A while back one of the writers I follow on Twitter posted a pic of her calendar on which she tracks daily actions including writing time, exercise, and several other items.
That looks torturous, I thought. Thank god I don’t do dumb things like track productivity.
Let me now add this to the long list of things I judged as silly on first look, and later adopted with glee. Because, here is the thing that I came to understand, viscerally – not in my head, but in my bones – writing a novel is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And I’d been trying to sprint. I’d get to a chapter I was excited to write and I’d drop everything and write like mad for a week. I’d come up for air at the end of it, exhausted, behind in my freelance work (and short of cash a few weeks later), sick of the project, and probably stuck in a place I didn’t know how to resolve. Drop the project for one to three months, have stroke of inspiration, repeat cycle.
It sucked. (I partially blame the November-fuelled hubris that says you can write a novel in a month. NaNoWriMo, I’m looking at you.) After my last writing binge, I took a good, hard look at just how long it was going to take me to write a full and proper book. I’m a pantser and a slow writer besides. I do all the things “they” say you’re not supposed to do, like edit as I go along. I like writing that way. And it doesn’t inhibit me from tossing out whole sections when they aren’t working the way I need them to, so right now, I don’t feel inclined to change. Is it wasted writing? Hell no. It’s good practice – I may not keep it, but no effort to improve craft is wasted effort, I say.
The conclusion I came to is that, yes, it would be more efficient to do a little bit every day. Because you know what? This is about more than writing a novel. This is not about the “things” I want to produce. This is about giving myself space and time to be CREATIVE. To PLAY. To develop skills over the course of years. A lifetime, if need be. So I got out my trusty wall calendar, and I’ve been making red X’s for days when I do some writing, and blue X’s for days when I do some drawing or sketchbook time.
And you know what? IT’S WORKING PRETTY AWESOME.
I don’t have a long string of pretty X’s like some writers I know. I only have a few hours of uninterrupted computer time after the baby goes to bed, and sometimes I need that time to catch up on client work. But I can see on my calendar that I haven’t been able to work on my writing all week, so I don’t beat myself up that I haven’t gotten any farther on the project for a few days. And I’m actually proud of myself when I get an X up on the board – there will be longer strings of X’s in time. I want those little f*ckers. I get a little hit of validation every day, and it’s better than the validation I used to look for from a finished project, because whenever I finish something, it’s inevitably not as good as I hoped it would be. But it doesn’t actually matter any more.
There’s some good thinking backing up this kind of a system. In an article on 99u.com, How the Tiniest of Improvements Can Have the Biggest Impact, Allison Stadd writes:
It’s easy to feel like making tiny tweaks [to your system] has minimal overall impact. That’s because we often feel pressure to achieve something concretely noticeable, in so doing overlooking the value of minor victories.
In his newsletter, James Clear shares the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve every minute thing that relates to a project, goal, or product by just 1 percent, all those small gains add up over time to a massive win:
“Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.”
In another article, Clear goes on to say that “the system is greater than the goal.” This is a statement I can get behind. He adds, “Goals suggest you can control things you have no control over,” and makes the distinction that, while goals are good for planning where you want to go, systems are the vehicle that will actually get you there.
Clear got the seed idea for his article from a piece by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in the Wall Street Journal. Adams speaks to the psuedo-validation we get from goals that I mentioned above:
“…you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.
“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”
I’m making an early New Year’s toast: To long strings of X’s in my future.
To be continued…