‘Righting’ Routines

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

I used to think my brain was my most important organ. Then I remembered who was telling me that. – Various

On a recent podcast, Marc Andreessen noted that learning from investing is difficult. Sometimes there aren’t lessons to learn, sometimes they are, sometimes they are the right lessons at the wrong time. Sometimes they’re devilishly hard to tease out.

What matters most, (based on The Two Jar Model) is what we control. It’s our routine, mindsets, work environments and more. Today we’ll look at that through writer’s lens. Though keep Marc’s comment in mind, not everything here is a lesson for you. All quotes are from Writing Routines.

Work is cummulative. Stephen King jokes that he only takes off three days a year (Christmas, July 4th, & his birthday) because it makes for good copy. He really doesn’t. When he’s writing he writes every day.

When asked about his production function, Tyler Cowen replied that he writes everyday too. “Sundays, absolutely. Christmas, too. Whatever. A few days a year I am tied up in meetings all day and that is a kind of torture. Write even when you have nothing to say, because that is every day.”

In a Reddit AMA Cowen said that it helps to be born a certain way. That means enjoying it, not Instagram-picture enjoying it, but relishing the challenge of the downs and the fruits of the ups. How does someone find this kind of work? Charlie Munger suggests getting good at doing something to enjoy it more.

Do some work, long enough, and you’ll see some rewards. Rich Cohen, author of The Fish That Ate the Whale said he has “a very impoverished social life” and with daily work it adds up. “What seems like my being prolific is just day after day after day after day after day.”

Work is designed for. There are three ways to get better at doing good work, space, time, and incentives.

Space. Where work is done matters. David Burkus said that he works from home and needed to find work/life integration. His home office is tucked away:

“So even though the commute is a few steps, it gets me into ‘work’ mode. But its only a few steps to walk back into the living areas and do something ‘life.’ So I flip back a couple times a day and, at first, it really frustrated me because I was coming from a 9-5 environment. Now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Andrea Wulf converted her attic into a study. There, “I can see the world below me without getting distracted. It’s a writing heaven.”

Time. Writing, like water, can fill any volume. Many featured writers at Writing Routines enjoy mornings but they also work around ‘life’.

Asha Dornfest noted that her schedule has matched her kid’s phases in life. When they were young, “(I) tucked my work into the spaces between family needs.” As they got older she wrote when they were in school.

Annie Duke faced similar conditions as “a pretty busy mom.” She starts when she’s free and with family stuff most writing happens, “weekdays when the kids are at school.”

Incentives. Writers have a natural metric, the word-count. Like a metronome, each syllable is part of the symphony. However that’s only one part of the job.

Many writers have some daily goal but it depends on their approach, their work, and the preparation. Metrics only work for things that can be easily counted.

Wulf has “successfully avoided to have a word count hanging over me.” Words are good for the habit but not always the creation. Incentives need to match processes that lead to good outcomes. Wulf noted, “I spend so much more time reading, researching, restructuring and thinking than writing that it has become meaningless to have a word count.”

Duke too. “I don’t write every day, but I do read every day which I think counts as preparation for writing.”

Work is professional. In the late 90’s a friend had an art exhibition and to show my support, I went. There he pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you believe that someone just paid $400 for that paining? It only took me a few hours to make!’

Briefly I thought of studying art.

Writing might seem like that, but many featured writers at Writing Routines treat it like a job. Kate Winkler said, “(I) stay committed to self-imposed deadlines, so I’ll have a weekly goal that I always meet, no matter what. Journalism has really trained me to respect deadlines and I really try to turn drafts in early.”

Sam Gwynne too, “Everything grows out of my 30 years in the journalism biz. I have worked with daily, weekly, and monthly deadlines and have done this as both an editor and writer.”

We get tricked by this when we see outcomes. Investment returns are simplifications of all kinds of things; work, effort, advice, luck, research, timing, more luck, and more work. Work is the iceberg we don’t see.

It’s clear from the routines that there are three steps to writing; preparation, production, and polishing.

A ‘good’ finished product is some, though not equal, amounts of each. We call these people writers but if we tracked their time they’d be researchers, rewriters, and coffee drinkers. The books in our hands, the podcasts in our ears, the blogs on our screens are the tips of the icebergs.

Some outline like maniacs. Kate Winkler says, “I’m incredibly anal—always have been, especially as a documentary film editor. I keep everything online and organized in very specific folders that are color coded.” That allows her to “create a lot of outlines.”

Robert Kurson uses giant pads of paper to see the story at a glance. He learned this from a film producer and includes “all kinds of arrows, exclamation points, and other notes.” This framework is good because Kurson said, “I probably spend more time on the research than the writing.”

Sam Gwynne says, “I think writers should use outlines and I am constantly amazed to hear that many do not. An outline forces you to think your way through the piece. Writing is thinking. Transitions are everything.”

Writing then is like the expression about life; easy choices hard life, hard choices easy life.

Annie Duke says thirty percent of what she puts on paper “sees the light of day.” Thanks to a lot of drafting in her head, talking with other people, and workshopping the material, “By the time I sit down to write, I’ve already put in time on what I want to say.

Kurson says that 1,000 words is a good day. “If it’s much more than that, I begin to suspect that I’ve taken shortcuts or made compromises. I’m not sure how much sees the light of day; it’s a decent amount, but that might be because I write more slowly than many writers I know.”

Andrea Wulf says, “For me, editing is as important as writing. No, probably even more important.” That’s the work; preparation, production, and polishing.

Work is storytelling. If you’re working with people tell stories.

Andrew Wulf says she reads novels while she writes, “as a reminder of the importance of language. Just because I write non–fiction doesn’t mean that beautiful language should be excluded.”

Robert Kurson adds that by the time the research is done he thinks,“How would I best tell this to friends if we were driving from my home in Chicago to my favorite Indian restaurant in Milwaukee?”

Stories are the reason for our daily email [POV40IQ](https://POV40IQ.substack.com). The name comes from a Rory Sutherland story, where he noted that a change in perspective can be worth forty IQ points.

Now you know some stories too. thanks for reading.

1 thought on “‘Righting’ Routines”

  1. […] Writers are more researchers than writers. Their research expands the body their skills refine the bottleneck – this time it’s a selection effect that’s desired. Robert Caro’s challenge was that the bottle was so much bigger, etnerally vast, that he realized. About researching Johnson he wrote: […]


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