Towards A Master Writing Program

The last few weeks I’ve been under a lot of strain in terms of writing. It’s given me some additional clarity.

NaNoWriMo has honed my ability to bust out a first draft in record time. But that’s not enough. I see writing mastery as a linear game.

Level 1 - Draft Writing
Level 2 - Rewrite 1 - order, transitions
Level 3 - Research
Level 4 - Rewrite 2 - Word choice, how things are said, scamping
Level 5 - Proofing.

Various websites, including THIS one, divide the process into revision, editing, and proofreading, but I’ve seen it described in other ways as well.

This relates to an article I know how to do. This would change depending on the essay’s purpose. For example, writing a story is different than writing a pitch. A story may not need research per se, but may need more depth in regards to character development or world building. So this order might be altered in different scenarios, but generally the conception seems useful so far.

This NaNoWriMo I was under a huge time constraint and writing a draft was particularly painful. I found that in doing 20 (rather than standard 25) minute Pomodoros, I was able to consistently output 1,000 words per session for 3 sessions, after which I needed a break. I feel pretty damn good about that.

I found that in a more recent article, the pain period arose with the rewrite rather than the draft. And the same exact emotional problems arose: the need to do it all at once and the need for it to be perfect. In my mind at the time Levels 2 through 4 were jammed together. James Patterson’s Master Class sneak peak got me past that.

I also found that the pain of editing was very high. I noticed a pattern, that for every 20 minute Pomodoro editing session I paused at 12 or 13 minutes. That pause would break my concentration, and the remaining 7 minutes would be incredibly draining. It really reminded me of what I’d read about Flow states - that keeping in them requires constant positive and progressive stimulation. I appeared to go into mini flow states while working, but jump out of it at  around 13 minute mark.

At this point I didn’t seriously think anything of it. But I decided to experiment to see if anything changed if I instead did 13 minute Pomodoros. The results were quite staggering.

I was able to easily do 6 or 7 sets. I was able to more readily bypass the pain and work forward. I could go longer at a higher level of concentration, even if I didn’t pause after the alarm in order to take a break. It really reminds me of my breakthrough with waking up early - it’s not the alarm that wakes me up since I usually wake up close to an hour before it. It’s the act of setting the alarm and recording my sets that makes a mark on my mind.

I was also eager to squeeze in a Pomodoro even when I didn’t have much time, because, hell, it’s only 13 minutes, right? That is an incredible difference from constantly putting off the work. My failure to start issues evaporated.

It makes me feel, perhaps prematurely, that I’ve nailed the next level of writing. In the last few weeks it caused me to take more assignments than I thought I’d be able to do (what with jet lag and travel), and complete them successfully on a deadline.

There are a few other questions and points going forward.

I’m curious how this affects other levels. Research is the next lull I experience in my writing, and it’s something that I believe requires a strict cut off point, which is slightly different than simply recording 13 minute Pomodoros.

Other techniques, like scamping and a thesaurus at the ready with sentence wording and rubber duck decoding for proofing should be a default. For more complex articles, I’m also having problems with keeping transitions and open loops all in my head, and am testing out an idea that involves a distilled symbolic logic notation - like a programming language - to concisely summarize prose. That way I can easily see the global progression of an article complete with themes and specific transitions. It has still has a lot of kinks, but I hope it will really come in handy for the revision level.

Metrics really help with all this - knowing I can do 3,000 words in a rough draft per hour is relieving in its predictability. I don’t really have that with the other levels involved in completing a piece - yet. It’s something I should perhaps measure. I’m beginning to think I should keep a writing master log so I can better assess this.

This master plan also does not address skill pushes for other types of writing. I believe this is where classes come into play, replacing the role challenges play in other habits (or NaNoWriMo did for me with the draft level). Luckily there are plenty of resources -  I am taking a Gotham class on querying next month, and I’ve already bought the full James Patterson course for Lydia that I’d like to go through as well. The same goes for the specific Holly Lisle courses.

