Listen to this episode
Watch this episode
In this episode…
As the author of The 12 Week Year for Writers: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting Your Writing Done (Wiley 2021), you won’t be surprised to learn that my writing system is based on The 12 Week Year, an execution system developed by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington.
In this week’s episode I give a short overview of the 12 Week Year for Writers system and why it works. I also outline the major elements of the system and explain how each one will help you to become a more productive – and happier – writer.
Hi, welcome to get your writing done podcast. I’m Trevor Thrall, author of the 12 week year for writers. In this episode, I want to talk about what exactly is the 12 week year, and why I use it. I’ll talk about a lot of different strategies for being a productive writer throughout this podcast. But at the core of the way I think about being a productive writer is my writing system. And that is the 12 week year for writers. And so to help you understand that system, and why I think it’s so useful, I’ll take some time today to break it all down.
So first of all, what is the 12 week year, the 12 week year is a productivity system. But it’s better understood, as its creators, Brian Moran and Mike liddington, call it an execution system. And as that phrase suggests, it is designed primarily to help people where they tend most often to fall short. Typically, people know what they have to do, it’s just that they have trouble doing it.
And I think there are two key sort of failure modes. One is that people often create poor plans that get in the way, or no plans, which was my specialty before I got on the 12 week year train. If you don’t have a plan, or if you have a bad plan, you’ll end up either not doing things because they’re not in the plan, or you’ll do them very inefficiently, because your plan isn’t very good. That doesn’t help your productivity. Even more common, as I sort of just mentioned, is inability to consistently execute the things that you know, you have to do.
And so those are the two things that the 12 week year is really designed to do. It’s designed to help you make better plans, and to execute those plans more consistently. The main hook of the 12 week year, as the name suggests, is a shortened time horizon. Most systems, including the ones you probably deal with, on the job if you work for a large organization. But this is true of most productivity systems out there, most of these things are still built around annual planning cycles. And long-term planning is bad for your plans.
Think about a plan like this a plan in a real sense, is a forecast of things that you think are going to happen in the future. First, I’ll write this, then I’ll write that and a year from now. All right, something else. I think, as we all know, predicting the future is really hard. And the further out you try to predict the worse you are at it, trying to predict what you’re going to be writing a year from now is almost impossible.
This is especially problematic for writers who are, you know, pursuing creative endeavors, where you don’t always know exactly what the project is going to turn out to be a year from now, you know, your writing could take you all kinds of places. And this is true for all kinds of writers, not just novelists. But people writing scientific papers doing research you these are acts of creation, you don’t know where these things are going to take you exactly a year from now. And it would be silly to try to make a plan for a year from now.
So the first thing, the 12 week year does is to shorten the year to 12 weeks. And the science underlying that comes from something called periodization. periodization is something originally used by like Olympic athletes, professional athletes, athletes at the highest levels. And the the theory of periodization is that in order to make big improvements, the best way to do it is to focus on one thing at a time. So if you were a tennis player, for example, you might take a period of time, a month, two months, 12 weeks, and you would say, Alright, this period is all about improving my first serve, not your second serve, not your serve your first serve intense focus on one aspect of your game for 12 weeks. And when you’ve you know, done that you focused on that you can move to Okay, now I’m going to work on my backhand. Now I’m gonna work on my second serve, whatever it might be, and this is how great athletes become great or greater. And there are lots of neat examples all over professional sports of people you thought were incredibly good at something, but over their career getting even better because they use this strategy.
What Brian Moran and Mike Lennington did is they said, hey, what if we gave that kind of system to everybody, everybody could use the ability to focus and get better on something. And what they decided to do was to say look, let’s bring the theory and science of periodization to everybody’s personal professional lives.
And shortening the time horizon for you and me does a lot of good things because pretty Merely it helps us focus and in order to make better plans. Think about a 12 week plan compared to a 12 month plan, a 12 week plan isn’t asking you to predict the future, it’s only asking you to say what do you think’s gonna happen in the next few weeks.
Your plans are a lot more realistic. There’s no magic thinking about what’s going to happen in 12 weeks. Think about New Year’s resolutions. Wow, this year, I’m gonna write a book. How many times have you heard somebody say that or something equally sort of crazy, right? There’s no plan attached to that resolution, there’s, but there’s a lot of magic thinking. sometime this year, a lot of writing will happen, like little black box, then a miracle happened, right? In 12 weeks, if you’re writing out a 12 week plan, there’s no room for Magic thinking. You’re not like, Oh, I’m in week eight, I’m going to get, you know, 1500 times more things done. No, you’re not going to do that.
