Hacking Creativity: What Tracking Every Minute It Took to Write a Book Taught Me About Creativity
Can tracking creativity help you be more productive? Will listening to binaural beats unlock some secret source of creativity? If all you have is 30 minutes per day and a lifetime supply of self-doubt, is it possible to power through and write a book?
In 2017, I decided to write a modern road trip novel and track every minute of the book project into a spreadsheet called the Spreadsheet of Life. I shared my findings in my TEDx talk, but this article will go deeper. Strap in.
Why I Started Hacking Creativity
- To find out how long it takes to write a book
- To discover ways to stay productive
- To keep myself accountable and gamify writing
- To inspire others to embrace their creativity
- To have something substantial to market my book with
What You’ll Learn in This Article
This article is a deep dive into the different aspects of my attempt to hack creativity–with plenty of actionable tips to go with it.
Bookmark this page, share it, save it, only watch the TEDx Talk, jump to the section you like or read the whole thing — do whatever will help you start and finish your own project.
- Finishing Big Creative Projects: An Overview
- Quick Wins for the Busy Reader
- Get to Know the Spreadsheet of Life
- How I Tried to Hack Creativity
- Sidenote: Who Is Jukka Ahola Anyway?
- 7 Data-Backed Ways to Be More Productive
Finishing Big Creative Projects: An Overview
Writing a book takes a ton of time. But exactly how long does it take?
If you’ve never finished a book, just the endless journey ahead of you is enough to stop you from getting started. It took me 2 years and 4 months to finish mine. To be more exact, it took 249 hours and 35 minutes of work during those 2 years and 4 months.
That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Everyone’s book, writing style and schedule is different but the fact remains: if you put in the hours and stay consistent, you’ll eventually realize that you have written a book.
The common denominator for all the books ever published is this: someone took the time to bang out each and every word.
It’s not like there is some divine source of creativity that is only open to the select few. Creativity is not a life lived in a certain way — a writer’s life, a poet’s life, a year spent homeless in Paris. It’s not a degree, a course, a tool, a comfy nook with that perfect chair…
It’s you, something to write with and the power of habit.
Quick Wins For the Busy Readers
I know you’re busy. You might also be itching to get started on your own project. Here are the three main things I learned during this project — with the data to back it up.
1. Find a time that works for you and stick to it
This is all the minutes I worked on my book plotted on a 24-hour x-axis. I decided to work in the morning before work and it ended up working remarkably well for me. The majority of my work was done between 6–8 am.
I found that the morning is a time when I have enough brain juice to be able to concentrate. Furthermore, it was also fairly easy to introduce the habit of writing into my mornings, because they’re quite structured anyway. I wake up, I make a cup of coffee, I sit down to write, I eat breakfast and then go to work.
Compared to my evenings there are fewer random variables in the morning that could interfere with my writing habit. Working a day job also drains my brain juice and makes it easier to skip an evening session. Conversely, doing my writing session in the morning makes me feel like I’ve already accomplished an important goal and whatever comes after is an added benefit.
The ideal writing time might be different for you, so plot out a 30–45 minute time slot in your day at a time that you can make work and make that your writing time.
2. Set yourself deadlines
Can you see the high slopes like table mountains — one in the middle and one at the end? Those are the days leading up to a deadline. I had two deadlines that I set for myself during the project. The first one is the deadline for putting together the first draft, and the second one is for finishing the second draft.
During crunch time my sessions were longer and I was focused on freezing a version of the manuscript.
For my next project, my takeaway from this graph is that I should utilize deadlines more strategically, especially now that I have an idea of how long each phase could take.
3. Keep working: slow and steady wins the race
The title of this article is the 30-minute book because my average session length throughout the whole project was as short as 32.3 minutes. I was working full-time and had other side projects as well, but thanks to my morning routine I was able to consistently put in the work.
It felt like I was leading two lives: one before breakfast and the other after breakfast. After 2,5 years I had written a book. Sure, that’s feels like a long time. 2,5 years on one book… But if I have to choose between finishing a book and not finishing it, I think I’ll choose the first option.
