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Josh Earl

I’m in the middle of what I’m calling Marketing Month. (It started as Marketing March and has now bled into April.)

My main goal for the past few weeks–and the coming weeks as well–is to get a better handle on which of my marketing efforts are most effective, and then find ways to do more of those activities.

One of the first items on the agenda is figuring out how to track where my purchases are coming from.

Google Analytics goals are perfect for this. Goals allow you to specify a destination page where you hope your users end up. In the case of my books, that’s a thank you page that displays after a buyer completes the checkout process. Once you have the goal set up, you get a nice report that shows exactly what the traffic source was for that particular purchase:

google-analytics-goal-setup-1

I’ve already configured goals for my books on Leanpub, but I also have a WordPress site that I use to sell Sublime Productivity through DPD (yep, that’s an affiliate link there).

This is the site where I’m going to be driving most of my traffic, but at the moment I don’t have any idea where my sales on this site come from. Time to set up a goal.

Setting up Google Analytics for cross-domain tracking

The first step in this process is one that I completed earlier in Marketing Month: configuring Google Analytics to allow it to track visitors to your DPD shopping cart.

The process is more involved than I want to go into here, but DPD has a tutorial that explains it here. If the sight of code makes you hyperventilate, you’ll probably need some help with this. It’s not hard, but it’s not particularly easy, either.

At a high level, you need to tweak the Google Analytics script on your site, then install that customized version of the script in your DPD store. Finally, you need to modify your add to cart button to make use of the tweaks. (Like I said, “At a high level…”)

Figuring out the goal page

I didn’t know offhand what page buyers land on after completing the checkout process, so I created a coupon that would let me “buy” my book for free.

The URL looked something like this:

https://sublimeproductivity.dpdcart.com/cart/thankyou?purchase_id=33575&salt=95ca2a6007ea21447c1dec13c6ae85aa3cc&__dpd_cart=3003d2df-6e8c-4761-b757-1aa1316c4bb1

Configuring a goal

To set up the goal, first log into Google Analytics and go to your site’s Home tab:

google-analytics-goal-setup-2

Click the Admin tab, then click Goals in the View column:

google-analytics-goal-setup-3

Click the New Goal button:

google-analytics-goal-setup-4

From the Template list, select the type of goal you’d like to create. I chose Revenue > Place an order:

google-analytics-goal-setup-5

Click Next step.

Enter a goal description and select a type. Since I want to confirm that buyers reached a thank-you page, I left the default of Destination selected:

google-analytics-goal-setup-6

Click Next step again to go to the Goal details page.

Because the DPD thank-you page URL includes information specific to each buyer, we can’t just copy and paste it into the Destination field. Instead, we’ll need to change the dropdown menu from the default Equals to value to Regular expression. This will allow us to find matches based on part of the URL, rather than the entire thing.

Enter the first part of the DPD shopping cart URL, after the site name (the part that ends in .com). In my case, that was /cart/thankyou.

I decided to also enable the Value field and enter a price of $22:

google-analytics-goal-setup-7

Before you click Create Goal, look for the Verify this Goal link near at the bottom of the screen. If you have had DPD integration set up for a while, this will confirm that your regular expression is configured properly to match your destination page.

Finally, click Create Goal.

Your new goal will appear in the Goals section of the Admin tab.

google-analytics-goal-setup-8

Unfortunately you can’t see traffic sources from past sales–you’ll need to let Google Analytics collect data for a while before you can view the Source/Medium report.

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A little more than a year ago, every dollar I earned meant minutes worked for someone else. I was trading my time for income, and the only way to make more was to take on consulting projects.

But that all changed one day when I stumbled on a post by Jarrod Drysdale, a graphic designer whose self-published ebook made $30,000 in two months.

Was his success a fluke? Or might I be able to do something similar?

Then I started hearing more success stories: First it was Nathan Barry, who earned $12,000 with his launch of The App Design Handbook, then proceeded to crush that figure with successful launch after successful launch.

And there was Pat Flynn, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars helping people study for the LEED architectural exam.

These guys weren’t well known — they were desk jockeys like me, two freelance graphic designers and an unemployed architect.

Their only assets were a set of professional skills and a willingness to teach others.

I realized that, as a software developer, I also had a coveted skill set. Maybe I could follow in their footsteps and enjoy the same success.

I didn’t have an audience, other than a few hundred Twitter followers and a handful of daily visitors to a few ill-maintained blogs.

But I’d glimpsed what was possible, and one evening, I started writing an ebook about my favorite coding tool, Sublime Text.

I’m glad I did. Since I pushed the Publish button last fall, my ebook, Sublime Productivity, has brought in more than $16,000 in royalties and earned me an audience that I can continue to serve with more products.

And in the process, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that will allow me to replicate this success in the future.

In this post, I’d like to share some of the specifics of my success, as well as a few of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that I’ll inspire you to take the next step on that ebook or screencast you’re considering.

By the numbers

When I was starting out, the numbers shared by Jarrod, Nathan and Pat helped motivate me, so in the spirit of paying it forward, let’s take a look at my sales and the growth of my audience.

Earnings

Here’s how my month-to-month earnings have stacked up:

monthly-sales-breakdown

My launch last September wasn’t a Nathan Barry-sized home run. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t put in nearly as much work as he does. I was also launching a beta version of my book rather than a finished product.

