These days, in the spheres over which I exercise some modicum of control or influence, the question that occupies me most is not "how". It is "when".
I'm not talking about hustle porn or productivity gospel or even the reality of work and life in a pandemic. I'm talking about the reality of visibility: people want things, and they want things from you, and they want those things on their schedule, and it is of no moment to them that they are not the only ones in the queue (or that they're not paying you).
I used to pay an assistant (Jessica, a legend), and most of what Jessica did for me was triage. This is urgent, this is important, this is neither. If you say yes to this you can't do this other thing; you've said yes to this and you need to carve out the time to prepare for it; you've said you'll think about this and now you need to make a decision. Here's the information you need to make a decision.
Jessica was a filter, an organizer, a polite decliner and an enabler of focus.
One of the ways you become visible is through your work. The challenge, of course, is in practice the exercise of visibility (media, lectures, panels, events) is at odds with getting work done. Another challenge, oft discussed in my circles, is the brutal reality of who gets to be an elder states_man_ and who's just old.
A side-effect of visibility, and a sign that you're not yet so old that you're no longer ~marketable~, is a constant buzz of expectation. In every inbox, on every platform.
Sometimes, when I say no to something, or even when I am too buried to even get to the point of saying no to something, I remember the various people who said and who say that it is important to be grateful. I remember that what they mean is you should say yes. I think about the power dynamic inherent is being asked to be grateful for things that are often a demand masquerading as a favor pretending to be an opportunity. I think about all the things, and the people, to whom I am grateful, and how I need to the time to be able to them.
I think about how much time I spent, and spend, trying never to impose and always to be considered in my asking. I think about how much I have practiced designing teams and spaces in which saying "no, because" is expected as a sign of deliberateness and prioritization. If you say no to this, you get to say yes to this instead. If you say no to this, you get your evening back, or your weekend, or the time you need to buy gifts for people you care about, or the energy to finish and mail the stack of letters on your desk, or the uninterrupted window of focus to do the deep research.
This is not a game you can win, so best not to treat it as a game.
when I always feel I’m writing in red pencil on a piece
of paper growing in thickness the way a pumpkin does,
traveling at fantastic speed toward orange, toward rot, when
in autumn I remember that we are cold-smitten as I continue
smearing red on this precipice, this ledge of paper over which
I lean, trying to touch those I love, their bodies rusting
as I keep writing, sketching their red hands, faces lusting for green.
—from In Autumn by Mark Irwin