Okay, so I recently read this book, The WillpowerInstinct, and it really brought up a number of interesting points on how to make yourself do things that are (in the short term) somewhat unpleasant. For me, this includes lots of stuff: usually I’d rather read than write, and I’d rather browse the internet than read, and I’d rather eat chocolate than salad, and I’d rather sleep late than go to the gym.
In order to combat these impulses, I’ve learned to rely on planning and goal-setting. I tell myself that I’ll read for X number of hours in a week and write for Y number of hours and go the gym on Z number of days.
Like most sensible people, I begin my benchmark week on Monday morning and I end it on Sunday night. This is because I have more free time on the weekend and I want to be able to pick up the slack of the weekdays get out of control and I can’t quite make my targets.
However, I realized that the existence of this slack is fostering bad habits in me and it’s the reason why I sometimes fail to meet my goals. Because the truth is that the weekdays are actually much more predictable than the weekends: I know where I’ll be and what I’ll need to do. The weekends aren’t like that: it’s not uncommon for something to come up–some opportunity that necessitates changing all my plans. But when that happens, I actually have zero slack, because by the time I get to Friday morning, I’ve already effectively “spent” the weekend. I know that if I don’t write for 3 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday and go to the gym on both days and read this amount, then I won’t meet my goals.
But, on the other hand, if I begin the week on Friday morning, then I have much more freedom. If I have a freeish weekend, then I can work as much as I’m able, and then I’ll have more slack during the week. On the other hand, if I end up doing things during the weekend, then I know exactly where I need to fit things into my weekday schedule in order to meet my targets.
The key here is that I am going to move away from a system where I am mortgaging the end of the week and towards a system where I am saving up for it. If I begin the week with the weekend, then I know that I am never going to have more time during this week than I do right now. And if I don’t use that time wisely, then I’m going to pay for it later. Whereas if I continue like I have been (where I end with the weekend) then the weight is totally different. All week, I have the looming specter of an upcoming crunch time that may or may not actually happen.
It’s actually pretty brilliant. I fully expect this system to take the world by storm. Calendars everywhere are going to be revised.
I used to use the Chrome extension Stayfocusd to limit the amount of time I spent on Facebook and Twitter. But then I uninstalled it, because I realized that Facebook and Twitter are wonderful things that I should be using more of and that it’s not at all a waste of time to interact online with other human beings.
However, I’ve recently become a bit annoyed by the amount of time I spend thinking about books that I am going to read instead of actually reading books. Whenever I am reading a book that I enjoy, I will literally spend hours browing Amazon.com, Goodreads, and LibraryThing, making lists of books that I want to read and then downloading them from Project Gutenberg or putting them on hold at the library. There’s something about deciding to read a book that, in some ways, resembles the pleasure of actually completing it. It satisfies the urge for completeness: there’s a feeling that if I can just know every book in a given genre or thematic group, then I’ll somehow be able to master it.
But obviously I can only read about 150-200 books in a year, so most of this time is wasted.
Furthermore, it tends to make actually reading the book feel a little pale in comparison. By the time the hold comes due, I am so over the book and I often don’t even pick it up.
And finally, I tend to get too bogged down in my lists and lose the spontaneity of picking the right book for the right moment. If I’ve piled my reading list three months deep, then it’s hard to see past that and get in touch with where I am at the moment.
This is a form of madness!
My solution was to install Stayfocusd and limit my combined time on Amazon, Goodreads, and Librarything to less than 15 minutes a day. This is more than enough time to browse around and discover a few interesting books. Browsing is a fun and useful past time…when conducted in moderation.
It’s pretty easy to get past the block by just using safari. But so far I haven’t done that too much. Usually when the block comes on, I realize it’s time to stop.
Like most people with an internet connection, I spend a significant amount of my time on the internet browsing aimlessly. However, I have recently made an effort to rein in and redirect some of this energy.