Still, I was pleased with the results. I’ve written previously about my launch, but to summarize, I launched with a list of only 157 potential buyers and supplemented this megre reach by recruiting the help of others with larger audiences like Peter Cooper. I also offered a limited-time discount as an incentive to buy.

During launch week, I netted 136 sales and $2,000 in income.

I was excited but also afraid: Was that it? I’d heard that ebooks tend to make most of their earnings during the launch. Would this book be a good source of extra income for me, or had it run its course?

The next several months proved that I could generate steady income with the book if I put in consistent effort to promote it. When the launch-week excitement faded, sales tapered off, then held steady around 5 to 7 per week for several months.

But in early June 2013, they suddenly fell off a cliff. I didn’t sell any copies for 5 days. Then I sold a few copies, and had another dry spell of 3 days, and another of four days.

I was panicking: What happened? What did I break?

I’m still not sure what caused those lulls. A little online research revealed that June is often a bad month for online sales, as summer is starting in the U.S. and many people take vacations.

But things looked grim at the time. When the Sublime Text 3 public beta came out on June 28, I jumped on the opportunity and immediately put the book on sale for a week. To my surprise, the spike in sales nearly matched my launch numbers, and June ended up being a great month.

Several smaller contests and giveaways helped generate above-average sales in September and October and had the added benefit of growing my mailing list in preparation for a big Cyber Monday sale.

A little over a year after I first published my book, my 2013 Cyber Monday sale surpassed my most optimistic estimates. All told, it generated $2,025 in income from 167 sales, breaking in three days the sales record I set during my launch week.

Audience

These sales numbers didn’t just happen naturally — they’re the direct result of growth in my audience.

When I started writing my ebook, I had no audience to speak of. My only asset was a few hundred hits a week on a blog post I’d written about Sublime Text. Over the next several months, I focused on extending my reach in three main channels.

Web traffic

Shortly before my launch, I set up a Sublime-focused blog and started posting tips and how-to articles.

sublimetexttips-analytics

I’ve also posted some Sublime-related articles on a personal blog, which now generates more traffic than the Sublime tips blog:

aspirecode-analytics

These are pretty anemic numbers, really. After an initial burst of posts, I haven’t invested as much time in these sites as I could have, and the results are plain.

Still, I get a steady stream of subscribers to my mailing list who mention these sites, and I know I’d see a nice uptick in sales if I devoted more time to blogging on them.

Social media

Let’s get this straight up front: Twitter is horrible for selling things. And yet I’ve invested a lot of time in Twitter and have seen a solid return on my time. (More on this shortly.)

In early August 2012, I created a Twitter account to help market the ebook I was writing. Using a combination of automation tools, I grew this account to 520 followers by launch day, and by the following spring, it had more than 6,000 followers:

twitter-followers-spring

In April, Twitter changed its terms of service, banning some of the automation tools I’d been using.

But I continued to grow the account by sending out hand-picked tweets of interest to Sublime fans, and since this spring I’ve averaged about 100 new followers per week, for a total of 3,400 additional followers:

twitter-followers-current

Mailing list

I didn’t start a mailing list until early in 2013, but once I saw how effective email is, I shifted all of my promotional efforts to growing my list.

My subscriber count has grown in fits and starts:

mailchimp-list-growth

The big spikes are from several contests I ran, including a couple of Sublime license giveaways that together generated more than 2,000 subscribers.

Lessons learned

This last year has been a marketing crash course, and while I’ve had some bumps and bruises, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons about selling on the Internet.

Here are five of my biggest takeaways.

Price by value, not competition.

Everyone knows that $9.99 is the “best” price for an ebook, so I took some flak early on for setting the minimum price for my book at $19.

It was a hard decision to make, but I firmly believe it was the right one. The book’s audience is software developers, a group of professionals who might earn $100, $150 or even $250 an hour. At those rates, minutes saved on routine tasks are money in the bank for my customers.

This has been validated repeatedly by buyers. The software I use to create and sell my book, Leanpub, allows buyers to voluntarily pay more than the cover price if they want to. My sales page specifies a minimum price of $19 but allows buyers to pay more if they choose to, and 38% of buyers pay more than the minimum, accounting for 47% of the book’s total revenue. One buyer shocked me by ponying up $50 for the book (thank you)!

Pricing high also gives me room to occasionally offer discounts, always with a short time limit, to help convince fence-sitters to buy.

Email is king.

It’s hard to overstate the importance and effectiveness of email as a tool for selling a product.

When I launched my book, all I had was a list of 157 people to email, but of those, more than 20% bought a copy.

And during my recent Cyber Monday sale, I was able to compare Twitter and my mailing list head to head. I sent out different discount codes to my mailing list, which had around 4,800 subscribers, and to my Twitter audience, which numbered around 9,300 at the time.

The result? The mailing list generated 1100% more sales than Twitter. Nearly 10,000 Twitter followers netted only 13 sales.

It’s because of my mailing list that I was able to beat my launch week sales figures with my Cyber Monday sale just by sending three emails.

Build a funnel.

If Twitter followers don’t convert well into customers, why do I still devote a lot of my marketing time and energy to Twitter?

