Untouchable hours

“What are you busy with after this?” he asked. I was out with a friend for dinner and I’d told him that I would have to leave by 9pm.

I’m going home, I told him. I’ve come to learn that this is an “unacceptable” reason to end a night out early. “No way, you’re coming out for drinks with me,” he said.

“No I can’t, I have plans,” I said. From the look on his face, I was sure that he’d took it to mean that I was going home to either: a) ravish my husband or b) keep to a curfew. The correct answer was… neither.

I had made plans with myself – made them official by putting it down in my calendar.

One thing I’ve always found strange is that when we make plans like that with other people, we would hesitate to cancel them. So why is it that we’re so ready to give up the plans that we make with ourselves?

How do you handle so many things at once?

If I had a FAQ page, this question would be close to the top.

At the time of this writing I am: working full-time at an e-commerce company and just about to begin a round of fundraising, producing a short film to be used as part of the pitch for a TV series, developing a web app for an online community, and working on three essays for submission.

The question “how do you handle so many things at once?” is usually followed up with “how do you find the time?”.

I don’t find the time. I make it.

Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time at a close friend’s house and her father used to say, “If you fail you plan, you plan to fail.” That saying grated on my Aquarian nerves. I’m a dreamer, not a planner, I thought.

But what I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be a good planner to make plans. You just need to find a system that works. For you.

Forget bullet journals and pretty planners. I have a reporter’s notebook and a Trello board, both of which are organised in a way that makes sense only to me.

But when I really need to get shit done, I put it into my calendar as “untouchable hours” – pre-scheduled sections of my day and week that aren’t meant to be spent on anyone else.

When I make a calendar entry, I also include what I want to work on during that time. And like any other meeting, I do the necessary prep beforehand. This means that when I sit down to start working, I have what I need to hit the ground running.

You are a workaholic, aren’t you?

Another FAQ. And my response is, au contraire.

I read an average of one book per week (more, if I end up binge reading romance novels). I watch lots of TV. I sometimes spend whole Saturdays curled up in bed. I go for drinks on weekends and have social dinners at least once a week. I get laid often.

Here’s a confession: I put these things on my calendar as well. Last weekend, I had two three-hour slots that said “Watch Shark Tank“.

My untouchable hours aren’t just meant for work; I also schedule them for times when I just want to be alone. As an extreme introvert, that’s how I recharge. (This was especially important when I was a journalist and my job involved talking to people.)

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m running on empty, I will burn out. And that it takes longer to recover from that.

This is how I keep going.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” (Meditations 12.4)

I often wonder why we think our time is less valuable. Why is it so much easier to cancel plans we’ve made with ourselves?

I’m not saying that my untouchable hours are immovable, but I give them the same respect that the rest of my appointments receive.

And thus far, that has worked for me.

How do I become a better writer?

Alternate Title: Why have I started this blog?

Writing is an easy thing. It’s merely arranging letters and words on a blank piece of paper so that they make sense.

But what does “sense” mean? And to whom are the words meant to make sense? The difficulties of writing lie in the answers to these two questions.

In an online course I once took, the lecturer said that there were two things to consider when writing – audience and purpose.

A letter would have a different tone compared to a speech. An article about how to become a better writer would have a different structure than a short piece of fiction.

But none of this really answers today’s main question: How do I become a better writer?

After more than 10 years of writing articles (for blogs, magazines, newspapers), fiction, annual reports (and whatever else you can think of that requires writing), I am still learning. There’s always room to grow in writing, better ways to achieve results.

Writing – the act of putting words on paper – may be easy, but writing well is a whole other ball game1.

After all these years, the only thing I can think of to improve one’s writing is a combination of these: Read, Write, Share, Listen.

1/ Read

Some blogs with advice about writing say “read great writers”. Others share practical tips from great writers and depending on which writers are quoted, you may find yourself with opposing pieces of advice that seem to work perfectly for that specific writer.

One piece I keep coming back to, however, is Stephen King’s “prime rule” of writing. “Read a lot and write a lot,” he says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Which is why I say, instead of just reading great writers, read all writers. Even the unknown ones faithfully publishing fan fiction on the Internet. Decide for yourself what you like or don’t like. Figure out why a piece works for you and uncover the faults in a piece that doesn’t.

Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

By identifying and verbalising your issues with a particular text, you are able to understand the mechanics behind creating a good piece of writing.

I personally derive value from books about writing, but what I’ve come to realise is that all of the value gained is theoretical at best.

