A success spiral is an immediately usable, powerful tool that can help you overcome inertia and make effortless progress towards living your ideals (e.g., exercising regularly, playing an instrument). The concept is simple: start small — so small, in fact, that it is effectively impossible to fail — and gradually build on your initial momentum to pursue ever more ambitious goals.
In a series of previous posts, I wrote a high-level overview of success spirals; a beginner’s tutorial on how to use them; and, a beginner’s tutorial on how to select effort-based rather than result-based goals. More recently, I decided to do something even more tangible: a publicly accessible, live walkthrough of me using success spirals to improve this blog. Specifically, I tracked two success spirals: one to write content for this blog and one to “manage” the blog — something that I had never before done with any active intention.
That live walkthrough lasted 30 days, from January 18th to February 16th. You can see the results, complete with day-by-day notes, on this Google spreadsheet. This post is a recap: a synthesis of the results along with commentary on everything that went right and wrong and what I can do better for my current and future campaigns. I hope you find it useful.
I’m going to talk about the results for each spiral I grew separately, partially because the two differed in lifecycle and tangibility going in to the live walkthrough.
Blog writing spiral
I already had experience building a success spiral to establish a daily writing practice for this blog. At one point shortly after I started the blog, in fact, I wrote for at least 20 minutes per day and closer to 30 on average. Even going into the live walkthrough, I was still writing for around 5-10 minutes every day . So, I knew exactly what I needed to do and already had the self-confidence to start my writing spiral at around 5 minutes per day and still feel next to no pain. My intention was to build back to a minimum of 15 minutes per day — note, though, that this intention was not a pre-requisite for “success”, it was just something that I thought would be an effective motivator for pushing myself to increase my minimum. Success was determined only by my ability to follow-through on my daily minimum goal.
Writing minutes:As you can see in the figure above, by the end of the 30 days I had written for about 837 minutes, or 28 minutes per day on average. In fact, this is a conservative estimate because, I often underestimated how much I wrote (I should do a better job at timing exactly how much I write). By contrast, the minimum required amount, accounting for promotions in my daily minimum goal, was 325 minutes, or about 11 minutes per day. So, I more than doubled the cumulative minimum in time spent writing.
Spiral growth: I also gradually grew my success spiral goal from 5 minutes per day to 15 minutes per day, meeting my original intention. As you can see from the spreadsheet, my promotion criteria was straightforward: meet the daily minimums for the next promotion level for a minimum of one consecutive week. So, if I wanted to promote my spiral to 20 minutes per day, I would have been able to do so on February 13th when I had, for one consecutive week, written for 20 minutes per day. However, I decided that 15 minutes per day was sufficient so I left the daily minimum at 15 minutes.
Writing output: And, finally, how about actual results: what did those 837 minutes (~14 hours) produce in terms of content written? Four finished posts and one first draft. Actually, I’m proud of my output though the actual content was unexpected. I wrote a four part series of posts on one of the most commonly asked questions to graduating Ph.D. students in computer science: academia or industry, or, rather, what job do you want after you graduate? During the walkthrough, I published an overview post on the job options students typically have available, a post on why the choice matters on a personal level, and a post on why the choice matters on a professional level. I also wrote a full first draft of why the choice matters on a societal level, but that final installment required some additional editing before I was able to publish it. In addition, to this series of posts, I also wrote an interim update on the live success spiral walkthrough. In all, I wrote close to 10,000 words: pretty impressive for starting out at a minimum requirement of just 5 minutes per day, wouldn’t you say?
Blog management spiral
Prior to this live walkthrough, I had never actively “managed” my blog with any intention before. I did some of the basics, of course: pick a name, a WordPress theme, a rough topic and do some basic content promotion on Hacker News and Twitter. But I did most of those things just because I had to to get the blog going. So, before this experience, I barely even knew what “managing a blog” meant. I had little concept of what sort of high-level intentions and low-level tasks would be effective. I just roughly knew that I wanted to grow my audience and be happier with the design and presentation of my platform.
Fuzzy, amorphous goals, however, are the lifeblood of procrastination. So, I knew I had to start very small with the management spiral: just one minute per day, and that one minute could even be spent just reading other blog posts about how to effectively manage a blog. I did have a high-level intention of building up to 10 minutes of blog management per day, however, along with gaining a better understanding of what it meant to even manage a blog well.
Management minutes: By the end of the 30 days I had spent about 528 minutes “managing” this blog, or about 18 minutes per day on average. The minimum required amount by the end was only 159 minutes, or about 5 minutes per day. In other words, I invested more than 3 times the minimum required amount in managing MakeWriteLearn.
Spiral growth:I grew my success spiral goal from 1 minute per day to 7 minutes per day, falling shy of my high-level intention of reaching 10 minutes per day. Still, I never fell short of my daily minimum despite being quite sick for a long stretch of the live walkthrough. At the end of the walkthrough, I was only two days shy of reaching the promotion criteria for growing the spiral to 10 minutes per day.
Management output:I’m very happy with my output, overall. At the highest level, I learned a lot about what I need to do to better manage this blog. So, I’m going to share my concrete output along multiple dimensions.
