I am an avid runner. I used to run 5 times a week and have done a full marathon, and a half. I sprained my ankle 3 years ago, and during the year it took for that to heal, I cut back on the frequency and soon got into strength training. Now, I run 2-3 times a week, and I get to the gym for a 40-50 minute strength training workout about that many times as well, depending on rest/recovery needs.
I used to be motivated by competition, but now it’s simply health. I push myself because I want results, but that isn’t so I can get better body or place in the summer Olympics. It’s because I know that if, week after week, I continue to either maintain or slightly improve on how I performed previously, overall my fitness becomes that much better. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable and attainable because I’m not pushing toward a synthetic goal, but rather, am working on how I can improve upon a previous result I know I have attained.
To do this, I need to keep track of my progress. I do this using a note in the Notes app on my phone. In a given 7-10 day period, I do about 30 different strength training workouts, which I break into 3 sessions. Over about a 12-17 day period, I do 5 different kinds of runs that target different intensity intervals. The reason for this variance in numbers is because I do not stick to a cookie-cutter workout of XX sessions per week. Instead, I follow a rule of alternating days between run / strength / run / strength and so on, breaking this up for 1-2 days of rest as needed.
For strength training, I track my reps in a given set. For running, I track my heart rate (I wear a Polar M400 monitor), speed, and distance of a given interval (the Polar has a GPS built into it, which tells me my speed). All these numbers go into my note in the Notes app.
Now, why am I getting at this and what does it have to do with writing?
The whole point of tracking myself is so I can measure my performance. My goal is not to strive toward a given result. For instance, I might wish I could run 10x 100-meter sprints at 17mph, keeping my heart rate about 185-189, but this isn’t very realistic. I don’t even know what it will require for my body to adapt to that kind of result!
I know only how I performed in a given session. The next time I do that exact same run, because I wrote down the critical information — speed, distance, heart rate — I can set that as my goal. Maintain, that’s all I strive for. In reality, more often than not, it gets easier and I make a gain. Then, the next time, I maintain that.
It’s this last part that is crucial. In my last run, I was working on 1600m sprints. In that run, I do 3 of these, with about a 2-3 minute walk in between. The first two are difficult. The last one is usually where I want to quit. But because I’d written down my previous results, I pushed myself to at the least maintain. The last 400m of that last sprint was where I hit the true edge and would have quit.
At that moment, I recognized that this exact pain and burn I felt was that exact moment I’d pushed through 2 tough sprints and the first 1200m of a 3rd one to get to. This is it. This is where the real work is happening. I grit my teeth and pushed through, and pain turned into satisfaction until the end. Not only did I maintain and get to the end of that interval, my heart rate was lower than last time and my speed was 0.1mph higher.
The aim to maintain led to a gain. I cooled down and wrote it down for next time, and now for next time, I’ll work to maintain that. And in this way, continually improve in a manner that my body is able to accommodate.
This concept translates to any act that requires perseverance. Productivity especially.
The goal of being productive is not to spend all day working and getting as much done as possible. (Should not be, anyway.) If you enter your day with a to-do list the size of a mountain and decide that success on that day is getting it all done, you might be skipping lunch and working until 10pm and going to bed with a tension headache. Never mind what that’s going to do to the rest of your week.
If on the other hand you enter the day with a to-do list and an intention to set aside focused work periods, tackling this list in order of priority, then you might not get everything done, but you can end your day knowing with satisfaction that you advanced your tasks with the same — or slightly better — efficiency than the previous day.
In my work day, I set aside 2 hours for writing every day. Then I set aside 2 hours to do work that requires focus. For example, writing this blog post right now is part of my 2nd 2-hour work period and all my attention is on this one task that I know, from previous weeks, I can accomplish in well under 2 hours. For the afternoon, I push for 5 20-minute focus periods and tend to tackle projects that have short-term shelf life, like answering emails, supervising editing projects, anything under deadline.
In all cases, having this specific time window forces me to push at some point. I always find that there is a drop off on a given day during one of these periods. But because I have this structure as my template, I push during that time and find that often, that’s when the best solutions happen.
The same applies to when I write. My focus is time spent at the keyboard, so if I have a tough revision task, or see an opportunity to one-up my game in a given scene, I don’t decide that I’ll tackle it later because it’s hard and I need to be “in the right head space”. Instead, I’m there, “doing my time” so to speak, and this fosters a willingness to push. Because of this approach, I’ve come back to the manuscript for A Thousand Roads for now more than 180 days and have maintained the quality of writing, with incremental gains, which I continually maintain. Comparing the results in my writing efficiency to what I was doing in December, I’m seeing a quantum leap rather than a slight gain (or the merry-go-round of frustration rewriting/revision can feel like when it comes at you left, right, and center).
This is the true beauty of adopting this maintain-only mindset. When you are focused outwardly on results, your attention shifts away from the most important thing: the specific work you are doing and how you can improve that. For a runner, this leads to injuries. For a creative or freelance person, this leads to burnout. For a writer, this leads to stagnated writing, frustration, half-solutions, circular revision, chasing ideas that lead nowhere.
When you are focused inward on process though, you truly grow because your mind is on the specific work before you and how you can bring everything you have to that work. This lets you be in tune with that awesome meta-moment that comes right when you hit your edge. It lets you decide, Good enough, I’ve made progress today, so you can go on and do the same, or better, tomorrow. It’s the kind of focus that will take you 10x beyond what you’re doing now.
I have a long way to go on A Thousand Roads. But I stare ahead into what will be 13 months of rewriting every day, numerous drafts, continual improvements, a strong, relentless push right until the end, and I’m encouraged by the mystery of thinking: if I’ve improved this much since January, what is the final book going to look like?
Do you relate to this in your own work? Please, do share you thoughts and some examples below.