This is for my peeps over at The Smarter Artist.
There are three gorillas that writers wrestle with all the time–procrastination, word counts, and getting fat. We spend so much time getting everything just right, then ruminating on what we need to write for that day. We answer emails, we watch videos, we while away our time dreaming about what it’s going to be like when our book gets done. We stare at the screen when we finally do get ready, telling ourselves that things are just going to come out when they’re good and ready. Our asses get wider from the constant pressure we put on them.
Also the snacks.
Listen, I’ve been there. I’m there every day. I’m the type of person that beats myself up on a constant basis about how much I didn’t get done on any particular day. For a long time I trusted to the old way–forcing myself to sit in that chair until the damned chapter was done, dammit! That’s the way my grandfather would have done it–doggedly, until he defeated the book, or it defeated him. My only system was “GO,” and it had one speed setting that could be described on the whole as “You Could be Trying Harder.”
My system sucked.
A few years ago, something happened to me that forced me to reevaluate my life. I’m a veteran of both wars, and spent quite a lot of time in combat. Almost enough time, when taken consecutively, to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject. Before you go thinking that I got blown up by an IED or something–no. I made it through my deployments without a physical injury, but was in a minor helicopter accident my last year in the Army that screwed up my back. The whole thing happened on a training mission–imagine that. By the beginning of 2014, I was quickly losing the ability to walk like a normal person. The nature of the VA being what it is, I spent half of that year lying on my back, hating everything about my life, waiting for surgery. I was on so many pills that I had to take pills to counteract the pills. Needless to say, life tasted like ten flavors of shit. Add what people used to call “the soldier’s heart” to the mix, and my entire world looked like ashes.
This was my Crucible. It forced me to confront things. I’m sure you can imagine.
This is not to toot my own horn, or to elicit sympathy–far from it. I told you guys all that so you would know where I’m coming from, why I’m deciding to couch things in this language, and what my thought processes are. I told you this so you would get a better sense of who I was, and who I am. Every hero needs an Odyssey, right?
I did finally have surgery, and began a long road to getting things back on track. Anyone who has ever had back surgery understands the tenuous nature of your body afterwards, and just how much it changes your life. Suddenly you have to be careful of the things you do, how you sit, where you sit, and for how long. I remember one instance of having fallen asleep on my brother’s couch, and having to drive myself to the emergency room the next morning, barely able to push the pedals. I was once a warrior, now laid low by furniture.
Working out is tough. Nobody wants to do it when it’s an obligation–let’s just be honest. It’s boring, it’s harder than you’d like, and it takes serious discipline that not everyone has. For me, pain was a serious concern. During the first year after my surgery, I was at about 25% operating capacity. A tough-looking guy–but weak as a babe. I figured out one enduring truth during this entire period.
People give up when we allow ourselves the pathway to defeat. We’re pleasure-seeking creatures, and especially creative types. Especially authors, because most of us are not only creative, but more than mildly obsessive. Flights of fancy is what we do, and we’re crazy enough about it all to write it down.
I realized that the only way to succeed was not to beat myself up, to force myself into the chair, or out of the chair. It was to arrange my life in such a way that I had no other option than to do what I needed to do. Instead of beating yourself up so hard, trying to mold your character, lamenting the entire time that you wish you could just change, just be better…I’ve been there. That is not the way. The way is to change your environment, change the way you structure your day.
You have to Pavlov yourself. The following is the way I’ve starting organizing my day, based on principles I used in the last year to lose 50 lbs, and rebuild my body into something normal. This isn’t an all-encompassing system, or anything. I’m not some motivational speaker promising you the best results EVER with this TRIED AND TRUE method–no. These are just things I do that help me, and maybe they’ll help you, too. There’s a bit of a philosophy behind it, but you can adopt some, or all, or none of these things. Some of you won’t need them at all. I just thought some of you might benefit from the ideas, and on the off-chance that I can offer a hand…well, I’ll offer it.
First–The Work Day.
1—Get up early and take a cold shower in the morning. I know it sounds crazy, but if ancient warriors could bathe in cold water, then so can you. If you can’t start cold, then start hot and finish cold. When I started, I washed hot and rinsed cold. The end-game, though, is to get to an all-cold shower. Believe me–it wakes you up and brings your mind into a sharpness of focus that you do not have if you take a nice, relaxing shower in the morning.
2—Get a productivity clock. I use my cell-phone and an app called ClearFocus. It goes in 25 minute increments of working with 5 minute breaks. Every fourth break is 15 minutes long. During the work period, you put down words, you revise, you edit, you do what you have to do. No snacking, no distractions. During the break periods, dedicate yourself equally to getting up and walking away. You can hover if you have something that absolutely needs to be put down, but if not, get up and walk away.
3—During your break periods, do one of the following: Push-ups, Crunches, Pull-ups, Squats, or a short Yoga routine. If you can only bang out one push-up, then bang out that one push-up. Every wall begins with a single brick, so start laying those fucking bricks. The best thing to do is rotate these exercises so that you do an equal number of all of them in sets that you can handle. My routine is thus: 75 push-ups one break, 50 crunches the next, 15 pull-ups next, 50 squats, or a short Yoga routine. Interchange these however you want, and don’t take my numbers for your own goals. Do as many as you can before reaching muscle failure and focus on the number you’ll do per set and not the total number. By the end of your day, you might be surprised to have found that you did 200 push-ups, or 60 pull-ups. Just worry about the sets, though. Substitute whatever exercise you want, but do something.
