Kait Nolan

How Marginal Gains Can Bring Big Results by Kait Nolan

The UK has won 3 of the last 4 Tour De France races.  Prior to that?  They’d never won a single one in the history of the race (which started in 1903).  The secret to their success?  Well, according to Matthew Syed’s interview with Sir David Brailsford,  “It is about marginal gains,’ he said. ‘The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver huge increase when you put them all together.”

What does that mean exactly?  Well, Syed goes on to say (in his book Black Box Thinking):

“The marginal gains mentality has pervaded the entire Team Sky mindset. They make sure that the cyclists sleep on the same mattress each night to deliver a marginal gain in sleep quality; that the rooms are vacuumed before they arrive at each new hotel, to deliver a marginal gain in reduced infections; that the clothes are washed with skin-friendly detergent, a marginal gain in comfort.”

I first read about this in on of Brian Johnson‘s Philosopher’s Notes (a fabulous little, distill-it-down email about some of the greatest books of our time) and the idea stuck with me.  I’m all about breaking things down into manageable bits so that a project doesn’t seem so overwhelming, but this is something else entirely.  This is about all the little things that you probably DON’T consider have an impact on your goal.  In our case, writing.

  • Like, making sure that we have a comfortable chair with adequate back support.  This means I don’t waste time fidgeting because I’m uncomfortable.
  •  Swapping those God-awful compact fluorescent bulbs to something with a more pleasing hue.  Not being annoyed by my lighting, means I can focus better on the task at hand more quickly.
  • Being sure to have a big, insulated glass of ice water right there and ready before I get started.  It’s insulated, so it stays colder longer.  It’s huge, so I don’t have to get up to refill it as often.
  • Putting on my headphones with MyNoise.net instead of just letting it play through the laptop speakers.  This helps me block out distractions more effectively (even though I don’t have full-on noise-cancelling headphones).
  • Picking a candle scent to go along with a particular WIP.  I picked this one up from Tawna Fenske.  Lighting it and having that scent cue primes my brain for that particular book.
  • Getting up a few minutes earlier every day.  I had though I’d need to get up a full hour before my normal wakeup time.  And during NaNo, I did (because I was establishing a new habit).  But I’ve learned that if I get up just half an hour earlier, I can usually crank out between 500-almost 1k words before my morning workout.  Doing that every weekday means my total word count for the week is 2,500-5,000 words greater than not getting up.  (Of course, now that Daylight Savings Time is upon us, I’m in the process of slowly rolling my body clock back and cursing profusely the whole time).  Even fifteen minutes of writing is worth getting up because it starts my day in the story and means that I can stay in it a lot better, regardless of what else I happen to face the rest of the day, which makes my evening writing session far more productive.
  • Using Write or Die 2 instead of just drafting on a normal blank screen.  I didn’t realize how much difference this would make.  Man, that red screen of threat is hella motivating!

There are oodles of things that can feed in to our ability to get focused and stay focused, and I encourage you to give some thought to what little things you can do to achieve marginal gains in your writing.  Those marginal gains add up over time, making the effort (which really isn’t that much) well worth it.


Kait Nolan

On Mastery and the Power of YET by Kait Nolan

I’ve had about a million ideas for this year end wrap up post for ROW80.  I have, over the last–holy crap–FIVE YEARS, written about everything from data driven decision making, to habits, to owning your dream as a writer, to being kind to yourself, to…all kinds of other stuff.  Because I’m a very outcome-oriented person, I think a lot about goals and how to achieve them–and how to inspire and encourage others to achieve theirs.  I believe in getting things done, and I’m very often of that mindset “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I started A Round of Words in 80 Days as a reaction to National Novel Writing Month.  NaNo is awesome in that it gets people excited and amped up–but I saw far too many people beating themselves up for failing to meet that goal.  Writers are already prone to self-flagellation on multiple levels.  We don’t need another reason to be hating on ourselves because the life we lead doesn’t neatly allow for us to attain that one-size fits all goal.  I also hated that it was November (horrible time for people in academia and really for anyone hosting Thanksgiving). I’m a writer 365 days a year.  I needed a support group for the other 11 months, too.  And that’s what ROW80 has become–for me and so many others who’ve become a regular part of this community.   Over the years, we’ve grown together, cheered each other on, and supported each other, no matter what.  That gift is one beyond measure.

