False Starts and Moving Parts

December 11, 2014
I make this face when I sit down to write.

The last post to the site was October 1st. I am writing this on December 1st 10th. I have consulted leading mathematical experts, and they are in agreement that my last post was over two calendar months ago. This was partly intentional. It was in early October that I committed myself fully  to participating in National Novel Writing Month, and once that decision was made I also decided that I would not write for this blog during the month of November. I needed to focus on something singular and specific, and I still believe that was the right choice.

However, that somehow led to my total avoidance of writing here in October as well.

Don’t you love that word? Somehow. Absolves responsibility. It wasn’t me it was the UNIVERSE.

Still, the word ‘somehow’ feels appropriate because I did not intend to neglect this site for the month of October. In fact, I planned to write about my decision to tackle NaNoWriMo. Beyond that topic, I have a healthy and growing backlog of post ideas, including a few that are relatively close to completion. So why, then, did I abandon this place just as I had built some momentum here?

I see three reasons. None of them make me feel particularly great, but they are worth exploring for whatever insight they might grant to preventing this sort of negligence in the future.

 Analysis Paralysis

It rears its ugly head again. I still have not well, truly and properly decided what this site is about and what I want out of it. In deciding to blog in the first place, I vacillated between several different possible areas for subject matter. These included focusing on the experience of trying to write professionally, urbanism and city development, and more of a catch-all where I would write whatever I please. I thought I had landed on the third one. The most important thing, I believed, was to have an outlet for writing above all else. Initially I felt that if I built a website, I needed to follow a clear and specific professional focus in order to attract an audience. Then I decided an audience was not my primary concern. What professional purpose would my blog serve anyway? I just wanted a place to get out my thoughts.

I need this tattooed on my forehead. In reverse, of course, so I can read it in a mirror.

Then the post from October 1st went up. I wrote it as my personal response to the first Strong Towns Citizens Challenge. This was a decidedly urbanism-focused piece, and I wrote it just as I was about to focus on fiction for the month of November. I did it because it was interesting to me, and it gave me a specific task to complete. I did not do it thinking it would receive any attention beyond the small world of fellow Strong Towns nerds. I thought it would barely make a ripple even in that small world.

But something unexpected happened.

The article linked above summarized the responses from the Strong Towns community, and to my complete surprise my name and my post were mentioned. In fact, I was the first response cited in Andrew Burleson’s article. Now, Strong Towns is not a large organization in numbers, but it has a fairly wide reach and it receives a lot of attention in urbanism circles for its novel approach to issues facing cities in towns. I am additionally convinced the idea of people talking about what it’s like to walk to a grocery store, despite how mundane it sounds, resonated with people interested in the walkability of our municipalities. For those reasons, Andrew’s summary article was picked up by the venerable City Lab and reposted by Streetsblog in addition to appearing on Strong Towns.

These companion articles and reposts had the effect of driving traffic to this site. My site! This one right here! Not a lot. But some. Which by definition was the most I’ve had since this place as of now largely remains my little secret.  Out of nowhere there were people visiting the site, and I panicked a little. I had hoped to have a significant backlog of posts before making any attempt to share this site more widely.

Instead, I felt like I was supposed to capitalize on the tiny drop in the ocean of internet traffic that my post generated. I felt I should be going all in on writing about urbanism. I had to act. I had to decide. I had to go, go, go.

But I didn’t. And I didn’t really want to. I didn’t want to dive headlong into writing about urbanism despite feeling like it was some sort of logical response to getting a few unexpected visitors to my site. Still, I felt some misplaced sense of obligation that I ought to start cranking out blog content. So I thought about what that content should be, who I should tell about it, and what enhancements I needed to this site and my social media profile to make the most of it.

In the end, rather than capitalize on whatever ephemeral audience I might have drawn by focusing on urbanism OR at least keeping up some pace of writing about other topics, OR engage more on social media, I did what came most naturally.

Nothing.

What Gets Measured, Gets Done

This is a popular phrase in the corporate business world. It’s the kind of thing people like to trot out in critique of firms/departments/teams that seem to be prioritizing work haphazardly and not getting the most important things done. Those are, inevitably, someone else’s firm/department/team. The idea is that if you have a good way of measuring the things that are important to you and you set about actually measuring them, work prioritization will tend to follow those measurements.

It is less often discussed how this works in the other direction as well. Bad measurements focused on the wrong things will have you and your team wasting your efforts in no time!

But that’s beside the point here…the point is that even as tired as this kind of statement is, it still possesses truth. With respect to this site, I have set no goals. None. So nothing gets done. I don’t even have bad goals.