4—Have a daily word count goal, and meet that motherfucker. The way I do it is to set a target in Scrivener. Mine is at least 5k/day of new words, or at least one full chapter of revisions. Until you meet your daily goal, you’re not done. If you meet it in two hours, then good.
5—If you just have to get up and leave the book alone, go for a long walk. That’s the rule. If you take a break longer than the allotted time on your productivity app, then you have to go for a walk for at least 30 minutes. Also, the time starts back where you left it. But hey–you’re the boss, boss.
The whole point of this to hack yourself, and I’ll explain the way it has worked for me. First of all, the cold shower puts you in a state of mind conducive to energized thinking. You’ll be surprised how, over time, your body feels so different after your shower. You’ll feel like a marine on an Athenian warship. Hell, you may even start taking cold showers in the evening when you’re feeling lethargic. I do, sometimes. I might be a freak, though.
Secondly, the productivity clock will slowly train your mind to write better, write faster, and write when you command it to do so. Waiting on inspiration is bullshit–hack inspiration. When you give your mind hurdles to master, it reacts by adapting. We’re animals, all of us, and we’re meant to evolve. Just as genetic populations mold to their environs, we can mold our minds to harness our creativity. Over time, since I’ve begun using this method, my word count has steadily risen from approx. 800/hr to now around 1400/hr. It’s not Johnny-paced, but hey–it works for me. And it’s still going up.
The exercises during your breaks not only train your body, but they wake you up. If you need energy, the thing to do is not to sleep, or to rest, or to watch that last episode of Game of Thrones again–it’s to do something active. Besides, even if you bang out 100 push-ups during your break, you’re still left with 3.5-4 minutes of fuck-off time. As you spend longer doing this routine, your break times will seem like they last forever. I’ve found myself champing at the bit to sit back down and get started–which is one of the reasons you have to dedicate yourself to getting up. That reset helps to keep the mind fresh and excited.
Set your word counts as a division of how quickly you want to publish. I’m a sword-and-sorcery guy, so I’m trying to settle into a three month publishing cycle. My books are around 130-150k words each, and as long as I schedule things correctly, the 5k/day pace allows me to get things done without worrying about it. You may have noticed that as your word count per hour speeds up, your work day either gets shorter, or you can elect to get more accomplished. The whole point of doing things this way is that the ONLY number you need to stress over is your daily word count. No more stressing as you let days slip by, and you can see the day on the horizon when you’ve got to write 20k words just to make your deadline. Trust in the productivity clock, Pavlov yourself, and only worry about your 5k. You will be flabbergasted at the end of the week by how much progress you’ve made overall, and without even noticing. And you’ll slowly get faster.
These are things you’ll repeat to yourself when you’re being lazy. You know what I mean.
1–Don’t be a poon. Jocko Willinck, a former Army Green Beret and successful podcaster, once said a very direct, and very meaningful quote. “You know that thing you don’t want to do? Shut up and do it.”
2–Wars are won a battle at a time. Pay no attention to the entirety of how many words you need to write before your publish date, only worry about your daily counts. Small victories amount to a successful campaign.
3–Movement clears the mind. When you’re stuck, when you’re frustrated, the best thing to do is go for that long walk, or do a 30-minute Yoga session. The Spartans knew this, Yogis knew this. We have forgotten. Remember.
4–Take time to pay the Muses. I’m non-religious, but I do something I call “Yoga for Dionysus”. Mostly it’s because I’m a nerd, but part of hacking my mind is adding in a bit of reverence for the process. I sacrifice something on the altar of the universe in thanks for my inspiration. I know it’s anthropomorphism. I know it’s dumb. You don’t have to do it, but it helps me to remain grounded. And hey–Yoga’s good for you. This can be anything, though. Dedicate your run to the gods, read a book and absorb some culture, go to church if you’re religious, whatever. Spend some time cleaning your apartment once a week, just do something.
TAKE THINGS FURTHER
If you want to go even deeper, integrate a fast into your daily life. This is all completely optional, but this part is especially optional. I know not everyone is a freak like me. One thing that I do is only allow myself to eat during certain hours of the day. There are many mental and physical benefits to fasting, you can read all about them on the interwebs. There are many ways to do it, though, and most revolve around having a window within which you allow yourself to eat. Outside that window, it’s all water for you, bub. Try the following:
16 hour fast/8 hour eating window
You can also mix in 24 hour-long fasts, but its all up to you. Believe me, though–integrate the 20/4 eating habit with the workday outlined above, and you’ll start to lose weight without having to slice out a huge chunk of gym time every day. Fasting works much like everything outlined above–the more you do it, the better at it you become. Plus, eight hours of your fast will be sleepy-time, anyway (depending on your own habits).
Maybe some of this crazy stuff will help someone, and maybe I just spent forever typing this for no reason. This is my sacrifice on the alter of The Smarter Artist, though. This group, and the SPP guys, have helped one salty war vet get his shit together, so a man wishes to give something back. Maybe it’s a metric ton of crazy, but maybe it will help someone. It has certainly helped me.
Much love and respect to you all.