The Power of the Little Writing Habit

I love writing. It’s a chance for a little creative output, to clear my head and express what’s on my mind. But life intervenes, and lately I’d largely stopped writing on a regular basis. There were always more pressing things: lines sitting on my to-do list clamoring for attention, small children demanding attention, the siren call of a warm and cozy bed. I gave in to these, letting my writing habit slip away. At first it was easy, and I felt like it was entirely rational. After all, these things were important; spending time with my family and being productive are two incredibly large parts of who I am.

But, so is being a writer.

As time went on I missed my time with my words more and more. I felt stifled, repressed. The words and ideas lay on my mind’s proverbial back burner, simmering away, until that simmer became a rolling boil that I could no longer ignore.

So, I decided I had to find a way to keep writing, no matter what life might throw at me.

At first I tried to set aside large blocks of time on the weekend to write, or set larger goals of finishing an article, writing a short story, or finishing the next section of my science fiction book. It seemed to work at first, but increasingly it felt inadequate. My creative mind sat largely idle for most of the week, building up pressure until it was unleashed. And more often than not, life intervened and I missed most or all of my writing time due to pressing family concerns or more “urgent” work that came up, which would cause that pressure to build even further.
I realized after only a short time that my strategy wasn’t working, and I think there’s one major reason.

Big goals are, by their nature, fragile and inflexible. If I set the bar so high (2-3 hours of sustained writing on a Sunday afternoon), it’s far too easy for things to get in the way and throw me off course. And if I don’t meet my criteria for success, I’m going to feel discouraged, that little inner voice of mine kicking in with it’s negative thoughts of “Give it up, you’ll never be a writer.” And you know what? The voice is right. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If I didn’t find a way to keep writing, then my identity as a writer would be lost.

Fortunately, I think the answer comes in the rest of that same quote from our ancient Greek friend: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I had to make writing a habit.

But how? I’d already established that it was difficult to reliably get large swaths of time on the weekend. But then I remembered something I read in bestselling author Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better Than Before (aff link), which was (to paraphrase): “The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself.” What she means is that the act of doing the habit, or some rough approximation thereof, is far more important than completing the full measure of the act itself.

I would be better of writing a single word, each and every day, than I would be trying to write in large chunks of time. This was where I got the idea of my little writing habit.

The next morning, I woke up a mere 15 minutes before I usually do. I rolled out of bed, stretched, drank a glass of water, then walked into my office and sat down at the computer. At first, the words didn’t flow easily; I’m by no means a morning person, after all. But as time when on, it felt good. It felt really good. The words came easier, and I quickly got into a rythm. Before I knew what had happened, the little bar in Scrivener turned green, and I had hit my writing goal. I even went a little beyond that, before calling it good for the day. I still managed to get ready and out the door on time, and I found that for the rest of the day I felt strangely free. Is this what it feels like when I get even that little bit of time to clear out my creative juices? I don’t know, but I liked it.
So the next morning, I did the same thing. And the day after that, and so on. As it stands I’ve done this four days in a row, with nearly three thousand words written out. I’ve finished another short story, completed an article for one of the technical publications I write for, and even finished another chapter in my book. And now, I’m writing this very post.

This is the power of little habits.

There will be days when I only hit my minimum word count. And there will probably be days where I can’t write at all. But you can be sure I am going to keep up this ritual. Get up, sit at the computer, and write. Because, as Stephen King writes in his wonderful work On Writing (aff link):

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.

I’ve found my muse again. And it feels wonderful.

The Many Definitions Of Wealth

When someone says they are “wealthy”, what does that really mean?

If you think about it, the word “wealth” likely has very different meanings to different people.

For some, they will follow the dictionary definition of “a large amount of money and possessions”. Perhaps they desire a fleet of expensive cars, or an enormous house on a large property. Or, maybe they want to pull a Scrooge McDuck and take a swim in their piles of money.

But for others, the definition of being wealthy may have a simpler meaning. Perhaps they desire the ability to leave their boring day-to-day job and travel the world. Or, be free to pursue their dream career of writing cheap supermarket romance novels. Some may want to find a small homestead in the wilderness and subsist off the land, without any outside contact. Still others may want to open their own small business.

None of these necessarily means you need to have a lot of money, nor do they entail having a lot of material possessions.