The only way to become a better writer, is to write. Write. Keep writing.

2/ Write

This is one of the reasons I’ve started this blog. It’s a way for me to explore a new aspect to my writing, a way for me to work on pieces that tickle my fancy.

In 2009, when I wanted to improve my writing of dialogue in fiction, I started a blog called The Man Beside Me. After a few months and several pieces, I noticed that dialogue in my other writing began to improve as well.

I suppose this is a sort of deliberate practice. At the same time, it’s something that I’m doing for myself. There’s no need to satisfy a board of directors or convince a potential customer.

But there is a need to be critical about my own writing. And there is a need for feedback. I’m hoping that’s where you’ll come in.

3/ Share

I could write all of this info down in a private journal, but what sort of feedback would that get me? Nada, zilch, zero.

By sharing my writing, I’ll learn more about how to present ideas, how to dress my stories up and strip complex ideas down.

Perhaps I’ll chance upon other experienced writers who can provide some insights into how else to present content, how I could make my sentences tighter, how to drive a point home.

Which brings us to…

4/ Listen

I am ready for criticism. Not everyone is going to like everything I write. And sometimes, those with the most hatred can provide extremely astute feedback.

I don’t always follow all the advice given, but I listen and I consider the points. Sometimes I may follow the advice but even if I don’t, this helps me identify the “faults” in my writing and rationalise why I’ve done things a certain way.

So to answer both title questions…

I’ve started this blog with a dual purpose.

One, to practice writing without external restrictions on content and style. It’s not enough to be good; I want to keep becoming a better writer.

Two, to document explorations initiated by intellectual curiosity. Let’s see where this rabbit hole leads!

  1. The usage of the phrase “a whole other ball game” here is an example of lazy writing, which results in a clumsy sentence. 

Stoicism as a solution for anxiety

My heart was pounding. There had been a severe mistake in one of our large shipments and the client was furious. He was out for blood. We were going to lose a generally easy to handle, recurring customer. He was going to sue us. We would have to suit up for war.

As you can see, my mind makes huge leaps towards worst-case scenarios. And once, I might have given in to the crippling physiological sensations that come with anxiety.

But I’ve found something that work better than medication – stoicism. It’s not as easy a fix as popping a pill but its effects are longer lasting.

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I came across stoicism last year after reading about it in one of Ryan Holiday’s newsletters and seeing that it was something that could co-exist with my current beliefs, I thought I would explore it further.

Stoicism may be a philosophy but it differs from the other schools in that it emphasises application and practice. While other schools of philosophy may appeal to the more academic – those concerned with theories and ideas – stoicism is for everyone.

It is the understanding that your education, breeding, wealth or beauty doesn’t matter. The only thing you have any real control over is yourself.

Being stoic when you’ve made a mistake

So a mistake had been made and a client was raging. There was a problem to solve and being anxious contributed nada to the solution.

I have no control over another person’s emotions or actions. The physiological aspects of my emotions may not be within my total control. But I have control over my own actions.

First, I understood that a mistake had been made and that if there were negative consequences, I would have to face them. Being anxious would not change that fact.

Second, I understood that if I were in my client’s shoes, I would be enraged as well. And that even though we were in a bad situation, things could have been worse.

Third, although I didn’t know exactly how the client wanted me to fix the situation, I proposed a few things that were within my control and finally found something that he could agree with. It involved some losses but I knew that it was my responsibility to fix the problem.

Fast-forward to today, this same client that I thought would hunt us down and kill us (yes, my brain exaggerates) is still sending us messages asking whether we have more products to recommend for his purchase.

Take a stoic pill

I’ve been told lately that I’m “too chill”. And my response is always “why stress”?

These days, when I come face-to-face with a situation that’s stressful, I ask myself, “Can I do something about this?”

If I can’t, it doesn’t make sense to get stressed out. If I can, then I just do what needs to be done. It’s as simple as that.

While it may be simple, it isn’t always easy. However, practising stoicism has helped to stabilize my life in a way that I didn’t think was possible.

There’s so much about stoicism that’s still new to me but it’s definitely something that I want to dive deeper into. It’s something that I want to keep practising.

I started this blog as a way for me to explore topics that I’m curious about, to contemplate questions that I have no answers to, and to document my learnings.

If you’re reading, I hope you’ll provide feedback or perhaps be interested in having a discussion. I love hearing new thoughts and ideas, even if they are completely different to mine.