I started by using the Chrome extension StayFocusd to limit the amount of time I can spend on certain sites (Slate, Salon, Buzzfeed, the New York Times) to one minute per day. That’s about enough time to log into the NYT and get the headlines and click through to an article about gourmet food trucks or elite private schools before I get shut out.
Since I used to spend about 80% of my internet time in browsing those sites, I was left with a void. To date, I’ve mostly filled it by clicking through links that I find on Facebook. If something has become even a minor Facebook trend, then I am up on it. I find that there are certain rewards to getting all of one’s news through social media. Even if what you read is silly or pointless, at least it’s something that you know people care about. You know that this silly or pointless thing somehow manages to capture the imagination.
However, social media isn’t the best way to get actual information. I always feel like I’m a bit behind on current events, because sometimes things are too important for people to post links to them online. Like, no one would post a link being like, “Obama is planning on attacking Syria!” because everyone is supposed to know that already. Instead, they just post a Facebook comment that’s all like, “Obama’s a fucking fascist!” and then I have to google ‘barack obama’ in order to figure out what he’s done now.
That’s not really a problem, though, because I am so over current events. However, when you get all your info via Facebook, you do get a disproportionate amount of random activist drama and twenty-inch conservative rants and funny webcomics and beautiful pictures and heartwarming stories about villagers in Ghana building generators that are powered by spit. Everything has a bit of a populist bias to it.
Not sure what the solution is. For awhile, I thought maybe I’d read blogs. And I’ve found some good ones. But not enough that are thought-provoking. And most are commentary, not information.
I’ve started reading Science News, which is a magazine that I subscribed to when I was in college (but never read). See, my problem with magazines has always been that I thought you have to read them. Once I got over that, they became much more manageable. I don’t read magazines anymore; I just flip through them looking for something interesting. There’s tons of interesting things in Science News. And its advantage over Scientific American or Popular Science or Discover is that all the articles are very short.
I cancelled my subscription to Wired (which was amazing on the iPad), but I might start reading their website. I liked Wired.
The reason I read science and tech magazines is because I’ve sometimes felt like my SF writing is all SF-as-metaphor and not enough SF-as-cool-stuff. It’s all robots and AI and cornucopia machines and whatever, which is all great and everything…but it’s also very done. I do want to be the kind of SF writer who can sometimes invent new and wondrous things. But in order to do that, I need to at least be somewhat familiar with what’s going on in the world of science.
However, I’ve found technology news to be less helpful, because, honestly, it’s mostly gadgetry. Like, self-driving cars are cool. But they don’t astonish.
I can’t read The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Whenever I start to read something that’s 5-10,000 words long, the back of my brain starts going, “Dude, if you’re gonna do this much reading, why don’t you just read an actual book?”
The new focus on hours of writing rather than output in terms of words has led to some odd results. For instance, I just spent 2.5 hours writing 900 words. A year ago, this would’ve been an unproductive day. But now, it was actually super productive! I mean, who cares how many words you write, if the words you do write end up being the last third of a story! I’m spending a lot more time thinking about sentences and things like that. But I’m also pretty productive (five stories completed in the month of September).
What changed is that I am no longer doing the drafting style that is heavy on rewrites. That was obviously a style that I developed so that I could get a lot of wordcount in while still taking my time. And that was fine and even had a number of upsides (the stories didn’t look like they’d been edited–they hung together in a more internally consistent way), but it was also tedious and prevented me from getting any momentum.
The only thing that’s a bit depressing is that all the stories I’ve written lately are literary stories (like, there is literally nothing speculative in them…not even a single teeny, tiny robot!) and all my reputation in the SF world isn’t really going to help me in selling lit stories. But oh well.
For as long as I’ve been keeping records of my daily writing time (which, admittedly, is only like fifteen months), I’ve been clocking an average of about 11 hours a week. And for an equally long period of time, I’ve been trying to increase that average to 15 hours a week. Now, plenty of you are scoffing right now and are like, “Whatever, I write three hours a day.” To which I have to say, “Do you really?” Because until I started keeping records, I thought I was writing a lot more than I actually was. For years, I tried to write about 2-3 hours a day, which is a total that would easily give me about 15 hours a week.