I would argue that the truest definition of wealth is closer to the second set of examples. Being wealthy means that you are able to spend your time and energy as you desire, rather than simply trade your labor for the goods required to maintain your life. For example, if you are able to live comfortably on a minimal salary, and as a result can take work as a freelance writer on a part time basis, you free up considerable time for pursuing whatever projects suit your whimsy. I don't think anyone would call such a person wealthy by society's normal definition, but if you ask them, I would suspect they would say they feel wealthy.

Take, for example, the story of Trent from The Simple Dollar. In 2008, he quit his full time job and started working at home full time writing and doing other smaller scale jobs. An explicit reason for his choosing this was because he saw his children growing up, and wanted to spend more time with them. Between his regular daytime job and working on his blog, he found his days become every fuller. So, he chose to cut the cord from his nine-to-five job and focus on his dream. Years and many, many posts later, he certainly seems to be doing well. While I don't know Trent, I would guess that if you asked him, he would probably agree with the statement that in the broadest sense of the word, his life is certainly full of wealth. It's an inspiring story, and one that I would love to some day follow.

I think that becoming wealthy in this sense is really all about focus and sacrifice.

It requires focus, in the sense that you need to keep that goal of financial independence in your mind at all times. Remind yourself every morning what it is you are working for, be it the ability to spend more time with your children, or start that small business you've always wanted. Keep these reminders close by, so that they never slip from your mind.

It also requires sacrifice, in that you need to be able to give up the ability to spend your money, time, or effort on things that don't get you closer to that goal. Life is full of random temptations, and while I'm not suggesting that you become a slave to your goal, it's foolish to think that you can simply carry on living on a whim, rather than carefully considering the minute-by-minute decisions and actions that move you closer to where you want to be.

I think that the notion of wealth today has been twisted by the reality-TV / tabloid driven media such that many view the excessive lifestyles of the super-rich with great envy. I wonder though, if we all got back to basics and thought about the things that are truly important to us, and what we would do with our lives given freedom from reliance on our paychecks every two weeks, if a more achievable and simpler vision of being wealthy might emerge.

Productivity Advice From A Bygone Era

I was just reading an article on one of my favorite blogs, The Art Of Manliness, which is basically the text of a book on productivity book called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day” by Arnold Bennett. In today’s flood of “productivity p0rn”, this book sets itself apart, despite being written over a century ago (1910, to be specific). I thought it would be fun to quote a couple passages and reflect on them a bit.

The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one’s life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one’s daily budget of twenty-four hours is the calm realisation of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands.

Bennett aptly describes how one of the most difficult things about productively using your spare time is just how little of it you have. I’ve written previously about my own realization of this fact, and how it radically changed my priorities. Like it or not, our lives are bound by time, and no matter how much you would like to, we extend ourselves beyond that. Choosing what to do with your time is hard and requires careful consideration if you are going to do it wisely.

But when you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman) what happens? You rush to the suburbs; you spare no toil to make yourself glorious in fine raiment; you rush back to town in another train; you keep yourself on the stretch for four hours, if not five; you take her home; you take yourself home. You don’t spend three-quarters of an hour in “thinking about” going to bed. You go.

When we face a task that we truly value, like an important date with someone we care deeply about, we don’t waste our time pondering about what to do next or how exactly to accomplish things; we think for a bit, then we act. The old phrase “paralysis by analysis” has a lot of truth to it. We can spend enormous amounts of time thinking about doing something worthwhile, or wandering aimlessly around the web. But if we don’t force ourselves to take action, we will never accomplish anything.

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent.

This is why I fell in love with the science of human behavior, and to this day greatly enjoy learning about how we think. To say that we are victims of our emotions and whims is simply false; one can absolutely learn to use reason and logic to examine and fundamentally change how we think. There is nothing more powerful than using the might of our minds for our own purpose, nor nothing more destructive than our thoughts run wild.

Man, know thyself. I say it out loud. The phrase is one of those phrases with which everyone is familiar, of which everyone acknowledges the value, and which only the most sagacious put into practice. I don’t know why. I am entirely convinced that what is more than anything else lacking in the life of the average well-intentioned man of to-day is the reflective mood.

Self reflection is probably one of the most important habits we can cultivate in our daily lives. The great Roman philosopher Seneca said that we should “retire into [ourselves] as much as possible.” Being conscious of and evaluating our actions and habits can bring about change in our lives like no other act. I make it a point to write in my journal for a few minutes every morning, even if it is simply noting down some highlights from the previous day. Looking back on events, I’m often amazed at the revelations I have about how I could have acted differently. It is only by shining the light on ourselves in a thoughtful and prescriptive manner that we can fully realize our potential.

