“How’s the book coming along?”

Book coverA difficult conversation with someone who cares about you can help you confront an uncomfortable truth.

I’ve been writing a book for the past 18 months. My friends will ask “How’s the book coming along?” I’ll respond with some vague reply and they’ll offer encouragement.

Five weeks ago, over morning coffee, my wife asked me the same question. And the ensuing conversation is making it possible for me reach a goal I care very much about.

The adjustments I learned I had to make might help you, too.

The conversation

My wife sees me brooding in front of my laptop for countless hours, so when I told her that the book is going well, she had a few more questions.

“When will it be done?”
I don’t know. I really don’t have enough time.

How much more time do you need?
I don’t know.

How much time have you spent on it so far?
I don’t know.

How much did you work on it last week? Or yesterday even?
I don’t know.

A long awkward silence ensued. Inside my head were two other questions. Did Hemingway’s wife ask him these questions? And, more importantly: Am I just kidding myself?

Instead of trying to defend my lack of a meaningful publishing plan, I made 3 adjustments. The first one I made while the coffee was still hot.

Spending time

Hanako's chartI was aware of the irony that, in coaching others, I often help them to better manage their time so they get things done. It was clear to my wife (and now to me) that I wasn’t applying my own advice. 

A few weeks earlier, my wife and daughter came up with a simple chart posted on the refrigerator to motivate us to achieve goals we cared about: more exercise for the parents and more time practicing piano for my daughter. It worked.

IMG_4364So, after the conversation with my wife, I posted another simple chart to track hours spent on the book each day as well as when I shipped something to readers for feedback. 

Just like my Nike Fuel Band encourages me to move more, the simple and public display of my efforts on the book helped me to write more and ship more.

Focus

Later that same day, I was reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. Two chapters in particular helped me with my problem. “The Low-Information Diet” made me realize that, while I was reading a lot and meeting many interesting people, much of it was only marginally related to the book. If I wanted to actually publish a book, I’d have to be much more focused.

The chapter on “Interrupting Interruption” helped me see that, despite knowing the importance of focus, I was frittering away time and my capacity to pay attention by responding to far too many interruptions. Worse, I’d interrupt myself by impulsively checking my phone. James Altucher referred to it as “The Loop.” You’d check email, then Twitter, then Facebook, then the blog. Before you knew it, I’d wasted spent 10-20 minutes. And I’d do that a few times a day.

I recognized  I somehow had time for books, for “The Loop,” for coffee with people, but not enough time for my most important goal: writing the book.

So I became more ruthless in practicing what I preach. Now I turn off WiFi when I’m writing. I process email and check social media in batches rather than impulsively throughout the day. And I carefully budget the time I spend on things not related to my goal. Having better control of my time and attention made a tremendous difference.

The last adjustment had to do with my motivation. Why was my goal important anyway?

Clarity of purpose

There are so many books. Why bother writing another one? I knew it wasn’t to make money. (Books don’t generate much and I always thought to donate proceeds to donorschoose.org and public education anyway.)

An even worse reason – my original purpose – was to enhance my personal brand. But the idea of marketing my book just so I could sell myself and more copies was grossly unappealing. It felt inauthentic and was perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress.

It was only when I started coaching people that the purpose became clear: I’m writing the book to help people. To help them discover possibilities for making work and life more meaningful and fulfilling.

I see such positive change in the people I coach that I want to coach everyone I meet. People who’ve grown to hate working in dehumanizing corporations. People trying to start their own companies. People of all ages who are struggling to find jobs and, ideally, work that’s more than just a job.

The book, if I get it right, will help people help themselves and help each other. Once I was clear that the book wasn’t about me but about helping others, it was clear I had to work on it.

Thank you

Since that conversation with my wife, I’ve written and shipped more in 5 weeks than in the preceding 75 weeks. Earlier this month, I shipped the first few chapters of Working Out Loud to volunteer reviewers and their feedback has already made the book better. Two days ago, I sent the first half of the book to 15 more reviewers. I’ll keep doing that until I self-publish the book in September. (If you’d like to review a draft, or have any ideas or suggestions for the book, please leave a comment or contact me.)

I’ll use this blog to share more about the book in the coming months. And I hope that sharing the process itself will help you as you work on your own goals that are important to you.

Thank you for your time and your continued encouragement. It all means a lot to me.

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About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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43 Responses to “How’s the book coming along?”