The truth, however, is that while I did have plenty of 2-3 hour days, I also had plenty of 5-minute days. And, over time–unless you counterbalance them with a bunch of 4-6 hour writing days–those 5 (or 20 or 30) minute days will substantially bring down your averages. So anyway, for about a year, my daily writing time has been about 95 minutes a day and 11 hours a week and I have reason to believe that my productivity was similar for the 2 years prior to when I started keeping time use statistics.
In order to improve upon this, I set a goal of writing 15 hours a week and I sketched out a plan for doing that (it basically involved writing 3 hours each and every day). But the plan always failed. On any given day, it was too easy to not do anything. I wasn’t able to keep myself honest. My existing tools for achieving productivity are all about preventing absolute inertia from setting in (I write every day, I aim to write 1000 words a day, and I aim to write 5000 words a week).
These goals work because they’re achievable each and every week (even during really terrible weeks). And because I never fail at them, I never get into a horrible slump–a stretch of days or weeks when I write nothing. However, their very achievability prevents them from being used to increase my productivity beyond a certain level. If I start demanding that I write 10,000 words in a week instead of 5,000 then there’ll be weeks when I realize that I’m going to fail. And once I realize that I’m going to fail anyway, it’s very tempting to just write nothing. By trying to stretch the old system, I risk breaking it entirely.
However, if I try to layer a new set of goals on top, then I run into a kind of informational overload. For awhile, I tried setting too targets: a minimum target (5,000 words in a week) and a good target (15 hours in a week). But then I was suddenly dealing with too many goals and too many targets and it becomes hard for me to answer a very simple question: “Did I have a good week?”
At that point, I’d defaulted to the standard I’d been using for a long time and would spend months pretty much ignoring the ‘good’ target.
Clearly I needed new tools.
In developing productivity methods, I do have a few principles.
The core of any system (for me) is that it should be based around an easy-to-measure indicator and a clearly-defined target
The key to productivity is habit formation, so targets should be designed so that failure is extremely rare: I should get into the habit of meeting them every single day.
There should be no concrete reward for success (money, treats, privileges, etc). Success is its own reward.
It should be easy for me to tell when I am succeeding and how often I’ve succeeded
The heart of the problem was that the 15 hour a week target was not achievable every week. I could hit it some weeks, with great effort, but the next week I’d fail. There was a circularity there that was frustrating. In order for a goal to work for me, it needs to be easy to achieve. But if it’s easy to achieve, then there’s no point in setting it.
However, in the end, ‘easiness to achieve’ did turn out to be the key to the problem.
First, though, I needed a string of conceptual breakthroughs.
My initial insight arose when I was revising one of my novels. I worked on the revision for ten straight hours. And, as a result, I easily achieved my 15 hour target for that week. I realized that if I worked one 8-hour day every week and worked 100 minutes on each of the other days, then meeting my target would be a snap. However, when I tried to set that as a goal, I consistently failed. I would push my planned 8-hour day later and later into the week and, more often than not, something would come up and I’d discover that I couldn’t do it.
My second insight came after I discovered a feature of Excel called Conditional Formatting. This tool allows you to program certain cells to change their formatting if certain conditions are met. In this case, I decided that I would use the feature to tackle the problem of the 5-minute writing day. I would program my spreadsheet to light up if I’d written for more than 30 minutes today. Furthermore, if I’d written more than thirty minutes on the previous day, that day would light up too. And so on and so forth. The result is an immediate visual reward. Whenever I reach 30 minutes of writing for the day, a whole ladder of cells lights up. For instance, I’ve met the goal for 27 days straight, so the ‘writing time’ column for the previous 27 days is lit up.
