You have to do the work

A while ago I read a post by Chuck Wendig titled In which I emit a lot of grr-talk about your writing career that really inspired me, but ironically I’m only just now getting around to writing about it. The gist of the post, so that this one will still make sense if the link ever breaks, is that there is no magic wand anyone can wave that will make you a writer. You have to do the work. And it is work, sometimes really hard work, but no one can do it for you. And as an aside, I strongly recommend not reading the comments on that particular post. At the end of the series of tweets he storified, Chuck acknowledged that thanks to being a white guy things were easier for him than they otherwise would have been and a whole lot of commenters shit their pants over that.

But before I get too far into my post, I want to throw a quick disclaimer in here. That post is only helpful (which Mr Wendig himself freely admits in his other post, The flipside of my writing tirade), if you’re in a space where a kick in the pants will do you any good. Sometimes you’re not writing (or anything else-ing) because you really for really real can’t. If that’s you, neither Chuck’s grr-talk nor my post apply to you, and you should maybe go read the flipside post instead and definitely do something nice for yourself if you’re able.

To quote Chuck from a reply he made to a comment on his flipside post:

[…] being me, I get a lot of writers who want to talk to me at cons and email me and tell me how much they want to be a writer but then lament how they’re not writing, and you hit a point where it’s like, I can’t help them unless they write. I can’t make it all better. I can’t fix it. You wanna write, you gotta write. *shrug*

That’s basically the message I took away from the grr-talk post: if you want to do the thing, whatever your thing is, you need to sit down and do it. Technically Chuck’s posts were about writing, but really they apply to anything you keep saying you want to do but aren’t doing. For me, I’d been telling myself for a long time that I wanted to actually read the programming books I’d been collecting, and up my game as a programmer, and learn some math just to see if I’m smart enough, and work on personal projects, and, and, and… and none of that was actually getting done. Now, part of that was because things had gotten pretty bad at my previous job and getting through the day without flipping a table and storming out was eating up pretty much all of my energy, but even before things started really sucking I wasn’t getting the stuff done that I wanted to.

Thanks to a combination of happening to have read Chuck’s post at just the right time, happening to have changed jobs and gotten my work/life balance back, and happening to have gotten sick of my own complaining about how I wasn’t getting stuff done, I started making some real progress. I certainly haven’t gotten to everything on my list yet, but I’m actually doing stuff!

So, uh, I guess my big productivity tip is to get tired of your own whining and then get a much better job so you feel able to do things besides pour wine into your face when you go home. That’s totally within everyone’s reach, right? That’s probably where some more of Chuck’s advice comes in. Sometimes things suck, sometimes you really are very very busy and it’s really, really hard to find a spare 20 minutes to write. But if you want to be a writer, or if you just want to get that coverletter done so you can escape your miserable job, you have to make time. It sucks but there’s no way around it.

What I’d like to add, though, is that it’s okay to not want to do the thing. Sometimes, at least for me, procrastination is a sign that I don’t actually want to do the thing, I just know that I’m supposed to want to. To keep running with the writing example, just because you were the kid who rocked every writing assignment they were given and people liked the stories you did write when you were inspired to write them doesn’t mean you have to want to be a professional writer. Maybe you hate the idea of this thing you love becoming a chore, maybe you don’t want to have to run your career like a small business, maybe having a stable source of income (and health insurance!) is really important to you. You’re allowed to not want the thing everyone says you should want, you’re allowed to try it out and decide it’s not for you, you’re allowed to love it for a while and then change your mind, you’re allowed to change your priorities.

Of course, sometimes procrastination is just procrastination. I’ve read some really interesting articles about how people procrastinate when the fear of trying and failing is worse than not trying at all, and that fits me to a tee. I’ve by no means mastered that particular issue, but there are a couple of things that have helped.

First, you’ve got to set goals you’re actually in control of. For me, that’s stuff like ‘I’m going to work on project x for half an hour’ instead of ‘I’m going to finish feature y in project x.’ The problem with ‘finish feature y’ is that I get really anxious about whether I actually can finish feature y or if I’ll spend four hours fighting with a nasty bug and what that means for my identity as the smart one if I can’t get it done in the time I have and then I don’t get anything done at all. But if my goal is just to work on project x for half an hour, that’s something I know I can succeed at and that lets me sidestep the whole ‘oh god what if I’m not smart enough’ thing.

