Thorsten Ball

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What I didn't do to write a book

16 Jan 2017

I wrote my book “Writing An Interpreter In Go” over the course of 11 months. The first four months were spent on building the Monkey programming language and its interpreter. In the following seven months I wrote the book itself and at times it felt like I’ll never finish. But I did and now I want to answer a question a few people have asked me: “How?”

What follows is much more of a confession than a precise description of a refined workflow or a secret productivity technique.

I didn’t have a TODO list I didn’t abandon after three weeks. Did I get things done? I did, but I never read Allen’s book. I also didn’t organize my time according to the four quadrants. I didn’t use a bullet journal to keep on top of ideas and tasks, didn’t use a pomodoro timer and didn’t keep a work journal. org-mode? I wish. Unplug, turn off notifications and just use pen and paper? That’s ridiculous, I have a keyboard.

Some tasks and ideas I put in Wunderlist, some in a Trello board and others in a file called “TODO.md”. Occasionally I even came back to each one and moved some things around.

Taking notes wasn’t much more organized. There’s a shell script I built. It’s based on the sound principles of popsicle-sticks-and-duct-tape-engineering and helped me to quickly create text files in a “notes” folder. Other times I used Notes.app. I also had iA Writer on my phone to access my Dropbox folder and directly write random ideas into the book. When I felt like it, I also did this on my computer: write ideas and outlines directly into the files that make up the book.

All of this changed from week to week and month to month. Sometimes from one day to the other.

The only constant in these 11 months was this: I was determined to finish the book, to keep chipping away at it until it’s done. I got up every day at 5:45am and tried to get take another step forward, using whatever it takes.

But don’t take this for something it isn’t. To say that every morning I sat down at the computer and got a solid hour of writing done before heading to work would be lying.

Sometimes I got up, drank two, three cups of coffee and just browsed the internet for an hour, breaking the chain. Other times I wrote for ten minutes at home and for 30 more on the train. And on my best days, I wrote for an hour at home and for the whole train ride. And some days I only wrote down one sentence, more often than not starting with “FIXME:”.

Is there a moral to the story? I’m not sure, maybe it’s this one: productivity tools and techniques can only help, they won’t ever do the work for you.

It’s easy to fall into this trap and think that once the TODO lists are tidy and organized and the best notebook money can buy is sitting on the table, half of the work is already done. Of course, that’s not the case. Just like an expensive guitar won’t make you a great guitar player and the best running shoes won’t get you out of the door every day, productivity techniques won’t finish your project. They might help, but you have to put the work in. You have to keep showing up and keep chipping away at it. No tool will ever do that for you.

Follow me on twitter: @thorstenball. Or send me an email to me@thorstenball.com. Or check out my book at interpreterbook.com.

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