Matt Gemmell

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Letting go

Productivity 4 min read

I’ve been trying to let go. It’s a work in progress, and it probably always will be, but I’m trying.

I’m looking for focus, and freedom from noise. More than that, I’m looking for stability; a metaphorical place where I have a chance of doing my best work.

I’m distracted by my interests, but that’s fine. What’s not fine is that I’m also distracted by things I might think are interesting at the time, but are really just opportunities to procrastinate.

I’ve learned that letting go is an active, continuous process. The default assumption is that we want to be interrupted: notifications are enabled, ringers aren’t silenced, and reminders are set. To get rid of that stuff, you have to take a stand.

There’s a cost, of course. Some of the intrusions are pleasant. They’re amusing, diverting or even downright flattering. Those are the hardest to give up, but you have to be ruthless. It’s been two years now since I switched off comments here, for example, inviting people to instead follow-up on social media or their own websites. It’s one of the most freeing things I ever did.

I’ve experimented with internet connection-blockers, to forcibly remove extraneous influences while I work. I finally settled on blocking a long list of social media, news, and shopping sites, giving myself some leeway for online research. So far, so good.

There’s some discomfort in closing the door on things that are vying for your attention. I think the heart of it is that it feels arrogant, somehow - and maybe even cruel. Exclusion isn’t something we’re very comfortable with, because we know that if we were on the receiving end, it would hurt. We prefer to give others the benefit of the doubt.

That’s a fine principle, but it can be taken too far - and I think that it has been taken too far. We’ve conditioned ourselves to grant everyone and everything an audience, and we’re suffering for it. Productivity is the first casualty.

I don’t feel that my time is particularly short; there are plenty of hours in the day, and hopefully plenty more days ahead. Maybe you feel differently. But there’s one thing we can agree on: focus is scarce. We just can’t afford these distractions. So I’m letting go.

I’m letting go of checking email, and of having a Twitter app running. I’m letting go of RSS feeds and notifications. I’m letting go of the news. I’m letting go of all the morsels that vanish from memory so quickly that I might as well have never seen them in the first place.

It goes beyond that, though. I’m letting go of people, too. I think it’s OK to let people pass you by. Difficult people, demanding people, and people who impose too high a cost against the benefit they provide - or even just people that you can’t reasonably help.

I’m aware that this is anathema to our culture, where everyone has value and the right to be heard, and people should be given a chance. I just don’t think I have time to give everyone a chance, and still do the things I want to do. I don’t have time to hear them in the first place, and I bet that you don’t either. So I’m letting go of the obligation to respond, or even to hear the question. I won’t pretend to be comfortable with saying so, but there it is.

I’m also letting go of second chances. One strike and you’re out. We all make conscious choices, all the time, regarding what to expose ourselves to - and I think we should be doing it for people too. In fact, we already do: we pick our friends, and our partners. We choose who to talk to, or not. I think it’s alright to also approach the problem from the other end, and exclude those who make life a bit less enjoyable. There’s a taboo about excommunication, but that’s overstating what is actually a simple opt-out: unchecking a checkbox. No thanks, I don’t want to listen to you anymore. I have things to do.

I’m letting go of others governing my attention, and sometimes even my emotional state. I’m allowing myself to say “no more”, and I’m refusing to feel guilty about it. Instead, I’m telling myself that it’s actually altruism in disguise; it’s due diligence. You can’t do your best work when your mind is elsewhere.

You definitely can’t work effectively when you’re angry, or drained, or upset, or depressed. I don’t subscribe to the ‘acquired immunity’ theory of personal experience, where we must be endlessly tempered by disagreement and adversity; that’s another thing that we take too far. I don’t want to be exposed in the first place - because I’d rather be making something I truly care about. If I have to live in a clean-room environment to do that, then so be it.

I don’t read the comments on news sites. I allow myself to use the block button. I’m letting go of the rumours and the ad hominem remarks. Ditto for the misunderstandings, and the trolling, and the hackneyed responses. I’m letting go of lazy, good-enough output, substandard products, and anything - or anyone - that disconnects me from what I’m trying to do.

It’s a tall order; there’s no question about that. But I really need to do this, and I think you do, too.

I don’t know what your passion is. I don’t know whether you’re lucky enough to do it as your day job, or just in snatched moments during the evenings, weekends, and holidays. I do know that you aren’t spending enough time on it - because you could never spend enough time - and I also know that you wish you could do more in whatever time you have. I’m the same. Something’s got to give.

I’m trying to care less (and about fewer things), because I can’t care about everything. I’m being ruthless, yes, but I firmly believe I’m allowed to do that with my own life. I have to address this feeling that I’m just not getting enough important stuff done.

There’s too much noise, and too many voices. Too much imitation, and too little authenticity. Too many critics and too few creators.

I can’t fix those things, but I can try to extract myself, and find the time and focus to contribute something of my own.

So I’m letting go.

This article originally appeared as the cover story of issue 15 of The Loop Magazine. I also have an article (on our unpreparedness for the decisions of adulthood) in issue 26, out now.

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You can also read this article in Russian.

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