Doing the *big things*
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue fifty six of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
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Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online
The weekend before last I attended The Art of Imperfect Action - an online masterclass from Oliver Burkeman (author of 4,000 Weeks). I’d characterise it as a course about productivity and time management for people who detest hustle culture.
It was great, and I’d definitely recommend it. I wanted to share some of my reflections on this course with you; in part because the act of writing this stuff down gives me the chance to review it again at a later date; but also because I’m hoping that some of you might also find it useful.
Before I get into it, a bit of background: Oliver Burkeman’s core philosophy essentially boils down to: there is more to do than can ever be done.
Likely true for everyone, right? We all have to do lists which are far too long — we have responsibilities to our families, friends, and those who depend on us; the many and varied things we need to get done in our homes; various forms of labour (both paid and unpaid); life admin; our own self-care; personal projects/goals/development; and the list goes on.
His solution is: to embrace your limits, stop trying to attempt the impossible, and get started on what’s gloriously possible instead.
What’s implicit here (I think), is the assumption that there’s a big thing that you want to do, but you can’t seem to find the time to do it amongst everything else that is going on in your life.
For clarity that big thing could be anything — spending more time with your friends or family; a creative project like writing a book; something to do with your own health or fitness; preparing for and giving a talk; clearing out whatever the hell is in those boxes at the top of your wardrobe which you don’t feel emotionally equipped to deal with; or possibly your big thing is figuring out what the hell your big thing might be.
How do we find time for our big things whilst simultaneously ensuring all the other things don’t come crashing down around our ears?
I won’t cover everything Burkeman covered in the masterclass, but there were a handful of things which strongly resonated with me, and which I’ll share below:
On our tendency to spend time “clearing the decks” rather than doing the big thing…
“Clearing the decks” refers to the subset of tasks on our to do lists which undoubtedly need doing, but probably don’t need to be done right now. For example, the washing up will need to be done at some point, but you could probably leave it for an hour (or two, or three), and nothing horrendous will happen. Conversely, something like collecting your child from nursery, showing up for work or a meeting, or hitting an agreed deadline, does need to be done at the agreed time — if you don’t there are likely to be more serious consequences. Of course there are edge cases too — some emails, or other messages might require an urgent response; whilst others could be left for an hour (or two, or three), and again, nothing horrendous will happen.
I think the first point here is that we need to acknowledge which tasks or responsibilities are actually immovable; and which are “deck clearing” (i.e. tasks that need doing, but there aren’t major consequences if we don’t do them right now). For what it’s worth, I’d acknowledge that this is often easier than it sounds — lots of “deck clearing” tasks feel urgent, even when they aren’t.
I’ve definitely used this clearing the decks thing as an excuse to put off doing my own big thing many times. Additionally, I’ve also realised that there are a couple of lies I tell myself by way of internal justification:
"I won't be able to focus on the big thing unless I've done x, y, z, etc"
Ha! Turns out that this is not actually true.
"I don't deserve to do the big thing unless I've done x, y, z, etc"
Deeper, more problematic, and possibly an overshare! I think this speaks to my own particular brand of destructive self-loathing.
I’m noting these things here because I wonder if perhaps I’m not the only one who tells herself lies like these?
Right now some of you might be thinking why is “deck clearing” before we do our big thing a problem? Well, the truth is, friends, those decks of ours will never be clear.
Your inbox will never be empty, and neither will your laundry basket. New things will forever be added to your to do list.
When we focus on “clearing the decks” it allows us to put off doing our big thing — possibly forever.
If we want to do our big things, something’s got to give, right? So what’s the solution?
Oliver Burkeman suggested this tactic:
Pay yourself first: spend an hour doing your big thing first, clear the decks second.
Again, I feel like I need to clarify what I think “pay yourself first” means. As I highlighted above, we have tasks and responsibilities than are immovable (e.g. certain types of work or family commitments where there are major consequences if we don’t do them at the agreed time); and some tasks and responsibilities which are “deck clearing” (i.e. things that need doing, but there aren’t major consequences if we don’t do them at a particular time).
“Pay yourself first” doesn’t literally mean do your big thing before you do anything else — we still need to honour our immovable commitments; I think what it actually means is to prioritise doing your big thing over “clearing the decks”.
I've been experimenting with this "pay yourself first" tactic, and so far, it's been working really well. For me that’s looked like scheduling my "pay yourself first" (as noted above, the thing I do first on any given day isn't necessarily my big thing, and of course there are days where there’s no room to schedule my big thing at all); however, the important bit (I think), is that no matter how the other stuff in my day is going; I've forced myself to honour my own "pay yourself first" scheduling - i.e. at the time I have allotted, I spend an hour on my big thing.