  1. julianstodd says:

    Very timely as today I’m writing around time management (on Saturday = irony). I enjoyed your exploration of why you’re writing (to empower others: that generosity and sharing is very much a social leadership trait) and the realistic appraisal of challenges (I’m very familiar with ‘the loop’).

    I’m also somewhat intimidated by the dedication you’re bringing to this book: I think I need to try harder! Maybe I need a chart with cake on it too…

  2. When you mentioned ‘The Loop’ I immediately thought of this Portlandia episode https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe-zq4bFPFU

  3. Xavier Singy says:

    You’re writing this book for good reasons. Keep going! – ps: loved the gamification with cake as a reward :p

  4. Nice one, John. Thank goodness for wives, husbands and other loved ones who really know us and are willing to ask the hard questions. The timing for reading this couldn’t be better for me. Thanks.

  5. Mikhail says:

    Hi John, thanks for the post, like you, I knew some general ideas you mentioned, but it was not enough to realize how they apply to my issue, this particular story helped 🙂
    Count me in if you need more reviewers for the book, I live in Russia and don’t speak native English but I guess view from very different culture might be valuable anyway

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Mikhail. (Spaseeba?) Based on my trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I’m expecting the Russian perspective to be, ahem, different. 🙂 The people I spoke with in our offices there liked the ideas but were skeptical. I liked the challenge.

  6. Guy Lipman says:

    I’m really bad at wasting time – there is so much interesting stuff on the Internet! But I try not to get cross with myself for it – just be mindful of it, and know that then, if I care about the task enough, I’ll make a way to get it done. (For example, I’ve recently started going to a cafe where I don’t get wifi to write my blog posts – so much more productive!).

    I’d be honoured to review a draft of your book.

  7. ADAM MAYER says:

    Where’s the cake prize on “The Book” tracker?:-)

    Whatever you need I’m here for you; reviews, suggestions, ideas, feedback, cake baking… anything & everything to help you ship.

  8. simongterry says:

    Great advice John. We all need to better manage the distractions to get the work done that we need. Periods of focus and good planning is essential. Now for that plan for my work. Happy to review anything as you progress (I suspect I will get more out of that experience than you do).

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Simon! A few people at Change Agents Worldwide reached out which is terrific. I’ll post something in that network to make it easier for people.

      The more serious I get about the book, the more I realize how much I have to learn. Fun, interesting, and daunting at the same time. If it wasn’t for intrinsic motivation, I’d have given up long ago!

  9. tanyalau says:

    Hi John – what I love most about this post is your honesty in admitting that you suffer the same foibles as the people you’re trying to help. This is something that people who present themselves as ‘experts’ often shy away from – but displaying that level of openness and vulnerability helps foster trust and show that you’re human, just like the rest of us. Your bit about personal branding spoke to volumes to me too – and very timely – as I was just having a conversation with someone about how the term and concept of ‘personal branding’ makes me a bit uncomfortable, though was struggling a bit to put my finger on exactly what and why. You’ve helped with this: if your activity – and in particular – your interactions with others – is driven purely (or even largely) by a desire to enhance your ‘personal brand’ (as opposed to wanting to help others, or a genuine interest in what others have to say), it does just become all about ME; there’s no authenticity. Eventually that’ll become transparent to people and they’ll turn off anyway.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Tanya. What you and I experience – that distaste for marketing ourselves – is one of the top barriers for people wanting to work out loud. Instead of telling them to get over it, I find that framing their work as a genuine contribution can make that anxiety go away.

      This post is an example. I wanted to share my experience and also describe some of my goals for the book, but struggled with why anyone would care. So I kept working on it to frame it as an experience (and some techniques) that might help others.

      It was still too long and perhaps too much about me, but at least I knew my motivation was good and that made it a joy to write and publish instead of something I’d rather avoid.

    • Eva says:

      Tanyalau, Thank you for expressing what I was going to say, also.

      John – this might be one of my favorite blogs from you in terms of open, honest vulnerability. It makes your advice and recommendations all the more real because you take us in a very visual, emotionally-connected form, from the ‘mess’ we are sometimes stuck in (as your uncomfortable conversation with your wife) to beautiful results and contributions that others can enjoy and benefit from. Thank you.

      • John Stepper says:

        Thank you, Eva. A good friend, in reading early (and, ahem, suboptimal) first drafts of the book, said “I’d like to see more of you in the book.”

