Goal #1: I will be a full-time book author by my 50th birthday.
Well, I just turned 42, so we're a long way from calling this one. However, progress was made. I finished five short stories and wrote a complete draft on my first novel. Since this is way more fiction output than any year I've ever had, I'm content with this point.
Goal #2: I will have amassed a $100,000 cash cushion by my 45th birthday.
In the 2007 to 2008 time frame, I made a string of unbelievably bad financial decisions that nearly wiped us out. Climbing from this crater is a slow, tedious process, but it made me realize several things about myself and my planning processes. One of these little revelations is that I did not have a consistent savings plan in place. This is the kiss of old age death when you're self-employed. The prospect of pulling money aside from bills and such scared the hell out of me, but we had no savings left -- none -- and time had proven that whatever vague ideas I had about starting to save someday simply weren't going to happen by themselves.
I resolved to take 5% of every dollar I made and put it into a new savings account at a second, separate bank far away from my main accounts. Half of this money stayed as cash to guard against another financial crash; the other half got invested in no-fee index funds (one small cap, one large cap). I have three years left to meet this goal, and while I'm not quite on track, I'm now up to contributing 7% into this cushion account and slowly increasing as fortunes allow. The cushion money exits my account as soon as incoming checks clear, and somehow we're still paying the bills. Savings are a bit like children. You never have enough money for them. But if you just do it and put them first, the world keeps turning and you figure it out as you go.
Goal #3: I will send my children to Oregon Episcopal School.
Sadly, I am no closer to achieving this goal than I was a year ago. In fact, I'm farther from it. In part, this is because we elected to become foster parents to my wife's two nieces. This means I may have four kids to send through school rather than two, and when a place like OES costs $20,000 and up per student per year, well... You get the idea. If my kids end up staying in public school, it will be disappointing to me, but it's not the apocalypse, especially with online educational resources quickly evolving to fill in some of the public system's gaps. We'll see.
Goal #4: I will be able to do 10 consecutive pull-ups by my 42nd birthday.
I completely bombed this one. Why? We'll come back to that.
Goal #5: I will publish my first novel by my 42nd birthday.
I also missed this one, although, as mentioned above, I did finished first draft of the novel before my birthday, and I should note that this is the first time I've ever completed a novel draft after over 20 years of false starts. So as I wrote previously, "When goals are in alignment with your values, any progress is good and worthwhile." I completely underestimated the amount of time the novel would require, in part because I had no real concept of how long it would take to write. Nor did I have a schedule for the project. That takes us to the meat of this post...
This morning, I finished reading Daniel Pink's Drive, a tremendous little work about the limitations of Industrial Era carrot-and-stick methods of motivation and the benefits of moving to more autonomous, creative, fulfilling approaches to our daily activities. I read it in part for ideas on better parenting methods but also to think more about my own career and personal objectives. If there's one thing I learned from working in boring jobs and for hostile bosses, it's that I am very prone to becoming depressed by repetitive labor, especially when it's in the pursuit of something that has no significant meaning to me.
One of the reasons why I take so long on articles that focus on benchmarking computer components is that I think the idea is kind of ludicrous. I understand that some people view speed as a hobby. They get off on it. For them, the ability to squeeze another 2% performance boost out of their PC so they can have a slightly better reaction time when fighting enemies across the network is a really big deal. I'm not that guy. I care a lot more about my system not slowing my work efficiency by 25% than I do about speeding up some half-second operation by 2.5%. In short, I don't need things to go right more quickly; I just need things not to go wrong. Benchmarking has little personal significance to me, so I resist devoting days of repetitive work to its pursuit. For me, there is no "flow" in benchmarking, no being "in the zone," no excitement or mental stimulation.
One thing Pink advises is that we identify where and when we find ourselves in those "flow" states. We all have a few. Mine happens when reading and writing a good story. Many people have such a state when exercising, especially when running. I don't -- or at least I haven't yet -- and this probably why I resist pursuing exercise-related goals, such as "I will be able to do 10 pull-ups this year." However, I continue to see anecdotal evidence pointing to a correlation between exercise and writing efficiency. The smart way for me to approach fitness is a) to find metrics for measuring my work efficiency, b) track those metrics consistently, and c) evaluate the impact of exercise on those metrics over time. I may suck at math, but there's still something of a freaky statistician buried in me somewhere. Once I prove to myself that a secondary goal (exercise) can assist my primary goal (being a full-time fiction author), then the psychological battle will be won.
Identify your flow activities and use them as a means toward achieving your goals. This is what self-actualization is all about.
You'd think that by age 42 I would have internalized the importance of numbers and metrics. Alas, not so much. Only recently did I realize that I've spent my professional life with no clue about what it takes for me to produce a basic unit of work -- meaning, a certain amount of writing. I had a lot of days in 2012 in which I wrote 500 words. Some days hit 3,500. Many were zeroes. So what should I expect? And did I have a methodology in place to make sure I delivered? Nope. It was totally haphazard.
