A Measure of Productivity

measure-success How do you decide–day by day or week by week–whether you’ve been productive? When we work for someone else, the tasks are spelled out one way or another. Meeting deadlines, reaching the bottom of an in box, completing a project, preparing for a presentation. We often spend the day answering phone calls and emails and leave at 5 (or 6) p.m. knowing we’ll be paid for a full day of work.

pieces-add-upPerhaps, as I once did, you spend your evenings and weekends writing (or pursuing some creative project) hoping one day you’ll eventually get to quit your “day job.” Or, perhaps you are now a self-employed or freelance writer (or artist or musician or …) and so your progress fall squarely on your own shoulders.

How do you measure that your time is well spent? Writers often talk of word count. When I coach writers this concern for daily output seems to cause tremendous anxiety. It’s true that a book length project is especially daunting. (Not to mention the misconception that it’s completed in two rounds–draft and revision–when my published projects have taken anywhere from five and up.)

It’s rare that I track my word count during each writing session so when asked, “How much do you write each day? Each week?” I have no idea. I write as I always have–allowing sentences and paragraphs and pages to stack up. In the end, you are not “done” when you reach the 70,000 word target for your novel anyway. You simply have your draft and then can begin the real work of shaping it into a finished product.

onestepjpgIt wasn’t until I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November and then CampNaNoWriMo, that I realized why my coaching clients were stuck on this word count thing. For NaNoWriMo the goal is to draft 50,000 words in 30 days. That equates to 1667 words per day. That amounts to 6 or 7 manuscript pages (double-spaced) each day.

onestepattime Now I get how overwhelming a focus on word count can be to new writers. Now I understand why the thought of sitting down to write can be daunting. Now I see how important it is to place output into perspective. Do this: First, sit down to write. Write a scene and note how long it took. One hour? Thirty minutes? Fifteen minutes? Now, look at the output. How many pages? How many words? It’s true that every scene and every writing session will vary. But knowing what you accomplished in whatever time it took will help you see the words adding up. Second, ask yourself how many sessions you can fit into your week. Two? Three? Even one will help you make progress.

During CampNaNoWriMo in April, the word goal is flexible. It’s the end of season for me and very busy so I selected the lowest goal: 10,000 words. I wanted the challenge to make time to work on a new novel idea even in the midst of other commitments. Putting this into perspective, I needed to write 334 words per day to “win.” That’s only 1.5 pages (double-spaced MS format) OR not even a full single-spaced typed page. But, I didn’t plan to write every day. The first weekend, I wrote as I normally did and produced just over 2,000 words in one sitting of several hours. That was 1/5 the month’s goal and the equivalent of writing for 6 days. Setting time aside twice per week, I met my goal. (Actually, I ended up meeting this goal plus wrote scenes for a second work-in-progress for over another 5000 words.)

wordstackI put this into perspective, thinking: If I can write everyday (on this one project), imagine what I’d accomplish in a month! When you do the math and put your productivity into perspective, it’s a lot easier to see what you’re capable of–which makes it easier to commit to writing on a regular basis. In the end, it’s not how many words or pages you write per day or per week; it’s that the paragraphs, scenes, and pages add up. Getting started is the hard part. Once you do, it becomes easier. Until you do, commit to writing just one sentence a day. (I’ll bet you’ll find it hard to write just one.)

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Of Earth and Trees

Pine and cypress on golf courseThis morning is unusually quiet. Even golfers avoid the dull overcast from last night’s steady rain. Trunks of trees glisten with moisture and drip tears from their leaves as I take my morning walk. Ah, here at the clubhouse something is going on, perhaps to celebrate Earth Day. (On Saturday the place was overrun with children in various activities.)

As I walk and wonder, I recall a similar celebration when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m playing hopscotch with my friends on a sunny early spring day in Michigan. In the middle of my turn I remember, I was supposed to be up at school today! The teacher has talked about the celebration for Earth Day or Arbor Day or something. I think of green and plants and trees and saving the earth from pollution. We’ll do activities, make crafts, play games, and have prizes. I signed up and each day this week our teacher has reminded us.

