When to work hard and when to not work hard because, let’s face it, working hard is for chumps

working-hard           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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)

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  1. Brian Cutflower

    Hemingway devoted his mornings to writing and his afternoons to fishing.

    You do the writing, I’ll do the fishing.

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