Brian Crain talked about increasing productivity by tracking progress. To have a continuous metric is both motivating and informative.
I, too, buy into the saying that you can only improve what you measure. The corollary is: when you care about something, when you really commit to it, you have to do your best to track it and improve. Writing is one such skill. You become a writer by writing more, and you can shift your identity consciously to make this change stick.
There are techniques to become better at it, though. ‘Being good at it’ isn’t the same thing as ‘having an easy time doing it’, mind you: writing is hard, and for the vast majority of us it always will be. But you’ll get better at sitting down and write instead of putting it off. This seems to be as good as it gets: you become a writer by writing a lot, regularly, be it easy or hard.
Make Writing Part of Your Identity
I believe that for changes to take long-lasting effect, they have to influence your identity, your core picture of yourself.
I consider myself mostly a software developer and writer. I’m interested in obtaining knowledge and working with it. That’s why I applied to University in the first place: I wanted to know more. Some years ago, I wanted to become a professor of philosophy, and before that, in my childhood, I wanted to write novels of the fantasy genre and invent stories for computer role-playing games. I had to ditch these aspirations and change the way I think of me to get better at software development and writing, although I hope to release a teeny CRPG in the future. Nowadays, I focus on non-fiction writing and getting to a point where I can make a living from my writing and my software projects.
I write to learn. My Zettelkasten helps me organize the knowledge I obtain and it helps to make sense of everything in the long term. I enjoy working with my Zettelkasten, I find it’s fun to use. Yet, I have to ensure I work with it regularly to stay on track to advance my writing projects. To have a metric helps to find out when I’m on and off track. Without measuring, you can only guess.
Writing is a serious part of business for me, and that’s why I want to improve my skills. I take the skill seriously. So I have to take making and measuring progress seriously. This is about changing parts of my identity by changing my habits. Or, as the saying goes, habits are destiny.
Making a change in identity means leaving part of our old selves behind. For example, being a “quitter” is not much different than being a “smoker” in the end: both labels put yourself into the picture of smoking. One label states “I smoke today” while the other states “I have smoked in the past”. This is a change in labels and a change in attitude, but not so much a change in real identity. Accordingly, both characterize you as a cigarette-user and both keep smoking as part of your identity. Being a “non-smoker”, on the other hand, removes this notion entirely. Stop dragging the past around while there’s an alternative which provides a new beginning.2 Instead, make it so that the parts you don’t want anymore are really gone, so that your future self can in part be without reminiscence of your past.
In my youth, I didn’t just want to stop being a slacker. Of course, my initial response was to stop wasting time on mindless stuff like watching TV. But it wasn’t until I had a positive alternative in mind that my behavior changed and the shift in identity took place.
The idea is that you have to find an alternative and state it in a positive way to make a lasting change. When you just say “no” to your old behavior all the time, you still keep it around and ultimately reinforce it. You really have to ditch parts of your past. So find an alternate possible reality for yourself, state it positively, and change the environment to support you.
In my case, it helped to think of myself as an industrious writer and programmer. From there it followed that I work not only when inspired, but every day from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.3 to gain a competitive edge with time. This is hard, of course, but I grew, and so will you.
It takes conscious effort to stay on track and not diverge, falling back into old habits. I found it doesn’t help to force my thinking into a direction to make lasting change. To become a writer, I didn’t will myself into writing. Instead, I took a pragmatic approach and conditioned myself into a new set of behavior and a few new habits:
- Know what the outcome is: I want to write, I want to produce texts.
- Know how to get there: I have to spend time writing to do so.
- Ensure you really go this path.
The Practical Side: How to Ensure You Do the Actual Writing
I knew all the time that change is hard – it’s what everyone on the internet said, after all. Because my want alone wouldn’t have made me do the right thing just like that, I had to find a way to train myself working hard and writing more.
How do I ensure I spend time writing? By making appointments with myself.
Training to write means sitting down at a set time and – write! You don’t need a muse, any inspiration, or to “unleash your inner writer” when you do non-fiction writing. Instead, you have to stick to a schedule and deliver. To make a habit of writing is important, and the crucial part is to stick to a schedule. For a while, I had a daily appointment with myself every morning at 8 o'clock to write for at least an hour straight. At the moment, though, I reduced the appointments to twice a week to accommodate my temporarily tight schedule and do more software development.
The bottom line is this: you don’t have to find time to write. If you wait for the right time to come, it’ll most likely never come. While you wait, life just happens and fills every second of every day of you have. This unnecessarily creates anxiety, the fear of not getting where you’d like to be, because on one hand your wishes are inspiring and motivating but on the other hand your actions don’t follow. It’s the fear of being a failure, of not doing what you ultimately want to do, and this creates a feeling of helplessness. So you first have to stop waiting for a miracle to make the life how you want it to. Do it yourself.
If you want to make serious progress, you need a routine and stick to it. You sometimes have to force yourself to do the thing you’d really like to do. I think this is kind of stupid, but it’s a repeating pattern: although I want something really badly, I still need to kick my own butt to make it happen, lest I let it drop before I begin. I believe only by making appointments with yourself can you make continuous progress.
With time, sticking to the schedule will become easier. As I pointed out in the beginning, the actual writing probably won’t become easier at all, but you’ll be able to begin writing in the first place. Also, you’ll still have to get through the process of creating a draft first, then revise and edit it. But – and this is a big ‘but’! – you’ll be able to make steady progress, as opposed to those who wait for the right time and do nothing. No, you will be 100% certain that you will move on, come hell or high water.