Then I expanded this system to other columns. Thus, I have multiple ladders–with different lengths and different criteria–operating side by side in my spreadsheet. The tallest ladder is the ‘Words’ column. Here, it lights up if I’ve written anything at all. This ladder is 841 cells high, since it’s been 841 days since I’ve missed a day of writing. And then there’s the aforementioned column for Writing Time (and a whole bunch of other ones that aren’t important here).
It’s incredible how powerfully this very simple reward system operates. I almost immediately stopped having 5-minute days, because doing so would result in a break that’d reduce my ladder to only 1 cell in height. Other than the pleasure of seeing an expanse of green, there’s no other reward for success. But that’s enough! That’s seriously all it takes to motivate a human being!
The third insight was that I should make sure I get my writing done in the morning, because the longer I put it off, the more likely something is to come up and make it difficult. So I added a column called “AM Writing Hour” and I started awarding myself an ‘X’ if I wrote for an hour while it was still in the AM. As of now, my AM Writing Hour ladder is 18 days high.
The final breakthrough was realizing that I could simply create individual writing goals for each date and award myself an ‘X’ if I met that day’s individualized writing goal. Thus, if I decide to write 30 minutes on Friday and I do write 30 or more minutes, then I get an X. And the ‘Writing Goal Achieved’ column also lights up in green if I meet it for multiple consecutive days. On the face of it, this seems like a stupidly simple system, since I could win it just assigning myself a 1 minute goal for each day. But that ignores the fact that these are my goals and I legitimately want to achieve high productivity. Thus, I constantly try to set myself goals that are high, but achievable. However, I am allowed to take into consideration each day’s travails! If a day is very busy, then I give myself just a 1 hour goal. Otherwise, I usually assign myself 2 hours. One day a week I set an 8 hour goal and one day a week I set a 4 hour goal. But even this is not set in stone. For instance, yesterday I had another commitment, so at around midnight on the day before I decided–at the last minute–to lower its goal to six hours. This was a good decision. I’d never have achieved 8 hours, and, in failing to achieve it, I’d probably have ended up only writing for an hour or two. Getting to six hours, however, was difficult but doable. Thus, I’ve decided that up until I wake up on the morning of a given day, I am still allowed to alter its goal.
That was the final piece of the puzzle. Now I have the flexibility to have different goals on different days while still allowing myself a target that I can achieve on every single day. And the result has been an unprecedented string of 15+ hour weeks. And these haven’t been particularly easy or hassle-free weeks. They’ve been weeks of school and travel to DC and partying and teaching. It’s pretty exciting. I’m getting a _lot_ done. For instance, I’m finally clearing my backlog of to-be-revised stories.
Oh, I did make one other modification. I also added two rows at the top of the spreadsheet. One gives the height of the current ladder; the other gives the height of the longest ladder I’ve ever built up in that column. If the two rows are equal (meaning that I am currently building my longest ladder) then the bottom of them turns blue. I just added this because I noticed that when I fall off a ladder, I sometimes have a tendency to slack off for a bit, and I wanted to encourage myself to get right back on there.
Some of these goals were obviously harder to achieve than others. I hit my 120th story and millionth word like two years ago. But still, at the time I wrote this list, I was nowhere close to any of these goals. I’d written about 300,000 words and 70ish stories and only had maybe 350ish rejections. So these goals were only achievable if I put in an order of magnitude more effort than I was currently doing.
That summer was also maybe six months before I quit drinking, I was nowhere close to getting my life in order. In fact, at that point, I was about to apply to eleven MFA programs that’d all reject me in the coming year. But, nonetheless, I went ahead and made these goals. And, in the coming years, I took them seriously. I feel like there’s a lesson here, of some sort, even though that lesson is totally counter to the advice I usually give (which is to set low-ball goals that you are sure of being able to achieve).
Writing can’t be the most important thing to you. Not all the time. Some days, watching TV is more important than writing. Some days, lying in bed and brooding is more important than writing. Some days, not writing is more important than writing. That’s all pretty obvious.
