I live my life by a few key principles, most of which are shaped by a desire to stay curious and productive. The mantras may sound good on paper, but they ultimately lose meaning when applied to a broader spectrum. Take “never stop learning” for instance:

Would you like to learn more about neutron stars?

Yes, that sounds like a delightful use of my time and brain space.

Would you like to learn more about the latest Kardashian drama?

Uuuuhh … no. Nope, nay nay, hard pass. Put it in a no bag, smash it with a no hammer, and flush it down the no toilet.

I realized that my life was actually governed by a hazy interpretation of principles, which got me to thinking about ways to clear the fog. I wanted to concoct a “Theory of Everything” for productivity, a mantra that I could use to focus my efforts and avoid pitfalls.

I didn’t get very far. As it turns out, humans are complicated. Write that down.

I began my writing career as a “yes man,” as most greenhorns do when tackling a new endeavor. I swallowed all the conventional wisdom, took every tip to heart, joined any group that would have me, listened to every morsel of advice from every author I could find, and said “yes” to any activity that touted itself as useful.

That … was a mistake.

What I ended up with was a giant plate of obligation, most of which was outright useless. I polluted manuscripts with unnecessary edits based on questionable advice. I joined groups that offered very little substance outside of social credit. I participated in events that were little more than time sinks with no intrinsic value. In short, I bogged myself down with a desire to engage. My “yes man” schedule had started to crush my productivity.

As a necessary disclaimer, none of these things are objectively bad. Good editing is critical. Good groups are beneficial. Good events are fruitful. (Emphasis on the good qualifier.)

After a particularly terrible event, my “Theory of Everything” finally revealed itself. I was ranting to my wife about the colossal waste of time. She smiled and nodded along like the awesomely supportive spouse she is. She was also dealing with a massive transition after a decades-long career as a successful physician. Once I finished my tirade, she dropped a magical truth bomb on me: “At this point in my life, if it’s not hell yes, it’s no.”

Holy crap on a pogo stick. (Cue the angelic choir of revelation.)

Thinking back on the event, I had been on the fence about doing it at all. In fact, I was goaded into participating by one of the organizers. It was a soft networking opportunity with very little promise of turning into anything significant. My enthusiasm peaked at “meh” and bottomed out at “why the hell am I here?” I wasted an entire weekend on something that wasn’t even remotely appealing to begin with. Did it expand my readership? No. Did it grow my network? No. Was it profitable in any way? No. I shouldn’t have done it, and I knew that from the start.

Everyone say it with me: “If it’s not hell yes, it’s no.”

Out of curiosity, I applied this filter to my entire writing career to date. Much to my surprise, I probably should have avoided most of what I had agreed to. Granted, there will be duds in every venture along with some missed opportunities, but it’s the initial valuation that matters most. I would much rather be excited about a new experience and end up disappointed than be lukewarm about it and end up resentful.

One by one, my other mantras faded away in favor of this new Herculean filter. I now apply it to everything that involves leaving the house, and especially to my writing career.

Let’s give it a spin, shall we?

Would you like to join a writers group that does nothing but complain about the hardships of becoming a successful author?

No.

Would you like to participate in a local niche event that vaguely relates to the themes and topics you write about?

Some hidden potential, but no thanks.

Would you like to visit Dublin and speak at an international writers conference?

Hell yes!


Tossing back pints in Dublin with Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur.com