        My early writing was more like a book report, trying to show how much I’d read. It’s a common trap when you’re afraid to say what you think. I’m glad you appreciate the change, mess and all. 🙂

        For those reading the current drafts of Parts I & II, if you feel I’m hiding behinds too many quotes and research, please save me from myself.

  10. I’d like to help review your book John. Your coaching sessions have helped me a lot and I want to see your book help more people than we can reach within our own personal networks. Please let me know how I can help.

  11. David G says:

    Hey John,

    Happy to keep on reviewing. Wife says she’ll also give her very teacherish 2 cents too!

  12. Hi John – as one of the 20 ‘coachees’ – where did that offer go? and one who sometimes procrastinates like hell from getting on with ‘work work’ as opposed to ‘me work’.. happy for you to help me procrastinate some more by helping you review. /John

  13. anthony miserandino says:

    Dear John,

    So….how’s the book coming along? PLEASE add me to your list of those seeking to offer you feedback. It would be a great way to stay connected…and for me to learn more!

    Anthony

  14. John – I think this is your best post I have read (among many). The act of committing to something will get you most of the way most of the time.

    When I started my blog I knew I had to do it a lot to do it at all. 250+ posts in a year, some of the good! But that’s OK – I am working out loud on what works. I can then cultivate and improve.

    Very much looking forward to the book. Let me know if I can help.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you! It’s been great getting to know you here and in our other shared networks.

      And thanks for offering your help. There’s so much I don’t know that I’ll need to learn. I know I’ll need more help down the road and will be sure to ask. 🙂

  15. RG says:

    I just tweeted (and posted on FB):

    Read this. It is not about book-writing or about @JohnStepper. This is about you. http://johnstepper.com/2014/03/01/hows-the-book-coming-along/

    As you can see, this simple-looking post has struck a chord with many. You have a credible voice, you have lots of good stuff to share, in a way that connects with a lot of people.

    I would be happy and honored to review your book draft and provide perspectives as an Indian global IT industry professional-turned career coach (and general nit-picker of language/logic :-))

  16. Thanks for this – I’m busy writing a book on implementing Enterprise Social Networks and this idea helps me make my progress more open.

    I’d love to review a copy of chapters whenever you need an extra reviewer.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Louise. My day job (which I love) is helping people in a big company make work more effective and fulfilling. And we use an enterprise social network to enable a lot of that.

      Would you like to talk about it?

      We’re connected on Twitter, too. If you send me a message with your email address, I’ll send you the draft.

      Thank you!

  17. Wayne Tarken says:

    Hi John – Be happy to review the book if you need additional help

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Wayne. Would you send me a way to reach you? Are you @waynetarken on Twitter? If we follow each other, you could send me a message with your email contact.

  18. Irene Johansen says:

    Hi John,

    As many are saying… Thanks so much for your openness. You’ve just given all of us (obviously) permission to be open too. Talk about hitting the nail on the head! For me, it’s a book about my family history… a book about music theory, and how I so want to change the name of music theory to something more real… to write more music – for right now, finish the first new piece in 10 years! And of course, the work that pays for it all, here at a PCN in Calgary. Everything you said about purpose, distraction, self-distraction, and “who cares about this” resonates, I have grown so much reading you blog. I would be honoured to give you another perspective – the administrator, the arts administrator, the opera producer, the musician, the composer, the conductor, the daughter of an artist, the dyslexic, the “outsider” – or just proof… whatever moves you.
    PS – I’m gonna try the chart! Thank your wife for me!

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Irene. That’s a powerful comment. Thank you.

      Here are some of my own thoughts as I was writing it on Saturday morning included:
      “who cares?”
      “it’s not about you, John!”
      “damn, it’s too long”
      and…so on.

      But I knew I was genuinely trying to do a good thing so my inner critic backed off. I’ve learned to accept that my gifts aren’t perfect and that not everyone wants them. And that’s okay. 🙂

      Thank you for generously offering to read 80 pages of a draft! That’s no small thing and I genuinely appreciate it. If you send me a personal email address, I’ll send it to you.

  19. Pingback: How to ask for help | johnstepper

  20. John,

    Looks as though you already have plenty of takers but I would be happy to help move the book along. Reading a chapter, a paragraph, or just helping you find the right word or phrase to frame something correctly (I find myself doing that a lot) – whatever you need.

    Looking forward to the publication!

    Barry

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