If you think you don’t have time to write a book, have a look at your screen time report on your phone. Are you using apps that are distracting you for 30 minutes per day? Or is there something else that you could cut to get those extra minutes?
If you’re thinking about skimping on sleep, think again. Like so much in life, writing a book is a marathon not a sprint — and you’ll need a healthy amount of good-quality sleep to get to the finish line.
Get to Know the Spreadsheet of Life
On May 2nd, 2017 I created a document in Google Spreadsheets. It was the home for all the data points I tracked during the project. I spent some time putting together an initial list of dimensions, but I also added new ones as the project progressed.
These are the types of data points I tracked, categorized into 4 main categories:
– Session duration
– Session timing
– Words written
– Words per minute (WPM)
– Type of session: ideation, writing, editing, administration
– Scene I was writing
Environment & lifestyle
– Freeform notes per day
– Writing location
– Music I listened to
– Who took the dog out in the morning
– How many times our dog peed on the floor when she was a puppy
– How many times I threw up because of the scene I was writing (SPOILER: once)
Sleep and health
– Total sleep duration
– Quality of sleep (Oura Sleep Score 1–100)
– Perceived quality of sleep (1–100)
– Sleep stages
– Night-time resting heart rate
– Heart rate variability
– Which side of the bed I was sleeping on
Mind & body
– How I felt on a scale from 1 to 5
– Reaction times on two different apps (app and desktop)
– Body weight
– Body dimensions: including waist circumference & neck circumference
– Maximum number of pull-ups I could do before breakfast
Every writing session had a similar structure. I would first log down the pre-session numbers, then start the timer and work on the book, and lastly I would log down the post-session numbers and notes. Logging the data took approximately 5 minutes per session, depending on the length of the notes I took.
The tools I used
- Google Spreadsheet
- Toggl: time tracking
- Human Benchmark & Reaction Test: reaction time
- Scrivener: writing
- Tableau Online & Adobe Creative Cloud: visualization
- Oura ring: sleep tracking
I’ve made many new friends along this journey, but the nearest to my heart is my beloved Spreadsheet of Life. Before we go any further, I want to say thank you. And… I love you. You’re everything a great friend should be: dependable, approachable and always there when I need you.
How I Tried to Hack Creativity
During the project I tested different experiments to maximize my productivity. Here are some of the hacks I tried:
– Listening to different types of music: instrumental movie soundtracks, binaural beats, nature sounds, my favorite Spotify playlists…
– Writing in different environments: at home, in a café, on vacation, in a bus or a train…
I also logged my lifestyle to see if I could spot factors that affect my productivity. Things like sleep quality, activity and mood.
When I analyzed the individual experiments, the results were either disheartening or heartening, depending on how you look at them. The differences were either small or unsustainable, which leads me to believe that I had already reached, at least, a local maximum.
I noticed, for example, that writing on a train or a bus was a great way to work work for long periods of time without interruptions. I couldn’t move my office to a train, though.
I’ve also been a good sleeper throughout my life and I’ve always valued my sleep. I work at Oura and I tracked my sleep with the Oura ring throughout the project. I ultimately didn’t end up experimenting with changing my sleep habits, perhaps because I felt that I was in a good place already.
SIDENOTE: WHO AM I ANYWAY?I’m Jukka Ahola — a writer, podcaster and full-stack marketer from Oulu, Finland. I’m currently the Science Communication Lead at Oura Health.My short stories have been awarded in all of the biggest short story competitions in Finland, including receiving first place the J. H. Erkko’s short story and poetry competitions, as well as the Martti Joenpolvi writing competition.The novel I wrote during this project is called ’Kertakäyttöpoika’ and I’m currently looking for a publisher to collaborate with. WSOY, Otava, Siltala, Like… If you’re listening, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. :)> To listen to the creative writing podcast Kertojan ääni I co-host with my wife Essi Pulkkinen, see https://kertojanaani.fi
> For more information about me in English, visit https://jukkaahola.fi/en> To see my other creative projects, check out Worst Comic Strip – probably the worst comic strip in the world.