Twitter has proven to be a good starting place for my marketing funnel. It’s a great place to meet and learn about your audience, and to introduce yourself to them. It’s a low-cost way for me to get myself out there where other potential customers can encounter me.

And while it’s hard to convert Twitter followers to customers, it’s pretty easy to convert them to mailing list subscribers.

My main objective with both my Twitter account and my websites is to direct people to my mailing list, where I can stay in touch with them over time and, hopefully, eventually convert them to customers.

Good things happen when you have something for sale.

Over the summer, I got discouraged when my sales flatlined. Nothing I did seemed to move the needle.

But I kept at it, and eventually things started to shift. In the last several months, three opportunities came up seemingly from nowhere that have helped me sell more books. First, TradePub approached me about promoting my book as a giveaway on their site.

Second, Jesse Liberty, a blogger I’ve followed through my programming career, praised my book on his blog and gave it a nod in his Sublime Text PluralSight course.

And fellow Leanpub author Azat Mardanov asked me if I’d like to bundle my book with his Rapid Prototyping with JS.

When you consistently invest time in promoting a product, you never know when you’ll get a break.

Start small.

My biggest mistake with this book was overreaching. I set out to write the definitive book on Sublime Text, but I’ve since learned what a tall order that actually is. Sublime adds new features with each beta release, and dozens of new plugins come out every week.

By contrast, my time is pretty limited: I have a full time job and a wife and two kids and can only devote a few hours a week to book-related activities.

My plan to address this problem is to do what I should have done at the outset: Breaking the book up into smaller pieces that I can focus on and check off as completed.

Next steps …

My experience selling my book has left me hungry to try again. I’m finishing another Sublime-related book that I’ll be shipping in the next month or two, and I plan to start another after that.

But what about you? Are you thinking about writing a book? Or maybe you’re halfway through a screencast or software product, and you’re just now realizing that you don’t have a plan to market your product beyond launch day.

I’ve put together a free list of tools that have helped me promote my book over the last year. Drop your email address in the signup form below and I’ll be happy to send you a copy.

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Marketing without begging

The first time you try to “market” or promote something — whether it’s a blog post you just finished or a book you’re selling — it’s easy to feel like you’re sitting on the sidewalk with a tin cup in your hand.

A friend of mine, Derick Bailey, is going through this right now. He’s a savvy and experienced programmer who’s starting his own software product business, and after spending several months coding, he recently released an alpha version of his new product, SignalLeaf.

Now he’s trying to figure out how to market his creation. He understands the importance of building a mailing list, but he confesses:

I don’t know how to grow a mailing list without sounding like I’m just begging people to sign up.

No one likes begging.

Few things seem more self-abasing than sitting outside a subway station with hat in hand, asking for handouts. No one likes pleading with hurried strangers to grant unearned favors. It puts you in a position of weakness, dependant on another to take pity on you.

Marketing feels like this at first. The great crush of people hurries by on the Internet as you watch with baleful eyes.

Please, mister, would you stop by my site and leave a comment?

Miss, can you spare an email address?

Why you feel like a beggar

There are a couple of reasons why you might perceive yourself as an Internet panhandler.

First, you likely feel that you’re asking someone to do you a favor that you haven’t earned. What have you done to deserve their email address? Why should they buy your product?

Second, you know that you stand to gain from the transaction, and it’s easy to feel like you’re benefitting at their expense. And that starts to sound an awful lot like charity. They’re surrendering their privacy (by giving your their email address) or their livelihood (by parting with cash for your product). You benefit, they lose.

But you’re not the panhandler.

Imagine, for a minute, a different twist on the subway beggar analogy. In this version, you’re not the guy sitting on the sidewalk. Instead, you’re a generous stranger who approaches the panhandler and offers to buy him a cup of hot chocolate and a warm meal.

And as he’s finishing up his meal, you say, “Would you mind telling me your name and where you’re staying? I’d like to make sure you have a blanket to keep you warm tonight.”

You’re helping people, so don’t be shy.

If you focus your marketing efforts on helping people, you never have to feel like you’re begging.

The key to avoiding this feeling is to always do more for the other person than you’re asking in return. Instead, you’ll seem like you’re asking for a trivial favor, one that, if granted, will allow you to help them even more.

How I’m applying this to my Twitter marketing

I’ve used this approach to grow my email list for my book, Sublime Productivity. Shortly after I published the book last fall, I set up a Twitter account with the intention of using it as a marketing vehicle for my book.

Many authors do this, then proceed to tweet endlessly about their book.

But I took a different tack, setting aside time each week to sift through hundreds of tweets about Sublime Text. I retweet several hand-picked tweets per day, helping my followers to learn more about their favorite text editor.

I’m doing dozens of little favors for my Twitter followers every week, and the account gained a following over time as people learned what I was doing. I was helping them out by pulling the best Sublime-related news into one place, making it easier for them to keep up with new tips and plugins as they come out.

And a couple of times a month, I ask my followers for a favor: Sign up for my free newsletter. In exchange, I offer more free information, a 12-page sample chapter from my ebook.

I can do this without feeling like I’m begging. I know I’ve helped my followers learn about Sublime Text, and I know that my offer will help them even more. Naturally, I benefit as well; I get an email subscriber out of the deal, and maybe, if I’m helpful enough, a customer. The action I’m asking them to take — sign up for my newsletter — seems like a natural next step. There’s no awkwardness in asking, because it seems like the logical thing to do.

