How to get everything done (including your book)

I really like finishing things. (Most people do.)

As a result, if I have a few minutes free, I read some emails and respond.

If I have half an hour free, I complete a task I can do in half an hour, like reviewing a document or drafting a blog post.

If I have an hour free, I do something that takes longer, like writing a proposal or writing the opening story in a chapter.

The challenge is, how do you get big things done? Of the 250+ hours it takes to write a book, only one is the hour dedicated to completing the manuscript. How do you motivate yourself to do what needs to be done in the other 249+ hours?

Because if, like me, like everyone, you like finishing things, then you’ll work on the things you can finish in an hour — and that’s certainly not a book.

Break it down

Don’t think of a book as a single 250+ hour task. Think of it as hundreds of much smaller tasks that add up to a book.

Here are some ideas on how to make progress on those tasks.

First, block off time in your schedule for “book work.” Ideally, that would be an hour a day or more. And that time should be in a single block where you won’t get interrupted.

Second, leverage other people. Set up meetings to discuss ideas, brainstorm case study candidates, review work in progress. If it’s on your schedule and it involves committing someone else’s time, you’ll be a lot more likely to do the work.

Finally, and most importantly, create subtasks that you can complete in an hour. Examples include:

  • Conduct web research on the book idea.
  • Identify competing or complementary books.
  • Read or skim part of a competing or complementary book.
  • Using the reader question method, draft a table of contents.
  • Send ten emails, individually, to people in your network to source case studies.
  • Use your social media channels, including LinkedIn, to source case studies.
  • Conduct Web research to identify case studies.
  • Review sites of technology vendors to see if their case studies are appropriate for you to use.
  • Organize all the potential content for a chapter into a fat outline.
  • Write the beginning of a chapter.
  • Write the middle of a chapter.
  • Write the end of a chapter.
  • Draft a graphic that illustrates a concept.
  • Send a chapter out to an editor or colleague for review, with a detailed set of instructions.
  • Review edits from an editor or colleague and respond to them.
  • Identify common terms across the whole book and be sure you have used them consistently.
  • Send some emails to people you profiled in the book making sure the facts you cite about them are correct.

Obviously, this is not a complete list. But if you break down the tasks in the book, you’ll always be able to say “I have an hour, here’s the next thing to do.” And you’ll make actual progress.

Bird by Bird, you might say.

And of course this same method works for any large task where you are doing most of the work.

The wrong way

Of course, there’s another way to do a book.

Wait until the deadline is uncomfortably close, even though you haven’t done nearly enough to make progress.

Work nights, weekends, or on a retreat. Take time away from everything you love. Work intensely until you are exhausted and keep going until you pass out.

That might work, too. But it will involve a lot of pain. And the results won’t be as good, since you won’t have time to think and reflect on what you are doing.

It certainly doesn’t allow time for people you need to interview to get back to you. Setting up interviews takes weeks, and you can’t just do it all at the end.

So break your book down into bite-sized pieces and tackle them one-by-one in the chunks of time you have set aside, until you are done.

You’ll make steady progress. The book will closer to completion every day. And the end result will be a whole lot better.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more.

    For my current ghostwriting project, I’ve set up a Notion database with more than 100 individual tasks. Ticking them off gives my client and me pleasure. Kanban boards represent outstanding and completed tasks in visually compelling ways.

    As for writing, developing a detailed outline for a single chapter is much less daunting than writing an entire manuscript. This is why Scrum teams use Agile software-development methods and break down epics into more manageable user stories.

  2. NONE of this works reliably when the problem is that the WRITER is sick and has little energy and can’t depend on herself to follow plans most of the time. Then what helps is sheer determination, and the ability to drop everything else and write when a rare chunk of time comes alone in which she CAN.