The result is your plans are a lot more realistic, they also have to be more focused, you can’t stuff that much in 12 weeks, it becomes very obvious when you try to plan out a 12 week period, that you can’t do magic amounts of stuff. So your plans are going to be a lot more concrete a lot more focused, that’s going to allow you to get more traction. Remember the theory of periodization, you focus on one thing to radically improve it? Well, the same is true in any aspect of your, you know, writing life, if you want to get something done, you have to focus on it, don’t try to do 10 things, do one thing, do it in a focused way, you’re gonna get a lot more traction, you get a lot, you’re gonna make a lot more progress.
In addition, though, to creating helping you create better plans, shortening the time horizon also helps with execution. And in particular, it helps with providing you a healthy sense of urgency. How many of you have written a paper for school or maybe a report for work or something like that at the last minute, right before it was due? Why did you do that? Well, I mean, you didn’t want to probably is the first reason. But the second reason, I mean, you knew you were going to do it eventually, so why do it in a panic at the end?. And the reason is, you’ve needed to sense of urgency, the deadline produced a sense of urgency, and the 12 week year does the same sort of thing. By reducing the time horizon to 12 weeks instead of a year, you increase the sense of urgency to get things done, because the deadline is always in sight.
If you say I want to write a book in three years, or let’s say this, let’s say you start a project, that’s a very big project, and it is going to take two or three years, it’s really hard to stay motivated by the finish line when it’s two or three years away. I mean, Lord only knows what’s going to be going on two or three years from now, hard to stay motivated. But when you’re focused on deadlines that are 12 weeks away, and even shorter, because within the 12 week, year, you’ll have deadlines.
When your deadlines are always right around the corner, you’re going to stay urgent, you’re going to stay motivated. And that is a huge help, especially for writers, right, where often the deadlines are the sort of the ultimate finish line is is far away. So that the shortened time horizon is sort of the main hook or conceit, if you will, of the 12 week year. And it’s a it’s a simple, but really powerful way to help you focus, create better plans, and to increase your sense of urgency around getting things done.
But the additional magic comes when you marry the shortened time horizon with the tools for planning and execution that the 12 week year brings. And so it’s helpful to think of the 12 week year as a series of five steps.
The first step is creating a writing vision. Now, many of us walk around without, you know, doing much visioning. But I think it’s it’s often a big mistake. The first thing you need to do is to is to start with a grand vision. What is my sort of long term vision? Where do I want to be when I grow up? Right? 15 years from now? 20 years? 20? Whatever the sort of long term is for you. Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be? What are you doing?
What sorts of things do you have around you? What kind of job are you doing? Right? These are important questions, because this is going to help you align everything else with what you really want. If you’re not aligned with what you really want. It’s very hard to stay motivated. And especially if you’re doing hard things like writing, it can be really hard to write if it’s not getting you where you want to eventually be.
So the first thing is to establish this long term vision, then, based on that you’ll create a nearer term vision. Where does that ultimate vision mean you need to be in the next year or two or three does mean you need to get a new job to get towards where you What do you need to start a program at school to get where you eventually want to be Do you need to move do You need to get married? Do you need to get unmarried? Do what sorts of things in the near term need to be happening?
And then, finally, from those two sort of vision exercises, you want to create a writing vision? How is writing going to help you get where you want to go? What is what role does writing have for you, in the near and long term? is writing something that’s the center of your life? In the long run, even if it’s not now? Is it a side hustle? Is it a hobby, is it something you hope to never do? Again, after a certain point, it’s really important to figure that out, because the ultimate goal of this exercise is to figure out, you know, what you need to be writing to get where you want to go.
And in particular, your writing vision is going to help you identify your very next writing project. And you may already be in the middle of something, maybe it’s something you have to do, maybe you’re in the middle of a dissertation or a master’s thesis, or you’re in the middle of something for work that, you know, it’s just a half, two, and you’re looking for help to get that done great. But eventually, you’re going to have the choice to what’s next. And so this is the process I want you to follow when you try to figure that out. So based on your writing vision, which is your sense of where and how writing is taking you where you want to go, what’s the next thing you’re going to write. So that’s the first step is to is division.
The second step is to take that next writing project, and turn it into the basis of your first 12 week plan, you’re going to create a 12 week plan. And that plan will have as the theory of periodization dictates a very small number of goals. Maybe it’s one goal, right chapter two, maybe it’s a couple of goals, maybe you want to write chapter two and chapter three, something like that a small number of goals that are a reasonable stretch for you to complete. In 12 weeks, you will have those goals, you will brainstorm the set of tactics, you need to reach those goals over the 12 weeks, and you will array a set of deadlines and mileposts along the way, for when exactly you’re going to get each of these things done.