You still have to ask.

Helping people doesn’t get you off the hook, though. You do still have to ask after you’ve provided assistance.

But by this point, you’ve helped the other person enough that asking for their email address feels like the most natural thing in the world.

So ask, and ask confidently, with your head held high.

Learn more about marketing your product.

If you’re struggling to market your product, I’d like to help. Drop your email address in the signup form below so we can stay in touch. No spam — I promise — just more useful information like you got from this post.

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Sometimes I think my brain is trying to kill me. All day, while I’m working, it’s running off in the background, thinking up things to work me to death. It’s especially good at finding little annoyances in life and convincing me that I should “lifehack” them, or find a way to automate or optimize them away.

My brain is always coming up with new goals for me, then mapping out dozens of tasks and projects that I can tackle to achieve those goals.

Take the simple goal of increasing my income. I have lists upon lists of things that I think I should be doing, little projects that would help me bring in more money. Like writing killer blog posts to drive more signups for my mailing list. Or improving the sales copy on my book page to increase conversions. Or adding new content to the book, then blogging about it to drive new signups to my mailing list …

Then there’s my goal of writing more. This is really important — good things happen when I write and publish things. Again, a million projects spring to mind. Which should I tackle first? Writing posts for my blog? Adding more content to my book? Starting another book? Or writing blog posts that I can someday format into a book? What a sweet lifehack!

There’s literally an infinite number of projects I could take on that would further my goal of writing more.

It’s overwhelming. I don’t know where to start.

So which project do I start with?

None of them.

When I get these, ahem, brilliant ideas, I catalog them somewhere — and then do my best to forget about them.

Instead of breaking my goals down into projects and tasks, I’m focusing my efforts on building habits.

Instead of worrying about how to increase my income or what writing project to tackle next, I’m pouring my energy into a single habit: Write daily.

Every day, first thing after sitting down to my computer in the morning, I’m writing. Some days it’s 1,000 words on a book project. Others it’s drafting a blog post, or, on days like today, it’s polishing something I drafted earlier.

Projects are short term, but habits are forever.

It’s often easy to complete a small project. If you’re excited about the project, your motivation will be sky-high at the outset, and once the finish line is in sight, you’ll get an extra rush that’ll help you persevere to the end.

But then what?

Now you have to transition to the next project, and it’s hard to conjure up the same level of excitement you had for the first project. You can see how much work it turned out to be, and the prospect of doing it again isn’t inviting.

When you build habits, though, you learn to take a long-term view. When cultivating a habit, individual tasks and projects aren’t as important as consistency over months and years.

I look at habits like a wood chipper. Once you get the habit going, you can feed it anything — from little tasks to huge projects — and it’ll chew through it like it’s nothing, then wait patiently for the next piece of debris.

The other week I finished the first draft of my next book, but I hadn’t met my writing quota for the day. So I opened a new document and started a blog post.

Gotta feed the machine.

Tasks and projects are infinite, but habits have built-in limits.

Another problem with a project-first approach is that it fools you into thinking you can take on more than you really can. It’s easy to keep a list of several dozen “active” projects, each with an associated list of tasks. You can spend weeks working on these without completing anything, all while feeling massively productive.

But a habit-development approach provides a natural set of constraints. Building habits requires intense focus, and you can at most actively cultivate two or three at a time.

I aim to work on one personal habit and one work-related habit at a time, but even that can be a stretch.

But isn’t project planning useful?

Absolutely. I’m not advocating that you abandon your project plans and task lists altogether.

But projects and tasks are most useful when you can feed them into your habit woodchipper.

So when you have a long term goal that’s really important to you, try shifting your focus away from projects and action steps, and start looking to develop a core set of habits that will propel you toward that goal.

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When I first decided I wanted to get serious about my health and fitness, I started where any self-respecting geek would — research!

I spent a few weeks trying to read so I could formulate a plan of attack. But I quickly hit an obstacle — there’s just too much information out there. The mountains of advice out there about what to eat and how to get leaner and stronger are staggering. And the best part?

Everyone claims that their system is the only one that works — and that the others will kill you

I just wanted to lose a few pounds, put on some muscle and feel better, and now I had to sort through dozens of competing, do-or-die claims.

death-on-the-line

But as I stopped hyperventilating and continued to read, a different picture swam into focus.

There were a few basic strategies that almost everyone agreed on

Once I understood these strategic goals, I could intelligently select a specific program that supplied the tactics that would help me pursue that goal.

For example, my fitness is putting a few pounds of muscle on my scrawny, computer geek body. There are thousands of programs that claim to do this, from intense home workouts like P90X to bodybuilding programs and group classes at the local Y.

From my reading, though, I’ve learned that adding muscle isn’t complicated for people in my shoes. It boils down to a few basics: Eat right, lift heavy, and sleep well.

It’s not a complicated formula. But it gives me a framework to start with, three slots to fill, and it helps me choose diet and exercise programs that will give me the nitty-gritty tactics I need to achieve my major strategic goals.

Now evaluating exercise programs gets a lot simpler

P90X, for example, claims it’ll add pounds of muscle over 90 days by putting you through a rotation of 12 grueling, hour-long workouts. It seems challenging, and the claims line up with my goal of gaining muscle. But the program emphasizes a high volume of work — hundreds of curls, pullups and pushups. Good exercise? Yes. But it’s hardly lifting heavy.

