...is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, right? We've all heard that, no matter how misattributed. Well, to some degree, I've been doing that for quite a while.
Having been a full-time freelance writer since 1998, I can assure you that there's a difference between doing a job to your clients' satisfaction and doing a job well and efficiently. My clients tend to be a pretty satisfied lot, but for the better part of two decades, I've worked mornings, nights, weekends, and all points in between. It got to be so common to work constantly that I no longer questioned doing it. The default answer for all questions from family and friends was, "Maybe, but I'm pretty busy." As if I was the only busy guy in the world.
With only one career in hand, I could skate by in this state. But with two careers -- my existing freelance business plus a fledgling career in fiction -- I could no longer ignore the obvious. Whatever I was doing wasn't working well. I was treading water with my commercial clients, keeping roughly the same income level for over five years. My fiction production was erratic and impossibly slow in getting to market. My family still didn't get to see much of me, even though I worked from home. And wasn't that one of my main motivations for being self-employed, in order to be involved and experience my family growing up?
One of the reasons I joined my wife in attending CrossFit lessons two months ago was because I'd heard people talk about how self-discipline with physical health often bled (literally in CrossFit's case) over into other life areas. If I could tackle CrossFit, I reasoned, perhaps I could gain the mental discipline necessary to improve my work processes. Six or seven weeks later, I was over that initial hump of substantial exercise training agony, but nothing seemed to be changing elsewhere for me. Imagine that -- a grown-up has to do the tooth fairy's work. Perhaps magic only strikes when you make it strike.
Habits and Help
While I was waiting for the tooth fairy to visit my daily routine, I came to a sudden if glaringly obvious realization: I have no routine. I went to bed every night knowing what needed to be done the next day, but I had no methodology for tackling the tasks. As a result, many days ended up as if I'd spent the last ten hours chasing my tail in an endless pursuit of email, calls, IMs, social media check-ins, family needs, and everything else. I needed to become a lot more efficient if I was going to make headway in my day job, much less ever see the light of day as a novelist.
Self-improvement coach Tony Robbins always encourages people to ask better questions, so rather than ask a vague question, such as "How can I get more done?" I tried an approach I'd never taken before: "How can I cultivate better work habits?" That question led me to probe the nature of habits, how they form, and how they can be remolded. Before long, I was listening to the audiobook for Charles Duhigg's fascinating The Power of Habit.
Some of the basic principles in this book were a stark eye-opener for me. Habits are comprised of three parts: cue, process, and reward. As I surveyed my days, I realized that I had very few predictable, recognizable cues that would trigger a positive work process and result in a desired reward, such as a sense of accomplishment.
I found myself wondering how other successful people go about their days, apply structure to themselves, and use habits to achieve their objectives. I'm not out to reinvent the wheel, after all. I'm in the business of interviewing people, so I started looking for anecdotes and asking around. One of the people I went to was my CrossFit trainer, Chuck Gonzales, owner of the facility I use three times a week and a guy for whom I have ever-increasing respect. Chuck recommended that I subscribe to Success magazine for a steady stream of ideas, and he pointed me to a site called nobrowndays.com.
At first, I was put off by how infomercial-y this site appeared, but I quickly realized that there was very little for sale here. The key concepts all appeared to be given away for free. The main idea is to color-code each day on the annual calendar according to focus in one of four areas: personal time, money making, administration/development, and planning. While each day might involve more than one of these elements, every day should have a primary focus. Sure, you might have to take a sales call on a personal day or go to a kid's band performance on a planning day. But overall, a day should be dedicated to one of these four pursuits and result in a calendar similar to the one shown here.
What do you get when you combine all four colors? Brown. And how would you typify such a day? Pretty crappy, right? You try to do everything and nothing gets done. Bingo. I made my annual calendar and set my quarterly objectives. Most days are green, but I have a lot of yellow on there, too. I have never blocked out so much personal/family time before in my life. It's a little terrifying.
This still left one big question unanswered: How do you execute a green, money-making day efficiently? I had family tasks, day work tasks, fiction tasks, personal communication tasks -- all these different kinds of activities that needed to get done in such a way that they could proceed from regular, predictable cues and form good habits. Wasn't there a daily system for diverse task sets like that applicable to self-employed writers like myself?
Of course, and I couldn't believe I'd missed it for so long. It's called school.
No School Like Old School
I spent two days ripping apart all of my activities, goals, capabilities, and so on, and I came up with what I think is a sustainable system. To the left, you can see a sample day that balances freelance work and fiction work. One of the things Chuck told me was that his day starts at 5:00 AM. This matches what I've read countless times in interviews with successful authors. I've always dismissed this possibility, because ever since I was old enough not to have a bed time, I've been a night owl. "That's just how I'm wired."