So now you have an execution plan, in addition to a goal. That is really a huge piece of the productivity puzzle is, is putting things on the schedule. Specifically, when you want to get them done research has shown there is a massive boost in the probability that someone gets something done, if they merely write down when they intend to do it. There’s like a 40% jump, it’s kind of crazy.
After you have your 12 week plan, the third step is to align your time with the work in the plan. And the primary tool for doing that in the 12 week year system is the model week. And the model week, as the name suggests, is simply a map of your sort of ideal how you think your time is going to get spent every week given your current schedule.
So the first thing is you block out all the times you know you’re working or taking kids to soccer practice or, you know, playing the flute in the band or whatever you happen to do that you know all your commitments. But then the key thing next is to put in your writing sessions, when are you going to write and the you know, the old adage is so true. If it’s if you don’t have it in the schedule, it’s probably not going to happen. So what you need to do is figure out exactly when hopefully where as well, you’re going to be writing.
In addition to the model week there’s also a set of sort of blocking strategies for scheduling your time that I talked about in the book, in order to make sure that you’re having productive writing sessions, so that you’re making good use of your time. Learn more about that in the book.
Once you have your plan and your model week, you know when you’re going to be writing every week, ideally, of course, the next thing is to implement the weekly execution routine. And these are the tools that you’re going to use to make this plan happen on a week to week basis. So the weekly execution routine starts with your weekly plan. And your weekly plan is simply derived from that 12 week plan.
The whole 12 week plan has deadlines and tactics arrayed throughout the 12 weeks. You’re just going to take that first week out, put on your desk. And you’ll start each week with a review. How did I do last week? And what do I have to do this week. And if there are any tweaks you need to make to the plan for the week ahead. Based on what happened last week, you’ll make those hopefully not too many. But then you’ll sort of look at the week ahead make sure your time still aligns if you have to mess with your schedule to make sure you have time to write you know you can do that sort of stuff. Each week at your weekly review.
You will also take a look at your score for the previous weekend. That’s another tool of the execution routine is scorekeeping This is going to be a new and possibly scary, but let me say essential component of executing things consistently. And that is being honest with ourselves about how we’re doing. So the scorekeeping is very simple, straightforward process. You look at how many tactics you gave yourself to do the week before. And you simply ask yourself, what percentage of those things did you do? What percentage of those things did you do the previous week?
Research and experience have shown that people who complete 80% or more of their tactics every week, are going to reach their goals. Obviously, the more you get done, the quicker and more consistently you’ll reach those goals. But no one has to be perfect. We’re all humans, no one’s going to be 100% all the time, I can promise you I am not, or anywhere close, but 80%. And you’re going to keep moving in the right direction, and you’re going to get there. And so that’s scorekeeping, you’re going to take a look every week and how you did and you’re going to look at the tactics for the week ahead, and you’re going to sort of strategize Alright, maybe I didn’t get something done. Why was that and you’re going to think about how to make sure you get it done the next week.
And then another critical component is called the weekly accountability meeting, in 12 week year parlance; I like to call it the weekly writing group.
Studies have shown that people are, I don’t want to say infinitely better at getting things done. But I mean, you know, some good percentage, better at getting things done when they have a group of peers, to help themselves hold themselves accountable for things. So go into gym with a gym, buddy, going for a run with a running buddy, go into your riding with riding buddies. Now, you know, in the 12 week, year, you know, your weekly accountability group doesn’t have to be people who do the same thing you do.
So as a writer, you know, as long as you’re having a group where you can have accountability sessions, and talk to people about what you’re hoping to get done as a writer, that’s great. But as I discuss in the book, I think the benefits for writers of having a group of writers to have accountability meetings with I think that the benefits are tremendous. Not only can you get accountability benefits from these groups, but you can also learn more about your craft. And you know, writers are your peers, in this case. And if you’re having struggles with writer’s block, or you’re having some troubled burnout, or you’re, you know, whatever it might be, your writing, friends have all had those same struggles, and they’re going to be even more useful than other folks are helping you resolve them.
