Two Things You Need to Get on Track

It’s actually pretty simple if you implement these two practices: deadlines and accountability.

Now wait a second before you have a knee jerk reaction to the word “deadline.” I’m not talking about the crap we used to suffer at school. I never did homework and I’m not about to shove it on you either. I’m talking about deadlines that YOU set in place because you’re working on a goal YOU want to achieve.

Deadlines force you to get serious, to meet your targets, and to own up when you’re not staying true to your plan. Without firm deadlines it’s too easy to make excuses, to get caught up in endless email checking loops, or to sidetrack yourself with busywork that has nothing to do with your goal.

The thing about deadlines, though, is that you actually have to mean it. It’s no good setting deadlines if you’re going to fluff them off every time. “Your word is law.” If you commit to it, you get it done. It doesn’t matter if you have to walk across the Sahara. It doesn’t matter if your friends get upset that you just can’t be available for bar hopping on Friday. It doesn’t matter if you have to lick the road clean with your tongue. You’ve committed to it. Now do it.

And that’s where accountability comes in. You need a way to keep yourself accountable. I’m not saying you’re going to lie to yourself and dream up all these great stories about things you’ve never really done –although I’ve known a few people who fall into that trap. I’m saying memory is fallible, and it’s easy to imagine you’re accomplishing more than you really are, just because you’re “working on it.” A system of accountability gives you a way to track your progress. It encourages you when you see those successes pile up. And it brings “My word is law” into the physical, because you’ve written it down, posted it online, or told another person.

Implement these two simple practices and you’ll be amazed at the progress you make.

Need an example? Let’s talk writing, because that’s what I know best.

Back in 2000 I dropped off the map on a solo journey to Central America that completely changed the way I saw the world. When I returned, I knew I finally had my topic and I wanted to explore the experience by writing a book.

I sketched out all sorts of notes on tiny pieces of paper. I combed through my journals and got the outline clear in my head. I thought about it all the time. But I never really wrote much of anything down. I was still trapped in that Latin American “manana” I guess, and the pace of my journey hadn’t yet worn off. I did get serious for a couple months that summer when my girlfriend was away, but it wasn’t enough.

Jump ahead several more months. I moved to Japan and was working at an English school in the afternoons. I was poking away at the book again but not really making any progress.

And then one day someone from the gas company left a large wall calendar in my mailbox. And that changed everything…

I don’t know what got me thinking of numbers – I can’t even count without using my fingers. But I sat there staring at the calendar on my wall, and I realized that if I wrote just 5 pages a day on Monday to Friday, by the end of the week I would have 25 pages. Now 5 pages isn’t very much. But if I did that every single weekday, even assuming I took weekends off, I would have 100 pages by the end of a month! In 3 months I could have a complete first draft.

It was the motivation I needed to get me on track.

I wrote the entire manuscript longhand, on pads of yellow paper. During every break at my job, I shut myself in my classroom and worked on my book. And when I came home at night I drank a cup of tea, read 50 pages, and picked up my pen to start writing again. No matter how tired I was or how late I had to sit up, I never quit until I had those 5 pages.

It didn’t matter if all 5 pages were crap. I did it anyway. Some days when it was flowing really well I wrote 8 or 10 pages, but never less than five. When I was finished for the day I counted them up and wrote the number on my wall calendar. And I totaled it up at the end of each week so I could see my month’s progress at a glance.

Eight months of procrastination was banished in an instant. I couldn’t wait to pick up my pen each day and get to work. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. I was reading great books – 50 pages in the morning and 50 pages at night – and filling notebooks with the ideas, images and phrases they taught me.

That dumb calendar kept me accountable, and it gave me a way to track my goals. Three months later I wrote the final sentence, and I completed my first draft.

I typed it up, printed it off, and set it aside for a few weeks. And then began the long process of revision, refining, and cutting. But that’s another story.

My point is that I had a deadline – 5 pages each day, no less, and no excuses – and I had accountability – my wall calendar courtesy of the gas company. Those two simple things were enough to light a fire of motivation. And it’s still going ten years later.

So what’s it going to be? Are you going to talk about your dreams, or will you get down to work and live them?

There’s nothing holding you back.

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