We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
So, I completed Chandler Bolt’s video series, and it is a pitch for his class. There was some okay content in the remaining videos, but probably not worth the 1+ hour I spent watching the series. Video 2 dealt with mechanics of how to write the book. Chandler emphasized doing pre-work- mindmapping, outlining, etc before starting to write. I think this is really an excellent strategy, especially for non-fiction. He then suggests such things as dictating your book into an app (working off your outline) and paying to have it transcribed and edited. While I think may be a useful approach for some, and especially those with handicaps that might prevent typing, I think that there more iterations of editing/improvement beyond get it on paper and pay (a low cost bidder) to edit it. For me, it further reinforced the vibe that this course is for people who don’t care about writing, and don’t care to hone their craft. The last real video was about marketing your book and the mechanics of becoming a Amazon best-seller. How you orchestrate a launch, pricing strategies, how to get reviews, how you should categorize your book on Amazon. Chandler’s demeanor totally changed in this video; he became noticeably more passionate and engaged. This is some of the stuff that I would be interested in learning, and I would even pay for a course. Chandler might even be a great teacher, based on how engaged he became.
But, philosophically, I don’t agree that everyone should write a book. I don’t believe that the actual _writing_ part should be considered the least important part of the process. I strongly believe that the internet and self-publishing are revolutionary and this allows voices that would not be heard before to have a platform. The “long tail” wasn’t served well before, and I am grateful that we live in an age where it is. But a writer has to want to write. A teacher has to want to teach. An artist has to want to create.
To vomit out a book to make some passive income sounds horrible to me. From what I could tell, most of Bolt’s students didn’t do all that well on the passive income side. Usually they made a few thousand total, with steep drops after the first few months. Most of the figures about how much money they made included things like increased consulting gigs/ gaining new clients based on the credential of writing a book.
At first glance, that doesn’t sound too bad- assume you get $5,000 out of the book. I have a feeling that is a wildly generous figure. I did a quick search for how much the average ebook makes, and found that 60% of self-published authors make less than $5,000/year. Are they really all failing because they didn’t take Chandler Bolt’s course?
Let’s run through the math. The course itself costs $600 or $2000 depending on the tier. You can argue that maybe this shouldn’t be included in the estimate, but it is a real cost. There are other costs involved too. If you do his dictation to the phone method, then you can add a few hundred for the transcription. Two others mentioned in the video were editors and a graphic designer for the cover. (Technically a graphic designer wasn’t mentioned, but the cover was mentioned as a critical factor.) I really have no idea how these might cost- $500? I’m sure a high quality professional would cost dramatically more, but assume you can find someone acceptable on Elance or Fivver or whatever. So far, you are still coming out ahead- most of us would probably spend ~$1000 for a $5000 return. The common timeline mentioned in the video was 3 months from start to publication, if you worked for 30-60 minutes every day. If you assume an hour a day for 90 days, then you have spent 90 hours to set up this source of passive income (that will probably only last for 3-6 months). I’ll do the math all the way for you- assume that with your costs, you net $4,000. This means you earned $44/hour for your 90 hours of writing time. That sounds really good.
I’d like a passive income as much as the next person. But courses on generating passive income are modern day snake oil. If it were really that easy, wouldn’t we all be doing it? So, I’m going to research the economics of self-publishing a little bit more. How much does the typical book make, and how long does it continue to generate reasonable passive income? I’ll post my findings here when I have them.
I love knowledge. I love plans. I like finding what other smart people have done, and copying their methods. Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that. I’ve never met a mailing list that I didn’t sign up for. Promise me all sorts of secrets? All I have to do is give you my email? Well, here you go…
Unfortunately, in the modern age, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe this was always so, but now the volume to sift through seems infinite. One regular feature of the blog will be me inflicting some internet course on myself, and reviewing it for you. Even if you don’t pay money for the course, you are spending your time & energy. So, knowing what is valuable and what isn’t is important.
I recently received an email promoting the course Blank Page to Best Seller. This is a free (other than your time and email) course that teaches you how to self-publish a book and make tons of money. This is a free 4 video series with a downloadable pdf ebook.
