Maximizing the Return on Effort

A short guide to time management, generalism, and the importance of initial effort.

Micha van Amsterdam
Writers’ Blokke


Image by carolyn.devine via Twenty20

I love to do tons of stuff. I admit it, I just have too many interests. First of all, there is writing. Then there’s also making music, homesteading, gardening and of course family time. Oh yes, there’s also this part-time job, and my small freelance business making videos. Does that sound like overkill?

Yes, time management can be difficult. Even more so, being absorbed into too many different things increases the risk of never being really good at anything at all. Like writing for example. It’s this vision of eternal mediocrity that keeps haunting me in my sleep.

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not a good idea to start multiple projects at once. It’s a far better approach to first master one topic and only then to proceed to the next one.

Thus, if our aim is to have a career in writing yet our lives are cluttered with all kinds of other obligations, tasks, and activities, we’ll have to find a way to successfully combine all of these.

Now, the very first step in achieving this goal is to embrace this fully packed life. After all, a generalist approach towards life suits the writer very well. It’s the opposite of a single-minded, specialist worldview.

Forget specialization, embrace diversity

Let’s state it like this: Society is crazily obsessed with specialization. Education is focused stubbornly on creating people who are very good at one specific thing.

This kind of mentality is preferred in a wage-based system that evolves around full-time employment in one specific niche of knowledge.

From the factory worker sorting food on a conveyor belt to the high-specialist surgeon who’s trained to do the same, complex operation each and every day; they’re all specialized in doing one specific thing.

For the small scale and independent writer, things are different. Let’s face it: most of us aren’t full-time writers. Writing is not paying our bills. We’re forced to combine writing with a heap of other tasks, such as jobs, family life, and other interests.

That’s why a more generalist perspective suits us much better.

Which does not imply that we should be sloppy writers. Au contraire, we should thoroughly master our artform.

What we need though, is a workable system to combine our writing efforts with our everyday lives. We need to be able to grow as writers and make an impact without neglecting all the other stuff that’s happening around us.

Return on effort

Did I already mention that I’m also a beekeeper? When I started beekeeping, I followed courses, spent hours reading books, or spent time online investigating and learning. Or you could find me outside, building hives, sitting in front of my first beehive, studying the behavior of those little creatures. You get the point; it was almost a full-time job.

Fast forward eight years later. This one beehive grew into eleven hives, yet the time I need to manage these hives is almost nil, except for a few months each year. By investing time initially in the process of learning I was able to maximize my return on effort. And now that the hives are up and running, I have created free time to pursue new endeavors. Writing for example.

Slow progress kills motivation

At the beginning of every new endeavor, it’s tempting to set only small goals. This could be writing one story a week for example or maybe writing for one hour every few days.

This is understandable because we feel that we still have to grow into this process of writing. The core idea is that we are slowly but steadily moving forwards, towards our destination. A slow pace allows us to somewhat conciliate living and writing.

Writing then will be squeezed into those scarce, free slots of spare time.

However, the problem with this strategy is that it has a high risk of failure. As small steps tend to add up really slow, it feels as if we’re walking on a treadmill, forever being stuck in the same place. This is a big motivation killer.

What we miss here is the lack of milestones and meaningful results.

The initial effort you put into your writing is the key

Now, if we only have a limited time for writing, we’ll have to make sure that we don’t get sidetracked by other activities. We’ll have to make sure that we don’t get demotivated by the long run and apparently non-existent progress.

What we need to do then, is to increase our return on effort.

The input is the time we invest in writing and the wanted output is lots of high-quality content.

Initial effort and exponential growth

Look at it this way: in finance, we want a maximal return on investment. Here, the invested asset is money. The actual premise is quite simple: the more you invest, the larger the return will be over a predetermined period in time.

To borrow an example from ERE founder Jacob Lund Fisker: Invest $1 at 8% for 30 years and get $10, invest $100,000 at 8% for 30 years and get $1,000,000.

Make a small, initial investment and you’ll have a small return in the long run. On the other hand, make a big initial investment and you’ll have a big return in the end. (well, if the markets keep stable, this is). The growth here is exponential.

The difference with writing is that we’ll have to initially invest our time instead of our money.

Write one hour a week and it’ll take a very long time to improve your skills and competencies as a writer. Your output and impact will forever be very low. However, start writing 4 or 5 days a week and you’ll notice exponential growth in output and quality.

Keep writing in a consistent and dedicated way. Results will start to build up. Motivation will remain high.

Free up time

Yes, the initial effort will take a lot of your time. However, just like my beekeeping example, this will only be for a certain period.

Once you’ve reached a certain level of mastery in the art of writing, writing will become a lot easier. You’ll have the routine of a dedicated writer and the knowledge on how to write a good, well-structured story. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t. And even more important, you’ll have found your own voice and style, thus increasing the value and quality of your writings.

At the beginning of your writing career, it might have taken you a whole day to complete a story from idea to editing and publishing. Now you might write and finish the same story in an hour or so.

Even more, because you’re writing faster and more focused you freed up time to invest in other endeavors.

Multiple desired outcomes

We only have a certain amount of time each day to dedicate to the things we love to do. Yet, if we want to master any topic or subject, we’ll have to put in an initial effort.

The initial time invested in gaining the necessary skills has multiple desired outcomes as a result. You’ll keep the motivation up, become a better writer faster, and once established you’ll have more time again to invest in other interests. And, last but not least, it will make your life (and thus your writing) more interesting.



Micha van Amsterdam
Writers’ Blokke

Simple, sustainable lifestyle design, self-sufficiency and local, perennial culture.