A year-and-a-half ago I ran face-first into the buzz-saw of my own semi-distant past. It was one of those moments that leaves you feeling as if you’ve morphed into some awful version of yourself you always dreaded.
I did a blog post about it, “Scaling The Rat Hole,” and of course I recommend reading the whole thing. But if time is tight, here’s the opening, which is all you need for now:
Early last month I had the agonizing good fortune of cracking open a notebook from the mid-1990s.
In one section I’d spent several months following some advice whose source I’ve since forgotten: keeping a log of daily writing progress. One day per line, bonehead-simple entries: date, project(s), page numbers, tally.
Cue reaction, January 2010: Holy hell! Look at those totals!
Comparing then and now, I felt I should’ve scribbled a note to accompany the final entry: “I will diminish, and go into the West.”
It wasn’t that I was no longer making progress on anything. Just not this kind of progress. Not the degree of progress that once constituted normal.
It compelled me to analyze what was different between the two eras. Now, you can’t look at two distinct times of your life as if all other things are equal, but still: Once I started to pay conscious attention to it, I was amazed at the debilitating effect that being continually connected to the Internet was having on my long-term focus.
And it helped. This awareness genuinely helped, and prompted me to start yanking the Ethernet cable when it was time to get to work.
It took roughly another year — yes, sometimes my head has a slow leak — before I realized there was another major factor involved, one so obvious that I’d been staring right at it, literally, yet still failed to grasp its significance:
The progress log itself.
“What Gets Measured Gets Managed”
Those five words are usually attributed to business management consultant Peter Drucker, and they’ve been a mantra in the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds ever since.
Although it may have been meant for companies, it rings with the truth of a universal law that applies equally well to individuals: that keeping track of what we do to attain an objective is likely to keep us on track, and get us there sooner.
It’s why dieters who keep a food journal tend to lose weight more effectively than those who insist, without proof, that they’re eating less.
It’s why gym rats who log the particulars of their workouts tend to get stronger and faster sooner than the ones who show up with nothing to measure themselves against.
Why investors focused on asset allocation know when to rebalance their portfolios.
Why book-lovers who list what they read end up reading even more.
It’s why, if you’re a writer, or any other breed of creator, this brief act of accounting really can help you end up creating more.
And, finally, it’s why I made this 31-day worksheet, which alert readers may recall from “By Request: A Tour Of My Workspace.” It was an easy job, a few minutes in Apple’s Pages program. Any reasonably recent word processing app should be capable of something similar. I print a fresh copy at the beginning of every month, and use it to keep track of the progress I make on the different projects and assignments that I take on. It’s simple, but that’s important: The simpler a method is, the more likely you are to sustain it.
A Painfully Effective Use Of White Space
The earliest known samples of writing are Sumerian cuneiform tablets, and the oldest of them are mostly filled with mundane things like records of grain transactions. Nothing’s changed since: Writing stuff down keeps you honest. Once you’ve written something down, especially numbers, you can’t lie to yourself. Not tomorrow, not even when memory gets hazy.
This cuts both directions.
On the one hand, keeping records makes it easy to see when and where you’ve gone astray. Watching too many days pile up without any sign of word- or page counts, or anemic and sporadic counts, should light a fire under you.
This is why a 31-day worksheet like I whipped up is preferable to a standard notebook. Say, starting today, summer lethargy kicks in and you do nothing for two weeks. With the notebook, when you do finally resume, it’s just the next line. On the worksheet, though, you see that big, glaring block of empty white space.
On the other hand, watching your tallies add up, by the day, by the week, filling up the allotted space … that’s gold. That’s proof of life, evidence of momentum. It becomes its own encouragement to keep going.
And if you’re the type who sometimes finds it tough to give yourself credit for what you’ve done, hard to celebrate the small successes and interim milestones, then here’s a clear testament of what you’ve done. I did this. No one can say I didn’t. The proof is right here.
It’s one of the biggest payoffs you can get for five seconds of your day.
[Photo by Patrick Hoesly]
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