The point of all of this is that often enough knowing where you’re going takes so much of the stress out of endeavors. I often feel totally lost with writing, and have a sneaking suspicion that there really should be a more efficient way to progress in the skill - when I’m not drowning in panic. I think this is the beginning of such an efficient progression.

Skill Pushes and a Looming Problem: A Rudimentary Skill Push Scale

Based on previous behaviors in this project, it appears that Skill Pushes come in several flavors or vectors:

-Time (meditating for 10 minutes to 30 minutes)
-Reps (flossing one tooth to flossing all of them) 
-Deliberate practice (focusing on problem areas and working them)
-30 Day Challenges (like my no bread challenge or NaNoWriMo, or even the 8 week HIIT thing I recently completed - “30 Day″ is just a catch all)

When I think about it it becomes pretty clear that there is a difference in difficulty or weight with these pushes. Assuming Tiny SkillPushes ™, from lowest system load to highest I’d organize them like this:

1) Reps
2) Time
3) Classes
4) Deliberate practice
5) 30 Day Challenges

Why? When I think of increasing my meditation by 5 minutes versus doing 5 more pulls on the rower, I’d pick the latter. The same is the case with adding another glass of water in the morning or going from flossing 1 tooth to all of them. I think it just has something to do with the active nature of added reps versus just ENDURING more time. Enduring is just more painful (to me).

Those two are definitely easier than classes, where you have to do all sorts of other things like interact with people and do homework. And that is preferable to deliberate practice where you have to essentially come up with your own class. There is a big difference between doing a module where you give over some agency to a program, versus poking and prodding to find what your weaknesses are. When I used to play the violin I used to absolutely hate doing this, and it’s probably why I never got really good at it despite having played for over a decade. 

Lastly, I find 30 Day Challenges to be a huge drain on the entirety of the system. When I do NaNoWriMo, I usually reduce other behaviors to minimums, though it’s getting easier. Also challenges are challenging and are not tiny pushes by their very nature.

As an aside, classes used to be incredibly difficult for me. But incorporated as part of an established habit, I sort’ve go on autopilot. Homework? No problem, because I no longer do everything at the last minute. I automatically start doing something, so simply processing what another person tells me to do (rather than trying to figure out where my effort has to go myself) is exponentially easier. It’s also an important reason why all this self-help stuff should be incorporated together as part of a whole system.  

But why was my 8 week HIIT program so easy? I think it’s because I was mixing variables. It was a part of an established routine which is based on time - 30 minutes. The HIIT was more intense, but it was for a shorter time.

I think skill pushes can mix and match these variables. If I were to go to a meditation retreat I would consider that a “Challenge” - but it would be a challenge because it’s increasing time of practice to several hours a day. At the same time, I’m presumably not doing ANY of my other routines while on retreat. It’s also not forever, while things like flossing would be an increase for GOOD. Though presumably a retreat would make a time push from 30 minutes to an hour look like nothing.

photocred: scales by Hans Splinter, violin by Jason Hollinger, doodle by Allie

Sandbagging Continued

I’m suffering through an paralysis by analysis these days in taking up my habits after a long absence and in continuing forward with the Mastery phase of my project.

And this is understandable. I feel this project has gone through phases: gamification, habituation, recording and habituation, and now pushing skills towards mastery. At every point where I felt a need to shift things up, I’ve felt dead in the water.

My main question is how I should shuffle habits that need pushed when in reality - they all do. I’m not taking about extraneous habits that can be dropped. they’re all important, and they all exist in a core family. Meditation, eating, and exercise all have far reaching benefits that extend through out any endeavor in terms of energy, general health, and mental stability. Recording is how I keep track of the project as a whole, and writing is something I have to do for work. 

If I want the “thing itself” for any of these, I feel like I’ll be endlessly dithering around with the other, especially with the knowledge of how pushing a skill towards mastery tends to cause severe strains on the overall system of willpower that sustains other habits. 

