This guest post is by Bea Kylene Jumarang of Writing Off the Rails.
During one of my blocks of free time, I found myself watching a video from Tim Harford, an economist and a writer. In it, he was discussing his three rules for failing productively, and those rules were the beginning of a love affair for me.
Before you think I fell in love with him, that’s not it. I fell in love with the rules, and they’ve changed my life for the better.
Today, I’d like to share those rules with you, along with a concrete process for applying them to your blogging. It’s my hope that if you care to listen to what this post says, the rules and the process will change your life too.
What you’ll need
- a spreadsheet or a pen and notebook for your log, though spreadsheets are better
- the faithfulness to actually log things (more on this later)
- honesty (very important).
Tim Harford’s three rules—blogger’s edition
1. Be willing to fail a lot
If you’re blogging for the long haul, I can guarantee that you’ll run into hundreds, if not thousands of setbacks. Dozens of your posts will languish without comments, your analytics will be a constant flatline, and it will seem like no one really gives a darn. What matters is that you’ll chug on despite everything.
In simple words, be willing to fail—a lot.
2. Fail on a survivable scale
This rule can mean two different things, depending on what stage you’re at with your blog.
If you’re still a beginner, congratulations. You’re already failing on a very survivable scale. It’s unlikely that a bad post will kill your blog, so you’d better appreciate the benefits of smallness.
On the other hand, if you’re a big blogger, you’ll take a little bit more care. Hopefully, you’ll use your experience to the full, and by this time, you should already know what works along with what doesn’t. If you plan to take a risk, put thought into it so you’ll fail in a way that you and your blog can survive.
3. Make sure you have what it takes to spot a failure, and fix it, early
Don’t let issues or problems fester. As soon as you identify something that needs correction, get to correcting. The faster you respond to a crisis, the faster you can learn and deal with its potential repercussions.
Also, don’t close yourself off from the problems other people point out. When they tell you something needs action, act on it, instead of pushing your own primacy over the situation.
A process for productive failure
1. Know your systems, behaviors, and habits
As I said in the introduction, failures are incredibly important as revision triggers. They tell us that something needs to change, and that action needs to be taken. That said, you’ll never maximize a failure’s usefulness if you just let it pass you by like a little tumbleweed.
Instead of pushing the failure to the back of your mind, bring it to the forefront. In fact, log it.
Remember the notebook or the spreadsheet? This is your time to use it.
For the next week, just log your failures. Relevant data points include the following, though this list is just a suggestion. Feel free to customize and add!
- Time in/out: useful to see how much time you actually spend on a task
- When you did the task: so you can see when you’re most productive
- Type of task: post writing, editing, formatting, research, etc.
- Word counts: to see how much you achieve
- Remarks: note any important details about a task
- Failures: whether you were able to do something needed, or not
- Length of material: you might log based on the length of a Kindle book (e.g. 790 locations), or how long a PDF is (e.g. 210 pages).
For the Failures part of your log, you can do the logging in a text editor or something like that. Just make a note in your log whenever you didn’t do something you were supposed to. You’ll see why this is important in Step 2 of this process.
How can you keep up the motivation to log stuff? Make things easy for yourself. As soon as you boot up your laptop, open your spreadsheet. Before you start a task, enter your time in, and remember to enter the time out when you’re done.
In my personal experience, just seeing the spreadsheet on my taskbar has been enough motivation. There will be times when you forget to log things, and that’s alright. Don’t beat yourself up, but keep logging as much as you can.
As an important note, don’t do anything to your log yet. Logging is not the time to reflect. Like Tony Stark says in the Avengers movie, “I can’t do the equation unless I have all the variables.”
Wait for the variables, alright? No equations yet.
2. Make sense of the data
After one week of logging, you should have a pretty detailed spreadsheet, with all the data points that matter to you. Now that you have enough information, it’s time for analysis and reflection. Below are some suggested questions to ask yourself as you review that data.