A little googling reveals that Chandler also sells a course on how to publish an ebook (for $600 or $2000 depending on the level). Most of the reviews I found were glowing, but by people who sell the course through affiliate links.
Chandler Bolt is our guru, because apparently he and his buddy slapped together 60 page book on productivity while snowboarding in Thailand. Said book made Amazon’s best seller list- topping David Allen for some time. As Chandler admits in the first video, the books is all the best bits of productivity wisdom he found from other places. He argues that he is adding value by presenting only the best bits of wisdom. The reviews on amazon are mostly positive, though you do find the stickler or two (or 10 ) who mention the massive amount of recycled content and lack of attribution in this book.
Chandler has a ton of books on Amazon. Many are “guides to” cribsheet versions of his books, available for free. I’m intrigued by a cliff notes version of a 60 page book, so of course I downloaded it.
Video 1 (~ 15 min):
The tone rubs me wrong from the start. You can be a shitty writer, turn out a mediocre product, and make thousands a month? That’s your opening? Seriously??!! What happened to craft? As I mentioned, he eventually puts forth the argument that his selection of the the best productivity information is adding value, but the whole first half is who cares if you are a bad writer? Is this merely a motivational speech designed to encourage those with low self-esteem?
I can’t bring myself to watch the second video or read the guide yet, so this will be a “to be continued…” post.
So, has anyone taken an internet course they found extremely useful? Was it free or paid? How did you go about deciding to commit the time and/or money? I’d love to hear about people’s experiences in the comments.
One of the first things I did when I decided to publish my book was acquire a bunch of books about writing and publishing. In this frenzy, I picked up Pete Seeger’s “Story Telling Book” composed by Pete Seeger & Paul Dubois Jacobs. It is a strange book. I thought it would be about the craft of story telling. Instead, it is a book of stories to tell to children. The bulk of the book is short stories, mostly already known, suitable for children with endnotes about how to make the story more compelling or creative (use scary voices, swap “boy” for “girl”). Fairly frequently the story is modified from the original to emphasize values such as working together.
The book is divided in 6 sections.
Stories from my father- Family history type stories with tips on how to exaggerate the details to make them more compelling and stories that Pete Seeger’s father told him when he was a child.
New versions of old stories- retellings and modifications of old stories such as stories from the bible or fairy tales like “stone soup”
Stories from Sounds, Rounds, and lullabyes- Stories that fill in the details about events described in songs.
Stories from American History- This has both more family history stories and stories about legendary people’s lives
A few of my own stories- The only fully original stories in the book. There is a lot of magical elements in both stories from my father and this section- talking lightbulbs and telephone lines for example. They struck me as fairly formulaic, but I guess that is the point of the book- formulas so you can be a storyteller? To be fair, I did find the stories compelling enough that I read the book in a single sitting. This may have made the formulas more obvious…
Story Beginnings- The first bit of a story- the rest of the story is left up to the reader. Some are original (to Seeger or his father) while some are well-known (Goldilocks).
Okay, first, clearly this book is of no use to me and my quest to publish my book. It has 8 fairly glowing reviews on Amazon from parents who have retold the stories to their children to much acclaim. If you are looking to freshen up story hour, this might be the book for you. If you already have stories bursting out of your head, and regularly use your “monster voice” or “princess voice” as the story requires, you can probably safely pass on this one.
The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we hit it.
I’m a writer. I write technical documents for work and volumes of personal musings for myself. I’ve also written a book- 50,000 words slammed together a decade ago as part of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never read it. Writing the book was a project- a temporary endeavor. When I accomplished the goal, the project was done, and I filed the book away as “complete”.
But lately I’ve been thinking about my book lately in the context of habits and goals. The end point- writing X number of words by the end of November- isn’t the natural endpoint of a book. It is at best a midpoint. Next comes editing, workshopping, ??? I actually have no idea. National Novel Writing Month was a huge amount of fun. More importantly, it provided a framework (write X words in X time) that was easy to follow and easy to win. (Yes, I like to win. No, that isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo. Writing that much in a month is tough, but the endpoint is so close and so clear, it is pretty easy to power through to the end.
