How To Increase Your Writing Productivity By Using Output Indicators

On my blog I’ve many times commented on the difference between using process indicators and output indicators when you’re setting goals for yourself. A process indicator is, loosely, a measure of your input: how much effort are you putting into writing? How many submissions are you sending out? How many days do you write? How many hours do you write?

Output indicators, on the other hand, are measures of the result: How many stories have you written? Have you finished that novel? Have you revised that story?

When I started writing, I largely used output indicators. I’d set myself a goal like writing ten stories in ten weeks. However, I, over time, found this to be non-optimal, because you can’t always predict what your output will be. I’ve labored for months to write one story, and other times I’ve written a story in an hour. If you rely entirely on output indicators, then you systematically bias your output towards that which is easy and known. You need to write a story this week, so you churn out a short-short. You need to write a novel this month, so you do something that you know you can manage. There is no reward here for striking out on your own. There’s no incentive to take your time and to play.

Process indicators have their own flaws, though, because they encourage inefficiency. If you’re supposed to be writing four hours today, then all you need to do is sit in front of the screen for four hours. You don’t need to actually do anything in order to fulfill your goal. And even if you say you’re going to write x number of words, there’s no need for those words to be a good or finished product — process indicators encourage loose drafting and lots of rewriting. They also encourage the writing of out and out nonsense. And ever since selling my novel, I’ve found that it’s no longer enough to work — nowadays I actually have to produce.

Nonetheless, they seemed like the best indicators I had on hand.

But then, at Burning Man, I wrote six stories in six days, mostly because I said to myself, “I’m going to write a story every day.”

And not only did that remind me about the power of output indicators, it also reminded me that my output has been shrinking year after year even as my process-related measures (words written, hours spent writing) have gone up.

So in the week since coming back, I’ve been thinking about how to reintroduce output indicators into my life, and I think I’ve found an intriguing solution:

I took a bunch of tasks that I have in front of me, and then I distributed 100 ‘points’ between them, based on how hard I thought each task was. Revising a story might be one point, for instance, while revising my novel-for-adults is 40 points. Whenever I complete a task, I get those points. When I get 50 points, I get to the next ‘level’ and I also gain 100 more points to distribute among these tasks (or allocate to new ones), as well as the ability to redistribute the existing points on the board.

The points and the levels are meaningless. They’re just a way of keeping score (although, to sweeten the pot, I have promised myself that when I get 50 points I’m also going to buy this completely sweet set of Edith Wharton volumes that I’ll probably never read but would dearly like to own).

Reaching level three, if this scheme lasts that long, will probably require getting 75 points (and so on), since that’s how games work.

Yes, I am gamifying my productivity. And yes, I will use that buzzword. I have no shame.

So far, it’s pretty fun. I’ve knocked out a bunch of one point and half point tasks. For instance, I assigned myself half a point for every story in my ‘to-be-revised’ pile that I either trunked or submitted (up to five stories). Did that this morning. Finally put a bunch of my MFA stories to bed. It felt great.

However, it remains to be seen whether this system will sufficiently incentivize me to tackle the three big tasks on my plate: a) creating a revised proposal for my second YA novel (10 points); b) doing another revision on my middle-grade novel (20 points); and c) revising my novel-for-adults (40 points).

I think so. I hope so. The thing about the distribution of points on the board (and the number of points I need in order to get to the next level) is that although I might make some easy points by doing some littler tasks, there’s no way to really progress unless I tackle some of the big things, and I’m already feeling myself getting impatient over the idea — when am I going to finally get to level two!

This method doesn’t replace my other productivity methods. I still think process indicators are important. What it does, however, is create another system that coexists with them. Process indicators are about keeping myself honest on a daily basis. The point system is about making sure that I keep myself honest on a quarterly basis. The points are really a way of assigning priorities and making sure that those priorities always remain at the top of my head.