Tiny goals, daily word counts, incremental progress. We’ve heard it a thousand times. If you want to peel a big potato, you have to cut it up first. Okay, terrible metaphor. But you get what I’m saying, right?
If you want to tackle a big project, you have to break it into parts.
When you’re looking down the barrel of a 90,000-word novel, the sheer scope of the project can seem terrifying.
It’s only natural to want to break it up into smaller, snackable portions. Slicing up the problem minimizes the anxiety. It gives us reachable goals to work towards.
For us writers, this normally comes down to a daily word count.
I want to write a 90,000-word novel. Cool. If I can write 1,000 words a day, I’ve got a draft in 3 months. Not a bad gig. The math works.
Unfortunately, life in the real world isn’t so amenable to daily habits. This is especially true for people with day jobs, kids, and a pound of other shit they have to do on their Tuesday nights.
That original tidiness of the math, well it can quickly fall apart.
My solution. Fuck daily anything.
Let’s focus on what we can do in a week.
I use to smoke. I know. Terrible. I was young. It was the 90s. Whatever. It happened.
Anyone who’s ever quit smoking, or worse yet, lived with someone who was quitting, knows how difficult it can be to slay the nicotine dragon.
For me, it took like 5 years…give or take. But why? Well, I’m sure there’s a ton of science I don’t know about. Like, what’s happening in my brain with chemicals and neurons.
But behaviorally, I could tell you exactly what happened.
I would quit. I’d say it to myself, or I’d tell my wife/friend/dog whatever, “I’m quitting smoking.”
Nobel me. Put a medal on my chest.
And I’d do it. Well, I’d try to do it. I’d at least always start strong. Day 1, no prob. Day 2, things get it a little off balance. Day 3……
On my best attempts, I’d go a few weeks. But on average, I’d get to 3 or 4 days.
But that first cigarette, that first inhale. That’s not where I’d fail.
I’d fail on the 2nd.
If you’ve ever tried to pick up or drop a habit, like waking up early, losing weight, exercising, you know what I’m talking about.
At some point, something happens. And at that point, that break in the action, that hiccup. At that juncture, you have 2 options.
You can say fuck it, as I did for so many years with smoking, and go back full hog to a pack of cancer a day.
You can say, oops, messed up, and hop your butt back on the wagon.
One of these options is better than the other.
On Writing – regularly
Writing is the same thing. Really, any habit is the same, but we’re talking about writing.
Tell me how many times you’ve tried a daily writing habit only to have it collapse into a pile of fail a week or two later.
You missed a day. You failed on your 500 or whatever words. Now what?
You might pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to it the next day in full force.
But that rarely happens.
Because remember, that daily word count wasn’t arbitrary. It was born of a larger goal. You took that 100,000-word fantasy novel about elves and warlocks, and you said to yourself, “If I write 1000 words a day, I can be done with this damn thing in 100 days.”
But guess what. You’ve gone and fucked up. You’ve missed a day of words. Now, you’re doing all sorts of recalculations. If you’re like me, you pull out the spreadsheets and graphing calculators and try to mathematically convince yourself that it’s best to give up.
Maybe it’s not an outright defeat. Perhaps you decide to scale back your goal. Scale back your production. Maybe the demoralization of missing a day slides you into a slump of unproductivity.
There’s about a thousand different ways it could go down. But really, there is only one right way to manage this. And that’s simply taking 101 days to write that novel.
I circumvent this problem by thinking about my writing output over a longer time frame.
Namely, a week.
So Jo Shmo, our mess up from above, was going to write 1,000 words a day. Great plan. Get at it, Jo.
But allow me to offer a suggestion. How about instead of 1,000 words a day, we think about it as 7,000 words a week.
Hear me out on this.
A week, or even two, is long enough to allow you to absorb a small snag of unproductivity without getting completely pushed off track.
For example, let’s say Jo nails his daily goal of 1,000 words on Monday and Tuesday. Then comes Wednesday. Something completely reasonable happens, and Jo, he does absolutely nothing.
Oh god, the shame!
Well, no big deal. Jo just absorbs those extra words on Thursday through Sunday. He ups those daily counts to 1,250 words. Or maybe he keeps the week the same and doubles up on Saturday. He goes for 2,000 words!
Better yet, he could be proactive. If Jo knows he’ll have a busy day on Wednesday, he can front load. He can come into the week hot by writing 1,500 words on Monday & Tuesday.
The trick here is that the goal is weekly. So a snag here or there does not mean you miss or hit a goal.
This sounds silly and arbitrary. And for some, it might be. But tackling big projects are rife with psychological pitfalls. You need constant motivation, constant victories. You also need to mitigate the failures.
Each small failing amplifies 10 fold in your brain. Why? I don’t know. But your body and brain are lazy, and they will fight you.
Weekly, as opposed to daily goals, give them six less weapons to get at you every week.
I’ve been using this method for years now, and not just with writing. In fact, I run two week sprints on all my habits and hobbies. You can read about that here.
Here’s the thing, life is hard. And as much as we want to build habits and become robots with our tasks, it will never be that easy. It will always be messy. Unless we’re willing to sacrifice sleep, love, and joy, we must learn to compromise.
Life must be flexible, especially when we’re talking about hobbies. (and make no mistake. If you’re not making a living wage from it right now, it’s a hobby.)
Instead of being dogmatic about what we can do, let’s create systems that will help us be successful. That way, we can carry forward momentum and excitement week over week.