In December, I tried something new. I found a stopwatch app to run on all of my systems, and I timed myself whenever I was actually writing fiction or non-fiction. I learned two amazing things. First, while I might be capable of typing 60 WPM, I actually wrote much less. After factoring in pauses for thinking, editing, looking up facts, and so on, I averaged about 13.5 WPM. That applied to both fiction and non-fiction. This rate may not sound like much, but the power of multiplication can work wonders. That's more than 800 words an hour. The encouraging side of 13.5 is that it's really not much more than one sentence. Ask yourself, "Can I write one or two sentences every minute?" If the answer is no, especially if you call yourself a writer, there's really something wrong. The trick is to minimize the pauses, especially when it comes to hunting down facts. When you're an info fanatic like me, it's hard not to let Google take you on dazzling detours across medieval times and the frontiers of science when all you needed to know the average size of a chicken egg. My new mantra must become: Google it, get it, and get out.
The second and far more depressing revelation was the number of actual minutes I spent each day on writing. Suffice it to say that the number was much, much lower than I ever would have guessed. After all, I spend -- what? Eight to twelve hours a day in my office chair in front of three screens? Work gets done, so I must be working my butt off. But the harsh reality is that the majority of my time is getting spent on tasks other than writing -- everything from email to Skype to benchmarking to Facebook to hunting for article artwork to transcription to...whatever. Some of it is work-related, some is not. But in the end, the only thing I get paid for is finished text in a document.
That sounds like a disaster in the making, but the startling thing is that I don't actually have to write for more than two or three hours each day. If I write just 2,400 new words each day -- three hours per day, six days a week -- that's over 14,000 words per week and nearly 700,000 over a 48-week work year. I can live very comfortably on three hours of writing per day...if I can get the background work done in advance to let me write non-stop. For that matter, if I get more practice at having my background ready to go and writing non-stop in concentrated blocks, I bet I can get up to 20 WPM, which would drop my writing time requirement to only two hours per day.
This method applies to fiction work, as well. At 13.5 WPM, that's 810 words per hour, or about 1,200 words per 90-minute block. Again, with six days per week, 48 weeks per work year, that's 345,600 words annually. The average length for a novel is 80,000 words. In other words, I could write over four novels per year just by writing 90 minutes per day. Of course, this depends on doing all of the research, planning, editing, and so on in the evenings, and I don't know how long that will take yet. For now, I'll have to make do with educated guesses.
All of the above was necessary to consider in order to come up with a proposed schedule for my 2013 fiction work. If you would have asked me 18 months ago if I was capable of producing two novels, three novellas, and eight short stories in a year -- never mind audiobook versions and one or two story collections (not shown in the spreadsheet) -- I would have laughed and said you were insane. And yet...it all boils down to 13.5 words per minute. If I can hold or improve that rate and keep up with all of the planning and editing/production on the front and back sides of those green text generation blocks, then it all works.
In the fiction workshop I'm currently taking from Dean Wesley Smith, he commented that writers who make a living from their work can't afford to spend more than one day on a short story. The economics don't pan out otherwise. If a short story is 5,000 words and the writer is hitting 15 WPM, that's just over five and a half hours of writing time. Figure three hours for editing and another one for production, artwork, etc. Yeah, a short story can go from start to publication in 10 work hours.
Why doesn't this happen more often? Because we don't believe it's possible. We're taught in school to agonize over symbolism and drafting and this and that. The emphasis is on preparation and planning, and that's fine, because those are essential skills in order to achieve efficient production. But we're not taught how to produce effectively. Writing is usually taught by theorists who, if they're lucky, have published a handful of stories in some literary journals that no one has ever heard of. I know that was true of my professors. God, how I wish one of them had just stood up and said, "Life is too short to aim for perfection. We're going to aim for 'really good' and see how much you can create in a term." That one lesson might well have radically altered the course of my life as an author. It's not enough for a writer to write. Real writers must produce, and that skill is never taught.
So yes, I have a list of goals for 2013, but the only one that really matters is that spreadsheet. It will be grueling. It will require me to exercise a level of self-discipline I've never had before. I may not write blog posts more than once every month or two. I may have to lock my office door and unplug my work computer from the Internet for two or three hours each day. I will have to be (more of) a jerk sometimes and hope that those around me understand. I don't know how other writers do these things, but this is the only path forward I can see that will allow me to achieve the long-term goals I have for myself and my family. This is a values-based resolution grounded in hard numbers, feasible methodology, and the pursuit of a satisfying "flow" state. Will this prove to be a successful combination? There's one way to find out.
Happy New Year, everyone. :-)