Any of you who’ve followed me during that time know that I have an unhealthy obsession with spreadsheets and data.  Call it an occupational hazard.  I’m a social scientist in real life, so I have this driving need to quantify things and track them.  I’ve been tracking my daily word count since 2010, using that information to see where and how I can push myself to write more (I talk exhaustively about this in my post about data-driven decision making).  The goal in the back of my mind has always been to get to NaNo levels of productivity all the time.

That 50,000 words in one month has been my Holy Grail, partly just to prove that I can do it and partly because that level of productivity each month would finally allow me to produce enough content to really build an audience and make major strides toward being able to write full-time (also, it might allow me to carve some inroads in my To Be Written pile, though I’m pretty sure that is hopeless, as I keep getting attacked by rabid plot bunnies on a regular basis).

This NaNo, I actually did it.  I blew through 55k in a month, in fact.  And I’m on track to do the same for December.  Which is…awesome.  I can’t tell you all the numbers I’ve been running trying to sort out what I want to put on next year’s production schedule.  Now I say all of this, not to be all yay me but because I’ve been having all these thoughts about how the heck I got here and how you can, too (if that’s what you want).

Stop saying you can’t do something

For years I said that word count of 50,000 words in a month was impossible.  That I couldn’t wake up early and write.  Along with a whole plethora of other can’ts I won’t get into here.  If you’re struggling with something, don’t say you can’t do it as an absolute.  That’s negative, defeatist thinking and is programming you for failure.  Instead, reframe it as I can’t do _____ YET.  Because that leaves room for improvement and learning and change.  Carol Dweck has a fantastic TED talk about this.

Embrace Write or Die

One of the biggest tools in my box for how I’ve finally pulled off this fast drafting gig is Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die 2.  You can use the traditional punishment mode (wherein if you stop writing it starts deleting words) or you can work it in reward mode, where you get pictures of puppies or kittens or whatever for every x number of words.  The key to this for me is that even in reward mode (my preference), if I stop writing for longer than about twenty seconds, the screen starts to turn red to remind me to get my metaphorical butt moving.  At that pace, my internal editor simply DOES NOT have time to engage.  I’ve come to realize that without that stimulus, I spend a lot of time just STARING AT THE PAGE.  But I set my test mile of 500 words and 30 minutes for a session, and I almost always exceed that by at least 50% and usually more.  And when I’m done, I copy and paste the text over into the relevant section of Scrivener.

Recognize that mastery takes time

So there was this study done by K. Anders Ericsson that basically says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any skill-based field.  Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book Outliers (well worth a read).  For writers, this is generally assumed to equate to a million words.  Now, it’s not just mechanical repetition.  A million crap words with no deliberate attempt to analyze and improve is just going to be a million crap words.  But a million words written with that intentionality toward learning, growing, getting better–THAT kind of practice does lead to mastery.  I realized today that this year I surpassed my million words (see, more reason to track stuff).  Since 2010, I’ve written over 1.3 million words.  And right around the time I crossed that million mark, something shifted in my brain.  Is writing easy?  Nope.  Do I write perfect first drafts?  Other than one book–no, I don’t.  I don’t ever expect to.  But getting that first draft down and out of my head–THAT has gotten easier and I’ve gotten faster.  I’ve spent the last six years studying and working my butt off to learn and do everything in my power to improve my craft, and I know it shows.  Are there better writers out there?  Heck yeah.  Always will be.  But I know that I’m better for all the work and practice.  Great writers never, ever stop trying to learn and improve, no matter how many books or stories they write.

So, wherever you are in your million word journey, I hope you’ll come back to join us on January 4th for the beginning of Round 1 in 2016.  Your cheerleaders will be waiting.