I’ve talked about methods of getting around this before - particularly with the notion of “shelfing” - getting a habit up to a self sustained “next level” then cycling to another skill to push.

Talking over it with Lydia the other day, she suggested using sandbagging, which I talked about a long time ago. Essentially it’s reaching further than you think you can, and letting go of tasks that don’t need to be worked on now. Since NaNoWriMo is this month, and I’m writing for that, there’s going to be a extra load because I’m not used to writing that much daily. On top of that, I’m going to have problems because I’m re-engaging all my habits after an absence.

The question becomes - what habit, in a core group of habits like this, should I drop? Her answer - what’s going to give you the most bang for your buck?

You can make a sandbagging ratio - of habits based on how much they give vs how much they take to implement. Going through it went like this:

-meditation is easy to implement (only takes a few minutes, is a single task per day) yet mental stability seems to strengthen every endeavor. HIGH PRIORITY

-Exercise is a little more difficult. It’s also a single task, and though it has an initial draining factor (i.e. tiredness) it provides more energy. 

-Eating - incredibly difficult to implement - it’s a continuous task along multiple scenarios. Has a great bang, cause it helps regulate energy levels.

Therefore eating is the first bag that could be dropped during this time, even though I hate to do it. I’ll start recording today, and just consider eating as a soft goal for this month.

Notes on Travels - Conference, Cardio, Writing

A couple of notes from my time off.

I attended a conference on travel writing and got a chance to run over my ideas with the editor of a men’s magazine on my ideas. I got through my travel ideas fairly quickly and then decided, what the heck, why not throw out some ideas on this habit project. I noticed the magazine had a lot of stuff regarding fitness with fitbit type accessories playing a role, and I thought this project might be an interesting discussion.

It was - the editor perked up and we ended up talking a lot about it, and he came up to me asking more about it. I was welcomed to continue the conversation, and I’d like to. I don’t know how to really pitch such an idea on such a large body of work, but it would be nice to have this website in a nicer format that’s more welcoming to visitors. I’ve talked about this a lot, but I really need to do it before continuing.

In China I talked to a friend who’s really into fitness and it really emphasized in my mind the concept of getting “the thing itself.” The “thing itself” is accomplishing the real goal. It may be better to start with habits and progress oriented thought, but let’s face it, we’re still looking at our goals with one eye on the prize.

For cardio it’s losing weight and getting that body we desire. It’s great generally speaking to have a habit of doing pushups, but the reason we start the habit is the end goal. I have to wonder how much further I’d be if I had made a simple 1 hour cardio habit on a stationary bike in one place - how much further would I be to my “prize”? A lot. 

It’s definitely a delicate balance. I haven’t been able to really do that with the nomadic existence I’ve been leading, but now that I’m in a place for a set amount of time, wouldn’t it behoove me to think a little more about that final goal? 

To that end I ordered cardio equipment - namely a concept 2 rower. Why a rower? Because I can easily do both a LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) and HIIT cardio, and it’s a whole body workout. There’s a reason why Crossfit employs this rather than stationary bikes, etc.

I feel it’s a bit like cheating. I want my exercise routine to be anywhere, but I slack off a lot at this point in my fitness from doing only HIIT bodyweight workouts. It’s a big drain on my mental facilities, and it really messes with my food intake because I crave carbs - and I’m not at the point where I can do completely clean refeeds in my food habit.

I am completely at a loss with writing. I have the option of discharging all my writing debts and/or entering NaNoWriMo to write a book. I have several book ideas, but at the top of the list is a book on this project. I don’t have all the variables and meta-program nailed down, nor do I have the “prizes” that are the real practical proof of the validity of my theories.

But I believe it will help me nail down what’s missing in terms of research or interviews.

Stepping back, all of this confusion is being caused by the changeover in emphasis of this project; namely, going from habituation to mastery.