On the other hand, the Starting Strength program is designed to help skinny high school kids bulk up for sports, and it focuses on building a good base of muscle through five basic, whole-body barbell exercises. Each workout, you steadily increase the weight in each exercise. Starting Strength meets my lift heavy criteria — it’s a better fit for my goals.

What does this have to do with marketing?

The marketing industry has a lot in common with the fitness industry. There are hundreds of great how-to books and prepackaged systems available for you to choose from. Many claim that their approach is the only one that works, and they’ve got the testimonials to “prove” it.

It’s overwhelming, and your to-do list will grow with each book or blog post you read:

  • Improve landing page conversions
  • Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Google+!!!
  • SEO all the things!
  • Offer Multiple price points
  • Pursue guest blogging opportunities

If you want to get your head around all of this, you have to take a step back and realize that most of this material focuses on tactics rather than strategies. There’s nothing wrong with tactics, but if you don’t have a clear set of goals in mind, you’re going to spend all your time bouncing from tactic to tactic and making little progress.

What core strategies should I pursue with my marketing program?

There are three main strategic goals that I consider essential for marketing:

  • Understanding an audience
  • Building trust with the audience
  • Expanding your reach with the audience

If you continue to work on each of these three areas, you’re going to make progress.

Notice what’s not in that list. There’s nothing about logos, or responsive web page design, or social media. Those are all tactics, and they may or may not help you achieve one of the objectives listed above.

When you encounter a tempting new tactic, try to determine which of those three main objectives it can help you achieve, if any. That gives you a basis for side-by-side comparison with other tactics.

Different tactics, same objective

Let’s look at the objective of expanding your reach. The goal here is to increase the number of people who encounter you for the first time — broadening your exposure.

There are many viable ways to do this. I’ve had some success with the following tactics:

  • Building a large Twitter following
  • Growing a mailing list
  • Writing blog posts on frequently searched terms
  • Writing content that’s likely to be popular on high-profile sites

Any of those activities could consume all of your time, and books could be written about how to use them effectively. But in each case, you’re essentially pursuing the same goal — increasing the number of people who stumble across you for the first time.

Recognizing this allows you to evaluate whether a given tactic is worth your time.

For example, Twitter has proven very effective as a way for me to promote my book about Sublime Text. Software developers are perennially interested in their favorite editing tools, so I set up a Twitter account and use it to tweet Sublime-related tips. This account is one of the main ways my Sublime audience encounters me for the first time.

On the other hand, I have a website I set up to promote standing desks. In this case, I didn’t want to spent time each week promoting the site, so I decided to pursue search-engine focused tactics. I published several articles that might appeal to LifeHacker, angling for some powerful backlinks. They took the bait, and Google started sending me a steady stream of traffic soon after.

Don’t stress about finding the “right” tactics

When you’re getting started, don’t worry about finding the absolute best tactics. Instead, list out a few options under each strategic objective. Do a little reading on each, if you’d like. Then pick one or two and start executing. Stick with it for a while, then evaluate whether you’re starting to get some traction from your effort. If not, set that tactic aside and try something else.

Ready to dig deeper?

In the next few posts, we’ll zoom in on each of these three goals, explaining more about what they mean and why they’re important. We’ll also take a look at some tried-and-true tactics that you can consider as you figure out how best to promote the things you’re creating.

Don’t miss out — drop your email address in the box below and I’ll be sure to let you know when I publish the next installment.

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21 hours a week

It’s discouraging, having to hold down a day job when you really want to be hacking on that great idea for a web app you’re kicking around, or writing your book, or starting your own business.

You look at your lack of progress on one hand, and the huge block of your day that you spend building someone else’s business, and it’s tempting to think, “If only I didn’t have to spend so much time at this job, I could really get things going …”

I feel that way sometimes as I work to get my self-publishing business off the ground. OK, maybe it’s more like several times a week.

But it’s a lie

It’s a lie I tell myself to let myself off the hook, to avoid having to show up, day in and day out, and do the boring, repetitive work it takes to succeed.

Anthony Trollope is proof

I’m reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. The book is a well-researched compilation of short sketches of the working habits of well-known writers, painters and other artists.

One of the first chapters describes the daily routine of Anthony Trollope, a prolific Victorian-era author. I’d never heard of Trollope until last night, but he’s my hero.

His productivity was jaw-dropping: He wrote 47 books over the course of his career. He was so prolific, in fact, that his publishers expressed worried that he might overwhelm his audience. With a pen!

But here’s what I found so inspiring: He produced his first two dozen books while holding down a full-time job as a postal clerk.

The myth of “not enough time”

You don’t need endless swaths of free time to do good work, Trollope said:

All those I think who have lived as literary men—working daily as literary labourers–will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours–so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.

You need focused, daily effort

Trollope was a writing machine.

He woke early, slid into his desk by 5:30 a.m., sucked down his morning coffee, and started writing.

He guarded his attention closely as he worked, keeping his watch open on the desk in front of him and using it to maintain a steady pace of 250 words every 15 minutes.

He wrote for three hours a day, seven days a week.

And after he completed his 3,000 words, he ate breakfast and headed off to do postal clerk things for the rest of the day.

