FAQ: How Do You Do It All?

One of the more frequently asked questions I get, and one that inevitably surprises me, is the question, “How do you do all that you do?” It surprises me because I am always feeling like I could have packed a little more into my day if I really tried. I suppose it also surprises me because I am used to working how I work, and what I do is just what I do.

But, since some of my Arlington Writers Group comrades have asked the question, and since I didn’t have a recent post giving an answer, it seemed best to answer it here so that I could point others to this post when the inevitably question comes in. Here, then, are my 5 secrets to how I think I do it all. I could be wrong.

1. First big secret: I work incrementally

This “secret” is not going to please people who are looking for a quick way of increasing their productivity, but I include it because it really does make huge difference. I work incrementally. What that means is that, over time–and often over long spans of time–I steadily increase the amount of work I do. These steady increases go almost unnoticed, but they are also fairly regular, and that means that over periods of years, I find that I am doing a lot more than I used to do.

When I discuss this, I often refer to Milo of Croton1, the ancient Greek body-builder. The story is probably apocryphal, but it gives the flavor of what I mean. Milo was a body builder who had a unique method of training. He would supposedly lift a newborn calf everyday, until, eventually, he was lifting a full-grown cow.

The small, day-to-day variances aren’t noticeable by themselves, but when compared over longer spans of time, the differences emerge.

I do a fair amount of blogging, and it is just built into my day, without much thought. I know how to write post. Much of it is formed in my head before I type out the first words, and when I begin typing, it is more dictation than anything else. That said, I’ve now been blogging for nearly ten years on a fairly regular basis I’ve written close to 6,000 posts. It is muscle memory at this point, and takes little mental effort, only the time to squeeze it in here or there.

The same is true with lots of other things that I take on.

2. Second big secret: automate what is repeatable

I’ve been doing this more and more, and I’ve written about it on a number of occasions, but I get the sense that it doesn’t always register. Let me be blunt: if I have to do something more than once, I try hard to find a way to automate it. This is easy for me for 2 reasons:

  1. Much of what I do is on computer and that lends itself naturally to automation.
  2. I’ve spend the last 20 years as an application developer/IT guy, and have the knowledge it takes to automate without having to spend time learning new technology.

Of course, the automation happens incrementally. I’ve added all kinds of TextExpander snippets over the years so that I don’t have to keep typing the same things over and over again. But seriously automate where I can. For instance:

  • I use services like IFTTT to automate routine integrations between different online apps.
  • Going paperless has helped tremendously in my ability to automate things.
  • I never spend time formatting manuscripts. I write, and then when I’m ready to submit, I run a script that formats the manuscript for the intended market and generates a cover letter.
  • I have saved searches that collect all of my tax-related documents so that I need to spend only about 5 minutes of my time gathering documents to send to my accountant.
  • I have process that scan my meeting notes for action items and automatically add them to my to-do list.
  • I’ve automated all bill payments.
  • I have tons of canned email responses I sent out.

These are just a few examples of the way that I’ve automated things. And they add up. The time that I am not spending on all of these things frees up time for me to spend with the family, or to write, or read, or whatever it is I’d rather be doing. This goes for my day job as well as the rest of my life.

It helps to keep things simple, which is why I prefer to use things like text files for lists, or Google Docs for writing. The result is that I can seem like I do a lot more than I really do myself, simply because there are a lot of automated processes out there doing the work for me.

3. Third big secret: multitask smartly

I generally take three walks every day. This represent my exercise for the day and usually amounts to anywhere form 90-120 “very active” minutes, 3-4 times the minimum recommended amount of activity. At work, I walk at 10 am, noon and 3pm. It keeps me from going into what I call “code comas”, but it also gets me outside and gets me active.

While I walk, I listen to audio books. That means, at minimum, I get in 2 hours of reading every day. Often it is more. This is what I call multitasking smartly. Where you can find places to do it, you get real gains in overall productivity

Another example of this is how I write every day. (Incidentally, today is my 199th consecutive day of writing. I’ve written for 342 out of the last 344 days.) I used to think I needed to block out time every day to write. That never worked for me in the long term. Instead, I learned to write in small snippets of time, and surrounded by noise. I often write in the evenings, in the 20-40 minutes that my kids are watching cartoons before bed. We all sit together, they watching cartoons, Kelly getting ready for the next day, and me writing.

In 20 minutes, I can write 500 words, or 2 manuscript pages. I usually get closer to 900 words each night. It might not sound like much, but 900 words every night adds up. It’s the equivalent of nearly 3 novels worth of writing per year. It also is practice and with practice you get better. When I started writing every day, I began selling stories faster and more frequently.

4. Fourth big secret: give up distractions

At some point, just as incrementally as anything else, I began to give up things that distracted me. Over time, I found that there were 7 things that I’ve given up that I’m perfectly content without, so long as it frees up time for things I enjoy doing more. Those are:

  1. Live television
  2. Streaming videos
  3. Video games
  4. Watching baseball on TV
  5. Personal coding projects
  6. Social lunches
  7. Being clever on the Internet

These freed up an enormous amount of time, but of course, not everyone is willing to give them up. Indeed, when I am stressed, I find that I’ll watch episode of some sitcom on NetFlix or from iTunes before going to bed. It helps ease my stress and I sleep better.

5. Fifth big secret: love what you do

If you love what you do, none of this is hard. I love to tell stories. I love the process. I love sitting at the keyboard and hearing the clicking of the keys. I like seeing the words appear on the screen. I love finishing a first draft, and starting on the second draft. I love submitting stories, and getting paid for the stories that I write. I love writing about technology. I love spending time with my family. None of this is a burden. Sometimes the work is hard, but I’ve found that the most rewarding work I do is that hard work that you love.

So there you have it: my 5 secrets for how I “do it all.” I suspect that these are not big revelations, nor are they particularly secret. But I also suspect that people will be disappointed. If there is a magic bullet to productivity, besides working incrementally and automating repeatable tasks, then I have not yet discovered them.

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  1. I first learned of Milo in an Isaac Asimov book, although which one slips my mind at the moment.


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