7 Data-Backed Ways to Be More Productive
Here are 7 findings brought to you by my Spreadsheet of Life. I already listed the three main findings at the beginning, but I’ll repeat them here. I suggest trying these first, then moving on to the ones in this chapter: A) Stick to a time that you can make work, B) Set deadlines and C) Keep working.
1. Have faith in the 30-minute book
During the project, my average session length was 32.3 minutes. The median was 30 minutes. The histogram shows that my most common session durations were 24 minutes and 40 minutes.
If you only have 30 minutes per day to work on your project, that’s enough. Or at least it was for me. Someone could probably do it in 20 minutes — whereas someone else would need 40 minutes.
It might take years to finish that book but hey if that’s what it takes, then so be it. I wrote the book in the morning and it feels like I was living two lives: one before breakfast and one after. I used the first to write a book and the second for everything else.
2. Make yourself accountable
Accountability is key. More important than individual experiments and results was the fact that I was determined to fill out my Spreadsheet of Life. And to fill out my Spreadsheet of Life, I had to write.
Sounds like I got it backwards but if it got me past the finish line, I’m not going to argue with it.
Making yourself accountable is a well-known trick for increasing the stickiness of any habit. I was accountable to a spreadsheet but your accountability tool can be anything you like: a person, a Whatsapp group, an app, a bet…
3. Don’t compromise on sleep
I’ve always been a good sleeper. Almost too good, to the point that I’ll leave a party early to go to bed or stop writing mid-scene so that I can get enough sleep.
Throughout the this project I used the Oura ring to track my sleep stats. It allowed me to gather a good dataset that I could analyze later.
Creativity is said to be linked with REM sleep, so I analyzed the relationships between REM Sleep Minutes, Deep Sleep Minutes and Total Sleep Minutes with three productivity metrics: Words Written, Session Length and Words-Per-Minute.
Interestingly enough there seems to be a low positive correlation (r = 0.373) between REM sleep and Words Written. In other words, when I had more REM sleep the night before, I also a higher word count the following day.
Here is Words Written plotted against Deep Sleep Minutes, Total Sleep Minutes and REM Sleep Minutes in the same graph.
Interesting, huh? Maybe. Maybe not. REM sleep seems to have a low positive correlation with the amount of words written and Deep Sleep a low negative correlation. Total Sleep Minutes has basically no correlation at all.
To dig a bit deeper, I looked at Session Length compared to the sleep metrics. Here are the scatter plots:
Another similar finding: REM sleep has a low positive correlation with session duration. It’s quite easy to think: “That’s it! I’ve proven that increased REM sleep is associated with increased productivity!”
One more graph, though. Words-Per-Minute plotted against Deep, REM and total sleep.
The Pearson correlation coefficients are closer to 0 this time, indicating a very weak linear relationship between the variables. More importantly though, take a look at the color of the circles in all the previous graphs. The darker the circle is, the closer to the end of the project it is. The lighter the color, the further away the session is in the past. As always, correlation is not causation and this might be another one of those cases: I got more REM sleep at the start of my project & I tended to have longer sessions at the start of my project > there’s a weak correlation there. It’s not that REM sleep caused these shifts, more so that they happily coincided in my (Spreadsheet of) Life.
Thus, the conclusion is slightly more boring than “Increase REM sleep and you’ll wake up as Salvador Dalí”. It is this: make sure you get enough good-quality sleep. As you can see from my Total Sleep Minutes graph, it’s almost a straight vertical line. In other words, I was consistently sleeping 7–9 hours per night and consistently writing something.
Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint and you’ll need to be able to sustain your work over years. I’d venture a guess that like athletes, we creative athletes need sleep and recovery too, not just pushing ourselves to the MAX.
4. Allow yourself to concentrate
Despite my best efforts, my experiments were turning out insignificant results time and time again. I had different goal metrics, but mostly I used Words-Per-Minute as a proxy for productivity.