Are you telling yourself, “If I could only quit my job”…

For me, like Trollope, it’s writing. I want to build a business churning out books like the one I’m writing for programmers about Sublime Text.

I find myself, at times, frustrated by the time constraints imposed by my day job. While I’m immensely grateful for the opportunities my employer has given me, I can’t help but cast a jealous eye on that 8-hour block in my calendar labeled “Work.”

But you don’t need 40 hours a week

I can’t yet match Trollope’s 21 hours a week. But I can fit in an hour or two per day, and I’m aiming to write 1,000 words first thing after sitting down to my computer each morning.

It’s adding up quickly.

What are you putting off until you’re somehow magically free from your day job?

Instead of focusing on how little time you have, set an appointment with yourself. Show up, every single day. Focus.

And if three hours a day is too much to carve out, How about two? Or one?

You have enough time.

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Drifting away from GTD

I owe a lot to GTD. Six or seven years ago, I was an ineffective and disorganized worker. I forgot things all the time, missed deadlines regularly, and struggled to keep up with the demands of my job.

Reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done and doing my best to implement it turned my life around.

For several years after that, I did my best to keep up an ever-evolving GTD system. Organizing and “hacking” my life became a fun and rewarding hobby.

But I’ve gradually fallen off the GTD bandwagon, and in the process I’ve discovered what I consider to be the ultimate “life hacks”: habits and routine.

I’m not going to hate on GTD. I love the discipline and rigor Allen’s system imposes, and it’s ideal for people in a similar situation to where I was a few years ago. It’s like bootcamp, and it instills some basic principles like capturing things in a trusted system instead of trying to keep them in your head.

But over time, I’ve found that GTD is best for people who want or need to keep all their plates spinning, to balance myriad activities and maintain their sanity in the process.

Thing is, I don’t want to keep lots of plates spinning. I want fewer plates.

GTD does give you the tools to simplify your life if that’s what you want. A core tenant of the system is just being honest with yourself about all of the commitments you’ve taken on. When you see the mountain of work you’ve created for yourself, it’s the first step toward learning to say no. And GTD imposes a certain amount of overhead that makes you less likely to take on yet another project that you have to track and generate next actions for.

I always came away from my GTD weekly review feeling energized and ready to tackle my next action lists.

So I didn’t rage quit GTD. Instead, I’ve found that I’ve gotten less and less benefit from the core practices over the past couple of years, and since I no longer need them to maintain my sanity, I’ve stopped devoting the energy required to keep them up.

Instead of next actions, I’ve learned to think in terms of habits.

I still set goals for myself, but instead of breaking my goals into projects and next actions, I think about them in terms of habits I can build.

The trouble with the project and next action mindset is that it requires constant mental effort and internal motivation. You have to keep driving yourself: What’s next?

But when you really establish a habit, it just becomes the thing you do just because. It allows you to sit back a bit and let autopilot take over.

My major goal over the next several years is to establish myself as a self-published nonfiction author. I have some specific goals around how much I want to produce and how much I want to earn as a result.

If I were tackling this goal from a GTD mindset, I’d be looking to tackle a project, like my next book. I’d be reviewing my progress on that project weekly and deciding on next actions for research, writing and marketing. I might get it done, but then what? Carve off another project, rinse, lather, repeat.

Instead, I’m looking to establish habits that will allow me to cruise toward my long term goal of becoming a prolific author. I’m developing the habit of writing every day for an hour or two. I’m focusing on developing habits around my writing processes that will make me an effective and productive writer, such as creating thorough outlines before I begin writing and powering through a full first draft without editing.

If I was focused only on cranking through my next actions to finish a project, I wouldn’t be investing the time to work on these habits. Slowing down to focus on process only makes sense in the broader context of establishing long-term habits. It’s not the most efficient way to work in the short term, but I’m not thinking just about my current project. I’m thinking about the next 10 after that.

You can definitely get all meta about this and treat “establish XYZ habit” as a GTD project. Which is why I’m not knocking GTD. The system has a lot of merit and flexibility.

But I’m more interested in simplifying and routinizing my life than in managing a lot of complexity. And GTD makes me more likely to add complexity instead of focusing on reducing it.

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An outline is not a checklist

My outlines used to be a mess. I’d sit down to write something, and I’d feel like I had to outline first, because that’s what writers do, you know?

So I’d throw a few bullet points down on a piece of paper. No, not even bullet points. They were more like a collection of random thoughts with a loose affinity to the topic I planned to write about.

After a few minutes of brainstorming, I’d wind up with a sketchy group of sentence fragments and phrases.

Then I’d start to write, and I’d use my “outline” as a checklist of things I wanted to cover in the blog post or book chapter. I’d start expanding each item into sentences or paragraphs, then poke them around the page until they started to arrange themselves in a logical order. Sometimes this went well; mostly it did not. I’d struggle and fret and fuss until I’d burned a few hours and generated a lot of pent-up frustration. Maybe I’d finish writing the thing, but more often than not I’d abandon it and move on to something else.

After spending the last few weeks learning about outlining and applying some discipline to my writing process, it’s obvious what I was doing wrong. I’ve learned a cardinal rule of outlining.

An outline is a skeleton, not a checklist.