I think this has worked for me for a couple of reasons:
It’s forced me to recognise which tasks are actually immoveable, and which aren’t, and, as a result, I feel like it’s allowed me to have a healthier attitude to those “deck clearing” tasks.
It’s just an hour on my big thing — I’ve felt surprising comfortable knowing that I’m only putting off doing other stuff for an hour. Also, that stuff I used to tell myself about not being able to concentrate on my big thing until the various other things were done isn’t true.
Spending an hour on my big thing seems to energise me, I suspect that I’ve actually managed to get more “deck clearing” stuff done in the past week even though, on paper, I’ve actually spent less time on these tasks.
On the art of active patience — realising that stopping is as important as starting
Friends, I am a person with obsessive tendencies. I find it incredibly difficult to stop when something isn't done - even if, deep down I would acknowledge that the thing that I'm seeking to get done is not a thing that can reasonably be "done" in a single, sensible timeframe. Instead, I will stay at my desk working on the thing for ridiculously long stretches of time, skip meals, take no breaks, I will tell myself - "you will stay at this desk until the thing is done" — essentially I'll be an absolute asshole to myself.
As such, when Oliver Burkeman introduced the notion that stopping is as important as starting I was initially very resistant. I’m fully aware that my way of working is not healthy, or indeed even productive after a certain point, but for the longest time I’ve told myself “this is how I do my best work”, and even though deep down I know that’s not true (if you’ve been sat at your laptop for ten hours straight with no food or breaks, you’re not doing your best work, Hannah), this stuff can nevertheless be tricky to let go of.
Oliver Burkeman suggested this tactic:
Stopping practice: do something for an hour, then stop.
I've been experimenting with this too — honestly, I've found this one much harder to do; (it's been a tougher internal battle), but I'm pleased to report I have mostly stopped when scheduled to do so. Again, I think it's been a really good thing for me in a bunch of directions: I’m definitely not running myself quite so ragged (because I’m taking breaks), plus it’s often been the case that this act of stopping has allowed me to honour my "pay yourself first" schedule.
The sharp-eyed amongst you will perhaps have noted that my “pay yourself first” is an hour on my big thing. Just an hour. I have to stop when that time is up too. So much stopping practice!
(Somewhat related: I think another lie I used to tell myself was that an hour on my big thing was not enough to do anything meaningful. Truth is, I still feel like that — I really want to spend more than an hour. However, I’ve been surprised to find that actually I can do meaningful stuff in that hour, and spending that hour is much better than spending no time at all).
On acts of self-aggression
I think in this segment Oliver Burkeman said something like: "It isn't necessary for all the work to be done before joy can be found."
This should not have been a revelatory statement, but the truth is, the mean voice in my head constantly screams the opposite: “No joy for you until all your work is done, bitch!”
I really am an asshole to myself, huh? Earlier I mentioned this lie which I tell myself: "I don't deserve to do the big thing unless I've done x, y, z", which I think comes from a similar place. I think this segment helped recognise my own self-aggression, and better understand where this stuff comes from.
After I’d completed the course, I signed up to Chaz Hutton's substack, and promptly received this weirdly relevant, very relatable comic:
I loved it so much I forwarded to Oliver Burkeman, and he responded:
“It's actually an interesting point I haven't pondered enough — not just that there's not enough time to do what you plan to do, but that the intimidating scale of that leads to doing less.”
I’ve likely blethered on entirely too long about all this stuff, hopefully it was somewhat useful/interesting for you. Also, if this stuff is your jam, Oliver Burkeman is running a new course in March called Designing Your System for Creativity which you might be interested in.
Earth’s Core Has Stopped and May Be Reversing Direction, Study Says
“Earth’s inner core has recently stopped spinning, and may now be reversing the direction of its rotation, according to a surprising new study that probed the deepest reaches of our planet with seismic waves from earthquakes.
The mind-boggling results suggest that Earth’s center pauses and reverses direction on a periodic cycle lasting about 60 to 70 years, a discovery that might solve long standing mysteries about climate and geological phenomena that occur on a similar timeframe, and that affect life on our planet.”
Also: New Norwegian land could emerge from the Atlantic Ocean
“Many active volcanoes can be found on the seabed within Norway's maritime borders. Some are now only a few metres below sea level.”
I found this article utterly fascinating, and the idea that a new island might appear in the near future impossibly cool.
Students Can Carry Guns at the University of Texas — But They Can’t Use TikTok
Friends, I have no words.
