If you’ve found this column, we probably share a few things in common. Like me, you may be at your best with a great many irons in the proverbial fire. I bet you keep yourself busy and nurse a hunger for getting things done.
The past few months, my drive to tackle new projects has generated a daunting slate of work. I’ve been blessed with an attractive array of interesting projects, and that’s when I really need to ensure that my keyboard time is converted into an actual work product.
And that’s a good thing. Like I said, I’m at my best when busy.
But committing to aggressive schedules does create a challenge. I need to ensure that the minutes and hours I spend are productive. I need to ask myself two questions:
How do I know if I’m succeeding? And what can I do to set myself up for success?
Counting words and getting sh** done
Most activities lend themselves to some sort of quantifiable performance measurement. For writers, that metric is word count.
“I tend, by now, to think in terms of word counts not hours.” – Guy Gavriel Kay
“I’m writing a novel,” is a commendable, yet unimpressive statement if you’re only grinding out 150 words a day. Gee, that’s super swell. I’m really looking forward to reading the rough draft… in like, 3 years.
On the other hand, if you’re churning through 500 words an hour? Well now we’re talking!
Word count is a meaningful measuring stick for writers because it reflects results achieved rather than merely cataloguing effort expended.
Taking the pulse
RescueTime’s Productivity Pulse is similar in this regard. It is an accurate look back at how we’ve made use of our time at the keyboard. Just like tracking my word count, monitoring my Productivity Pulse is a useful and highly visual way to hold myself personally accountable for working efficiently. But we need a goal to work toward if we want to see our productivity increase over time, a goal and the tools necessary to achieve it.
“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’” – Stephen King
A few weeks ago, I posted about using the Pomodoro technique to increase productivity by dedicating short sprints of time to specific tasks or distraction-free work. If words-per-hour is my measure of productivity, a series of sprints toward my daily word goal seems like a reasonable and efficient strategy for success.
But it’s SO easy to become derailed by “important” distractions like research and email, or social media indulgences that I know I’ll regret later.
That’s where Focus Time comes in.
I actually use the Pomodoro technique quite a bit, although I don’t use a physical timer or one of the many smartphone Pomodoro apps. Instead, I use the “Get Focused…” option that RescueTime put on my computers toolbar.
Not only does it time my work sprints, FocusTime blocks online distractions that might otherwise devalue my efforts.
For me, FocusTime is a strict upgrade to my old Pomodoro timer.
Reflect on the past, Focus on results
Tracking word count is by its very nature a look back in time. It is a reflective process and one that is beneficial only in that it illustrates past performance. It is not inherently useful in assuring current performance. And tracking it certainly won’t guarantee productivity in the future.
Like financial accounting, word count reports what has been accomplished in the past.
“Word count has value in that it measures actual effort.” – Chuck Wendig
It is valuable to know where we’ve come from, to have a baseline and to understand what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past. But what if we need to ensure a certain level of current performance? And what if we want to improve performance over time?
To continue the accounting metaphor, we need a budget. Some goals to aim for.
Whether it’s words per hour, lines of code or bullet points ruthlessly purged from a to-do list, we can set meaningful and manageable short-term goals, then continuously work towards improving them. Having a measurable task at hand (e.g. “Write 200 words in the next half hour”) can give us a new lens to look back on past performance, and help us find new ways to eliminate distractions.
“Just write. Many writers have a vague hope that elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you. They won’t.” – Neil Gaiman
When you decide to work, commit. Eliminate distractions and focus on the job. It won’t finish for you, so find the tools and tricks you need to be productive.
Sweep distractions free from your path, if even only for a time. And then focus on the next word, the next task, or the next bit of logic. When you truly need to produce measurable results, be single-minded and ruthlessly efficient with your time.