The book illustrates how truly great advice can be timeless. Despite being written in an era drastically different from our own, the book is filled with salient points. The language, while somewhat formal, is often witty and entertaining. A highly recommended read, especially considering its short length.

The Amazing Productive Value Of Five Minutes

Sometimes, the most powerful changes we can make in our lives are surprisingly small.

An excellent example of this is how much more productive we can be in our lives just by recapturing the little periods of time in between major activities. Let’s say that I’ve put on some water to boil for tea, and I know that between the water heating and the tea steeping, there will be around five minutes of useful free time before my tea is ready.

Now, in the past I’ve typically used this time to browse Facebook, or perhaps read an article on Feedly, or just surf the web aimlessly. This wasn’t intentional use of my time, because I didn’t feel that “wasting” that tiny amount of time really meant anything. After all, what can you really do in five minutes?

There’s two main problems with this way of thinking.

First, there tends to be a lot of these little chunks of time throughout the day, and they add up quickly. I haven’t collected any real data, but it would not surprise me if, in a typical day, there were upwards of five or six of these periods. That comes out to almost half an hour of time that ultimately gets wasted. What would happen if you spent another half hour a day reading that book you’re trying to finish?

Second, there are absolutely ways to be productive and useful in five minutes or less. Yes, it’s true, the short time is limiting, especially in terms of activities which have a ramp up time (like writing, for example, where I clearly do better after getting into a groove). But if you look at your to-do list(s) (because you are maintaining stuff there, right?), you will surely find a number of little pesky chores that need to be done. Putting dishes away, responding to an e-mail (marginally acceptable, this really should be done in batch), wiping down the counters… the list goes on.

I’ve worked very hard to break this habit over the last month or so, with some very positive results. I’m far from perfect, but it’s clear that the habit of being intentional is just as important with short periods of time as it is in the grand scheme of things. So the next time you find yourself standing around waiting for the microwave to finish, instead of pulling out your phone and checking on the latest updates, pick some small bit of work and get it done.

The Power Of Living The Intentional Life

in·ten·tion [in-ten-shuhn]

noun

  1. an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result.

  2. the end or object intended; purpose.

From dictionary.com

It is far too easy to coast through life without determined direction. Especially in today’s world of endless distractions (anyone ever try the random article feature of Wikipedia?), one can drift from action to action without giving so much as a thought as to a higher goal or purpose.

I fall prey to this from time to time (perhaps more often than I’d like to admit). Take this scenario: I’ll open an article to read, which links to another, then another, then another. I’m a very intense reader, such that I easily get lost in the sea of words without much sense of time passing. I look up, and before I know it, hours have passed and I have little to show for it except having increased my knowledge around some random area of interest, and a lingering feeling of guilt over having not been more productive.

I’d like to pause here, and let you consider your reaction to the above passage. What questions would you ask me? Would you say, “But what’s wrong with reading? Don’t you think reading is a wonderful way to increase one’s knowledge? Would you have us all be machines who simple churn out production every hour of the day?”

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Understand, I am not saying that spending time (even a lot of time) reading random wikipedia articles about the 2007 Asian women’s junior handball championship is, in and of itself, a bad thing. I love reading, and think that it is an absolutely crucial part of lifelong education. If you look at your goals and your lists, and you decide that the best use of your time is to learn about the history of a random Louisiana highway, then by all means, go forth and don’t feel an ounce of guilt.

What’s the difference, you might ask? Simple: in the second case the act was done in an intentional manner. There’s quite a difference between carefully choosing among various ways to spend your time (a most valuable and precious commodity), and letting whim take your by the leash and drag you wherever it chooses.

When I talk about “living the intentional life”, I mean to say that I strive to spend the limited hours of my life in a conscious and considered manner. I have goals that I want to achieve, and, whether it be to become a better father, publish a science fiction novel, or even have a clean set of clothes to wear come Monday morning, the only way to accomplish them is through calculated allocation of the one resource I control fully: my time.

“But where’s the fun,” you say. “Where’s the spontaneity in that?”

Let me be clear: living in an intentional manner in no way conflicts with embracing spontaneity.

Let me give an example. As I planned my day, I intended to spend several hours in the afternoon writing this post. When the time to begin came around, I sat down, closed all my browsers, shut the office door, and began writing. I was humming along nicely, when I noticed that it was snowing quite heavily outside my office window. At that moment, the goal of finishing this post became less important than spending some quality time playing in the snow with my young son. This was a conscious choice to deviate from my original intent for the sake of some impromptu fun, and I do not have one ounce of regret for making it. In fact, one of the reasons I was able to do this on a whim was because I had spent earlier time in the day wisely working on various tasks around the house. In this way, intention breeds spontaneity, instead of smothering it.