Do I want to publish twice a week? Get to 100 subscribers in x number of months? Write a total of 20,000 words a month on the site? Any of those goals would probably be fine. Since I’m still not sure what my overall, big picture, objectives are with this site, metrics focused on simple quantity (word count, post frequency, etc) are probably best. If I stated a goal of publishing twice a week, I’d be able to pretty easily tell whether I was meeting that or not. As of October 1st, and persisting to today, I have not articulated any such goals. I intend for this to change by mid-December. See more at the bottom.

For November for NaNoWriMo, I had a clearly defined goal. Write 50,000 words toward a novel draft in a month. That translated to 1,667 words per day. I built my time around that goal. Even once I was ahead of pace, I continued to use 1,667 as my barometer for daily success. It worked beautifully.

Had there been a similar goal in place during the month of October in relation to writing for this site, I’m confident a lot more would have gotten done around here.

Hint: If you have stated goals and you cannot achieve them or continue to put off even trying to achieve them, they are probably the wrong goals (for now, at least). That’s okay! Make new goals! Try doing other things!

Ritual de lo Habitual

This relates closely to the measurement concept in that if I had a clearer sense of what my goals are for the site, I would likely be more successful than I have been at building habits around writing for it. In fact, as I emerge from NaNoWriMo, I feel a bit like I’m back to square one on this front. A clearly defined goal gave me focus that forced some semblance of a habit to emerge. Unfortunately it did not give rise to the sort of orderly habits that perpetuate in the absence of a specific goal.

I believe strongly that I need a good deal of ritual in my day-to-day in order to make this writing thing successful, but I’m not sure that I have ever in my life been so completely in control of what I do everyday. Habit building has always been a struggle for me, whether it applies to fitness, keeping in touch with people, or writing. As a result, I spend WAY too much time thinking about what to do each day rather than doing anything (see Analysis Paralysis above).

141H

Waiting for the muse to speak is a surefire way to hardly ever write anything at all, and the dearth of writing in October was partly that. I wanted to feel inspired by the sudden uptick in traffic and follow up that post with something that REALLY got people sucked in. If instead I had established guidelines for when I would write and how much, I would have not had to worry about how inspired I felt at a given moment.

Bottom line, I need to just sit down and do the work.

So clearly I don’t plan enough, but when I do it’s worked quite well for me. I spent most of the month of October outlining what I would write about for NaNoWriMo, and when November hit I shot out of the gates. I did not run into any meaningful trouble with my story until the last week or so of the month. That trouble coincided perfectly with reaching the limits of my outline.

But it was a great lesson. Outlining, at least loosely, works for me. I made a ton of changes to what I had outlined on the fly, but having that basic structure was powerful for my productivity.

As I move forward, I would like to establish clearer expectations for myself about when, how long, and what I will write on given days. I tried this a couple of months ago, but it was pretty half-hearted. It’s my hope that if I’m more prescriptive with myself, I’ll abide by my plans more fully. That should lead to more getting done around here, though I expect I’ll be in near-constant reevaluation of that process. That’s a good thing! It should prevent me getting too far into ruts. Without the structure of a typical workday, how I work is just another problem I have to solve with creativity.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I want to address each of these three problems as I go forward. No need to make it too complicated, so here goes.

Analysis Paralysis: I can write about anything here. Whatever I want. It does not have to relate to anything I’ve ever written before or have any clear applicability to things I want to do more broadly. I will simply get my thoughts out and move on, in whatever number of words that requires.

Risk: This might be too broad to be sustainable. Having everything under the sun be fair game could just beget the precise analysis paralysis I’m trying to eliminate. We’ll see. 

Measurement: Two posts per week, and no more. Any length. No excuses. I can work ahead of pace if I want to, so a backlog of posts counts toward this goal. This is similar to how I did NaNoWriMo. Even though I was writing more than the daily quota, I used the daily quota as my measuring stick.

RiskI work well with a goal. In fact, sometimes I work too well in a sense. I can envision myself blasting through 20 blog posts, queueing them up to go out regularly, and then kicking back. When the queue dwindles to zero, I will have to reenergize to try to get going again. This means I will have failed in making writing a habit.

Habit: Posts will go live twice a week. Mondays and Thursdays. To help solve the problem in the measurement goal, I will not queue up posts unless I know ahead of time I will be unable to do it manually on a Monday or Thursday. When I go about putting a post up, I must also stick around long enough to write something. This will move me toward making blog writing a regular habit on Mondays and Thursdays at minimum

Risk: Though it doesn’t seem like much, this could prove to be too ambitious. My primary goal remains fiction writing, and I’m trying to use this site as a means toward that end. As of now, building a writing habit is about getting more fiction written. I’d rather not be saying to myself “can’t work on the book. Gotta do a blog post.” That said, switching tasks can improve productivity. I’m not too worried about this one. 

That’s it! Those are my goals and my guidelines. Wish me luck! At some point, it’s likely this post and it’s ideas will merit a follow-up. Let’s hope it’s not a sad one.

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