I have no problem starting and sustaining a habit. I have no problem going back to habits after time off. But the optimal methodology by which to push multiple habits towards mastery and obtaining “the thing itself” lies outside my grasp. And that’s not a bad thing - it shows I’m pushing new ground.

Daily Minimums

To continue from my last post, I’m going to set forth daily minimums for each habit:
Record Keeping: Don’t take the SRHI, just record if I did the action or not
Fixed Meditation: 10 minutes of meditation
Exercise: 2 typewriter pushups
Writing: Opening up my next project and writing one word.

When I look at all these, these are all very do-able. To be more accurate, the key is to make them so ridiculously small that you can’t NOT do them.

I think about the hardest of these right now - writing. It might too minimal, but honestly that process of just opening up my next project takes me so much effort to do. If I’ve done that, I often do a lot more. I have to ask myself - on a completely depleted day, could I do it? The answer is yes in this, and with all the other minimums.

UPDATE: The writing thing is working really well. I’ve always had a severe problem starting writing. With my “50 words of anything” in the beginning of the writing habit, I busted past that initial starting fear. This resulted in me on some days busting past 13,000 words a day and finishing NaNoWriMo in a week instead of a month. 


When I switched to “doing a bit of work related writing” as my minimum I stalled out bad. If I analyze it in the micromoments, I get up, and I  feel fear. I feel like I don’t want to do this because I’m thinking of how much I need to catch up on and do. I hinge it on my entire career and life. It takes an immense amount of energy to get over that initial hurdle to just start. It’s like getting up the energy to leap a chasm where you think you might not make it to the other side.

Now with this new minimum, I still wake up with that fear and dread and the desire to not do it. But as I feel that in my mind I’m automatically going to my workspace, opening up my files and starting.

That chasm gets smaller and smaller. And that’s really the key of TinyHabits - it makes that chasm get smaller until it isn’t a problem anymore, it’s just automatic. 

And this specific TinyHabit is making that automaticity occur like it’s never occurred before. 

The last thing I’ll say is that this is so hard to do.  It’s hard to see doing something so small as being successful. You WANT to do more. But the key isn’t output, it’s fighting that chasm. If I had worked on this years ago, I might’ve been at a different spot now, because it’s that workflow that’s the key to eventually getting that output.

National Novel Writing Month Problems

My 750 word habit is rock solid. So I’ve decided to push it in several ways. Before I did this by getting various badges - one for not being distracted, the other for speed of writing. I feel doing this is a way to stretch the habit in it’s grooves, to go through the pain period of not just letting it lie, but by doing more.

I feel my first real challenge has been these last 4 days of National Novel Writing Month, where participants are invited to write a novel (50,000 words) in one month - the idea is to just write freely, not to have something that’s perfect.

I think this is fantastic - it’s even supported on 750words as a badge on the site. But this is a sizable problem for me because it’s almost triple my word count per day for 30 days.

This has caused a number of small problems. For one, it’s harder to get started on this at the beginning of the day - I end up putting it off - a problem I only had at the beginning of forming the habit originally. The second is that it has been throwing off my kettle bell workout routine - because I delay at my writing I delay, sometimes ignore completely my other habit. Thirdly my mood has been pretty irritable - I’ve been subject to more bouts of sadness and anger. Lastly, I’m starting to get a bit shoddy when it comes to tracking my progress.

This is all minor - and luckily it all seems to fit with my theories on habit formation. I’m entering that quarter of the way mark on the exercise habit and when I look at my spreadsheets now it looks like my spreadsheets for 750 words during the quarter of the way mark. 

I’m countering this by being more strict about writing as soon as I get up. IN fact that may be a great technique for any habit that is shaky - doing it as soon as you get up. I’ve been countering my moods by going on walks, which tends to get my blood flowing - it’s been such a great way of loosening up that I’m thinking about making that a separate habit.