distracts me.

On escapism

None of this is likely to come as a surprise to you. We all need to get away, to take a time out, a little pause to regain our breath and our focus. Therein lies the problem for me.

Why do I need to watch yet another episode of the West Wing today? Or check my email, my feeds, Twitter, Flickr, again? Why do I need to take a book on RESTful Web Services to bed at night? For that matter, why do I stay up beyond all sensible hours until I’m so exhausted that my right eye starts literally twitching? Even now I’m listening to Ten (only the best album ever) and pausing periodically in my progress with this article to lose myself in the songs.

Where is the focus in that?

In which our intrepid hero takes action

The problem here does not lie with things like checking my email or my feeds. It doesn’t come from the external stimuli. It comes from when they are applied.

What’s the first thing you do every morning? Me, I open 4 tabs in my browser: Gmail, Google Reader, Twitter replies, and Flickr recent activity. While I wait for those to load, I switch to Mail to confirm I haven’t received any work-related email overnight.

Next, I “process” all the information on those pages and that sets me up for a good long day of reacting.

Fuck reacting. Act!

Over lunch one day, one of the founders of Atlassian, Scott Farquhar, said that he had recently been trialling not opening his email until midday each day. I tried it. I think I lasted about three days.

Now I’m going to do it again. And the same goes for my feeds, Flickr et al.

But wait, there’s more!

I’m also unsubscribing from all those feeds that I’m only following because I feel I should ‘keep in the loop’, and from all the mailing lists whose communities I don’t actively participate in.

I already vigorously prune my feeds and my contacts on social networking sites I use regularly.

A challenge

I have a challenge for you. It’s also for myself. Let’s see if we can’t do it together.

I have cut all these distractions from my life. I will cut more. I will carve away every input that does not lead to action. I will push the reactive part of my day back until after lunchtime.

I’m going to start putting my thoughts to work. All those bundles of meaning have been assembled into functional parts that need structure. They need a coherent whole and I can only provide it by taking action.

I’d like to see you do it too. Maybe some of you were already on the ball with this one, but I think we probably all need a little push and a lot of pruning on occasion.

Get to it. Drop the distractions. Take actions instead.

I want people to ask you: “how do you do so much?”


There are 6 comments on this post.

Myles Eftos
2306h Sunday, 27 July 2008 Permalink

Whilst I’m still in awe of those crazy people that seem to always be on, I’ve definately had to invoke some similar ideas to get rid of distractions whilst trying to get work done.

  1. Turn off email/twitter/blog readers etc etc for blocks of time. I’ve found I can work on a project for about two hours before shiny things start distracting me. After the block, then I check emails
  2. Only respond to email that is urgent right away. I find there is a significant context switch to respond to correspondence properly. If a client has to wait two hours to get a response, the world isn’t going to end.
  3. Down time. I used to feel guilty for sitting in front of the couch watching mindless tv, then realised I need to switch off your brain. Hanging out with mates for coffee/drinks has the same effect.
  4. Make time your our own stuff (I suck at this). This gives you time to actually act, otherwise your spend your whole time spinning your wheels.
  5. Pick one social network - I only use Twitter (I don’t count sites that have social networks tacked on like flickr), I don’t bother trying to dilute my attention with facebook, plurk etc etc.
  6. Oh, your bang on the money with talking to smart people - they provide inspiration, and that is what drives people to act.
1037h Monday, 28 July 2008 Permalink

I definitely need to cull some of the crap (both in quantity and frequency) from my life … it’s all getting in the way of me actually Getting Shit Done.

You’re right about keeping in the loop - it doesn’t work how you expect it to but you don’t realise that till you think about the content of that loop and how irrelevant and useless most of it is. Socially, might be interesting … but I’ve got places to go! :-)

Gary Barber
1502h Tuesday, 29 July 2008 Permalink

100%, done it already, kill the distraction, reduced feeds, only have a core of SNS, more away from the net time. Like no mobile access.

The interesting one is the need to fill the silent brain with activity. I still get this, that where for me music helps, it washes over the mental me, bringing new ideas and concepts. I’ve still not found away to silence the 100’s of ideas that flood around all the time.

Then like you say the need to push yourself to exhaustion, why we do this is a good question. Maybe we are just trying to prove to ourselves a false level of expectation.

Lachlan Hardy
1654h Tuesday, 29 July 2008 Permalink

A friend emailed me to point out that Bruce Lee already said it all (and much better than I did!)

Down time is definitely vital, but I’m finding that I need to structure it. Random downtime doesn’t help because then I just stress about everything I think I should be doing!

I’m hoping that pushing the reactive part of my day to the afternoon will leave me clear to do ‘my own things’ in the morning - whether they’re work-related or not doesn’t matter - I just want to do things that I actually planned to do.

Alan Gresley
2055h Monday, 04 August 2008 Permalink


Haven’t you become tired of twitter yet. One Australian to another. Come back to earth. Kill the signal. :-)

Lachlan Hardy
0710h Tuesday, 05 August 2008 Permalink

Alan, it’s only the noise I want to kill. You’re assuming that there is no worthwhile content on Twitter. That depends on who you choose to follow and how many!

I prune Twitter frequently and ruthlessly. I only wish I were as ruthless with my feeds, but I’m getting there.

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