Visualizing the long haul

This is what I’ve gone to bed to and woken up to every day for the last eight months, and what I expect will continue to decorate my walls for at least another year.

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From left to right, here’s what you’re looking at: The first page of eight chapters of the Programming Beyond Practices book, the first page of 12 articles for O’Reilly Ideas, the first page of thirteen articles for Practicing Ruby, and a series of 20 small boxes each representing five questions for a Ruby exam study guide.

These are my writing commitments. The things that I’m bound to by a combination of contracts, money, and social+personal pressure to deliver on. More importantly, they represent the largest source of time debt in my life right now, because nearly everything else I do commercially is very flexible.

The picture quality isn’t great, so I’ll just tell you the stats on each of these things:

  • My book has shipped. Hooray! Please buy it, if you’d like.
  • Eight of the 12 O’Reilly Ideas articles have shipped. Hooray! Please read them.
  • I expect to finish the Ruby exam study guide today. But I’m not sure when that’ll become available or how (Maybe more on that some other time?)
  • Practicing Ruby had been frozen up until a few weeks ago, but currently working on replacing blank page #2, and have done three collaboration meetings around that in the last couple weeks with Eleanor McHugh.

Those status updates, although they make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, are not really the point. The point is that when I had first hung up all these pages on my wall, they were almost all blank. A sea of nothing staring back at me.

That was an incredibly intimidating feeling. To wake up every day, staring at all these blank pages literally surrounding me on three sides. To crawl into bed bleary eyed each night and see them yet again.

But still, I think this is the best “productivity hack” I managed to implement this year. As intimidating as this wall was with its blank pages–it served as a constant reminder to me that no, I really do not have time to take on any more writing work that’s on a fixed schedule. And also, that I should pay attention to the rest of my life too, because unless I am content with abandoning these commitments or just letting the work hang in a stagnant state forever (which I am most definitely not!)–then I need to sustain a lifestyle that allows me to write a lot, and write often.

And so I managed to do that. And even taking one blank page down from this display felt good to me the very first time I did it. But when I finished my first entire wall (the book), it brought me a great sense of pride and joy. And now that the total amount of blank pages are outnumbered by filled in pages, I see myself climbing out of the massive hole I had dug for myself. The wall now represents my strength as a productive writer, rather than my overwhelming level of commitments.

This approach may not be for everyone, but if you have some set of long-term creative projects that you really want to make progress on–it might be just the sort of tough love you need. At the very least, it worked for me, and continues to work its magic today.