There is a lot of contradictory information out there about what to do next. So, I thought I would document my experience as I complete my book. I’ll be looking at a lot of different resources ranging from traditional books to Reddit. I’ll post my reviews of the resources here on the blog, and I’ll also let you know how things go as I progress. I hope that this blog will be a useful resource for others when they decide to publish their books as well.
Along the way, I’ll digress and talk about habits, productivity, “side hustles”, and whatever else I try to apply to my life. The end goal is a peaceful, productive, and creative life. Getting there might be rocky, but hopefully I’ll find some tips and tricks that can make the next person’s life a bit smoother.
The last block to good organization according to Morgenstern is Psychological Obstacles. Again, I think that this applies more broadly to habit building in general. This can be heavy stuff, but extremely rewarding. I’m not sure that these obstacles can be easily categorized, but I’d like to focus on one category where I think a lot of people might have a block- alignment of goals & habits with personal vision & values. A wordy title for sure, but I cannot come up with anything snappier at the moment.
Our goals, habits & resolutions paint a picture of who we think we should be. However, in some cases this isn’t the same as who we want to be. We put down goals that don’t actually resonate with our values or personal vision. We put these goals down because something external is telling us we should. Or we put down a goal that does align with our values or ideal self-image, but actually has no resonance with us.
Let me give you an example. For years “Learn a second language” has been a goal of mine. I work in a multi-cultural environment and I’d say at least 80% of my colleagues speak at least 2 languages, and a sizable fraction of them speak three or more. I’d like to show my non-native English speaking friend and colleagues respect by talking to them in their native language. I think that would deepen our relationship & friendship. In my mind, learning another language would make me more worldly and sophisticated as well. This would suddenly turn me in to one of those adventurous people who backpack across the globe staying in the homes of people they met while chatting at the local market. Knowing a second language (in my mind) is also a signal that I’m not closed minded- I’m not an ugly American. There is a lot of stuff behind this simple goal!
Yet, I still don’t speak a second language. This resolution has been broken more times than I can count. I’d buy CDs or download programs, commit to a practice schedule, start building the habit of practice, and break it within a month. Why? Because I don’t like learning languages. It is a horrible, horrible slog for me. I took years of French in school, and worked hard to get good grades, but it was my least favorite subject. I also don’t like travel. I’m not a spontaneous person, and backpacking across the world sounds horrible to me. The underlying values (multi-multiculturalism, open-mindedness, respect, relationship building, sophistication) are important to me, which is why this goal re-appeared on my list for so many years. To not learn a second language seems like a refutation of values that are important to me. But, there are other ways to live in alignment with those values that fit better with my life, my personality, & my preferences. And now, this goal doesn’t appear on my list. Occasionally, I think “I should learn a second language”, but a few moments reflection convinces me that this goal is still not something I actually want to do.
The converse could be true as well. Upon thinking about a goal and seeing the deep connection to your values and your ideal self, you may realize that it is a much higher priority than you thought. As an example, keeping up with household chores may not be the funnest thing for most of us, and might seem like it is dictated mostly by outside expectations. However, when I thought about how I felt when I walked in to a clean room, I realized that house-cleaning enabled tranquility. For me, I experience increased calm in a neat and clean room and increased anxiety walking in to a messy one. Housekeeping is something that I struggled with fitting in my schedule. It seemed cleaning took too much energy. I either didn’t have that energy, or I preferred to spend it elsewhere. The last year I lived pretty chaotically. However, as I started reflect on my values, and ways to reduce my stress and anxiety levels, I realized that housework was actually a really simple and important path towards calm. And since I’ve starting thinking about these benefits of housework, it has been easier to do the habit of doing some cleaning & tidying up every night.
So, is there a Zombie goal on your list? A goal that you’ve never managed to accomplish, but yet keeps coming back year after year? Perhaps taking a few minutes to think about why you want to accomplish the goal, and if it is really something you want to do, will finally slay the Zombie goal- one way or another.