All you have to do in order to live with intent is to use your power of reason and will to direct your own activity. From time to time, stop whatever you are doing, and ask if this is really how you want to be spending what little time you have left on this Earth. If it be in pursuit of making an army of snow angels with your children, so be it. If it be working towards restoring that classic car you’ve always dreamed of, so be it. Even if it involves nothing more than sitting with a cup of tea and reading the tabloids, so be it. Free will is one of the most basic and powerful of all human abilities; use it wisely and there is nothing you cannot accomplish.

Reflections Of A Failed Closer

I have a problem with closing things out.

There, I said it. I’ve always had a nagging notion in my head that while I’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of my personal productivity and effectiveness, something still just wasn’t quite right. After careful consideration (and a lot of not-so-gentle nudging from my wife, bless her patient heart), I’ve finally admitted what I’ve known all along, but didn’t want to hear.

Starting things is easy. You’re excited about the new project or achieving something. Your energy level is high, as is your interest. You want nothing more than to focus on getting this done. And as you work, it feels wonderful to make progress.

But as time goes on, the luster fades. The once intriguing effort turns into a dull, draining mountain of seemingly endless tasks. You avoid looking at the list of remaining work because every time you do, you feel like you will never get through it and finish. Whenever you try to start work, you always think “Oh how boring this will be, why don’t I just do something else.” And, of course, that is exactly what happens.

Now, in the spectrum of productivity, I consider myself to be fairly well into the realm of the good. I make lists, I update them, I do some planning around how to spend my time, and I try to be intentional about my actions. Thus, the idea that I can’t finish things naturally introduces a good bit of cognitive dissonance, which is to say, it’s not a comfortable feeling. If I see myself as a productive individual, why would I not also be someone who follows through and completes things?

If you’re noticing a preponderance of psycho-babble so far, that’s good, because what I’m trying to get at here is how important it is to understand the psychology of not following through.

Humans are not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one.

Leon Festinger

Emotions are an incredible driving force in our lives. They shape how we perceive the world around us, and how we make choices. Unfortunately they are also, at least at times, based on no part of rational thinking. And when emotion and reason collide, emotion usually wins.

It might sound a bit extreme, but I truly believe that my struggle with not closing things out might be the single most important hurdle I need to overcome in my journey towards realizing my full potential as a human being. Think about it: when your life has ended, will people remember you for all the things you started? Have you ever heard anyone say “Boy, remember Josh? He sure was an incredible starter. Think of all the unfinished novels he wrote! What an accomplished guy!”?

Perhaps it’s a mark of a cruel world, but in the end, people are largely remembered (and thereby judged) by what they finished.

That is why I want to devote some time here to exploring my problem in depth. I feel that, while there might be some tough introspection ahead, in the end it will be an important journey, and an interesting one. And, I hope, one that will be useful to others who suffer from the same weakness.

My Response to “20 Things The Rich Do Every Day”

Not too long ago I was reading the post 20 Things The Rich Do Every Day That The Poor Don’t over on the RichHabits blog. To be honest, a lot of what was in there did not surprise me. For example, there were multiple habits that revolve around what psychologists call an internal locus of control. People with this trait believe that they can affect their future with their own action. Writing down goals, believing that good habits create luck, seeing education as a key to success; all these are characteristics of someone who believes that with hard, intentional effort, you can make yourself successful, despite the “lot that life has handed you.”

Don’t believe that? Read the stories of self made people, like Chris Gardner, John Rockefeller, or even J.K. Rowling (hey, there’s even hope for writers!). None of these folks came from money, and some faced incredibly dark times before becoming successful. If you want to watch a movie practically guaranteed to make you cry, try The Pursuit Of Happiness, which tells Gardner’s story of homelessness and despair, before finally getting his chance.

As someone who’s struggled with bad habits in periods of my life, I am an absolute believer that the patterns in our lives can have a tremendous effect on the path it takes. Seeing this list only reinforced that belief.

I would stop short, however, of saying that all poor people are simply poor because of bad habits. I think that is far too simplistic an explanation, which ignores factors like the incredibly skewed distribution of wealth. Circumstances and societal factors absolutely play a role in either increasing or decreasing poverty. Coming from a background in science, I also understand that corrolation does not imply causation; that is, just because the rich happen to be good goal setters doesn’t automatically mean that setting goals will make you wealthy.