Or is it? Is being a night owl a biological imperative...or a habit? Specifically, is it a habit that's not serving me effectively? One way to find out.
From 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM, my week proceeds in blocks, just like school periods. When do I do email, Facebook, and other similar distracting tidbits? Between periods, just like in school. When class is in session, you sit, focus, and get stuff done. What if a call has to get scheduled for 9:00 rather than the 12:00 where I'd like it to go? Before, such a shuffle invariably threw my morning into a tail-spin. Now, thinking of these things as blocks, all I have to do is switch two items around on my daily calendar. Easy.
And yes, that is a nap you see sitting there at 2:00. My work week schedule only allows for a maximum of seven hours of sleep per night, which is one less than I've found I really need. Tack on the physical demands of CrossFit, and I've learned that I survive far better with a mid-day nap. Laugh all you like, kiddies. Middle-age is coming for you, too.
This all might sound ridiculously obvious, but as a self-employed guy who had to figure everything out by trial and error and with no professional guidance, well...it's a process. I don't pretend to be smart, but I do try to improve over time. This is how I'm going to try things for a while. I'm going to give it my best shot, because, honestly, I don't have any better ideas.
I hope my family and friends understand when I take longer to respond to things. My kids will have to learn that I am effectively not here until 5:00 during the week, and if you're bleeding, you better put a Band-Aid on it yourself. No movies during the week. No late phone calls with friends. No leisurely lunch breaks with my dad. This is all new to me. But if this is what it takes to achieve goals, then let's get going.
The following text is the introductory chapter for my forthcoming short story collection, Specula One, due later this month.
In his amazing book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it takes 10,000 hours of practice in a field to achieve mastery. Does mastery yield automatic success? Of course not. When I was seventeen, I worked on a dairy farm. If I’d stayed there, I might have spent 10,000 hours milking cows and become one of the greatest cow milkers in the northwestern U.S. Would that have brought me widespread fame and wealth? Mmm, no, probably not.
There is a strong “right place, right time” component to the 10,000-hour proposition. Gladwell uses Bill Gates as an example and how both Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen logged in ridiculous amounts of programming time while still in school during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — a time when hardly anyone had access to computers. When 1975 arrived, not only was Gates prepared with expertise, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. There are two sides to the success coin, and both are necessary.
No one explained this to me as a kid. I went through my childhood blathering on about how I wanted to be a professional author when I grew up, but not even in college did anyone ever provide any concrete objectives or mileposts that might be required to make that happen. No one said, “Practice for 10,000 hours and you’ll get there.” Instead, all of the common wisdom repeated the same generalities: write every day, start selling short stories, then leverage those sales into novel contracts.
OK, so what does that mean? “Write every day”? How much each day? Some books touted fifteen minutes as an acceptable amount in a pinch. And what if you spend (like I did) seven years trying to sell short stories and come up with $10 to show for your efforts? Well, that’s pretty demoralizing. No wonder so many young people love to write and never become writers. All that advice, all that work, all for nothing.
There’s a bit in Gladwell’s book that often gets overlooked. Yes, it might take 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, but not everyone needs to be a master. According to Gladwell, one can obtain enough expertise after 4,000 or 5,000 hours to teach, even at the university level. In other words, it might take 10,000 hours to reach the stars, but if you’re content to walk on the moon, the barrier to success is much lower.
I reel to think how my life might have gone differently if someone had pulled me aside at age 17 or so, back when I had all the free time in the world, and said, “You want to sell stories for a living? OK. If you practice writing fiction for 10,000 hours, pushing yourself to learn more and do better with each one of those hours, you’ll come out at the end of it with a best-seller. But if you put in 5,000 hours, you’ll sell stories — probably enough stories to make a comfortable living if you keep working hard at it.”
That one statement would have given me a tangible goal to hit: five thousand hours. Do the math.
Imagine if the Life Fairy had appeared before me, waved her magic keyboard, and said, “William, if you write for two hours every day without fail for the next seven years, I’ll make you a successful novelist,” I would have freaked out. You couldn’t have pried me away from my 286 PC with a crowbar.
That’s it? Only 5,000 hours? What if I do three hours a day? That’s only four and a half years!
But I didn’t even get close to that number. When we don’t have concrete objectives, when we lack a solid plan able to turn a dream into a goal, it’s easy to lose focus and get distracted. I know I sure did.
The cool thing about dreams, though, is that they never disappear. They might lie shriveled and brown on the floor of our spirits, but they never entirely die. They simply require some care and commitment in order to revitalize and flourish.
I did eventually put in my 10,000 writing hours, but I ended up doing it in technical non-fiction. And that’s fine. Mastery there has sustained my family for the last fifteen years, and for that I remain forever grateful. But those articles, for the most part, are not stories. They may tickle the mind momentarily, but they almost never grab the imagination, caress the heart, or kick the gut. They are two very different kinds of writing with two wholly different objectives.
