100 Words of Work

100 Words of Work

As I’ve said many a time, I prefer goals to resolutions when the new year rolls around. This year, in an attempt to improve and focus my writing, I undertook the 100 Words of Work project. Writing as a profession involves a lot more than just putting words on a page and I chose the name to reflect that. I wanted to encourage myself to work on whatever project was at hand rather than mindlessly churning out words. This way, time spent editing and planning are equally reflected as progress.

Six months later, I’ve yet to miss a day, though obviously some days it’s much easier to reach my goal. I’ve learned a great deal from this project in a short amount of time and, though I intend to see it through the entire year, I’d thought I’d share my revelations.

A little quickly adds up to a lot.
I recently finished a major edit on a manuscript. It was tough because I’ve spent most of the year editing and it’s the part of the process I lest enjoy. To top it off, we had visitors from across the ocean shortly after I started, breaking my momentum, and the manuscript needed a lot more attention than I realized. I didn’t proceed at the pace I wanted, yet I was shocked to look back over my work and realize I’d edited 32 pages in two week. My editing process is rigorous. On first round edits, I often struggle to get through more than three pages in a single day. Despite working in a short window and struggling to meet my (probably unreasonable) goals, I’d pounded out more work than I thought I could manage in two weeks, all by taking it in bite sized pieces.

To date I’ve subtracted 29,247 words from two different manuscripts (one was a first pass edit, the other was a final polish). While editing, my word counts (counting the number of words I ditched instead of the number I added) rarely went above 300. Yet at the end of five months, they make an impressive number. Sometimes we don’t realize how much work we do until we take a step back and look for it.

Working every day maintains momentum.
I used to have a four day writing week. Monday was usually reserved for house work and blogging, and I took Saturday and Sunday for myself (because even writers will go insane if we don’t take breaks). There was nothing wrong with that schedule, though Tuesdays could be tough. The hardest part was getting back into the swing after a vacation or an illness. When it comes to creativity, momentum is precious. It’s much easier to work on something in pieces if those chunks of time come one right after another, day by day. I used to dismay my dismal word counts when I tried to return to the grind. But I’ve discovered a small block of work, snuck into a half hour in the morning on vacation days, helps maintain that momentum. The amount of time doesn’t seem as important as the mindset. Since I never took my fingers all the way out of a project, as soon as I get a free day, I can swoop back in and rebuild my word count with ease.

As an added bonus, this has taught me to fit my work into smaller windows of opportunity. If life blows up on a day I planned to be productive, I can sneak work into the little windows that present themselves and end up losing less productivity when all’s said and done.

Working is easier when it becomes habitual.
For many writers, motivation can be one of the most difficult factors. Just because you want to put a story down on paper doesn’t make it easy. The blank page can stare back mockingly while you struggle to put your thoughts in coherent form. For me, getting started has always been the hardest part. If I can’t find the right first sentence, I stumble. For a long time I had to steel myself for the moment I sat down to work. Usually this involved a great deal of procrastination, including youtube videos and cat pictures, all too easy to access on the Internet. Though I love to write, it can feel like a chore, especially on Tuesdays when I resumed after my weekend break.

The first few days of the year were the hardest. I often wanted to skip the editing, since we were technically still on Christmas vacation and I hadn’t returned to the working mindset. But I told myself if I didn’t start on the first day, I’d never maintain the habit. In fact, I knew as soon as I missed or skipped a day I’d probably never resume. So I muscled through those first few days, not without some whining.

A curious thing happened in the third month; those daily word counts stopped being a chore. Sure, there were days when I didn’t feel well and I’d groan when I remembered I had to drag myself out of bed long enough to accomplish something, however minimal. But most days, when the time came to work I would simply sit down and do it. I got in the habit of trying to get work out of the way early on days I wanted for myself (vacations and weekends), though sometimes it ended up crammed into a later time block simply because of the day’s demands (life still happens despite our best laid plans). And while I can’t say there aren’t days I procrastinate (still go on those 80’s music video binges on youtube), I find there are fewer. When something is a habit, you do it automatically, and your brain seems to have less trouble switching to that focus. You tend the familiar task and move on.

Having a small goal brightens the bad days.
I chose 100 words as my daily goal because it’s a small number. Even while editing, this goal is usually achievable in an hour or less. Looking back, I might have chosen different word goals each for editing, writing and planning (it’s much harder to erase 100 words than it is to write 100 words), but overall I think it has worked well. You might think, on an average day, 100 words isn’t really a significant amount of work. And you’d probably be right, especially when you’re writing. But I chose the low word goal so that it would still be accessible on vacation days and days I felt ill. I often end up with back pain at least once a month (ladies understand what I mean), and that used to mean a day of lost productivity. Having a small, achievable goal encourages me to eek something out of even my worst days.

And you know what? It feels pretty darn good. When you spend the majority of the day in bed because you hardly feel like a human being, but still manage to record a word count above your stated goal, it’s pretty uplifting. And then you go back to bed feeling satisfied the day wasn’t wasted. In fact, many a day of struggling through edits has brightened when I realized my word count was unexpectedly high, simply because I encouraged myself to do the best I could. When a project gets frustrating, the best feeling in the world is having that sense of accomplishment to help you overcome the bump.

Don’t forget to give yourself a break.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the 100 words of work project is that breaks are important. No one can maintain a high rate of momentum every day; you will drive yourself crazy. I learned this when I started using my 100 word goal as an excuse to do larger chunks of work over the weekend. I reasoned that, if I was going to be working anyway, it might as well be a significant amount. After all, I’d get through my edit faster and that could only make things better.

Except it ate all of my free time. I started feeling guilty about time spent with family and friends because, if I had only done that extra little bit of work, everything would have moved much faster. I overwhelmed myself and it added up quickly. Being your own boss does mean setting your own schedule, but you do need to give yourself personal time or, eventually, you get to the point where you can’t cope. Stripping my word goal back to the bare minimum served as a stunning reminder that, while a small block of work every day can keep a project invigorated, denying yourself time to relax and refresh can have the opposite effect.

I’m not sure I’ll continue the 100 words project in its current form when the year rolls over (I think I might allow myself vacations), I’ll probably try to pick another self-improvement project. But I’m looking forward to finishing out this year. I’m sure this project still has much to teach me.

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