That doesn’t mean that the habits listed are not valuable. Quite the opposite, I would say. These skills build upon an overall trait that I consider paramount to success in life: resiliency. Having a large network, for example (habit number 12), would come in very handy when you unexpectedly lose your job. Believing that good habits lead to success (habit number 17) means you are more likely to be motivated to maintain those habits, even when things get rough. All these add up to someone being more able to hit back when life gets them with a roundhouse punch.

We cannot control the cards life deal us. But we can absolutely put ourselves in the best place to run with the hand we are given. I think that is why this list is something anyone wishing for success, financial or otherwise, should read.

How Children Remind Us To Appreciate Beauty In The Seemingly Mundane

If you’re anything like me, there will be times when you’ll find yourself getting caught up in the day to day minutae and struggles of life. Maybe the pot roast didn’t come out quite right. Maybe the car wouldn’t start (naturally on the same morning when you had an absolutely crucial client meeting to get to). Perhaps life has just decided to throw every majorly annoying curveball at you at the same time, to the point where it feels like an MMA fighter is using your head as substitute punching bag.

At times like these, thoughts tend to fly through our minds, filling our perception with negativity. We see reality not through rose (or even clear) colored lenses, but through a persistent cloud of reddish haze. Things that normally wouldn’t phase us feel like those padded gloves smashing into our metaphorical jawbone.

At times like these, we have a tendency to to totally overlook the little, everyday opportunities to enjoy the moments in our lives. We miss the wonderful smells of nature as we walk through the park. We don’t notice the calming sound of rain on the roof, or see the brilliant colors and textures of an Autumn sunset.

But, if we let them, our children can be wonderful reminders to appreciate the beauty in the mundane.

Case in point: this morning was just one of those times when things don’t want to go right. After the umpteenth small thing going wrong, likely my computer misbehaving, I was about ready to start bashing my head into the nearest wall. Then, I happened to notice my young daughter staring in absolute enchantment at a reflection of light on the ceiling from a toy mirror. As I flexed it back and forth, the light danced across the painted surface, making playful patterns. She cooed and giggled at the little creature in wonder.

I couldn’t help but enjoy her glee, but it also made me see the artistry in this tiny natural phenomenon. Something I would have completely missed, but to a child it was obvious.

I never cease to be amazed at the lessons our children can teach us, if we will only listen.

The Quiet Of Morning

It’s nearly 7 AM, and as I’m drinking my morning tea and reading, I suddenly feel the urge to write about how my newly acquired habit of getting up early has affected my life. At the moment, the house is still, with only the cats wandering around (well, one of them at least, the other, being a total lazybones, is curled up on the chair next to me).

It’s pretty well established that one of the common habits of successful people is waking up early. There’s also plenty of good tips on how to start doing it. I’m not going to re-hash those here; instead I’m going to just talk briefly about my experience.

All my life I’ve been a habitual late sleeper. In college I actually failed a class that began at 8AM, at least in part because I skipped almost a quarter of the lectures. My first job out of college had hours of 12pm – 8pm, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to be up until 2-3 AM, then sleep until 11 or so. Even after getting a job with normal hours, I still never broke the ritual of later mornings.

So what finally made me change? That’s easy: becoming a parent. Espeically after my second child was born, I found quiet time to be at an incredible premium. It was rare both of the kids were asleep at the same time, except for late at night or early in the morning. And given that, by the end of the day, my brain tends to be about as useful as a pile of noodles, it was only logical that the single easiest way to regain some of that valuable reflective time was to get up earlier.

Now, several months later, I would say that I am a successful “early bird”. What lessons did I learn throughout this process?

The first is that slow, gradual progress is better than huge leaps. At first I tried going all out (i.e. going from waking up whenever to 5:30AM or so) and immediately failed. My body simply couldn’t handle the dramatic change in schedule, and I quickly fell back to my old patterns. A gradual change worked much better, where I set my alarm around 10-15 minutes earlier every few days. There were still difficulties, but it was a much smoother transition.

The second is that my choice of alarm was more important than I thought. The traditional clanging bell or other constant noise did more to annoy me then wake me up, and it usually resulted in an angry slap of the snooze button and a failure to get out of bed. I experimented with several options before settling on the Sleep Time iPhone app. It uses the iPhone’s built in accelerometer to determine what stage of sleep you are in, and tries to wake you when you’re at a “light” period. It also starts the alarm very softly and gradually increases in volume, which wakes me up in a much more gentle fashion.

