ABT: Always Be Tracking

We’re into the second week of 2019, which means many well-meaning individuals have already given up on their resolutions for the year. And who can blame them? So many resolutions, or at least the narrative around them, are rooted in shame and blame. Who wants to carry that negative energy into a new year? Not I, dear fellow.

Instead of making resolutions, I track my decisions, goals, progress, and setbacks over the year. It’s sort of like keeping on top of your finances throughout the year, instead of doing one big push over a few frenzied days during tax season. I’ve been tracking in one form or another since my mid-teens, so now it is a clearly established part of my routine. Read on to learn how I “track my life” and how you can apply these methods to your writing.

Scrapbooks: I have been keeping scrapbooks since I was sixteen. These scrapbooks are repositories for images and typography I admire, articles that inspire or revolt, photos, letters, and markers of achievements (certificates, etc.). Taken together, they show how my interests and ideas have evolved over time. You can use a similar medium for logging ideas for your writing. Instead of limiting yourself to jotting notes in a spreadsheet or journal, gather materials of all types. You could use a specific scrapbook for one writing project, perhaps amassing ideas for a historical novel, or simply use a general scrapbook to gather ideas and images/texts that spark your imagination. Who knows: an image you save today might lead to a book ten years from now, or two seemingly disparate pictures taken together could send your thinking off in a new direction.

Book journal: Reading logs seem to have exploded in popularity in recent years, likely due in part to a New York Times article about the pleasures of keeping a book journal. I’ve been maintaining a book journal since I was nineteen, and like the scrapbook, it’s eye-opening to review how my tastes have changed over time, to compare what I have chosen to read instead of being assigned to read in school, and to determine how many books I read in a year (a lot, and I only record the bound ones). I don’t assign a grade or other “ranking” to the books I’ve read; I just record title, author, publisher, genre, and date/year finished. Reading with great abandon, in large quantity and across genres, is one of the best ways of becoming a better writer. Consider how the writer has put together their book, and what devices they use throughout. Perhaps make notes of what works and what doesn’t. Can you find common ground, or do you question the author’s ideas? Ask yourself why, then go write about it. Tracking the books you’ve read is an easy way to determine how far you’ve come on your reading journey. Go one step further and assign yourself a reading list for this year. Be sure to include authors who think differently from you, and who have different lived experiences.

Books: I use the books around me as another way of gauging where I’m at with my reading goals. And, you know, my progress as a human. I was recently interviewed by the Toronto Star about whether or not I purge books, KonMari-style. Spoiler alert: I’m a  piler. As will likely not surprise you, I have amassed a huge amount of books over two degrees in literature and eleven years in publishing. And as if the scrapbooks weren’t a dead giveaway, I’m a collector. But these days, I tend to keep only old favourites and new books I truly want to read. I allow those books that no longer feel aspirational to drift from my bookshelves and to the “donate” pile. Take a look at your shelves, the stack beside your bed, or your library holds list, and see what books no longer represent you, inspire you, inform you, or really have any other bearing on your life. Then, brave soul, cast them aside. Make space for new books and ideas to enter your life, and you can expect a similar freshness of thinking in your writing.

Exercise calendar: I keep a wall calendar beside my front door because I’m old school like that. Every day I jot down a varying series of letters: C, B, XCS, SS, W, RY. These letters represent the physical exercise I did that day, and sometimes the duration. When I review the month at a glance, I can see if I’m slipping on my exercise goals (and the possible reasons why) and identify any patterns: for example, if I climb mostly on weekends but would like to be climbing three or four times a week, I know I need to make a shift. Some days I mark as rest days, and those breaks are essential. Writing is exercise, too, and it needs to become a habit in order for you to see results. Make it your goal to write every day, even if for only 10 minutes, and jot down your progress on a wall calendar, a digital calendar, using macaroni on a string…whatever suits you. Some writers find that tracking their word count for the day works wonders. At the end of the month, review the progress you’ve made and whether that aligns with your intentions. If it doesn’t, reassess and make some changes. No shame, no blame, just honest assessment. Similarly, there’s a reason why keeping a spending diary or food journal is such an essential part of sticking to a budget or improving a diet—you need to know where your energy and resources are going if you want to see any changes in a specific area.

Time blocking: Like everyone else on the planet, I am busy. My job demands that I devote a considerable chunk of every day to editing, which for me means minimal distractions and deep focus. I used to think of my weekends as distraction-free times in which to edit, but then I decided that working on the weekend wasn’t a sustainable decision for my mental health, and didn’t make me more productive during the week. Now I carve out time every weekday for editing. I mark in our shared office calendar when I am unavailable for meetings, generally every day from 8 to 11 am, unless the meeting is urgent or otherwise unavoidable. I then parcel those hours into 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks (yes, the Pomodoro method). Before the lunch hour and in the afternoon, I email, meet with colleagues and writers, and do all the other things an editor does. At the end of the week, I can look back and determine how many hours I spent editing, which diminishes the likelihood of thinking, “What have I done this week?” or the exceedingly unhelpful and untrue accusation, “I have done nothing this week.”

Five-year journal: This method is fairly new to me, but I’m enjoying the practice so far. The idea is that you jot down on six lines or less what you did that day. The entries are stacked vertically and chronologically, so you can see what you were doing on that day the year before. It does have a bit of a “What were you doing on the night of October 24, 2018?” quality (for the record, I was playing video games with my young friend Seth) but it is also a lovely tallying of days without a reckoning. If I do no other writing in the day, I know I’ll have this short exchange with myself before I fall asleep. It’s a small burst of accomplishment at the end of a usually too-full day, and hey, we all need more of those bursts.

“I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” 

Haruki Murakami

It’s true that “energy flows where attention goes.” And some of the most daring writers and artists throughout history have maintained routines. As Gustave Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” So, whether you use a bullet journal, scrapbook, Google doc, or pile of stones, try to track your writing progress this year, or at the very least your reading habits. Make writing a daily part of your life, and soon it will be an unshakeable part of your routine.

And for god’s sake, make your bed.

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