If I want my writing to go smoothly and flow quickly, I have to put a lot of sweat into the outlining process. I’ve come to think of it as pre-writing rather than outlining. My outline needs to contain all of the bones that my finished piece of writing will contain. But I also need to understand how the pieces relate to each other and support each other. The structure of my book chapter needs to be complete.

One test that I’m starting to apply to determine whether I’m done outlining a section of my book is to ask, “If I were to try to write this section now, do I know what I would say?” If I don’t look at a portion of my outline and hear sentences forming in my head, than I’m probably not done outlining yet.

Usually, I’ll realize that I’ve fallen back into the habit of making a high-level checklist of topics that I want to cover. I haven’t dug deep and uncovered what I want to say, specifically, only what I want to say things about.

It was hard for me to pick up on this distinction at first because of the bad habits I’d developed. In my old edit-as-I-went style of working, I never felt the pain of not knowing what I was going to say. I would work in non-contiguous chunks, then figure out how to weave them together later.

But now that I’m developing the discipline to write straight through a crappy first draft, it’s painfully obvious when I hit a roadblock. I’ll come to a section of my outline and just not know what to say. And that’s exactly as it should be. I don’t know what to say because I haven’t yet thought through what I should say in this section. I’ve tried to cheat on the pre-writing step, to avoid doing my homework.

I’m learning to recognize this feeling of being lost more quickly, and I’m getting better at it.

The remedy is simple: I have to go back and do the work that I was trying to avoid. I have to go back and finish my outline until I can look at each part and know exactly what I will write in each section.

My outlines now look completely different than they used to. Rather than creating a checklist, I’m mapping out exactly what points I’ll make in each section, sometimes down to the sentence level.

It’s frankly surprising me how detailed they’re turning out to be. For my current book project, which has a target length of 20,000 to 30,000 words, I currently have a 20-page outline. That’s the length when I convert it from and emacs org mode outline to HTML for viewing.

On one hand that’s intimidating. It seems like a lot to cover. But when I look at sections of the outline, I know exactly what I’d say if I sat down to start writing this minute. It’s a lot of writing, certainly, but I can see myself flying through it at 1,000 words an hour.

The skeleton is all there, and I just have to flesh it out.

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Focusing on my writing process is paying off

It’s been close to a month since I decided to get serious about my writing and set a goal for myself of publishing four ebooks in the next 12 months. So how is it going?

Although it’s hard to tell on a day-to-day basis, when I look back at the past month it’s clear I’m making huge strides.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort so far focusing on my writing process. I’m convinced that my old writing process was holding me back.

It’s hard to even call it a process, as I didn’t really have a systematic approach. I’d usually start by brainstorming a bunch of thoughts into some document, along with a ton of questions. Then I’d start doing research and reading. That step lasted until I got bored or hit some difficult concepts, and then I’d decide it was time to write. But everyone knows you’re supposed to outline before you write, so I’d pick away at a few bullet points in an outline document, half-heartedly, knowing full well that I never intended to use the outline. I’d get bored with that quickly, and decide that it was time to start writing. I’d plunge headlong into the writing, jumping around and writing the easy parts first.

And at some point I’d get stuck. I’d hit a wall and not know why, or what I needed to do to fix it. At this point, Resistance would kick in with a vengeance. I’d do anything to avoid working on my project, or to convince myself that I was working on my project while I was really avoiding it (I’m marketing! Really!). Eventually, something else would come along and I’d drop it with a sense of vague frustration and guilt.

This past month has been different, and in a lot of ways, it’s been uncomfortable. I’m working on a book about writing Sublime Text plugins, and my goal is to publish it by the end of November. That would be about two months from the date when I decided to tackle the four-books-in-a-year commitment, but I already had a one-month head start with this one. So it’ll take about 90 days total if I meet my deadline.

I spent about four weeks on solid research, which consisted of reading the few available blog posts on the topic, studying the Sublime Text API documentation, then diving in and writing a plugin from scratch. I averaged about three 25-minute pomodoros per day working on the plugin, and it took approximately one month to complete. While I worked I took extensive notes, and I also put some thought into making my version control commit messages meaningful.

After burning a third of my allotted time on research, it was time to move into outlining. This is where I hit my first major difficulty. I had a vague idea that I was going to tell the story of how I wrote this plugin, but I had a lot of conceptual material to cover as well. How was I going to work that in?

I overcame this hurdle by realizing that I’m not the first person in the world to write a technical book or outline a talk on a technical topic. I collected some example outlines and discovered a common organizational structure that fit my developing book perfectly.

That got me unstuck for a while, and I sketched out a rough outline of my entire book. It was several printed pages long, and I was feeling good about things. Time to start writing!

Another change I’m making, in addition to treating the outlining process seriously, is writing a crappy first draft of the entire book before I try to edit any of it. When I started writing, I was expecting that I’d get into a flow, since I was working from an outline. But that didn’t happen at all. Instead, it was horrifically painful. I only managed to eek out a couple of hundred words a day for the first few days. But I stuck with it, and one day things started clicking. My writing speed jumped up to more than 900 words an hour–a huge improvement from the 230 word rate I’d measured just a few weeks ago.

It’s not really a fair comparison, since I had offloaded most of the thinking and planning to other phases of the writing process. Those are the difficult tasks, it turns out. Putting words on the screen isn’t the hardest part, although it feels like that’s the sticking point if you’re trying to do multiple stages at once.

