J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

The Joys of Throwing Out Long-term Plans and Lowering Quotas

This year, instead of making New Year’s resolutions or making a list of goals for the year (something I’d done since 2006, with mixed success), I decided to take on one big goal for Q1, and leave the rest of 2010 unplanned.

My planning/goal-setting horizon has been getting shorter and shorter over the years.  I remember having grand life-arc type plans in college, and even as a child.  Once I entered the working world and decided I that I basically liked what I was doing (having my own music business and doing freelance database consulting), the “future-vision” shrunk to two or three years, and finally to one year.

Why shorten my planning horizon to a mere 3 months?

A big part of it has to do with reading Tim Ferriss’s blog and, more recently, reading his book The Four Hour Workweek.  Ferriss makes the point that long-term plans often function as dream deferrals.  Why start something now if it’s on the agenda for 2015?  The problem is, it’s too easy to defer those large, difficult, potentially life-changing actions indefinitely, perhaps so long that we die before we try.  This is true even if the deferred plan of action is a central part of our identity.  I’ve been thinking of myself as novelist since approximately age six, but it took me another thirty-four years to actually write my first novel.  Talk about procrastination.  Anything you’ve been putting off for thirty-four years?

Already a novelist in his own mind.

There’s a natural tension between identity and intention; some parts of our identity evolve out of performing the related actions (if you play soccer enough, you might start to feel like a soccer player), while in other areas the identity and intention come into being first (a high-school student decides to become a doctor and starts planning their academic path).  The distinction has less to do with the profession than it does with the character of the agent.  You could just as easily decide at a young age to become a professional soccer player, or, in your adult life, fall into practicing medicine (perhaps a weak example — of course you can’t just start practicing medicine without a medical degree — but many people do learn a great deal about human physiology as a hobby and end up giving informal health advice to their friends and family).

It’s the intention-related parts of our identity that are vulnerable to deferral, as opposed to the professions that sneak up on us.  For myself, writing is in the former category; computer programming and music production are in the latter.  Who knows why.  What about you?

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

I decided to take on one big, potentially life-changing goal in Q1 of 2010, and that was to write a first draft of my second novel.  It’s a big enough goal to get me excited and motivated, and simple enough to keep in my head every day without constant review (if you have fifteen goals for the year, it’s hard to remember them all — not to mention that by August half of them are irrelevant).

At the same time, I threw out any preconceptions about what the latter three-quarters of 2010 might look like.  Maybe Kia and I and our daughter will spend a few months working remotely from somewhere on the Mediterranean coast (I recently ran the numbers, this option could potentially be less expensive than our current lifestyle, especially if we can get in on some of that free European pre-school — you parents of young children living in the Bay Area know what I’m talking about).  Or, depending on the availability of Spesh or Mark Musselman, maybe there will be a new Jondi & Spesh or Momu album in the works.  In any case it’s exhilarating not knowing.

So — back to my grand plan.  I came up with what I thought was a fail-safe strategy to bang out novel #2.  I whipped out (or rather, clicked on) my digital calculator and figured out approximately how many words I would need to type every day in order to have a more-or-less novel length manuscript on my hard drive by March 31st.  I gave myself weekends off, as we don’t generally have childcare on the weekends (you try writing a novel while a two-year-old is clambering onto your lap demanding to look at pictures of choo-choo trains on your computer) and also planned on taking several “creative sabbatical” weeks where all I would do was write.

1150 words per day, on the regular working days.  That’s what the calculator said.  Okay, no problem.  My work was cut out for me.  Here’s what the first few writing days in January looked like, in terms of actual output:

Day 1: 297 words
Day 2: 402 words
Day 3: 351 words

Ouch.

I wasn’t spending eight hours each day in front of the laptop — nor was this ever the plan.  I still needed to eat, after all, and running Loöq Records takes some time.  I was hoping to hit my quota after two or three hours of focused work, first thing in the morning.

I liked the material I was coming up with, but at this rate it would take me all year to get a draft.  I kept thinking of Stephen King’s observation that after three months, “the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave radio during a period of severe sunspot activity.” Nope, don’t want that to happen.

It was my favorite goofy-hat-wearing vloggers, Tim Ferriss (again) and Kevin Rose, that came to the rescue, with this video post.  It’s long and (as the title warns) random, but somewhere towards the end Tim makes a reference to a story of how IBM achieved the highest sales by setting the lowest quotas.  The idea was to boost productivity by removing pressure, and in IBM’s case it worked.  Tim Ferriss is currently applying the low quota idea to his own writing project, with the goal of writing “two crappy pages a day.”

That sounded good to me.  I needed less pressure.  The 1150 word quota was looming over me every morning like a flying Nazgûl.  I reduced my quota to 750 words a day.  The next two days my word counts were as follows:

Day 1: 1147 words
Day 2: 1120 words

Go figure.  This was just two days ago, so we’ll see if the trend continues, but at the moment I’m feeling the lower quota.  I think the point of a quota is to get one’s ass in gear, and to have a minimum standard of productivity.  Quality is more important than quantity, but you can’t get to quality unless you produce something. Ideally, you get started and catch a wave, you achieve flow … then you hit your goal before you know it.  But for me having a quota is useful; it’s a guardian against sloth and inertia.

Did Rodin have a sculpting quota?

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2 Comments

  1. Stephen Mann

    This is a great piece. I usually never look past 3 years but recently have broken goals down to daily. The best prescription for anxiety is action and a low daily quota makes me feel more successful and stress free. Thanks for sharing!

  2. John Moyer

    Go for it. I used to have 5 year plans before I had children! Very best wishes in your first quarter.

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