The third is that this works better if I don’t eat breakfast right away. Making my traditional green smoothie or eggs and veggies takes up a decent amount of time, and time is extremely valuable. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee or green tea, sit down, and get to my morning work. Only after I’ve accomplished some useful things do I stop and think about eating. This also means that I can still eat breakfast with my family most days.

And speaking of useful work, the fourth lesson is that being intentional about what to do with my time in the morning is crucial. It’s very easy to get lost browsing the news sites or reading blogs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as that is what I really want to do. So, before I get started, I’ll stop and think about what I want to accomplish in the hour or so I’ve got.

Finally, I would say the consistently getting up at the same time, even when I didn’t necessarily have to (such as weekends) or got poor sleep (because that would never happen with two small children) helped get make this a successful habit. I’m not sure if there is some scientific reason behind this, but from a purely personal experience perspective, always getting up at the same time seemed much easier than modifying the time based on factors like when I went to bed the night before. Yes, this means there are days when I’m running on a less-than-desirable amount of sleep. But I find that my body usually does a decent job of telling me when I’m burning the candle too long and need to get to bed earlier. I will say that the one exception to this rule is when I’m sick; in that case I just let myself wake up when my body decides it’s time.

There’s no doubt in my mind that learning to be an early riser has been a huge help in keeping my reading and writing habits alive during the challenging period of raising two small children. The stillness of the morning (well, except for the one cat whining to go out or be fed), the feeling of a clear mind, and not having several voices clamoring for my attention are all wonderful things to experience. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge and getting up earlier, my advice: go for it.

Dealing With Too Many Voices

When I was a DBA (and, to a lesser extent, now as well) I frequently got into a scenario where I’d have multiple groups clamoring at me to accomplish a request from them on short notice. This sometimes became a problem, such as when there was only x hours in the day and I needed y hours to finish everything that folks were requesting. Or, when I had multiple people demanding immediate service (that never happens, right? Oh wait, it just happened today, that’s why I’m writing this. #Facepalm). Earlier in my career I would tend to get worked up, let my blood pressure go up, and perhaps engage in some creatively worded conversations with the people competing for my time. But after realizing that (a) this really wasn’t helping things, since people still want what they want; (b) all the yelling wasn’t helping my health, I came up with a couple rules on how to handle these, let’s say, explosive situations. In both cases, they’re remarkably effective at both alleviating the confusion over relative priority and lowering my stress level.

First: don’t even try to work out on your own which request is more important. Sure, you can ask questions and try and rank things in your mind according to things like which client things are for, how long things take, etc. Ultimately though, you’re going to be wrong in someone’s eyes and that someone is going to be unhappy with it. And moreover, unless you’re a manager, you’re not paid to determine things like that. You’re paid to get things done and write code, period.

Second: let the competing groups do just that – compete! Send an e-mail to the various requestors stating something like this:

Hi there folks, this is your friendly neighborhood (DBA | Architect | Database Developer) speaking. I thank you all for putting in your requests to me, and I acknowledge that each of you has requested that I handle them immediately. Unfortunately I can only work on one task at a time (unless someone’s developed cloning technology, which would be super!), so I will be doing these in the order which they were received. Before you begin thinking of arguments to get me on your side, I will warn you that this decision is not mine to make, so please do not send me justification of why you need to come first. If you feel that your request should take priority, please work with the owner(s) of those requests in front of yours to adjust their priority. If you all can amicably agree to shuffle things around I’m happy to oblige. I’ve listed the relevant work items below in order along with their owners. If I do not hear back I will assume you are all fine with this and will proceed in the order shown. Thanks!

Let the various people battle among themselves for the lead. Yes, this can sometimes get a little bloody, so you should probably check with your boss to make sure this is allowed before doing it. Which brings us to our third point…

Third: let your boss handle it. Managers are paid to, well, manage! If people cannot agree peaceably (or otherwise) on a pecking order, let your boss hear each of their cases and then tell you what to do. This will take the pressure off you to make a decision that is clearly one at a level above yours. Certainly your boss may (and perhaps should) ask for your input in the matter, but the decision should rest with them.

Since I’ve put the above rules in place I’ve never been more than slightly annoyed when these situations inevitably come along. It may not stop (or even lower) the volume of whining coming your way, but it will let you deflect and delegate all the stressful aspects of the problem.