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.
An illustration of my method. As you can see, the ladder length for ‘# of Words’ is lit up in blue because I am currently on that ladder. ‘Freedom’ is the column for writing time (since I use the program Freedom to block the internet while I write, I consider Freedom Time to be synonymous with Writing Time). As you can see, a single day when I did not meet my writing goal (although I actually did meet it on that day, I just put the 0 there for illustration) means that ladder only goes as high as the 16th of Sept, instead of reaching to the 10th of Sept.
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.