A Thousand Little Self-Deceptions

Writing one thousand ‘publishable’ words a day can’t be that hard, can it? 

At the beginning of June I decided I would write a thousand publishable words each day of the month. I knew it would be tough, but didn’t think it was outside the realm of possibility. To add extra pressure, I announced this publicly to my blog subscribers and on Facebook.

Within a few days as I shoe-horned several lengthy quotations into a blog post and kidded myself that it counted as an extra 500 words, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

Perhaps I should have made it 500 words a day instead of one thousand, or as my friend Michael suggested, given myself weekends off.

Either way, I had grossly overestimated my own self-discipline. I quietly dropped the goal and stopped even tracking my daily word count (I may have even gone several days without writing anything at all).

Let’s face it, sometimes it’s more convenient not to perceive things too accurately. Every day we deceive ourselves in a thousand little ways because reality, like the florescent lights that come on in a club at closing time, can be a bit too harsh on the ego.

All Of This Has Happened Before

This wasn’t the first time I had set myself a challenge and failed to stick at it.

There was my failed attempt to stick to a morning routine, or the intention to emulate Chris Guillebeau by publishing an article every Tuesday and Thursday without fail or my plan to turn off the internet by 10pm every night.

And all of these slip-ups have been in the public sphere. Documenting your personal development online makes it a lot harder to fool yourself (or anyone else) about your past failures.

This latest setback is particularly unhelpful however, as I’m currently aiming to make a living from freelance writing.

I need to be able to predict how much I can do, and how long it will take to a reasonably accurate degree, so I can be sure to cover my mortgage and bills.

After all, our cat Millie has to be fed her premium brand cat food.

My morning writing companion

There are Laws About This Sort of Thing

It seems I have fallen prey to the dastardly planning fallacy once again.

The planning fallacy refers to a prediction phenomenon, all too familiar to many, wherein people underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task, despite knowledge that previous tasks have generally taken longer than planned.Buehler et al

As if that wasn’t bad enough, every time the planning fallacy appears its nasty little cohort Hofstadter’s Law follows close behind, like a movie villain’s less charismatic but equally unpleasant sidekick.

Hofstadter’s was coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (he seems to have humbly named it after himself). According to Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian, this law “asserts that any task you’re planning to complete will always take longer than expected - even when Hofstadter’s law is taken into account.”

This cruel psychological bias boggles my mind - but given my own repeated triumphs of optimism over experience, it seems to hold true.

Why is it so difficult for us to perceive time accurately? Part of the problem seems to be that we just don’t take our past into account when planning for the future, even though it would be logical to do so.

(Spock would have a field day if he had to deal with freelance writers.)

Not only that, but studies have shown that we fail to take into account all of the steps involved in achieving our goal or any possible obstacles. And because these biases are so ingrained we don’t just get it wrong once. It happens again and again, ad nauseum.

And let’s face it, there’s nothing more dispiriting than the realization that you’re not learning from your mistakes.

How to Bypass Your Own Bias

In my search to find a solution I discovered an article in Psychology Today that suggests the following strategy:

When you’re making a plan and estimating how long it will take, be sure to stop and
1) consider how long it has taken you in the past,
2) identify the ways in which things might not go as planned, and
3) spell out all the steps you will need to take to get it done.

And I would add - turn off the internet for a few hours or at least close any tabs that contain your email and social media accounts.

So it would no doubt be a good start to keep a record of the time it takes to research, write, edit, proofread and publish each article, as well as breaking the process down even further so I’m more aware of every step involved.

Then I need to look at possible obstacles like phone calls, unexpected visitors, not getting a good enough night’s sleep (which always affects my focus), and getting distracted by social media notifications.

Once I have all of this catalogued, I can pin it up on the wall and refer to it every time I start writing something new. Therefore I hopefully won’t have to go through the process every time I want to outwit that bastard Hofstadter (I know it’s not his fault really).

I also know that I spend too much time creating other time-consuming content for my blog, whether it’s podcasts or videos, that have no direct monetary reward. I either need to find a way to make money from them, or stop doing them altogether so I can make more space for my writing.

So now I’m fully aware of what I have to do, but I have to confess that as yet I still haven’t done any of it.

I didn’t map out the entire process, predict possible obstacles or set the timer before I started writing this article. I took more than one break to feed the cat, check my email and look at Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.

But on the plus side, I’ve written 1,003 more words.