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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Making Time to Make: One Clear Line

This article is Part 3 of a 3-part series about attention management for people who do creative work called, Making Time to Make.
Previously: Part 1, Bad Correspondence
Then: Part 2, The Job You Think You Have

Tick tock.Could an email recluse like Neal Stephenson just cowboy up by agreeing to a monthly chat session or the occasional visit to a fan forum? Sure, he could. Could a volunteer intern scan Neal’s email once a week for particularly wonderful notes? You bet. Could he even conceivably just drop all the blast shields, open a chat room, “livestream” from his desk, and then spend the rest of his life answering questions from people with nothing better to do? Maybe. Sure. But, probably not. He’s already told us as much, hasn’t he?

The point, from my perspective, is that Stephenson possesses the man-sized pant stones to declare precisely what the people who enjoy his work should expect from him. And, in so doing, he has drawn a clear line that some might find hard to love, but that is very easy to see, understand, and respect. No, he didn’t hire someone to answer his email, or get a kid to pretend to be him on Twitter, or install a Greasemonkey script that “autopokes” people on Facebook (I’ll leave you to guess which two of these I do).

Neal Stephenson essentially said, “Listen, gang, here’s what I’m going to make for you: novels.” And then, he went back to typing. To working. On work.

Get Ready for the First World

No, sir, no one that I know (including me, of course) could ever get away with such an ambitious opossum routine when his primary medium is the web — and, really, who’d want to?

It’s fun and gratifying to connect with people, to find common interests, and to make things as a group. That’s why the internet is so much more fun than reading the corkboard at your laundromat. Usually.

The challenge for each of us today — maker, worker, leader, or layabout — is to figure out where our own clear line should be drawn, and to determine how we effectively communicate where that line is in a way that’s useful, civil, and as open as we need for it to be. Again, though, all in the context of firewalling time to make things.

If this all strikes you as fancy, handlebar moustache talk from an old misanthrope who doesn’t get things like whatever the hell we’re calling “conversations” this week, maybe you’re on to something. You wouldn’t be the first to say so. And, if you’re honestly completely unburdened by doing the things that are important to you while staying in joyful personal contact with everyone who wants it from you — then, I do applaud you. I guess. Although, frankly, I think you’re probably fibbing at least a little.

Drawing Your Line

For myself, I think it’s critical to set reasonable expectations about how, when, and where people can expect to have authentic, honest-to-God contact with us, and here’s why: if you leave every channel open to everybody and anybody, all the time and without limit, you necessarily prevent yourself from ever stepping away from the fray for long enough to focus. You'll never make the time that it takes to produce the sort of good work that theoretically made you so appealing in the first place.

And, perhaps as importantly, you also can never devote your undivided attention to the biped mammals who are breathing air in the room with you. Here. People. With faces and hands. Not “friends,” but friends. Real people. Because, if total focus on the known important stuff in your life has to battle with a never-ending doorbell attached to your brain, it’s hard for me to imagine how your work, or your family, or your sense of who you are, alone in a room without the ringing, can possibly thrive. But, again, that’s really up to you to decide.

Balanced Patterns for Recovering Time to Make

If you’re determined to get back to work today — to start making more than SMTP queries — here are a few patterns for helping you find your way. Adapt as needed.

Clarify your needs

Think about what kind of environment you need to do your best work, and consider what you'd want to change today in order to make that environment more accessible to you for uninterrupted blocks of time.

Consider that the busy work, meta work, and stupid or boring monkey work in the life of a creative person should serve one purpose: clear the decks of distraction so you and your brain can work uninterrupted. To me, that is "Step 0."

Define “OFF”

Decide what it means to be “available” versus “not available” at a given time. How long can your world tolerate your absence, and what does it look like when you re-surface? What needs to change in order to minimize stress and drama? Remember, the time you make needs to be all yours to the greatest degree possible. If you can still hear the phone ring or the baby crying, you may not really be "OFF" yet.

Consider the equivalent of a safe word for when the really important stuff needs to punch through your firewall. This is a young field with blunt tools right now, so consider employing wetware; work with a partner, colleague, or friend to be your attention sentry during times when you need to go off the grid for half a day. Reciprocate.

Draw your line

Make it clear how, when, where, and for how long people can expect to interact one-on-one with you. Don’t hesitate to point to community forums and mailing lists to which you contribute, FAQs you’ve answered a million times, or any other resource that liberates the previous use of your attention by exposing the fruit of its labors to the world.

How? Could be lots of ways, but whatever you use, try to find automation and economies of scale. That means:

  • add info on your Contact page explaining what people can expect from you
  • use auto-responses and email templates
  • where necessary send short responses to clarify when you'll be available again

Also? Google. Tell people about this amazing new thing called “Google.” Apparently, it’s a service that helps people find all kinds of information without sending a single email. Handy.