Here’s my Words-per-minute (WPM) while listening to binaural beats compared to writing in silence. No significant differences here.
I was personally hoping for binaural beats to fare better than silence. Nope, brain music is as good as no music, at least for me. But this individual experiment is a part of a bigger hack: giving yourself the best chance for focused work. Looking back, I can see that I was already doing that:
- I didn’t look at my notifications or social media before I started writing
- I was writing in the morning with minimal distractions
- My morning routine was always the same
- My data logging routine was always the same
I believe that all these routines were tiny cues for my brain and body to get ready to start writing. Once I opened up my Scrivener document, I started writing or editing straight away, which also meant that even sessions shorter than 30 minutes were enough to get something done.
5. Stop hacking and start habiting your creativity
To some extent I was being slowed down my spreadsheet and the minutiae of things I tracked. My neck circumference didn’t have anything to do with my productivity (gasp) and neither did the number of pull-ups I could do in the morning.
Here comes the key learning for anyone looking for that One Hack That Allowed Me to 10X My Productivity and Unlock My Creativity:
Do or do not. There is no hack.
Or to put it less bluntly: the key to better productivity is not in the individual hacks, it’s in the big picture. More important than the frequency of your binaural beats is the frequency and consistency of your working sessions.
Habit should be a transitive verb. Find ways to habit your creativity and you’re 92% of the way there.
6. Embrace the variation in your creative process
I love routines. They give me comfort. And I love predictability. With enough practice, I’ve found the creative process to be more predictable than most people think.
You sit down and you start writing — instead of waiting for a moment of inspiration.
That said, there will be different phases in your writing journey. Sometimes you’ll be slower, sometimes faster. Especially when I got feedback on my manuscript, it had a huge impact on how much I worked. And after I did a big push to finalize a draft, I found myself stuck on idle for some time.
Here’s my average session length over the 2 and half years:
There will be variation in your creative process too. Push through it. Embrace it. Know that it’ll be there and you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
7. Start with one session, add another if you can
Let’s have another look at the image of writing minutes per time of day:
There’s only one mountain with its peak approximately on the 7:00 am mark. You can imagine an invisible barrier starting from 8 am that stops the base of the mountain from expanding right. That’s me having to go to work. Another invisible barrier is me being asleep that’s stopping it from expanding left.
We all have these invisible barriers, but you can work around them.
When I start my next project, I’ll try to speed up the process by doing two things:
1. Expanding the base of the mountain
2. Adding another peak
This is what I’m aiming towards.
By adding another working session I could double the amount of work I get done. The second session can be focused on editing or ideation, depending on the mental energy I have left.
I would also try to extend my morning (writing) session length by doing more preparations the night before. Maybe laying out my clothes the night before or making myself breakfast so that I can squeeze out 10 minutes more in the morning.
From a scientific (repeatable, verifiable) perspective this project is far from done. Some of the caveats include:
- a small sample size (n=1),
- a lax experimentation regimen where I tried a bunch of different experiments but didn’t control for confounding factors,
- settling for local maximums instead of trying out for possible global maximums…
That said, to me the project was a success. I got to go up on the TEDx stage. I have a book I’ll focus on getting published. I also have actionable next steps for my next book project.
And lastly, I hope my journey has inspired you to start your own big creative project.
You Have What I Takes To Write a Book
If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate you. You have what it takes to write a book — or finish some other creative project that requires sustained effort. Not only because you made it this far but because there is no magic sauce.
I’ll restate what I said in the TEDx talk: Creativity isn’t a magical creature that only befriends those it deems worthy. Creativity is work. To start and finish that project you’ll need to do two things:
- Find your reason to get started
- Find your way to keep going
I got started because I wanted to publish a novel. I kept going because I was accountable to my Spreadsheet of Life and curious to see what secrets it could tell.
What’s your reason to get started?
Jukka Ahola is a Finnish writer, TEDx speaker, podcaster and marketer. For contact details and more info, visit jukkaahola.fi/en/cv.
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