last updated: 17 November 2018 (approximate reading time: 8 minutes; 1554 words)
Assessing the effectiveness of work is difficult and is much of the reason why management consultants exist. Assessing the effectiveness of work when that work is writing is a particularly tough issue.
There are empirical measures and there are softer measures for considering written work. One of the simplest measures of work is word count: it’s a straightforward basic measure of output. However, the difficulty with focusing on word count when looking to improve the output—-either in terms of quantity or quality—is there’s no obvious link to the work that is necessary to make the change. There’s no cause for which the effect will be “more words”.
However, I think there’s a different way to look at this issue. Let me explain.
Inputs and Outputs
Focusing on the output—the number of words written—focuses on a strong, robust measure. Word count is a simple, yet highly effective measure, and most word processors will even give you a live count of the current document. When the final goal is defined in terms of word count (however fuzzy that actual requirement may be), being able to measure progress toward that specific goal has merit.
However, working to a daily word target (or hourly, or weekly target) misses a crucial aspect—the fixed aspect is time. Time is finite—there are only 24 hours in a day. At some point, the bounds of a day will limit output. Writers cannot increase the number of hours available in a day in order to meet an arbitrary word target.
Levers to Pull
I think there is a better approach authors can adopt: Instead of working to a specific word count, work toward a time-based goal.
If the time-based goal is not leading to a satisfactory long-term output—in terms of average word count over a sustained period—then the amount of time dedicated needs to be changed.
This last sentence may sound contradictory to the notion that I am suggesting. If we’re still thinking in terms of output—if we’re still thinking in terms of a word count—then why not just have a word count? The reason for this different approach is to shift the focus to what an author can actually do. We’re moving the goal from one that cannot be controlled to one that can.
An author cannot control how many words they write—all they can do is keep working until that arbitrary target is met. However, an author can control how much time in any day is dedicated to writing.
More than that, by looking at the input—by looking at the amount of time spent writing—the author is acquiring a very specific lever to control their output. The author just needs to understand how to work that lever.
Learning to Use Time
The first step to understanding the lever of time is to acquire an understanding of what output can be expected for a given input. Here, the answer is not to write for five minutes and to extrapolate from there, but instead to measure over a period of time (a week or so). By measuring the average output (in terms of words) an understanding can be reached of how much can be achieved within a given time.
So for instance, if ten hours' work results in 10,000 words, then each hour is generating 1,000 words, on average.
Having established an average, there is a baseline from which to build. To produce more work—in other words, to produce a greater number of words—the author then has two options:
- First, spend more time working.
- Second, increase the work rate per hour.
Let’s look at both in a bit more detail.
The notion of spending more hours working is logical. However, it’s also difficult—any one day is limited to 24 hours and many of these hours are already dedicated to things like eating and sleeping.
However, it is possible to increase the number of hours worked per day—usually it involves not doing something else. You can read my thoughts about choosing your priorities in this article.
Increase the Work Rate
I’m fairly skeptical about any strategy that, when boiled down to its essence, is: work harder. Most people work at the rate they work.
However, there are distractions and there are less productive times. Managing both of these is a step toward becoming—on average—more productive.
The notion of distractions should be fairly obvious. If you are to achieve you need to focus on one matter and only one matter. And to focus, you need to remove any distractions, whatever those distractions may be.
The other aspect here is understanding your own personal habits and when you work best. For me, I know I write at a faster rate in the mornings but in the early afternoon I work less well. Therefore, if I do more of my writing in the morning, my overall work rate improves. If I do three hours in the morning, then I’ll achieve far more than if I do three hours in the afternoon.
By combining time at your best work rate with focus, you can achieve the same results with greater efficiency.
Only once you have increased efficiency is it worth increasing hours. And even then, I would urge caution. There will always be a point at which you start to slow down (it is the nature of human beings, I’m afraid).
Optimizing may take you some way to meeting your output target but you may still not reach your goal. However, if you’re working efficiently, then I would challenge you: is your target realistic or necessary? How many books do you expect to write? How many books will you publish?
To repeat what I’ve said elsewhere, there are only 24 hours in the day and humans have limitations. It’s great to push yourself, but there is a point beyond which you cannot improve.
One technique that has really helped for me is the Pomodoro technique.
In summary, this technique works by setting a timer, typically for 25 minutes. Any timer will do—the name of the technique comes from a mechanical tomato-shaped plastic kitchen timer. For the specified time period, your sole focus will be working on the task (which usually in my case means writing). At the end of the Pomodoro period, there is a short break and then the process is restarted.
The length of the Pomodoro is irrelevant and is a case of whatever works for you. If 15 minutes is the correct period, great. If 40 minutes is the right answer, that is all that matters. The key is:
- for the Pomodoro period, there will be complete focus on a single task
- that period is limited
By breaking work into smaller chunks, focus becomes easier—everyone can focus for 25 minutes, right? Everyone can manage to ignore the distractions of social media for 25 minutes, can’t they?
Or if not 25 minutes, then 20 minutes, or whatever. Again, the length of the period is not significant—having a limited period of focus is what matters.
This technique can be applied to any task. I apply it when writing (fiction and these posts), outlining, and editing, but it can be applied anywhere. Whatever the task, it will receive complete focus for the length of each Pomodoro.
And since each Pomodoro is limited in time, that means that at the end of each Pomodoro there is a break which can help support healthy working practices.
Measuring with Pomodoros
Instead of counting words, the Pomodoro gives a good input measure for work. Rather than feeling that I worked for two hours, I can know that I completed four Pomodoros (or know that I did not complete four Pomodoros).
When it comes to looking at my output, I can then increase (or decrease) the number of Pomodoros that I complete in one day.
For me, when I’m writing, I know that with one 25 minute Pomodoro I can write something in the range of 400 to 600 words. So with five Pomodoros, I can complete around 2,500 words. If that word count is too low as a daily expectation, then I can increase the number of Pomodoros. Equally, if there are other matters I should be attending to, then I can devote fewer Pomodoros to writing.
This technique also helps with planning. Most books are in the region of 90,000 words. At my work rate, that means that to write a book (at least, the first draft of a book) I need to complete 180 Pomodoros. So if, for example, I want to complete a book in 30 days that means I need to complete 6 writing Pomodoros per day for 30 days.
Looked at in that manner, completing a book is a far more manageable task. Heck! Three hours work each day seems to give me an awful lot of free time.
Quality vs Quantity
The Pomodoro technique does not guarantee quality and counting Pomodoros does not assess the quality of work.
However, the focus that comes with each Pomodoro has a material (beneficial) impact on the quality of the work that I produce. Equally having a method to enforce breaks has a improved to how I work.
So why not find a timer and try the Pomodoro technique? And even if you don’t go that far, stop thinking about a daily word count—it doesn’t help.