In Julia Morgenstern’s framework, the second level of difficulties with organization are those she dubs “External Realities.” These are things beyond your control such as unrealistic workload or uncooperative partners.
This is a tricky category, despite the fact that there are really only two options- acceptance of the external reality and mitigation of the external reality.
Mitigation of the external reality is commonly suggested strategy. For example, if you want to take a gym class at 6:30 pm, but your boss frequently wanders in to your office at 5:45 pm to have a long brainstorming session, then signing up for a 6:30 am class instead is a work around. For those of you with understanding bosses and no fear about setting boundaries, go ahead and tell your boss you have to leave at 6 pm exactly. Then sign up for the 6:30 am class after being late for class 3 times running due to traffic. 🙂
Mitigation of external realities can be empowering. You manage to accomplish your goals or habits despite the huge obstacle. Go you!
On the other hand, sometimes it just isn’t possible to mitigate the issue. You have to accept the external reality and perhaps abandon the goal. This is a horrible feeling since it feels like admitting defeat. But it is so corrosive to continually “fail” at something. Better to accept the reality and focus your attentions on something you can accomplish. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion and let go of the habit or goal.
In general, things that require other people to change fall in this category (unless there is a clear way to mitigate, per our chatty boss example). You have no control over others, so let it go. Easier said than done, but inability to change others is probably something that experience tells you is a truth. Other external factors that may fail in this category are poor health or limited time. These can be really hard to recognize and accept, since there is a cultural narrative of ‘gutting through it’. Just because Thomas Edison worked 20 hour days doesn’t mean that work pattern is healthy for you. If you are ill, if you are tired, if you cannot do it right now, accept that and move on. In this case, prioritizing the goals and habits that are essential and letting everything else go is a perfectly sane and healthy approach.
Habit building is hard. It is frustrating as you struggle through the process. There is a growing body of research about building habits out there, which I’ll review in another post, but sometimes despite following the recipes, the habit doesn’t stick. Or a habit you had before suddenly becomes broken.
A useful framework I found for diagnosing problems with habit formation came from the book “Organizing from the inside out” by Julie Morgenstern. She claims that organizational problems stem from three different causes- Technical Errors, External Realities, and Psychological Obstacles. Keeping one’s space organized is a habit itself, so this applying this schema to habits perhaps isn’t a revolutionary leap. But I’ve not seen it presented in this way before, so I thought it would be useful to share it. Today, I am going to focus on technical errors.
Technical errors in the context of Morgenstern’s work are “simple, mechanical mistakes” and are thus the easiest to fix. For example, a house filled with cluttered stacks of books might be easily organized by buying more bookcases.
So let’s apply some easy fixes to our habits! Our habits are frequently sabotaged by simple technical errors. These often appear to defy logic, so you’ll need to pay attention as you do your habits, rather that just thinking through it in the abstract. I’ll give a few examples that I’ve found in my own life.
Habit 1: Taking my laundry out of the dryer and folding it
When I moved in to my new apartment, I had a hard time remembering to complete the laundry. I’ve always been diligent about completing laundry and folding/ironing/ putting stuff away promptly, so I was a little confused about why this habit was broken.
Here is the sequence of the habit:
A) Get basket (for clean laundry) from bedroom
B) Go to laundry room & get Laundry
C) Take laundry to bedroom
D) Fold laundry on bed & put away clothes
E) Put basket back in the proper place in the bedroom
This is apparently impossible to do. My mind could not get behind this (logical!) sequence. Nothing I did worked. I spent more days that I would like to admit dressing out of the dryer because I had no clean clothes in my closet. This led to other problems, like dirty laundry piling up & wet laundry mildewing in the washer because the dryer was filled with clean clothes from a week ago.
However, the following sequence is a piece of cake for my mind. Habit firmly in place and effortless. Other problems related to laundry disappeared once the dryer bottleneck was fixed.
