Word Count Target vs Not Breaking the Chain

Back in 2017 I tracked my daily word count for the entire year. In theory, it was to collect data on what a reasonable daily word count looked like for me. What it turned into was kind of a nightmare. The problem was that I set a specific target (2400 words per day) and pushed myself to accomplish that. I created a spreadsheet that calculated month-to-date and year-to-date targets and compared them the running total of actual results. When I was on target or ahead, the entry for the day, current month, or YTD turned green. When I fell behind, it turned red.

This shifted my mindset from making the daily total as often as possible to having to write more when I fell behind. If I only wrote 2000 words one day, for example, I’d want to write 2800 the next day. You can see where that got insane when I started falling behind. Because the goal was to make the word count, I would spread that over multiple projects. If I had to stop and think about one project, or do some research, I’d jump to another project and lay down some words there to get the count.

In 2018 I stopped tracking word count entirely, but that wasn’t helpful either. I needed something to keep me focused and accountable. What I didn’t need was more stress, or a process that drive the wrong behaviors. So in December I began using the “don’t break the chain” method, and it’s worked out well so far.

Word Count Target

A word count target helps me to set reasonable deadlines. That requires knowing how much I can comfortably write in a day, so my 2017 data wasn’t entirely worthless. I start by figuring out the page count. Then, knowing the copy density I’ll use in the layout (fancy talk for “how many words per page”) I can roughly calculate the word count. Dividing that by the realistic words-per-day rate, I know how many days it will take to write something. Then I add an additional 1 to 3 days, depending on the size of the project.

If I write more than that, great! I’m ahead. Because it’s in service to a deadline, I track word count per project rather than overall. If I’ve got a project due this week, and I’m banging out a lot of words on the project due next week, it’s activity but not useful productivity. I don’t track words written on blog posts, only projects that earn me money, so that my focus is on the right place.

Not Breaking the Chain

Using the Seinfeld Method is a lot easier. If I wrote today, I put a check on the calendar. It doesn’t matter how much I wrote, as long as I wrote. The idea is to be sure that I’m writing every single day. So far I’ve only missed twice, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and that was by design. With all of the other things that have to be accomplished in a day, it guarantees that I will touch the current work in progress every day.

That’s the caveat — it only counts if it’s the project with the most immediate deadline. Monkeying with the thing that’s not due until next month doesn’t count. Neither does hacking around with some concept work that has no deadline. If I haven’t added to the WIP, I haven’t done any productive writing.

Hybridizing the Two

On the monthly spread of my business bullet journal, I have a column for daily word count. At a glance, I can see if I’ve broken the chain. The only world count that gets recorded is the WIP. If I’ve calculated that to hit the required word count by deadline I need to write 1600 words per day, I know whether I’m ahead or behind.

If I’ve made word count for the day on the WIP and I want to switch do a different project, I can. That word count doesn’t get counted, though. What I do is, when that project becomes the current WIP, I figure out how many words are needed until completion. Then I recalculate. Maybe I only need to write 700 words per day, because I’m ahead. Great! I can finish that manuscript early, or do the minimum then jump to a different project.

It still sounds a bit complex, but it’s not. I need to concentrate on one thing at a time. I’m not allowed to work on anything else until I’ve made minimum progress on that. It gives me some flexibility, reduces my stress, and has allowed me to get ahead on a number of things that have been languishing.

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2 Comments

  1. Sounds like a plan. I like “don’t break the chain,” but it gets ridiculous when I have so many things I ought to be improving on. Yet…

    One of Berin’s other themes occurs to me now: return on investment. “Simplify,” as it were. So perhaps instead of trying to chain everything, I look for the one or two things that deliver the most … the most satisfaction, the most health improvement, the biggest real effect in my life.

  2. Thanks. I think of it as opportunity cost — if I do this, I can’t do that, so I need to pick the thing that will give me the best return on investment, depending on the problem I’m solving for. There’s a big post on that coming up soon.

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