Second, it can be really handy to get into the habit of asking yourself if the thing you’re doing right now is what you really want to be doing. Not in a ‘stick to beat yourself with’ way, but in the sense that if you’re going to screw around on the internet, you should at least do something you enjoy. I have a terrible habit of aimlessly scrolling through tumblr while hours go by and then all of a sudden it’s dinner time and not only did I not get anything accomplished, but I didn’t even have fun. That just feels shitty, so I’ve been trying to play games I actually enjoy or read stories I actually like if I’m going to screw around on the internets.

Third, reasonable goals, like Chuck said. This ties in really closely with my next point, which is about habits versus motivation. Basically, getting shit done is more about building the habit of doing a little at a time than about waiting for the magical day when you’ll be super motivated and get everything done in one marathon burst of effort. To get stuff done a little at a time, you need a schedule you can keep up in the long run, which means you need to work at a pace that won’t burn you out and leaves room for fun in your life. For my life and my schedule, I try to give myself no more than three goals for personal stuff to get done on a weekday after I get home, and most of those goals are things that don’t take very long, like ‘spend half an hour reading that dry technical book.’ You might be way better at time management than I am and can do five things after you get home, or maybe you have kids and pets and have to do your own cooking and cleaning and maybe you can only do one thing every couple of days.

Finally, and this is something you’ll hear from basically every productivity expert, it’s more important to have habits than motivation. Motivation comes and goes, you’re just not going to be on fire about working on your thing every single day. As much as I love my field and love learning, I’m not exactly counting the minutes until I get to go home and read dry technical books. Waiting until you are on fire about it means you’re going to spend an awful lot of hours waiting around when you could be getting shit done, feeling good about making progress, and then doing something fun without feeling guilty about how you’re not doing the thing.

Speaking of getting things done a little at a time, according to wordpress in the roughly three years this blog has been going I’ve written about 129,000 words. According to this article at Writers Digest, that’s a longish novel. Sure, it took me three years to write that many words, but that was three years of roughly one post a week, averaging 675 words. Of course, writing a coherent novel is way more work than a series of largely unrelated blog posts (yay for not worrying about plot holes!), but that’s a lot of words for not a lot of effort every week.

Readers, if any of you have productivity tips (especially about procrastination!), I’d love to hear about them. Think of it as your good deed for the day 🙂

2 thoughts on “You have to do the work

  1. Everyone gets blocked on occasion. The only thing to do when that happens is to write something, anything, even if it only takes five minutes, and even if it’s not directly related to the magnum opus.

    That way, the neural pathways are kept open. It’s easy for them otherwise to become overgrown.

    Another thing that’s useful is to have a little notebook and make notes. So that when those serendipitous moments arise when you have an idea, a thought, or a phrase that’s capable of breaking the log-jam, you’ll get it down and not forget it. It will also free you from the keyboard and the screen, which are sometime inhibiting in themselves.

    Don’t be worried if what you write is not deathless prose. A large part of writer’s block is pure, distilled anxiety. Get something down anyhow, anyway, and make revisions when you have slept on in, or even left it alone for a few days. Montaigne, who was arguably the first blogger, wrote like that, and most decent editions of his ‘Essays’ will show the multiple accretions, sometimes made years apart.

    It’s not always possible, but it helps to have a muse, someone you love and write for, either in real life or in your imagination.

    Finally, if you read something by someone else that chimes in with your thinking, mark the passage, and make a note of your reaction, even if that means writing in the book. This is anathema to some people, but I don’t see anything wrong with noting in pencil, and there’s nothing more frustrating than finding an inspiring quote, and then being unable to find it again.

    • Don’t be worried if what you write is not deathless prose.

      That one is tough for me. I get stuck a lot trying to get the first sentence of a new post just right, I’ve had to train myself to just start somewhere and go back and fiddle with the first sentence later.

      there’s nothing more frustrating than finding an inspiring quote, and then being unable to find it again

      There’s a book I’ve been reading that’s just full of amazing quotes, I feel your pain. I’m one of those people who can’t bring themselves to write in a book but I’m thinking of picking up a pack of those little post-it slips so I can mark the good bits more exactly.

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