That’s the mysterious power of changing habits for me: creating a habit is hard, but the hard work itself makes it even more valuable. Overcoming the hurdle is reinforcing to overcome it again and again. You have to slay the dragon every time, but slay the dragon once and you’ll know from your heart that it’s possible to do it again.4
There’s this awesome book by Paul J. Silvia called How to Write a Lot which I mentioned on this blog a few times already. It really helped me get into the right mindset and stop treating writing like is was an arcane skill. Just commit to getting better, then create a schedule to train. If you struggle with getting on a lasting schedule, take a look at Silvia’s practical advise. It really pays off to make a habit of writing by scheduling a holy time to write for yourself. Ideas will pop up between the writing sessions and you’ll have more ideas because you mull things over in your head regularly. Doing it regularly is the key. Writing an hour or two each day trumps spending a whole day at a stretch.
- Commit to getting better and make the identity change,
- Create a schedule and make appointments with yourself to show up,
- Use the time you allotted productively.
We all know how appointments work in theory, so making appointments with ourselves should be straightforward. Reserve a spot in your calendar and show up to write. Get rid of distractions and your productivity killers. Say ‘no’ to incoming requests of colleagues, maybe turn of the wi-fi or internet of your computer, mute your telephone – you know the drill. Take whatever measure is necessary to keep distractions at bay. In my case, it helps to mute the telephone and hide all other applications on my computer. I don’t need to go offline because I disabled all notifications which demand attention already, and because I’m not compulsively checking e-mail any more (thank God!). You know your weaknesses best, and in your heart you know how to counter them.
When the appointments work, how do we ensure that we write and get better at it?
To get on a repeating schedule and make writing a habit, you need to track your writing progress. To tracking a habit is useful to make it stick. Self-monitoring itself causes the desired behavior already.5
So if you want to change a habit of yours, you need to observe how well you do. It’s not enough to want it. It’s not enough to occasionally think about it. Instead, you need to put it on a daily auto-pilot for a while until you’re certain that the habit sticks.
Journalling is a battle-tested technique for effective self-monitoring. I suggest you keep a daily journal, be it on paper on in a spreadsheet, and look at the following metrics for your writing time:
- Word count: how many words did you write?
- Goal attainment: did you achieve your daily writing goal of, say, writing 500 words?
- Project: where did you spend most of the effort today?
The combination of these three metrics will tell you if you worked on the right thing and if you accomplished enough to achieve your goals.
This simple approach will change the way you work. It takes time and conscious effort to stick to the plan, but it’s worth the hassle. You’ll get new insights into how you work, when you work best, and how much you can expect from yourself realistically.
We’ve covered changing identity and making use of the scheduled time. But there’s one thing missing: how to tackle complex projects which are composed of lots of different tasks.
If you work on a complex project, you may have to do tons of research, read a lot, take notes, and finally compose your own draft. Especially at the beginning, every huge writing project seems too great to overcome. It doesn’t help to split the project into a lot of tasks, from “read text #1” to “read text #1425”. Now how to slay this dragon?
A change in the mindset can help. Creative work like this, to me, appears to be orthogonal to usual chores. You can manage writing a short report, mailing it off to someone, waiting for a response and such. That’s the stuff Getting Things Done handles really well. Creative work, on the other hand, is characterized by surprise findings which change the course, especially at the start. A project like this requires regular time commitment. You have to immerse yourself into the topic; you can’t just tick items off of a list.
So try to stop splitting these projects into chunks by topic and start to split the process itself according to the action steps you need to take. The action steps are: research, read, take note, write. That’s what I call the Knowledge Cycle.
Each cycle consists of these four action steps. By managing the time I spend on large projects instead of writing super detailed list of tasks, I get a whole slice done with every cycle: I find something new while reading, learn something new by taking note, and produce something new by adding to my own draft.
I’m going to talk about the knowledge cycle in more detail next time, and how to get it right. In short, you just have to try and keep the cycles short. The shorter the cycles, the faster you add meat to the draft’s skeleton. Continuous progress and integration of new knowledge trumps “Big Bang” drafting, where you find out if things fit together in the end only.6
I changed the picture of myself to become a software developer and writer and told you about the steps I took: I stick to an rigorous working schedule to achieve my dreams and found a few metrics on the way to monitor my progress.
Food for thought:
- What is your identity? Who do you say you are? Who would you like to say you are?
- Did you consciously change your core beliefs about yourself in the past?
- We usually experience at least one rite of passage in life. What could you take from these to celebrate change now?
- Which metrics can reveal if you’re on track to achieve your goals?
Affiliate link. You buy from this link, and I get a small kickback from amazon. No additional cost for you. ↩
Example taken from Anthony Robbins (2001): Awaken the Giant Within. Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny, London: Simon and Schuster. – While I don’t wholeheartedly recommend this book, taking a look at some key tools is useful. ↩
During these 12 hours, I work on my own projects and skills. I also do my 14-hours-per-week day job then. On top of it, I exercise three times a day: at around 7:30 a.m, 12:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. All of this is part of my daily work life. Later in the evening, there comes time to play. No excuses, no exceptions. ↩
I took idea of “slaying the dragon” from Steven Pressfield (2011): Do the Work!. Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way, Do You Zoom. – It’s a great source of motivation to continue working hard and overcoming the fear of delivering. ↩
Paul J. Silvia (2007): How to Write a Lot. A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 39–44. ↩