In the history of my writing life, beginning when I was a child and continuing until I was 42 years old, I started hundreds of projects and never finished one. I’d write until I hit something that stopped me (either within the story, or in my life)…then I’d give up. When I came back, I always started something new.

That’s fine, if you want to write just for the enjoyment of writing. But I wanted to *be* a Writer, with books for sale in bookstores. Maybe even make my living at it someday. You can’t do that on unfinished work.

So, when I turned 42, that magical number that we learned from Douglas Adams is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, I decided it was time to get serious. Writers write, dang-gummit. Every single day.

That’s when I found the Magic Spreadsheet. Literally, this is a spreadsheet in which you track your daily wordcount. But more than that, it’s a community of writers on Facebook and Google+. It’s a tool that really changed my writing life and levelled me up in productivity.

This fancy spreadsheet, developed by Tony Pisculli, has a point and levelling system to gamify the daily writing habit. You get points for the number of days in your chain and for meeting your daily goal. So long as you write 250 words, that counts as a writing day. The daily expectation moves up as you accept higher levels, but you don’t have to do that either. It’s a very flexible tool that can accommodate a variety of approaches.

You can be as social or antisocial as you wish. You can see the wordcounts of others, and if you are a person inspired by competition, keep track of who’s on top with a Live Leaderboard.

People are motivated by different things. I honestly didn’t expect the Magic Spreadsheet to be as effective for me as it has been. After all, I had tried point systems and gamifications of various sorts for other aspects of my life (exercise, chores, etc.) and each only worked for a little while. These methods usually feel artificial and constricting to me—but this one was different.

Now, more than three years in, I find I don’t really care about my number of points or my rankings against other writers that much (Okay, maybe I do check to make sure that I’m ahead of Chad in points, since he’ll always be ahead of me on number of days). That’s not what keeps me going.

It’s the chain.

I have a chain of 1,199 days as I write this. Maintaining that chain has me writing every day, even when life is busy, even when I feel terrible, even when the children are sick and the Internet is down, even when I’m on vacation or so overloaded that I have to do my writing on the mom couch while my daughters take lessons. The longer the chain of days written in a row grows, the less likely it becomes that I will break it. I’ll cut myself the slack to make a weaker link on some days (only writing 250 words, the minimum), but mostly I write somewhere between 800 and 4,000 words a day now; and that adds up fast.

That explains why I write every day, but not why it helped me finish things. That, I think, is physics: momentum in particular. Momentum fed by sheer stubbornness.

If I’m not allowed to just drop a project (because that would break the chain!), then I have to find a way to move forward in it, thinking my way out of corners I’ve trapped myself in, digging my way out of holes I’ve fallen into. I have to find a way or I’ll break the chain, you see.

It’s been freeing in my writing process, too. I’ll let myself write something I’m not sure is going to be right. Wanting to get it “right” was part of what would stop me in the past—I wouldn’t write it until I was sure I knew where it was going. Now, I’ll write a scene three different ways to see which is better. They all go into the word count, and I’ll choose the right one (or combine them, or scrap them all and try again) in the final version. Once I got to “the end” for the first time, I was able to trust in the process in a way I never had before.

The best part is that, since I write every day, I’m productive with my writing time. I no longer have to spend the first two hours of a writing session trying to find the flow of the project again. It’s right there. It’s only been a day since I was there. I still feel at home.
Any creative endeavor requires finding a work-flow, a process that gets you there. I’m not a math-minded person, so who’d have guessed a spreadsheet ,of all things, would work for me? But it really has! Now I actually use two spreadsheets. Magic Spreadsheet and Jamie Raintree’s Writing and Revision Tracker, which lets me track word count by project, so I hold myself accountable not just for writing, but for writing the right things. Here’s to finding a tool that works for you.