I’m an expert procrastinator. I’m so good at procrastinating that I can even disguise my procrastination as real work or “research.” For example, today I listened to Tim Ferriss’ talk with Chase Jarvis about optimizing creative output. I also watched Stephen King and George RR Martin talk about books and writing.
Neither of these actually involved me doing anything or making any substantial progress towards writing. I’m constantly tricking myself into thinking research or note-taking are adequate steps towards producing some fucking words on the page. But they aren’t.
But today’s procrastination ended up being actually beneficial. In the Ferriss/Jarvis talk, they talked a lot about systems and practices for increasing creative output. Some were questionable (mindfulness training), but some were edifying.
“Two Crappy Pages”
One of the concepts they discuss around creative output is the “what would this look like if it were easy?” Ferriss talked about launching his podcast with limited post-production to get started. In terms of writing, they talked about pumping out “two crappy pages” per day. By freeing yourself from the self-editor/self-critic, the goal of producing two pages per day becomes easier. In essence, this is “rigging the game” so that you win more often than you lose. Jarvis talked about the benefits of building momentum; this is well-trod territory of creating habits. Adding in small rewards for succeeding in these rigged victory builds that momentum and makes it easier to continue.
They also talked about using systems (specifically referencing Scott Adams of Dilbert fame):
If your goal is to lose ten pounds, you may wake up each day with failure in mind because the goal is hard to reach, and you are only progressing by small amounts. It takes up all your willpower. I recommend that instead of a goal you have a system. Willpower is a finite resource. Don’t pick a model that has failure built into it and requires you constantly drain a finite resource.
The idea is to create systems/guidelines that allow you to put parts of your life on auto-pilot. This, theoretically, lowers the amount of willpower that it requires to perform certain tasks.
I’m absolutely dog-shit at this. I live a hectic, disorganized life by nature. I do use an app – Habitica – to help me stay up with some habits I want to form, but so far the only one I’ve stuck to with consistently is making my bed.
500 Shitty Words
When I built my original “writing habit” into Habitica, I set it at 300 words. After failing to get past zero a few times (due to fear of the blank page), I decided that blog posts, journaling, or work-related writing could count. I started hitting 300 more consistently. In listening to the podcast and video today, I started to realize that my original framing of the problem was designed for failure.
Stephen King writes six polished pages a day. I’m not Stephen King. Ferriss/Jarvis recommend 2 crappy pages… yeah, I’m not there yet either. I should be able to do 300 words, right? Well, the problem was I wanted 300 good words. Not okay – probably not perfect, either – but they needed to be something solid.
Trying to write while managing your own expectations is a recipe for failure. So I’ve altered my target: 500 shitty words. 500 words of fiction at whatever quality it takes to get to 500. (So this 500+ word blog post doesn’t count). The challenge for me is to not increase the difficulty if I’m initially successful. In addition to being a quintessential scatterbrain, I also have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew. And as a people-pleaser, I have a hard time saying “no” (phrasing, that’s what she said, etc).
Normally, there is where I’d promise you’d get to see some of these shitty words. Unfortunately, that would kind of defeat the purpose of setting this lower barrier to success. But maybe… if you’re (I’m) lucky.