- Learning about blog management: I read and am continuing to read a lot of information about better blog management practices. Maybe I’ll one day write a post about what I learned, but for now, some content that was particularly influential in shaping my thinking include: Man vs. Debt’s How NOT To Suck At Blogging, Chris Guillebeau’s 279 Days to Overnight Success, and Michael Hyatt’s Platform book. I’m not yet done with Platform, but the information in it has already helped shape my thinking both on how to run a better blog and also on how to better promote my academic research. Also, browsing the subreddit on blogging has been informative.
- Community building: One recurring theme that arose from my reading was that one of the most effective ways to improve your platform, apart from writing valuable content, is building a community. To that end, I started compiling a large list of other bloggers / internet personalities who write about similar things (e.g., graduate school, academic life, personal development). I even reached out to a few, offering to guest blog. This effort resulted in my largest promotion success to date: the immensely popular Shit Academics Say [link] Twitter account shared my post on dealing with rejection in academia, resulting in a huge amount of growth. I also created a Facebook page on which I hope to explore an additional avenue for organic traffic and community growth. I also have a lot more in the pipeline that I hope to actualize soon.
- Design & presentation: Initially, I did not want to invest much time in anything but writing content. But, now that I have fallen into a steady writing rhythm, I decided to also invest some effort in improving the information and visual design of my blog. As a result, in this one month I: (1) found a clean, minimal WordPress theme that helps readers find relevant content; (2) retro-actively categorized and tagged all of my blog posts and added high-level category menus to the front-page; (3) designed a logo / icon for MakeWriteLearn that you can see at the top of this page; and, (4) created a number of easily sharable blog featured photos for many of my most popular and new posts.
- Growth: Finally, as a result of my investment in these thrusts of blog management, MakeWriteLearn has grown significantly. First, I should say that I set up a number of filters on Google Analytics to mitigate number inflation due to spam accounts. Even excluding these spam numbers, in just this short month, MakeWriteLearn has had over 20,000 page visits, my Twitter following has grown 3 fold, and my mailing list has grown to over 100 subscribers. Most of this I owe to Shit Academics Say, so I expect this was a one-time burst in growth that will fade over time. In fact, the traffic spike I received from Shit Academics Say absolutely dwarfs the traffic spike I received from being on the front page of Hacker News. Still, the fortune from Shit Academics Say would not have been possible had it not been for this success spiral.
What went well
Massively outperforming minimums: For both spirals, I substantially outperformed the minimum goal. This comparison is typically not very important, but I’m highlighting it here because one of the biggest concerns people raise whenever I introduce them to success spirals is: “but you won’t ever get anything done if you only write for 1 minute per day!” That’s true, but the daily minimum goal is only there to help you overcome your inertia. In fact, you will do a lot more than 1 minute per day and that small investment can produce huge results (as I hope I’ve convinced you through my own results).
Low-stress incentives to improve: Because I was actively trying to grow both of my spirals, I had incentive to go beyond the daily minimums without additional stress if I could not exceed the minimum. For example, there were some days I really could not invest more than the minimum into managing the blog because I was sick or had a lot of work to catch up on. On other days, however, I always tried to meet the promotion criteria for growing my spiral. And I never felt bad about not being able to do that.
Public accountability: I think the fact that I was doing this walkthrough live and publicly added to my motivation not to miss a single day. Even though I know not too many of you were actively paying attention, I certainly did not want to report a “0” in any of the daily columns.
What could be improved
Not building-in contingency plans: Sometimes, things happen. For example, I was sick with flu-like symptoms for much of the early part of the walkthrough but had no systematic mechanism in place to modify or pause the campaign. Of course, if I was sick enough, I could always just not do anything and record a “0”, but the problem with making exceptions non-systematically is that it’s easy to fall onto a slippery slope: e.g., well, I’m still technically a bit sick, so maybe I don’t have to do it today either. Having apriori rules you can follow to afford yourself exceptions in exceptional circumstances can prevent that.
Conflating too many things in one spiral: By the end of the campaign, my blog management spiral was encompassing too many different tasks: visual design and presentation, social media presence management, reaching out to other bloggers, reading about blog management, etc. These are all very different tasks that have all been conflated into the same success spiral just because I did not know what blog management really encompassed at the beginning of the campaign. This ends up being a problem because while all of these tasks are important, it was easy for me to decide, on a lazy day, to just read things about blog management instead of actively doing anything. This wasn’t a mistake, necessarily, because I had no way of knowing better when I set up the spiral structure, but I also realize that it would be good to have a policy in place on how to deal with success spirals that multiply in complexity as you progress.
Okay! So that’s it for this live success spiral walkthrough. I apologize that the recap was so delayed, but I hope it’s been informative and illustrative of how success spirals can be used to overcome your inertia and accomplish big things.
Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments, share your own stories with using success spirals, or let me know if you want me to do more live walkthroughs!
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 So, before I get started with the actual content of this post, I should note that the reason this recap post is coming so late is because right after the end of the success spirals campaign: (1) I had to travel for two weeks to present a paper and attend two conferences in California, which required an intense amount of socialization that can be quite an energy drain (more on this in a future post); (2) I had to propose my thesis (more on this in a future post); and, (3) I had to spend some time recovering during Spring break. As a result, there’s a backlog of half-written post that I’m going to work to push out soon, starting with this post!
 The reason this regressed was because I had made a decision not to actively maintain any of my non-primary success spirals going into winter break so that I could spend more time with my family.