Be honest

Never forget that 'wookiee' has two e's In the case of email in particular, you quickly learn the irony that a short response — far from retiring a topic — often is regarded as confirmation that you "want to play," providing unintentional encouragement to send you lots more email. And, then come the growing expectations, now that you've unconsciously shown yourself to be an email punk.

Listen: if someone starts demanding a level of engagement with you that you can’t meet, just say so. And consider telling them why. You'd never hesitate to say "I have a doctor's appointment," so don't be embarassed to say, "I can't talk to you now, I'm in the studio all morning." If you can't work because you're distracted by someone who wants to argue about how you spelled "wookiee" (don't laugh — it's happened to me twice; once when I was wrong and again when I was right), you need to cut the cord.

Also, keep in mind that most time burglars eat excuses for lunch. There's an entire industry around shooting down excuses, and it's called “sales.” Give people the honest attentional equivalent of “I have no money, and I'm not interested.” And, if that doesn't work? Yes, lie. Tell them you're dying, and today you're going to SeaWorld with your church youth group for the last time.

Let bits drop

You'll need to decide for yourself where the floor is in terms of requests for your attention that don't require (or deserve) a response. V14g#RA spam clearly does not need a "No, thank you," but what about the guy with the terrible new book who suddenly wants to be your boon companion and wants to "keep in touch" thrice weekly? For me? Those emails maybe don't get answered so much. (Sorry, I Have a New Book Guy: at least I didn't use your name)

Remember: for a lot of people, your one-time attention and decency will instantly be melted down to base metals for shit like PR blasts, "funny joke lists" (aka 'blogging for old people'), and frequent help desk-style requests. If you've decided that this stuff is out of scope for your time on The Marble, systematically destroy it with brutally efficient filters that are the equivalent of Tachy Goes to Coventry.

To paraphrase the great Lucas Jackson:

Sometimes null can be a pretty cool response.

Be courageous

If someone cannot understand or accept why the judicious use of your attention — and its application in the service of making work for a broader audience than exactly them — takes precedence over their need to repeatedly monopolize your time, dump them. This is not a good person.

But! Also remember to be cool

Jonathan Richman I’ll never forget the time that Jonathan Richman answered my stupid fan mail. Those 2 sentences on a piece of paper with his return address on it meant the world to me in 1988.

Always remember that some contact is just about a human connection, and that’s such a great thing. Just be realistic about how much of it you can personally manage, and then make the effort to reach back to people who are awesome.

And, NO, the whole point of this is that you can’t ever answer them all (and I’m not saying you should try), but if you can respond to 5, 10, or 20 emails or forum posts per week, without stepping on your “make” time, you’ll also make some really nice new friends.

  • Hint1: Given limited time, always favor contact with young people; they need the high-five, and it means an awful lot when you reach back to them. These are good people.
  • Hint2: PR people who want to “thank you” for your work and then sign you up for a “webinar” do not count. These are not good people.

Noted in passing: Outside of various record sites, I can't immediately find anything like an official anything for Jonathan Richman today. Don't know if this is symptomatic of his long-professed affection for simple, old-timey things, or if he's just decided to no longer field questions about The Velvet Underground from stoney liberal arts students.

Identify and engage your high-value targets

Embrace the disingenuous charge of elitism (or, as I prefer to call it, maturity) by not pretending that everyone is equally “special” to you. Remind the people who matter to you that you’re always available for them, then tell them how to do that, including specific instructions (n.b. this is important for relatives who think the internet is just eBay, urban myths, and Joel Osteen). Get a friends-only email address. Get a friends-only GrandCentral number. Do whatever it takes to provide a backchannel for your super-secret network.

Widen the channels to the people you adore, and never make them suffer by your weird compulsion to wave at strangers. You have plenty of time to make new friends, but for God’s sake, don’t neglect the ones you already have and enjoy. These are good people.

Respect others

In the interest of sharing the aloha with all the makers and consumers in your world, consider making it excruciatingly easy to deal with you. Especially when it comes to email. Everything goes both ways, so remember that anyone you contact today could be having the best or worst week of his life; choose your ultimatums with care and context.

Work. work, work.

The hard work of a creative life is a topic that I’ll be returning to often over the next few weeks, but here’s my one pro tip for you today: once you’ve stolen back your time and wrangled your attention, put it to good use by making awesome stuff that everyone you want to delight can enjoy. Throw a giant tent party for the world and show off what you can do when you stop compulsively typing for an audience of one. Get your awesome out where we can all see it.

Make it, release it, and make more. And never apologize to anyone for demanding the respect for your attention that you, your work, and the people who enjoy it each deserves. Make the time.

This article is Part 3 of a 3-part series about attention management for people who do creative work called, Making Time to Make.
Previously: Part 1, Bad Correspondence
Then: Part 2, The Job You Think You Have

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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