Measuring Success
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , , ,

One of the first things I did when I moved out of my parents' house was buy a calendar. It cost two dollars and I hung it on the wall next to my desk. This is an idea I stole from Jerry Seinfeld where he would mark an 'X' on his calendar every day he sat down and worked on his jokes. I reproduced this habit hoping it would help me stick to a writing schedule. As I write this, it is only Day 8, and I can't say I've completed some doctorate program in creative discipline. But enough time has gone by that I have learned the following things:
* Day 1 might have been the most important step. I sat on this idea for a few days because I knew once I started, I wouldn't want to break that chain (which is true). If I did, this would become just another ambition that fizzled when things got hard. Instead, when I finished writing that day, October 21st, I marked my first 'X' with a feeling of humble accomplishment. It felt good.
* Days 2-3 were when I really started to feel the building momentum. These were the easiest 'X's to mark.
* Days 4-5 were not only the continuation of my budding productivity, but also of a new work week. At the end of these days I couldn't bring myself to work on the same story I've been adding to since April. Instead, I drafted a blog post and started a piece of non-fiction. This gave me a creative rush I'd liken to overcoming the exhausting middle point of a long run or swim. It was smooth sailing for a while.
* Day 6 was the first day I when I would rather do ANYTHING except write. But I did. I scribbled some unpublishable thoughts in my moleskin on Day 6 and marked my 'X,' although reluctantly. Did this really count as a success?
* Day 7 was a strange day. I realized that when I last left the main story I had been writing this past week, I had just reached the point I had been working towards since I started the first page six months earlier. And now I had been neglecting it. I turned on the right music for that particular moment in the story and wrote while standing up. It was a struggle, but an invigorating one. Still, when I went to sleep I realized I hadn't written much more than 500 words, and yet I still marked an 'X.' This is when I realized that if I wanted to get even more out of this experiment, I would need stricter rules for measuring my success.
* Day 8 is what I'm working on at the time of this first draft. I opened up my main story, but couldn't get out more than a few edits. I'm tired and I know I need to get to sleep soon. I think to myself "I wrote and edited for work today. Doesn't that count?" I answer myself, almost immediately: "No." With work, I have the motivation of my bosses, co-workers, and clients. When it comes to my private writing, I have only myself to rely on . That's what my first week taught me: sticking to a regiment is an exercise in self-motivation. On Day 1, my motivation was to do anything. By Day 6, I started to realize that setting the bar so low would furnish only meager results.
I started to sense this problem when writing on a Saturday: instead of working through the anxiety, I would make another cup of coffee, talk to my roommate, watch 30 Rock for "inspiration"...but really I was just scared to sit still. I finally did start to write in earnest, but by then it was also late and I was tired. If I had worked through that fear hours earlier I would have gotten more accomplished. Still, I wrote in an 'X' because I had successfully sat down and written. For the first week, "anything" is infinitely more valuable than "nothing." For the second week, and beyond, I'm going to start measuring my success. Otherwise, how can I say that 'X's on my calendar are anything more than decoration?
The following books, blogs, and articles have helped me in the past and will continue to do so in the future. I'm clearly not an expert on any of this, but maybe they can help you, too. And, as a rule, they aren't confined to writing. All creative endeavors face similar roadblocks:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield (book)
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand (book)
The Business of Running, by Ryan Holiday (blog)
The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (book)

  1. Keep it up. I think that there is still value in the "X" even if the material you wrote wasn't worth much of anything on its own -- it still got words out of your brain and onto the page, which means you're even closer to getting to the good stuff.

  1. Hey Ryan,

    I agree. For whatever reason, the possibility of breaking my week + chain of 'X's has been good motivation. And sometimes my favorite stuff to work on don't fit into a larger project.

    Thanks for your tweet as well!

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