A) Get basket (for clean laundry) from bedroom
B) Go to laundry room & Get Laundry
C) Take laundry to bedroom
D) Fold laundry & put away
E) Put basket back in the proper place in the
bedroom laundry room
Why did this work? I’m guessing getting the basket was just too much effort to overcome to do a chore, but moving the basket to the laundry room at the end of folding was just a continuation of “laundry flow”. Who knows? (Applying some introspection to why the changes worked might be useful for fixing other problems, but for now I’m happy with leaving with a (yet untested) hypothesis.)
Habit 2: Drinking water at work
Impossible approach: Keeping a glass on my desk and periodically walking 6 feet to the water cooler to fill it.
Magic approach: Keeping a 1 L bottle and a glass on my desk. Filling the glass from the bottle, and periodically walking 6 feet to the water cooler to fill the bottle.
The way that is effortless involves more steps. Why should that be easier? In this case, I think this is actually the ghost of habits past. 🙂 I never worked in an office close to water before, so I always brought water bottles/ thermos to work. So drinking by pouring water in a glass from a bottle is the “right way” to do this. I suppose I could choose to try and deprogram the leftovers of the old habit, but making the small change of having a bottle and a glass is a small enough inefficiency that I don’t think it is worth the effort to break the old habit. There are cases where the cost-benefit analysis will lead to the opposite conclusion, but for now, focus on _simple_ tweaks that make a habit work.
Probably, the best approach to find these easy to fix habits is to look at habits that fall in the following categories:
1) Habits that you had before, and are now broken. Frequently it is a small mechanical difference between before and now.
2) Feelings of frustration when trying to do the habit. For me, going to the dryer and then remembering I needed to get the basket was very frustrating. I think this frequently comes at the start of the habit sequence and that it is fairly common, which is why there is a lot of advice along the lines of “pack your gym bag the night before”.
I’d love to hear if you’ve ever experienced technical errors with habit building. Do they fit the categories above? Or is there another place we can be looking for easy to fix habits? Let me know in the comments!
I’m a planner. Breaking complex projects down in to a sequences of next actions makes me happy. It was the one part of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” that really resonated with me, and kept me using a system that did not work for me much longer than I should have. I’m so much of a planner that I read the “Project Management Body of Knowledge” (or PMBOK to friends) voluntarily. 589 pages of statements like, “A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.” There’s actually a whole page defining a project, which is amazing, because everyone knows what a project is, right?! But I think there is actually some important insight that can be obtained from that definition.
Many of us, myself included, treat New Year’s resolutions as projects. At first glance, they seem like they fit the PMBOK. Take what my friend google says is one of the most common resolution, “Lose weight”. It seems like it maps exactly. You drop x pounds, and you are done. Crossed off the list. Temporary. Not a routine operation. And so you approach your goal like you’d build a deck or move cross-country- as a project.
But it isn’t, is it? Treat it as a project, and next year you have the same project. To be successful, your approach has to be one of setting up the “routine operation” or as those outside of the world of the PMBOK might call it -“habits”.
Habits are hard. Much harder than projects. Projects are so linear. You break them down to tiny next actions, then work your way through the list. Common projects don’t even require you to do the work. Just google and find a plan. Want to run a 5k? Download the Couch to 5K app, and just do what it says, when it says it. In 8 weeks, project is done.
Habits are harder. Habits require that you carve out space to do something, and then you have to keep doing it forever! (Well, not really, but it seems like forever).
Resolutions are deceptive. They sucker you into thinking they are projects, and then as you start breaking it down, you realize all the middle steps are habit building. Habit building isn’t glorious. It is a hard slog. And missing one day doesn’t seem as critical as missing a screw while assembling a piece of furniture. But it is, though the consequences aren’t immediately obvious. And so all you can do is do it. Go run. Or write. Or meditate. Or whatever that vague “thing” is that is foundational for your success.
Because if you do it right, if you really build a habit, then magic occurs. They propel you without you thinking or deciding or using “will-power”. If they are strong enough, they just happen. And that such an amazingly powerful tool that is makes the slog of building the habit worthwhile.