How Tracking My Excuses Helped Me Stop Making Them
This spreadsheet system for tracking progress is deceptively simple but totally works
In the spring of 2017, I was burned-out, clinically depressed, and in thousands of dollars of credit card debt. I had just resigned from the nonprofit organization I’d co-founded and I had $732 in savings. As hard as I’d worked on fundraising, my role at the nonprofit was never going to be a salaried job, and I needed to make a big change in my life. But once I quit, I had something more valuable than money: I had time.
And with that time, I started writing a novel about a burned-out female co-founder of a wellness startup.
As underemployed as I was that spring, I had endless hours to write every day. But I struggled to use those hours effectively. I was recovering from burnout at the same time I was trying to reboot my creative process. “Feel guilty for feeling so tired and unmotivated,” I wrote in a journal. “What am I supposed to do, without the daily pile of emails to answer, events to plan, meetings to take? What’s my new rhythm?”
No one was waiting for this book. Instead of being accountable to others, I was now only accountable to myself.
The ‘You Can Write a Novel’ spreadsheet
I knew that research shows we are more likely to achieve our goals if we write them down and create a system of accountability. So I made a spreadsheet called “You Can Write a Novel,” with columns for tracking words written and hours spent writing, and I started to track how I got in my own way.
In Column A, I put the date. Columns B, C, and D were for recording words written, pages written, and hours spent writing, so that I could give myself credit for whatever amount of work I was able to do that day.
In Column E, I recorded my excuses on the days I wrote nothing. This would ultimately prove to be the most important column of all of them.
For seven months, I tracked my progress. I dutifully noted how much I wrote (I averaged around 250 words a day; on my best days I wrote 750). And if I didn’t, I noted why. A lot of my excuses involved prioritizing freelance work over the unpaid labor of writing a novel. But many of the entries were versions of “I had other stuff going on.” In a word: excuses.
5/14/17: was in a bad mood
7/11/17: couldn’t get into it
7/16/17: didn’t make time for it
8/2/17: meetings in the city
8/3/17: so tired from meetings in the city
Tracking my excuses helped me see that there are no perfect days for being creative. The ideal conditions for completing any long-term project simply do not exist. Even without a 9-to-5 job, I had to work around my weaknesses on a daily basis. But a lot of the weaknesses were just part of living and working. Checking email may seem like a quick task, but it forces you to face everyone else’s needs. I started turning off my phone at night and only reconnecting with the world after my morning writing time.
It’s not just email. When I looked into how to overcome distraction, I found that it’s a problem writers have always tried to overcome. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 100 days, during which he was besieged by distractions and house guests (including Charlie Chaplin). His relationship with his wife Carol was tense and then she had to have tonsil surgery. His publisher went bankrupt. “Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable,” Steinbeck wrote in his diary in August 1938. “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
Illness, financial insecurity, marital strife, self-doubt — not only did Steinbeck have it all but he had it all at the same time he was trying to finish a 200,000-word manuscript. So I could work through my various distractions and, you know, haircuts.
I used to love to tell myself that successful writers have it easier than I do. Tolstoy didn’t have to turn off notifications! Nabokov didn’t even lick his own stamps! But then I remember Steinbeck. And hey, Toni Morrison wrote some of her greatest novels in the predawn hours before tending to her children and her day job in publishing. “I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced,” she told the Paris Review in 1993.
So I summoned my spreadsheet, and soon even with all the excuses, I was getting it done. I watched my manuscript grow — 28 pages by the end of August, 69 by the end of November.
Writing in the midst of a busy life is what makes you a writer. And what my spreadsheet showed me was that entering “100 words” in Column B, even if there was a lame excuse in Column E, motivated me to keep going. After all, the most productive among us don’t have easier lives — or more time. They’re just able to find creative work-arounds for their best excuses.