the art of self-tracking and semi-quantified self: word count alternatives as an example

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I track many different things in my life (meditation, exercise, etc.) Sometimes I track time (how many minutes I meditate); sometimes I track quantized achievements (did I do one of my exercise routines or not).

One thing that I don’t track, which is always surprising to me when I think about it, is anything to do with writing. This is surprising because, for me, writing is at the intersection of a many of my goals.

The usual thing to track with writing is probably daily word count. I know this works really well for lots of people. For me, I’ve found it counterproductive because tracking word count does not directly reward lots of the tacit, critical mental moves that I do in my writing.

Some people probably track “total-time-butt-in-chair” or “total-time-feet-in-front-of-standing-or-walking-desk.” Again, for me, I’ve found that this, by itself, doesn’t differentially reward and drive the kinds of inner behaviors that I actually use when I’m writing.

I know other people track finished pieces and roughly track progress towards those finished pieces. I can’t find the post, but I believe Malcolm Ocean publishes a post every ten-ish days, or something like that? And he increments a counter by less than one on each day he makes progress (115.1, 115.2, …). He only increments the integer place when he actually publishes (116). For me, I think this might require too much mental energy to honestly predict percent-progress-made each day, to assign a motivating increment.

Also, the inspired and bursty nature of my writing makes the Malcolm Ocean approach seem less useful for me personally. I would love, of course, to be able to make incremental progress on longer, more complex writing, while still achieving the depth and complexity in the final work that’s important to me. I think a more incremental approach would be more sustainable and would ideally improve my writing more steadily over time. But, when I’ve tried incremental progress in the past, the writing comes out flat.

Oh yeah, another thing I’ve thought about is using a diff tool that can count both insertions and deletions, which would sort of capture some aspects of revising. But again, I think it leaves out too much and possibly rewards too many of the wrong things (for me). I’d be worried of unconsciously starting to game it in unproductive ways or that it would be too cognitively exhausting to make sure it accurately reflected something motivating.

(For whatever reason, I’m more afraid of unconsciously gaming some combinations of a) tasks and b) types of tracking than others. Insertions/deletions happens to be one of them. But, like, for example, I’m personally not concerned about gaming the tracking of time spent meditating. Like, I think that’s harmless, for me, to track–and it’s probably harmless for most people, especially if taking mini-breaks.)

So just today, I got an idea for writing tracking that might work for me, for making steady, incremental progress on long, complex pieces while being less dependent on high energy, long blocks of time, and waves of inspiration.

As a first, I think I’m going to try simultaneously tracking at least two things at once in a single session, to sort of triangulate (ha):

  1. total-time-butt-in-chair
  2. max words simultaneously considered and wrestled with during that particular session

There are times, when I’m thinking intensely and carefully, that don’t involve words yet, and I want to reward that. There are also times when I’m working with a large word count, revising, which is important but super-taxing for me, but again not producing lots of new words, and I want to reward that.

(One worry here is that I won’t be rewarded for the important skill of breaking apart a piece of writing into smaller chunks that can be managed individually. This can be a huge reduction in cognitive burden, though sometimes complex stuff can’t be effectively decomposed, which is why I sometimes feel pressured to simultaneously engage such high word counts in the first place. I’m sure I could get much better at this; but anyway.)

I’m not too concerned about producing and publishing per se; the hope/test is whether that will take care of itself under this tracking regime. Again, the goal is to track in such a way that incremental progress becomes rewarding and effective, over and above trying to catch waves of inspiration and hoping that I have the time and energy to catch those waves near the exact time that they happen.

Seriously asking: How do you track your writing? What tracking challenges are you currently facing?

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2 thoughts on “the art of self-tracking and semi-quantified self: word count alternatives as an example

  1. Long version: this old lesswrong post of mine:

    Shorter version: The only way I’ve been able to consistently write was to track neither words nor time but simply “posts.” It didn’t matter if a post was 100 words or 5000, I counted it the same either way, but the requirement to post *something* at a fixed frequency somewhat counterintuitively led to very high output *and* quality.

    As I mention in the linked post, the phenomenon of “churning” is very powerful. From the inside, it feels like my mind can only really dwell on one thing at a time, and it refuses to let go of the current thing until I’ve “written it out of myself.” And once it’s out, the next thing that was bubbling at the edge of awareness jumps into the attentional frame. Maybe the new thing is awesome, maybe it’s crap. So I write that out, too. Maybe one in ten of these involuntary fixations is actually good, but I never would have reached those good ones if I hadn’t churned out the lame ones. (And lame seeds can always grow into cool things.)

    In contrast, I tried to write a novel last year by Beeminding wordcount. It was an almost complete failure. I not only failed to meet my wordcount goal, but the material I did write was awful.

    But, this is me and my own unique creative brain and process, and I’m not a professional writer by any stretch of the imagination, so please weight all of the above comments accordingly.

  2. These are great data points, thanks! I’m putting a bit more credence now in tracking completed units and that’s interesting about Beeminding wordcount. Also noted re the mutual friend motivation.

    More thoughts related to Beeminding wordcount: I’ve noticed that HPMOR ( for unfamiliar readers) is an extreme example of something huge and interlocking that seems to have been intricately planned out from the very beginning. I like huge, intricate, interlocking things, but they are hard and painful, produce sunk costs, may not have a payoff, and have potentially huge opportunity costs. But they’re still really cool–fiction, nonfiction, software, a business, whatever. (So yeah, something-something the correct tradeoffs between braindump-winging-it vs careful-and-possibly-quixotic-planning, “fire-aim, fire-aim” vs “ready-aim-fire,” agile vs waterfall, possibly product-driven vs customer-driven a la Venkatesh Rao, blah blah blah, etc.)

    I’m familiar with like the “making lots and lots of shitty clay pots will ultimately get your farther than trying to make perfect clay pots” anecdote. It seems like your experience bears that out as well, and that is explicitly (somewhere) one of the guiding principles of this blog. So that’s interesting.

    I also have the experience of getting something out my head being the only way to make it to the next thing down the list.

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