One morning, as I stood staring my fortieth birthday in the face, I realized that my lifelong dream was neither satisfied nor dead. It was getting late in the game, sure. I was well beyond the early twenties that Gladwell says are so typical of when those with mastery break through to success. But it could still be done. It’s not over until the coroner goes home.
Measurement matters. I now have spreadsheets and applications that help track my time and progress with fiction. Writers measure things by words more than hours, and the rough finish line you’ll often hear cited for mastery in writing is one million words. Again, my Life Fairy could’ve thrown that number at me, and I would’ve been just as excited and determined. After all, even while holding down my regular career, I’ve logged in over 180,000 words of fiction so far in 2013. That’s probably more than I did in those first seven abortive years combined.
The stories in Specula One, my first short fiction collection, comprise a snapshot of my work at this point on my march to that million-word milepost. (Note that it’s only a milepost. There is no finish line.) There will be others. You may be relieved to know that only one of the stories here is from that early seven-year period of my life. Everything else I wrote in that period was, to be honest, embarrassing and will hopefully never see the light of day. How I wish someone in a position of authority had said to me back then, “This stuff is fine. It’s exactly the kind of thing a future writer produces in his first 100,000 words. Now keep practicing.”
I keep talking about myself here, but this isn’t really about me. I’m writing this introduction as a message to anyone out there with unfulfilled dreams, especially younger readers. All too often, there are no Life Fairies, no industry wizards waiting to take you under their wing. Excessive praise can give you a fat head that’s ripe for popping when you land in the real world. Short-term expectations and lack of a long-term plan can lead to crippling disappointment.
Take a different path. If you have a dream, turn it into a goal. Well-planned goals have very little to do with luck and everything to do with discipline. It’s about 10,000 hours. One million words. Little, manageable blocks of time spent every day in pursuit of the thing that makes the fire in your belly burn brightest. There are no guarantee, but these ingredients comprise the surest recipe around for success. And who knows? If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might be able to leap clear from success and mastery into world-renowned greatness.
Identify the mileposts. Race for them. Life is too short for anything less.
William Van Winkle
A few months ago, a close family friend gave us a long chart detailing the many stops from Hobbiton to the fires of Mt. Doom, deep in the land of Mordor. Of course, one does not simply walk into Mordor, but if you wanted to pretend, you could chart your daily walking progress on this sheet and see about where your miles would correspond in Middle Earth. If you're curious, check out the trek's possible origins on Eowyn's Challenge.
Today, as I crossed the 100-mile mark on my treadmill desk progress, I toyed with the idea of journeying to a fiery volcano. However, the lava-drenched peak you see here is not Mt. Doom. It's the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.
See, Costa Rica tops my list of must-see travel destinations. It's a land of pristine nature, incredible culture, breathtaking scenery, and maybe, just maybe, somewhere I could get my kids to learn Spanish. If I'm going to walk somewhere, especially to a volcano, I want it to be there.
Of course, it's a long way from Hillsboro, Oregon -- which can sound a little like "Hobbiton" if you're really drunk -- to Costa Rica. Almost 4,300 miles by car, actually. But I would be walking, not driving, and since this is an imaginary trek, I can forget about some of the little details, like running out of money and dodging Mexican drug cartels. Given that, where would I stop along the way?
Well, I've always wanted to walk from home to Cannon Beach, which is about 70 miles on foot. Cannon Beach is the closest thing I have to a spiritual Mecca. It's a tiny little coastal town filled with wonderful people and a lifetime of scattered memories for me. If I'm going to start a quest, Cannon Beach is where I'd want to begin.
And then where? I played around with Google Maps for a while and arrived at a fanciful route:
Why go through this silly exercise? It goes back to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and that whole 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery concept. If you read Outliers, you'll find that Gladwell asserts repeatedly that 10,000 hours of dedication are needed to reach the top of any field, be it music or business or sports or whatever. However, what you don't hear repeated is Gladwell's note about how one can make a decent living in a field with, say, 2,000 to 5,000 hours of practice.
Once upon a time, I aspired to be the next Stephen King. That would be great and all, but these days, I just want to pay the bills and send my kids through college. Given the time I've already put into working on writing fiction, I think a walk to Arenal Volcano might do the trick. A distance of 4,800 miles divided by a walking speed of 2.5 MPH gives us 1,920 hours of walking...and fiction writing. (That's also about half a million calories burned for you fitness freaks.)
Maybe this is all a nutty psychological game. Or maybe it's an adventure in pursuit of a dream. Whatever. Everybody needs their own crutches and motivations. Maybe I'll make it to Arenal and maybe I won't. But I'm already 25 miles past Cannon Beach...and I'm not looking back.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.