- How much time does it take me to write n words? This is useful for future estimates to clients who ask you how long a project will take, for example, as well as for your own time planning.
- How much time do I usually spend on email and other online tasks? I can guarantee, this will probably be a shock to you.
- How much time does it take me to do research? Again, useful for future time estimates.
- What times of the day am I most productive? This can be a general answer, like “in the afternoon,” or a specific answer like 4:30 to 5:10 pm.
Once you’re done with these questions, you probably have a reasonable overview of your real behaviors and limits. What you discover may be intuitively known to you, or it may come as a complete surprise. The point is, now you finally know the truth, and you can back up what you know with data.
As far as your failures go, this is the time to be honest with yourself. Find the real reasons for why you failed. No one will see your log anyway, so there’s no reason to lie. What matters is that you’ll finally get an idea of your real excuses, strengths, and pain points, which will be valuable in the quest for improvement.
There’s no point in all your logging and reflection if you aren’t willing to act on what you’ve just learned. All the data in the world won’t matter if you just let the information languish. Because of that, it’s time for you to create your plan for improvement, and to chart your new course based on the realizations you’ve arrived at.
Below are some actions you can take.
- Revise schedules: commit more or less time to certain tasks.
- Take on more or fewer clients: this is linked to the data on how much you can actually handle without failing too much or being too stressed out.
- Lower or raise your word count goals: if you see that you can’t handle 2000 words in one session, then lower your word quota.
The last thing to do, of course, is to implement your action plan, and then log the results. See if you’re less stressed, happier, or anything like that. Just make sure to note what happens.
4. Keep failing
Tim’s first rule is to be willing to fail a lot. Inherent in that rule is the need to keep trying new things, and yes, to fall in love with trial and error.
You see, according to Tim, complex things often benefit from such an approach. In the first place, trial and error gives you a very definite result, e.g. it worked or it didn’t work. And though it may sound pretty surprising, blogging is actually a complex thing. In fact, I view it as a complex system, and evaluating my results often makes me use systematic thinking.
If you don’t believe me, have a think about how many variables are in the equation. You have things like search engine optimization, social media influence, number of newsletter subscribers, heck, even the keywords in your domain are a variable.
That said though, maximizing trial and error necessitates having many things to test out. If you’re wondering about how to do that, I have short process outlined below.
- Brainstorm a list of new actions or directions you’ll take. Examples might include “I’ll publish an infographic instead of a text post” and “I’ll do a shorter post than usual.”
- During brainstorming, don’t let fear crush you. Just let all the ideas out. Ideas don’t need to be subjected to judgment during the initial stages.
- Refine your list. Select the directions that are appropriate for your present situation.
- Apply your selected actions and monitor the results. If you want to be able to evaluate things more effectively, see the resources heading on systems thinking below.
Resources for further reading
This resource list introduces you to systems and design thinking plus the work of Tim Harford. Taken collectively, these resources have made my blogging and my life infinitely better.
- Trial, error and the God complex: This is a talk from Tim Harford, delivered at TEDGlobal 2011 in Edinborough. It remains one of my favorites from TED, and I listen to it every day.
- Tim Harford’s books: I love these. The one that applies most to this blog post is his book titled Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.
- Design thinking … what is that?: This piece is from Fast Company, and it’s best used at stage 4 in the productive failure process.
- Introduction to systems thinking: From Pegasus Communications, this is an excellent overview of the subject. It’s best used to learn better ways of evaluating your results.
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts. Do you do any of these things already? Are you conscious about learning from failure in a systematic way? Let us know in the comments.
Bea Kylene Jumarang is a blogger and fiction writer, obsessed with connecting writing to everything else. When she’s not writing at Starbucks, she’s investigating fonts for her upcoming e-book, Techified : Silicon Valley’s Secret Guide to Writing. If you want first dibs at the book, head on over to the Facebook page for her new blog’s launch. Once the blog goes live, you’ll be the first to know. You’ll also get the e-book, along with even more free stuff!