The non-obvious part is: How do I know which days are the days when I shouldn’t even try? And how do I know which are the days when I need to try, despite not wanting to?
I think that people look at my work habits and productivity and assume that I am a naturally disciplined person who finds it easy to sit down and work. However, my history does not bear out this assumption. There are entire years of my writing life when I wrote fewer words than I now write in an average month. I quite literally work ten times harder at this stuff now than I did when I was in college, even though nowadays I have significantly less time. Nor did I ever show any discipline in any other part of my life. I never put in much work into any assignments. I never studied hard for tests. I never distinguished myself in any extracurricular activity. I mean, I don’t want to undersell myself, I did okay. But I put a pretty solid B/B+ effort into pretty much every aspect of my life. (Of course, that’s a Stanford B/B+. If I’d been an undergrad at Hopkins, I’d’ve been lucky to make C’s—this school is crazy serious about stuff.)
For nine years, I’ve faced the choice: “How much writing should I do today?” And the answer to that question has changed a lot over time. But it’s still one that I ask every day.
And I don’t really know how well my answers stack up. My instinct is that there is no amount of effort that doesn’t see a reward. The guy who works three hours a day is going to do better, on average, than the guy who works one and a half hours a day. Right now, I’m much more the latter, and I definitely aspire to be the former. And the only way that’s going to happen is if I have fewer days on which I write for just a few minutes (I do some writing every day, but often it’s just a hundred words or so).
But if I do become the latter, then I don’t think it will be because I suddenly become a person with more willpower and discipline. I think it will be because I’ve created an atmosphere in which it is easier for me to work than not to work.
For the last year and a half, my writing life has primarily operated under two goals. I aim to write at least:
Fifty words a day (goal since July 7, 2011)
Five thousand words a week (goal since roughly summer of 2006)
I’m very good at meeting these goals, since they’re very easy goals to meet (at least for me). I can write fifty words in a few minutes. And I can write 5,000 words in 6-7 hours (they might not be good, but they’re definitely written).
Last year was the first full year in which both of these goals operated, and they worked pretty powerfully. I wrote about 600,000 words. Obviously, my output dropped a bit once I arrived at Hopkins, but even that wasn’t too bad. From September 2012 through the end of the year, I wrote an average of 10.4 hours a week and produced about 10,000 words.
So that’s the baseline. That basically means that some weeks I write 15 hours and some weeks I write 8 hours. And each of those weeks is basically composed of three-hour days and five-minute (or half-hour or one-hour) days. A good week has 4-5 three-hour days. A bad week only has one. The advantages of this scheme are two-fold:
Life can’t get away from me. Every day, I at least symbolically reconfirm my commitment to writing (by, you know, writing something). And I also give myself a chance, every day, to catch fire and just have a really good writing day.
I can’t just string together a series of 5-minute days. At some point, I have to push harder and write for a few solid hours (or I won’t meet my weekly goal).
So yeah, this works for me. But, at the same time, it doesn’t quite feel like enough. For one thing, I’ve started to work harder and harder on each story, so this wordcount represents a steadily-decreasing amount of actual output. In 2011, I had to “spend” about 10,000 words (including rewrites, revisions, false start, and abandoned attempts) to produce a 5,000 word story. Last year, that number rose to maybe 20,000 words. That means that my output is halved (it’s a bit too soon to say whether quality has risen, since, as of yet, none of the stories I wrote last year—with the exception of my story in Diverse Energies—have actually sold).
But also…ten hours a week just isn’t that much. I mean, those are “billable hours”—time in front of keyboard—so it obviously doesn’t count the thinking and the brainstorming and the reading time, but still…I feel like I should at least be able to get that up to 15 hours a week.
Going from 10 hours a week to 15 hours a week is currently one of my major preoccupations. I’ve been thinking about it for almost half a year. The first thing I tried, obviously, was to set a third writing goal. I was going to try to write 12 hours a week.
