It’s a simple fact that human beings are more productive when they’re not stressed to the gills. A little stress is good, it keeps us on task, but too much becomes a distraction, drains energy, and keeps us from achieving much of anything. Duh. We know this already, and I don’t need to point it out.
A lot of productivity gurus will tell you about how to control your stress level. I want to approach the subject from a different direction and talk about controlling your influences. You’ve undoubtedly heard this before as well. If you’re trying to quit smoking, don’t hang out with smokers, if you’re trying to quit drinking, don’t go to bars, if you’re trying to stick to a diet, don’t go out for pizza with your friends. Keep temptations at arm’s length, if even that close. What I’m talking about, though, are things that affect your behavior, affect your moods, affect your thinking.
On the television show Breaking Bad, for the three of you on the planet not familiar with the series, a high school teacher is diagnosed with cancer and starts making meth to raise money for his family after he’s gone. He gets sucked into a world of crime and evil that slowly changes who he is. The influences upon him are stronger than he can resist, and he becomes increasingly evil himself. How do you get out of that? The only answer seems to be to not get into that situation in the first place.
Recently I’ve begun avoiding the news. I killed a lot of feeds on my RSS reader, I cleared out a lot of things I was following on Facebook and Twitter, and if Katie turns on the TV news I leave the room. It’s not that I want to be willfully ignorant — you know that willful ignorance is one of my pet peeves — but I don’t need to be bombarded with situations that are outside my control. The amazing thing about living in the 21c is that if I need to know something, I can look it up. What was happening was, I’d see a news story that upset me and get sucked into an emotional state, which hobbled my ability to do constructive things. I’d get into conversations and arguments with people about this politician, or how something was handled, or a pending bit of legislation, and we’d go around and around and it accomplished nothing. We weren’t brainstorming new ideas, we weren’t looking for solutions, we weren’t even formulating letters to write to people who could influence the situation telling them our ideas or concerns. We were just moaning and groaning and wasting time on things we can’t change, instead of spending our time wisely on things that we can change.
A long time ago, when I was first trying to be a writer, I was struggling with a science fiction short story. A roommate, who was better versed in the genre than I was at the time, told me that I hadn’t read enough science fiction to be able to write science fiction. I railed against that then, and to a certain degree I rail against it now, but I understand the point he was trying to make. It’s not enough to avoid bad influences; you have to immerse yourself in good influences, surround yourself with what you want to be. You have to be able to understand it. It’s like the famous conversation between John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his friend Peter Bohler:
John Wesley: “I see it clearly with my head but I do not feel it, and I had better stop preaching it until I feel it.”
Peter Bohler: “Do not stop preaching it, but go on preaching it until you do feel it.”
That doesn’t just apply to ministry. There are days when we really want to do something, we really want to accomplish some goal, and we just don’t feel like it. What do we do? If we want to be successful, we get up and go do it anyway. If you want to be writer, you write every day whether you feel it or not. If you want to be a football player, you practice every day whether you feel it or not. We also surround ourselves with like-minded people and mentors who will help us along. We surround ourselves with reminders of our goals, with examples of what success looks like. Read more science fiction, not to learn the tropes and sipe techniques from favorite writers, but to simply remind myself why I love science fiction. The love reinforces my desire to be part of that world, to write science fiction.
I want to wrap up by challenging all of you to change just one small thing. Remove a bad influence, replace it with a good one. Turn off the TV for half an hour and read. Get off the internet for an hour and call a friend or relative. Take the cookie jar off the kitchen counter and put a bowl of fruit there instead. Shut off the video game for a bit and take a walk. See how you feel. If it makes an impression, start keeping a journal and write down the things that upset you, and the things that make you happy or relaxed. do less of the former, more of the latter. Control your influences.