I rush through my turn, stepping on my stone then jumping off the chalked-in game board. I run home but cannot find my mom. “Dad took her grocery shopping,” my older sister tells me.

Now I’m in a panic. My teacher reminded us, reminded me, endlessly about this. Will I get into trouble?

pine and cypress against blue skyMy eldest brother overhears and offers to take me. He is in his last year of high school  (or maybe just home from his first year of college) and I feel so grown up sitting in the passenger seat of his car. He can drive, though our other brother can’t. Not yet, not for several years.

The school is not far at all, but to walk there I’d need to cut through an abandoned nursery plus an orchard and riding my bike would take me along too many busy roads (some without sidewalks).

We arrive and no one is around. Oh, no, I think, I’ve missed it!

But the school is not surrounded by fences or gates as they are today so we head to the playground in the back. I lead my brother around the building, guiding him through the enclosed Kindergarten playground, and now I can hear all the people and kids on the main playground behind the school.

My brother checks in with one of the grown ups and I run off to find my friends. They’re planting something and I get to help. But I’m disappointed when I reach them. They’re watering sticks in the ground.

“Where were you?” my friend demands. “You weren’t here to check in. We already ate lunch.”

I don’t know what to say. I shrug, because I already ate lunch. At home.

The man smiles. “It’s okay that you’re late. You’re here now.” He’s not a teacher at our school, I don’t think. He shows me how to gently separate the sticks from the pile, make a hole and place a stick in so it will grow. “I know it looks weird,” he says, “but each stick really will turn into a tree. Just wait.”

My brother is next to me now. “Lisa, I’ll be at work when this ends. Dave will come up to take you home. Okay?” I look up at him, nodding.

Then, it turns out, the man knows my brother. They laugh and talk. By the time I realize my brother is gone, our little group has planted a crooked row of sticks at the edge of the playground where it backs up to a row of houses.

Each group rotates through planting stick trees or flowers. (Now that is what I expected. Just like when I help my mom with the plants at home.) We have relay races with prizes, tiny ice cream cups like when someone at school has a birthday. And I learn about trees and plants.

The man says to me, “Your name’s Lisa, isn’t it?” I nod. “That boy is calling you.”

I turn to see my other brother at the far corner of the playground, back by a giant oak tree my friends and I like to play tag around. He’s waving to me. “Come on! Gotta go!”

My friend turns to me. “But it’s not done yet. We get a badge and award at the end.”

I shrug, then turn and run to my brother. We walk the way I am not allowed to go and he swears me to secrecy. I trust him. He leads through a gap in a fence, across a wide plank like a balance beam over gravel pits. Then we cut through the abandoned nursery and the old orchard to enter our backyard.

At school on Monday a hand-printed certificate sits on my desk. So does a thin plaster “badge” shaped like a clover. It reminds me of the cut-out cookies my mom makes, but with a hole at the top with red yarn strung through it. Except, instead of colored sugar, this is painted green with my name lettered in black. This is my reward for planting sticks? I wonder.

k5454-17 Potato PlantThe sticks do grow into trees. When I’m on the playground, I feel proud, especially by the time I’m in grade 4 and the pine trees cause me to marvel that they were ever shorter than a Popsicle stick.

TwoEgretsI like to believe that during this event I participated in the first Earth Day, but I have long since lost the “award” and it could have been Arbor Day (which is celebrated this year on Friday, April 24). Whatever the event, I do know it had a lasting impression on me. I love the outdoors, plants, trees, birds, wildlife. I grew up to write books for children about these topics. I’ve written about the environment, nature, recycling, and sustainability. I’d like to believe the roots of these interests were planted on that spring day long ago when I was still in elementary school.8771543_orig