And, of course, you know, many people, you know, writers are also I think many of them familiar with writing groups where the point maybe isn’t accountability, but it is shared, you know, maybe guided writing sessions where you all get together and turn the phones to stun, set a clock for 15 minutes and have a writing sprint without distractions, then take a quick break bathroom break, check the social media, do another sprint and get done. And you know, if you had a meeting where you started with some accountability, and you talk about how the week has gone, tell people your score, tell people what you’re about to do next week, you know, everyone brainstorms, make sure everyone’s ready for the week ahead, then you roll into some writing, and then maybe a little lunch afterwards or something like that. I that sounds like a great day, doesn’t it?
The weekly accountability meeting, or the weekly reading group is a is a core part of this weekly execution routine. I don’t know that many people I’m trying to think of any really, people just tend to really get their stuff done. When they’re meeting with people on a regular basis and talking to them about their projects. That’s it’s both a sign of your seriousness. But it also amplifies your motivation when you do it and your commitment. So it’s, it’s a positive spiral, the weekly group,
And then you know, every day on a day to day basis, and you know, this isn’t particularly, you know, mind blowing tool, but a daily huddle, right, first thing in the morning, especially on days, if you’re not an everyday writer, you know, daily huddle might be every other day, depending on if you know how you’re going to use the system. But basically, every day you want to ask yourself, What am I supposed to be doing later today? What are the most important things on my writing on my 12 week plan for this week? What do I need to get done? Do I make you know, don’t leave the house without the things you need? Make sure you’re gonna have the time to do it later. You know, all that sort of stuff. Staying in consistent touch with your weekly plan and your tactics is the best way to become a consistent executer of your plans.
Okay, so the steps have been create a vision. Create your 12 week plan. Align your time with the plan, put the weekly execution routine into play.
And the final step of the 12 week year for writers is to embrace the writers mindset. Now, any system looks great on paper. But a system needs an energy source for it to go into work. And of course, the energy system is you and me. And so you ask them, well, what are the, you know, factors that are kind of predict how good and energy source I am how well I’m going to implement the 12 week year system, right.
And I think if you look at having read a ton of stuff by writers about their writing, I am struck and having, you know, watched a lot of people right up close and personal in my own career, I am struck by just how many similarities there are between really productive writers. And I’m sure the list could be a little longer and different people have different kinds of things they would put in this list. But I think you see five things over and over and over again, in descriptions of people who are really productive writers.
And three of these are actually just sort of generic things about productive people. And they come from Brian, and Mike’s book, The 12, week, year. And those first three things are accountability, commitment, and what they call greatness in the moment, but I often think of as grit. So you know, you’re not going to be doing really well, making plans and keeping yourself on track, if you don’t have the commitment to paying the cost. If you’re not willing to put the time in, if you’re not accountable to yourself, if you’re not willing to take responsibility for getting things done. And if you didn’t get something done, it’s on me. I know excuse, I’m going to get it done now, right? Those are really important things, especially because for most writers, you know, most of the time, we write things that we chose to write no one else needs them, no one else cares if we write them. So without that commitment, and accountability to yourself, no one else is going to hold your feet to the fire to get these things done.
So accountability and commitment are crucial. And those lead to greatness in the moment or grit. And let’s face it, no matter how much you love that novel you’re working on, no matter how much you want to get a PhD or master’s degree, there are times maybe a lot of times when you would rather be doing anything other than writing. I mean, I hate footnotes and editing, I just, you know, makes my eyes bleed. But I got to get it done. Or I don’t get to finish the thing, right. So I have to be great in the moment, you have to embrace the suck. Sometimes you just have to find that that fire deep inside that says, You know what, I need this. And I have to finish this even though this is so unfun. So you have to find strategies to, you know, power through when things get hard.
A fourth thing that I’ll add to Brian and Mike’s original list of three that I think writers in particular need is resilience, you’re going to get negative reviews, you’re going to get rejections, people aren’t going to like everything you write, and it hurts, it can hurt real bad, it doesn’t actually get better, I will tell you, I, I have strategies now for dealing with this kind of pain, but I don’t like it anymore. In fact, I might have gotten more thin skinned over time, possibly, but there are things we can do to focus and build on the positives of our writing journeys. And to become more resilient to these negative things. Without them, it’s very hard, especially for writers to get started to get published the first time is a real hurdle. And you’re going to encounter a lot of negative stuff, and challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and so on. Resilience is a cardinal, characteristic for a productive writer.
And then the final one, and I think it’s probably the most important of all, in the long run is a growth mindset. I think an author or writer who is not learning all the time, is someone who is never going to get better as a writer who is never going to grow into the writer that they could be eventually.
