This feels like a slightly ironic title, as today I spent sixteen hours showing my cousin and her boyfriend around one of my favorite cities in the world, Budapest. No work, except for writing this post before I go to sleep.
On the other hand, the only reason I can take a full day off and not wish that I was working is because I'm in the habit of getting massive amounts of work done in short periods of time.
We all get work done. It's easy to find time to send an email, do a couple errands, and make some progress on a project. But how do you do the big things like write a book, start a new site, or find and purchase a property?
You're going to be disappointed when I tell you the answer because it's obvious and it's not a hack.
One of my coaching clients had a goal of writing a book within two years. He'd been working on it for while, had a great idea for the plot, and had made some progress. But he wasn't sure he was on track to finish it in two years.
Three months later the first draft was done and he had begun editing.
I used the same process with him that I use for myself. Last month I left on a 15 day cruise on which I wanted to write my next book. Two weeks later it's just about done (it turned out it needs to be longer than I planned, so I'll repeat the process on a shorter scale to finish).
First I figured out how long the book was going to be. Usually my books are 30,000 words, so I used that as a goal. I then added 10% because I'd rather overshoot by a little bit.
With fifteen days on the cruise, that meant that I had to write 2200 words per day. That's a lot, but not an insane amount. On an average day it would take 90-120 minutes. It's an intense 90-120 minutes, but it's also the only work I really needed to do.
If my goal every day was to "write a book", I'd probably be daunted by the scale and would procrastinate and find reasons to stop early. In fact, that's how I tried to write Life Nomadic and it took forever and was stressful.
The trick here is that you can mental equate writing 2200 words with having a completed book. That always feels like it's worth it, so it's easy to just bang out the words even if there's something I'd rather be doing. As soon as I don't write my 2200 words, I know the book won't get done. If I only write 1000 instead of 2200 today, then I know I definitely can't trust myself to make it up and write 3400 tomorrow. So by that logic I can pin the entire completion of the book on whether or not I complete my modest daily task.
When you have that sort of leverage, you just do it. It's not a close enough call to think about it and rationalize and weasel. You just do it. Back when I would go out and was scared to talk to girls I'd hand my car keys to my friend and tell him he keeps my car if I don't talk to X more girls. Then there's no fear left because there's no thought on whether or not I'm going to do it.
I like setting up systems where the easiest thing to do is to succeed. If I come up with a plan and it's going to require everything going right and daily willpower and making the correct choice over and over again, I'm probably going to fail. But if I come up with a task that I am 100% confident I'm capable of, and I structure it such that the path of least mental anguish is to complete the task, how will I fail?
If you don't have a defined period of time like a cruise (and lots of experience writing thousands of words a day), then you can just pick your daily rate and make sure the math works out. Almost anyone can write 1000 words a day, so anyone can write a book in 1-2 months. You still have to edit, but that's pretty easy because, again, it's easier to edit than not to. You've written the book, all you have to do to unlock the value to yourself and others is to edit it.
What about if the project can't be so easily quantified? Estimate how many hours it will take to complete, add 10-20%, and just allocate those hours. Even if you finish, you'll be close enough that it's easy to put in the extra few hours.
This sounds simple and obvious, but if that's so, why does no one do it? I don't have the answer. But you can do it. What's the big chunk of work that you need done? Break it up into small blocks, understand that if you don't complete one of the small blocks you can't be trusted to complete the others, and thus that the benefit of completing each block is having the entire thing done. If you can do those things it becomes fairly easy to do huge projects in short amounts of time.
Photo is Budapest. Sorry, I know all of my photos are from a few specific places in Budapest, but I just love this city.
By the way, I use similar mental tricks with posting here every week (which I've been doing consistently for many years). I know I can always write a post and I equate writing that post with having a blog that has a huge positive impact in my life. If I ever skipped I'd just assume my blog was dead.
Last... I'm VERY excited about this new book. It's literally just about everything I've learned about travel, plus I have some incredible guest authors writing chapters (including a few you couldn't guess...)
I really connected with your idea that doing (or not doing) the smaller daily block of work is in fact essentially the same thing as doing or not doing the entire project. I wish their was a cool rule or name for this concept... like a Daily Leverage Principle or something.. either way I really love the idea that the decision in fact comes down to the simple question of can I be trusted to do my work block today? And if I keep that up each day I will in fact complete my larger project with certainty. Great idea Tynan!
Good approach to working through a large task. Really 1000-2200 words isn't lot per day, especially if you are just writing thoughts and ideas down then it explodes. The challenge is the discipline to edit it.
You might be interested in Teresa Amabile's work on the Progress Principle and the power of small wins in keeping people motivated and sustaining creativity. Seems very connected to what you're talking about here, with some interesting research underlying it also.
Very interesting .... I am going to think about applying this to my scenarios, when my schedule is not always fully in my control ..... (I am already thinking about it, and I think I can make it work, thanks!!!!)
Fabulous ... once again I learn new tricks or have mine validated! You are probably less than 1/3 my age ... and look at you, teaching me! Thank you and keep doing what you do. It is so fun!
Are there any books you would recommend about the actual process of writing to someone who wants to become a writer? Especially for someone coming from a start-up business/programming background.
Let's say you're going to put ten hours of effort into something, either a project or a habit. Your goal, or one of them, is to get as much out of those ten hours as possible. What will be important at the end isn't the number of hours put in, but the results.
One of the factors contributing to how effectively you spend your time is how you divide it. Do you do it all in one chunk? Ten one-hour chunks? Six hundred single minute chunks?
The answer to that depends heavily on the task, but for many habits, daily execution is ideal. You can break something huge like language learning into daily chunks that are manageable. You get the benefit of constant forward momentum. It's easy to remember that you're supposed to do something every day.
Someone asked, at a recent reader meetup in Budapest, how I do things every day. At this point it's such a fundamental part of who I am that I don't have an immediate answer other than: I just do them. But having to answer an earnest question made me think about it in depth. I used to be the kind of person who couldn't do anything on a regular daily basis. What changed?
Why isn't my book done?
I started thinking about the idea sometime last year, started organizing my notes and outlines in August 2009, and started writing a little in November or December before shelving it.
I was on fire in Taipei, Taiwan in January. Everything was just right, I wrote 4,000 words on a bad day, and my best day was 17,000 words. Book was complete in rough shortly afterwards.
I was in Northern Thailand in February, in Chiang Mai. I was going to edit, but I didn't really. I was kind of flat. I played a lot of Conquer Club online, surfed around, didn't really get anything done. Then I was traveling around and I wasn't really working on the book.
In fact, I never sent anyone a copy until maybe three weeks ago, when I gave it to one of my friends who was asking. He's a great guy, amazing guy, but I was even gunshy about sending it to him. Lord knows why. If you do creative works, maybe you understand this. If you haven't done anything creative and this doesn't make sense to you, I can't explain it. I think creative people will understand a little.