I was exhilarated–it felt great to write that fast and see my word count jump by more than 1,000 words per day. And it stuck. I was able to produce at that level consistently for more than a week. My manuscript grew to more than 7,500 words in a short time.

And then, wham, another wall. I finished drafting the first couple of chapters, and then I got stuck again. I sat down to write one morning, and nothing happened. I stared at my outline, then back at my blank Scrivener document.

Come on, Josh, just start typing what’s in the outline! What’s wrong?

This is where I really got some benefit out of my new writing process. In the past I would have just fought with myself for an hour and finally given up for the day, only to come back to the same struggle day after day.

But this time I quickly realized that something was wrong, and I knew where to look: my outline. I’ve tasted what it’s like to write quickly, and I know that I’m capable of doing it if I set myself up for success. When the words aren’t flowing, there’s something wrong with my outline.

So I took a closer look, and as it turns out, I’d pretty much phoned it in on more than two thirds of the outline. I had bullet points down, sure, but I didn’t know what I was going to say about them. They were more like a list of topics that I wanted to work into the finished book.

Back to outlining I went. I realized it would be a waste of my time to try to write until I’d outlined the remaining two-thirds of the book.

That was about a week ago, and I’m still working on the outline. I’ve spent more than 20 pomodoros on it so far, and I still probably have a few more days to go before I’m ready to start writing again.

I’m surprised at the level of detail that I’m putting into this outline, and it’ll be interesting to see how it translates into paragraphs and word counts. It’s probably grown to at least eight to 12 printed pages at this point, and I think I’m including at least one line per paragraph.

It’s a bit painful. I feel like I’m wasting time and avoiding “real” work by outlining instead of writing. But I’m suppressing my lizard brain and pressing forward because I know that this is the right way to work.

If I do my job here, I can probably bang out the first draft in two or three weeks. That’ll be fun.

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Your focus is finite

So why am I putting in all this effort to write faster, anyway? If I want to be more productive, shouldn’t I just focus on carving out more time to write? After all, I can write just as many words per day just by increasing the amount of time I spend at the keyboard, can’t I? Is it really worth the effort to increase my writing speed when I could just grit my teeth and put in more time?

That argument makes sense, but it’s dead wrong. Because it treats work as a predictable equation and assumes you can just manipulate variables to achieve the same result. It leaves out a crucial variable: focus.

I firmly believe that human beings have a finite amount of focus available on a daily basis, and once we’ve spent that time, our ability to produce drops off quickly.

You’ll see hints at this in the working habits of many highly productive writers. In On Writing, Stephen King describes how he sets a daily quota of 2,000 words for himself. But he usually only spends about four hours a day writing between breakfast and lunch. After he hits his word count, he quits and spends the rest of the afternoon reading.

Another hero of mine, Steven Pressfield, describes a similar routine in The War of Art. He starts work after his morning rituals and writes until he starts to notice that he’s making typos, which usually starts to occur after about four hours.

In observations of myself, I’ve found that I seem to max out after four to six hours of intense focus. I can continue to work past that, but my productivity declines sharply. I find myself staring at the screen a lot more, puzzling over simple problems.

I’ve been observing my own limits for the past few months by practicing the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is a useful tool for beating distraction and procrastination. The basic concept is that you alternate periods of intense work with short breaks. During a work period, or “pomodoro,” you’re not allowed to engage in off-task activities like checking your email or casually chatting with a colleague. You set a timer for the proscribed period, which is usually 25 minutes, and you focus on it intensely. When the timer rings, you take a five-minute break before diving back into your work.

The Pomodoro Technique works as advertised. I find the ticking timer helps me stay focused, and the scheduled downtime helps me defer distractions that would normally pull my attention away from what I’m doing.

But another major benefit of this approach is that it provides a systematic way to measure your focused work time. Every time I complete an uninterrupted pomodoro, I make an X in my journal next to the task I’m working on.

In theory, an 8-hour workday has enough space in it for 16 pomodoros. I usually put in about 10 hours per day—two hours of writing time, followed by 8 hours of work at my day job. So that’s like 20 pomodoros, right?

Not exactly. I find that I hit the wall after about 12 to 14 pomodoros. I’m toast. Crispy. Done.

Most days I’m not able to come close to hitting that limit. Maybe I’ll have meetings, or QA will find a problem code I wrote last week and I’ll have to spend time troubleshooting with them.

This is fortunate, though. Because there’s a cumulative effect if I hit my limit three or four days in a row. The next day tends to be bad—sometimes really bad. I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, and my count of completed pomodoros drops dramatically.

There seems to be a hard limit to the number of pomodoros I can complete in a given week—somewhere in the 50 to 60 range. That’s a total of 25 focused hours per week, including some work on the weekends.

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? That’s all the time I really have. So I have to make it count.

That’s why I’m not trying to squeeze in more hours of writing. Between my existing writing schedule and my day job, I’m already maxing out my weekly focus quota. If I try to put in more hours, I’ll be draining my tank further and setting myself up for burnout.

So what’s your personal limit? Read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated and give it a shot for a few weeks to find out. You’ll probably be surprised, both by how much you’re able to accomplish in a given timeframe and by how finite your mental resources really are.

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