And a growth mindset is all about asking how could I do this better? I got criticism, I got a had a setback. How can I use that to learn how to do better next time. And if you don’t have that kind of mindset, it’s super easy to shut down, to shut off to start avoiding the possibility of negativity. But for writing, unfortunately, that usually means people stop writing. And they’re afraid to finish things. They’re afraid to put things out into the universe. And I know it’s hard. I know it’s scary.
But a growth mindset will help you know as as much as you can adopt a growth mindset. Right? It will help you to see the positives that you’re working for and not sweat so much about the potential negatives that you might encounter. And you know, the great thing about all of these, I mean, we’re all gifted different amounts of these five sort of disciplines or characteristics or what mindsets attitudes.
We’re all gifted different amounts of them. You know, maybe from birth, maybe from our upbringing, but the good news is that we can, all of us can improve on all of these scores, I know I have, I am nowhere near the same person, the same writer in my 50s, as I was in my 20s, my toolkit is a lot bigger, I have lots of tools, I have a lot more grit – you can read stories in the book, but I wasn’t a gritty, young person. I’m a pretty gritty old person. But I didn’t start that way I had to learn it.
And the only way to learn, frankly, is through the hard stuff, right? You have to embrace the journey. And don’t think of the setbacks as you know, personal attacks, they’re not a sign that you’re a bad person or a bad writer. Man, these are just the war stories that you’re going to tell your friends around the fire about, man, I thought it was going to kill me that book, but you know what, I rose up, I slayed the beast. And and I have this wonderful book to prove that that I got it done.
So, you know, the writer’s mindset is to me, really the the sort of the, the power core, that’s going to help you do all of the things that the 12 year system asks you to do, that your writing is going to ask you to do over your life and your writing life. Okay, so that’s just a taster, I suppose, of the of the 12 week year, you know, to me, I can tell you from my own experience, that the difference in my writing from before I started using the 12 weeks after is essentially night and day. And I tell the story in the book, but, but when I was a new professor, I was sort of staring down, you know, this publisher perish, you know, dictate, I had six years to publish enough to get tenure or, you know, lose my job. And that was a very sobering, you know, moment for me because I, you know, I managed to finish my dissertation, but I had never been a consistent publisher of articles and books and things like that.
So I had no system in place. And I had never had a system for organizing my writing, I just sort of just did the next thing that occurred to me. I mean, talk about inefficient, ineffective. And so I was pretty sure that was not the right way to get tenure. And, you know, thankfully, I discovered the 12 week year, you know, right when I was starting out, and I grabbed on to it, realizing, you know, I need something. And I will say this that went before, before I had the 12 week year, because I didn’t have a plan, because I didn’t have a system, I never trusted myself that I was going to get my writing done. And so I stressed about it all the time. It’d be a weekend, it’d be a holiday, I would just be worried that I should be writing. Because I really didn’t have a schedule. And I, you know, I didn’t have a plan. So I didn’t really know things were going to get done. And so I stressed all the time.
But once I had embraced the 12 week year, I had a plan, I knew it was going to produce writing on a consistent basis, and that the writing was going to happen at these specific times that I had blocked out on my calendar. Once I had that I was able to stop worrying, I could go home and I would look at the calendar, does it say right? No, it does not say right, I don’t have to worry about writing, I’ll get my writing done when it says get writer writing done. So once I was able to trust that process, instead of going into every writing session, worried about what I hadn’t gotten done, I was able to go in each session excited about what I was about to get done. And that helped me hit my goals quicker.
And the magic for me, and I hope for you is that when you have a plan that’s working, when you trust the system, you’re going to be confident and happy and optimistic. And that’s when you’re going to get your best writing done. And you’re going to get a lot more of it done. Because when you’re in that positive state of mind, write it all builds. And so, you know, the bottom line is, I’m not selling the 12 week year, because you’re going to write a million words a day or some crazy thing, right?
You know, I don’t even use it to write the most I use it to get my writing done. Despite everything else I have to do in life. If I didn’t have the 12 week your system, I wouldn’t get anything done. I’m so busy with all sorts of stuff. But if you if you’re if your goal is to get things finished, the 12 week year can help you if your goal is to write more when you sit down at every session, the 12 week year can certainly help you if you want to write more articles, chapters, books, poems, whatever it might be, it can help you.
But if you just want to make writing a more productive and less stressful activity, as I think all of us kind of do. I absolutely can promise you that the 12 week year can help with that as well. Okay, as usual, plenty more to talk about, but we’ll we’ll put in on it for there. I’d love to hear comments, feedback, stones breaks, whatever you have in the comments, and until next time, happy writing everybody.