Systems, No Stress

Systems, No Stress

I hate stress. Honestly, I do.

I'm a strong advocate for personal systems (such as time tracking, note-taking, and progress measurement) that significantly help reduce stress.

As I write this, I'm in the editing stage of my novel. The manuscript has 150 scenes, amounting to 150,000 words, all of which need fine-tuning and polishing before they're ready for my copy editor. This stage began in September 2023, and my editor expects the manuscript by April 12.

So, what have I done? Since September, I've carefully tracked my editing speed, measuring my throughput (the number of scenes improved per week). Initially, my progress fluctuated wildly—from two to nine scenes per week—mostly due to business travel for my day job and the time it took to find my rhythm. My throughput was especially unstable around the Christmas holidays, for obvious reasons.

However, from mid-January, my pace has become more consistent. Business trips have decreased, and I was able to make a better forecast of my workload: six scenes per week. The funny thing is, once you identify your target pace, it tends to become a reality (like a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Discipline fosters freedom, and systems bring stability. I want no stress!

I track my time with a timekeeping tool and monitor my progress with a spreadsheet. Without such systems, I'd be perpetually stressed, always worried about meeting my deadlines, and fearful of any unforeseen circumstances causing delays.

As the editing stage nears completion, I remain entirely stress-free. I can handle five or six scenes per week and have just ten scenes left. Clearly, I can expect to finish well before my deadline, which is why I allow myself time for other activities, like writing newsletters and arguing with people on Facebook.

Hah, not so fast! The scenes vary in length, making it easy to deceive myself. Towards my novel's climax, the average size of scenes increases to 1,250 words (from 1,000 words at the start), meaning there's more content per scene! My "scenes per week" target will fail horribly as the deadline approaches!

But wait! I use a time tracker and know my editing pace (4.5 hours per 1,000 words). I can easily estimate the time needed for the remaining work: 12,500 words is around 56 hours. Over the past month, I've managed 22 hours of editing weekly, or just over three hours daily. Therefore, I can finish those 56 hours of editing in 18 days. Bummer! That's precisely the number of days I have left, with no time to spare. Still no stress, but definitely annoying.

Fortunately, I learned some lessons from my earlier books. I have already reserved the entire first week of April solely for last-minute editing, creating a buffer for any setbacks and additional tasks (such as incorporating beta reader feedback and finalizing the text according to my style guide).

It looks like I'll need part of that buffer to complete some of those final big, fat scenes. Oh, well, no worries. I still don't have stress; I have a system.

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Jurgen Appelo

"Eighty percent of everything is noise."