Since this goal was about halfway between where I was and where I wanted to be, I figured that if I wrote at least 12 hours every week, then some weeks I’d overshoot it and the overage would end up somewhere around 15 hours.
But it didn’t work. I failed to meet the 12 hour goal at least one third of the time. Some people like stretch goals: goals that they have to work to meet every day or week or month. But not me. I’ve found that, for myself, whenever I start failing to meet a goal, it rapidly becomes irrelevant to me: I stopped thinking about even trying to write for 12 hours a week.
What tends to work for me are very, very achievable goals: ones that I know I can meet almost every time. I think of them as floor goals. They prevent you from sinking below a certain point. If you hit a certain floor every day and some days you do better than the floor, then you end up doing really well.
Twelve hours a week felt like a floor goal, but it turned out not to be. Some weeks your wisdom teeth get extracted and you’re struck with blinding pain. Some weeks you’re dead tired. Some weeks you’re just depressed. It was not possible for me to hit 12 hours every week.
So I’m left trying to think up a floor for hours of writing. I think that what I’m going to go with is a monthly goal. Every month, I’ll try to get at least X hours of writing time. I’ve been experimenting with this for the last few months, and I’ve found it very freeing. It allows me the room to have a bad week, but not two bad weeks in a row. My only concern is the value of X. For January, it was 50 hours (which I more than achieved because, you know, novel). For February, it was 40 hours (because of school and because February is shorter), and despite February having been, in many ways, an absolutely terrible month for me, I achieved the goal almost without trying. I can’t decide if that means that 40 is too low or if it’s just right. I think that in March, I’ll go with 45 hours, and see if that feels right.
Still, the monthly goal has already partially achieved its function: it’s taken some of the onus of decision-making off of me. Today, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. And, since I’m (ever so slightly) past the 40 hour mark for February, I don’t have to.
Vive the five-minute writing day.
(I feel like there’s another point I should make at some point, maybe in some other post, which is that setting goals and tracking indicators and building huge spreadsheets is absolutely not the only way to be productive. The other way is to build good habits. If you do something every day, then at some point, you’re going to keep doing it, even though it’s hard, because it’s the thing that you do. I’ve started doing a number of things [like flossing] that I don’t track on a spreadsheet, simply because I don’t need to, since I do them every day. In fact, I am sure there are hundreds of ways to be productive. The key is to know which ways work for you and to figure out ways to build the systems into your life that will allow you to do the things that you want to do.)
I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed, but this blog has been super regular for the last three months. After nearly three and a half years of very sporadic updating, I’ve posted an update roughly every other day for almost 100 days.
It’s almost shocking how regular I’ve become. And the way it happened was really simple. I just decided to treat blogging like writing. As you know, I’m very anal about logging my writing. I have daily wordcounts going back eight years, to the summer after my senior year in high school. It was one of the first things I started doing after I finally became serious about writing. Somehow, I knew intuitively that tracking my writing was the first step to becoming serious (well, the second step–the first step was submitting my stories).
But it took me a really long time before I had the brainstorm that allowed me to apply that lesson to my blogging. It was such a simple change, too. I just put a little column in my spreadsheet right next to my daily word-count. And in that column, I put an “X” if I’ve written a post that day. That’s all. I just started tracking whether or not I’d actually posted.
Since then, I’ve been cranking out three posts every single week, for fourteen weeks. It’s not easy. Sometimes (like today), I have to search for something to say. But it’s not that hard, either. Before, I used to lament the fact that my blog would lie fallow for months at a time, but I always found it really hard to actually do something about that. But the problem wasn’t laziness, it was just a lack of accountability. It’s really hard to do something when there’s no visible measure of progress.
I wish everything on my to-do list was susceptible to this kind of tracking. Maybe I should start giving myself an ‘X’ for haircuts and laundry…