Everything new by Helena Fitzgerald
Hard truths about the new year, and other transformations:
“after the party there's the afterparty and after the afterparty there's George Bailey just trying to make it through the third week of January…”
This latest project from Neal Agarwal is my new favourite way to waste my time.
Monica Lewinsky: 25 “Randoms” on the 25th Anniversary of the Bill Clinton Calamity
As the title suggests, here Monica Lewinsky lists 25 things she’s either learned or observed in the past 25 years. (Side note, was it really 25 years ago?!)
I love these portraits by Bahamian artist Gio Swaby (Instagram). Here’s her artist statement (from her website):
“Gio Swaby is a Bahamian visual artist whose practice is an exploratory celebration of Blackness and womanhood. Her work centres on Black joy as a radical act of resistance. It works through the philosophy of love as liberation and explores pathways of healing and empowerment. It allows space for both the strong and soft to coexist.”
Bonus for SEO folks: The State of Technical SEO Report 2023 from Aira & Women in Tech SEO is now live and well worth reading.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
Parallel Hells by Leon Craig - In this collection of short stories you’ll find a golem who discovers its powers far exceed its Creator’s expectations; an ancient creature who feasts on the shame of modern-day Londoners; and an Oxford student who discovers a tome to help her outwit her academic rivals. Dark, twisted, and delicious.
My Life in Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler - A beautiful collection of essays from non-binary science journalist Sabrina Imbler. Each essay introduces us to one or more marvellous marine creatures interwoven with stories of their own family and coming of age. Please note, in the USA (and possibly elsewhere?) this book has been released with a different title: How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, I have no idea why this is, but I figure it’s useful to know if you do want to get yourself a copy.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching & Listening To
Here’s some telly I’ve watched recently and would recommend:
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Netflix) - this beautifully dark, stop-motion retelling of Pinocchio is incredible. I’d also recommend watching the making of documentary on Netflix too.
The Menu (Disney+) - this darkly comedic horror film doesn’t fully satisfy in the final act, but I enjoyed the ride.
See How They Run (Disney +) - a brilliantly executed Agatha Christie spoof which is perfect Sunday afternoon viewing.
Stuck for something to watch? Check out this list of art documentaries.
Podcasts for PR folks:
Surena Chande’s episode on writing headlines journalists will love on the We Earn Media podcast is ace.
Propellernet have launched a Digital PR podcast, I’ve not listened to all the episodes (yet), but can confirm that Gisele Navarro’s episode is brilliant.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
Late last year, Aleyda invited me and Jess Peace to talk about content that earns links for an episode of her web series, Crawling Mondays. It was a delight, you can watch the episode here.
In the last fortnight I acted as a judge for the European Content Awards, got myself a much needed dose of pep thanks to Kirsty Hulse’s How to enter 2023 a bit less generally f*cking terrified webinar (it was great!), published my 100 Good Things in 2022 post, had a bash at macramé, and took a bunch of photos of frozen spider’s webs.
This weekend I am off to see my friend Steve in a play, and I am also going to try to make a thing. Next week I am super-excited because I get to catch up with my pal Surena AND I am going to visit Laura in Berlin.
Wanna hire me to do some work things?
I have a little availability over the next couple of months, so if you’ve always thought “You know what? It would be lovely to do a thing with Hannah!” then we should definitely talk.
I’m available for consultancy, training, or one-on-one coaching — drop me an email email@example.com and we’ll set something up.
Also there’s this:
BrightonSEO Training Course: Advanced Content Creation for Digital PR
On April 19th I’ll be running a training course in Brighton. Here’s a primer to help you figure out if this course might be right for you:
You’ve been tasked with gaining linked coverage on top tier sites like the BBC, the Guardian, USA Today & more; but how on earth do you do that?
Perhaps you’ve seen the success of others, and are wondering why your campaigns languishing, unlinked to and unloved. Or maybe you’ve seen some success but it all seems to be a bit hit and miss, and now you’re now under pressure to deliver results more consistently.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to do next, this is the course for you.
In this course you’ll learn:
What makes a good story from a journalists’ perspective
How to identify compelling topics and gain a deeper understanding of the media landscape
How to come up with ideas
How to figure out whether or not an idea is likely to generate coverage
Whether or not it’s a good idea to remake that campaign that got a bunch of coverage a few years ago
When and how to go about “saving” a struggling campaign, and when it might be best to just move on
& much, much more…
Attendees will leave the course:
With a renewed confidence in their own skills
In a happier and more productive mindset
Feeling rejuvenated and excited about their work
You can find more details on the course, and book your spot here — early bird pricing ends on 10th February.
That’s all from me for now :)
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PS Wanna find out more about me and my work? Head over to Worderist.com