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How to Fail Productively as a Blogger

This guest post is by Bea Kylene Jumarang of Writing Off the Rails.

During one of my blocks of free time, I found myself watching a video from Tim Harford, an economist and a writer. In it, he was discussing his three rules for failing productively, and those rules were the beginning of a love affair for me.

Before you think I fell in love with him, that’s not it. I fell in love with the rules, and they’ve changed my life for the better.

Today, I’d like to share those rules with you, along with a concrete process for applying them to your blogging. It’s my hope that if you care to listen to what this post says, the rules and the process will change your life too.

What you’ll need

  • a spreadsheet or a pen and notebook for your log, though spreadsheets are better
  • the faithfulness to actually log things (more on this later)
  • honesty (very important).

Tim Harford’s three rules—blogger’s edition

1. Be willing to fail a lot

If you’re blogging for the long haul, I can guarantee that you’ll run into hundreds, if not thousands of setbacks. Dozens of your posts will languish without comments, your analytics will be a constant flatline, and it will seem like no one really gives a darn. What matters is that you’ll chug on despite everything.

In simple words, be willing to fail—a lot.

2. Fail on a survivable scale

This rule can mean two different things, depending on what stage you’re at with your blog.

If you’re still a beginner, congratulations. You’re already failing on a very survivable scale. It’s unlikely that a bad post will kill your blog, so you’d better appreciate the benefits of smallness.

On the other hand, if you’re a big blogger, you’ll take a little bit more care. Hopefully, you’ll use your experience to the full, and by this time, you should already know what works along with what doesn’t. If you plan to take a risk, put thought into it so you’ll fail in a way that you and your blog can survive.

3. Make sure you have what it takes to spot a failure, and fix it, early

Don’t let issues or problems fester. As soon as you identify something that needs correction, get to correcting. The faster you respond to a crisis, the faster you can learn and deal with its potential repercussions.

Also, don’t close yourself off from the problems other people point out. When they tell you something needs action, act on it, instead of pushing your own primacy over the situation.

A process for productive failure

1. Know your systems, behaviors, and habits

As I said in the introduction, failures are incredibly important as revision triggers. They tell us that something needs to change, and that action needs to be taken. That said, you’ll never maximize a failure’s usefulness if you just let it pass you by like a little tumbleweed.

Instead of pushing the failure to the back of your mind, bring it to the forefront. In fact, log it.

Remember the notebook or the spreadsheet? This is your time to use it.

For the next week, just log your failures. Relevant data points include the following, though this list is just a suggestion. Feel free to customize and add!

  • Time in/out: useful to see how much time you actually spend on a task
  • When you did the task: so you can see when you’re most productive
  • Type of task: post writing, editing, formatting, research, etc.
  • Word counts: to see how much you achieve
  • Remarks: note any important details about a task
  • Failures: whether you were able to do something needed, or not
  • Length of material: you might log based on the length of a Kindle book (e.g. 790 locations), or how long a PDF is (e.g. 210 pages).

For the Failures part of your log, you can do the logging in a text editor or something like that. Just make a note in your log whenever you didn’t do something you were supposed to. You’ll see why this is important in Step 2 of this process.

How can you keep up the motivation to log stuff? Make things easy for yourself. As soon as you boot up your laptop, open your spreadsheet. Before you start a task, enter your time in, and remember to enter the time out when you’re done.

In my personal experience, just seeing the spreadsheet on my taskbar has been enough motivation. There will be times when you forget to log things, and that’s alright. Don’t beat yourself up, but keep logging as much as you can.

As an important note, don’t do anything to your log yet. Logging is not the time to reflect. Like Tony Stark says in the Avengers movie, “I can’t do the equation unless I have all the variables.”

Wait for the variables, alright? No equations yet.

2. Make sense of the data

After one week of logging, you should have a pretty detailed spreadsheet, with all the data points that matter to you. Now that you have enough information, it’s time for analysis and reflection. Below are some suggested questions to ask yourself as you review that data.

  • How much time does it take me to write n words? This is useful for future estimates to clients who ask you how long a project will take, for example, as well as for your own time planning.
  • How much  time do I usually spend on email and other online tasks? I can guarantee, this will probably be a shock to you.
  • How much time does it take me to do research? Again, useful for future time estimates.
  • What times of the day am I most productive? This can be a general answer, like “in the afternoon,” or a specific answer like 4:30 to 5:10 pm.

Once you’re done with these questions, you probably have a reasonable overview of your real behaviors and limits. What you discover may be intuitively known to you, or it may come as a complete surprise. The point is, now you finally know the truth, and you can back up what you know with data.

As far as your failures go, this is the time to be honest with yourself. Find the real reasons for why you failed. No one will see your log anyway, so there’s no reason to lie. What matters is that you’ll finally get an idea of your real excuses, strengths, and pain points, which will be valuable in the quest for improvement.

3. Adapt

There’s no point in all your logging and reflection if you aren’t willing to act on what you’ve just learned. All the data in the world won’t matter if you just let the information languish. Because of that, it’s time for you to create your plan for improvement, and to chart your new course based on the realizations you’ve arrived at.

Below are some actions you can take.

  • Revise schedules: commit more or less time to certain tasks.
  • Take on more or fewer clients: this is linked to the data on how much you can actually handle without failing too much or being too stressed out.
  • Lower or raise your word count goals: if you see that you can’t handle 2000 words in one session, then lower your word quota.

The last thing to do, of course, is to implement your action plan, and then log the results. See if you’re less stressed, happier, or anything like that. Just make sure to note what happens.

4. Keep failing

Tim’s first rule is to be willing to fail a lot. Inherent in that rule is the need to keep trying new things, and yes, to fall in love with trial and error.

You see, according to Tim, complex things often benefit from such an approach. In the first place, trial and error gives you a very definite result, e.g. it worked or it didn’t work. And though it may sound pretty surprising, blogging is actually a complex thing. In fact, I view it as a complex system, and evaluating my results often makes me use systematic thinking.

If you don’t believe me, have a think about how many variables are in the equation. You have things like search engine optimization, social media influence, number of newsletter subscribers, heck, even the keywords in your domain are a variable.

That said though, maximizing trial and error necessitates having many things to test out. If you’re wondering about how to do that, I have short process outlined below.

  • Brainstorm a list of new actions or directions you’ll take. Examples might include “I’ll publish an infographic instead of a text post” and “I’ll do a shorter post than usual.”
  • During brainstorming, don’t let fear crush you. Just let all the ideas out. Ideas don’t need to be subjected to judgment during the initial stages.
  • Refine your list. Select the directions that are appropriate for your present situation.
  • Apply your selected actions and monitor the results. If you want to be able to evaluate things more effectively, see the resources heading on systems thinking below.

Resources for further reading

This resource list introduces you to systems and design thinking plus the work of Tim Harford. Taken collectively, these resources have made my blogging and my life infinitely better.

  • Trial, error and the God complex: This is a talk from Tim Harford, delivered at TEDGlobal 2011 in Edinborough. It remains one of my favorites from TED, and I listen to it every day.
  • Tim Harford’s books: I love these. The one that applies most to this blog post is his book titled Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.
  • Design thinking … what is that?: This piece is from Fast Company, and it’s best used at stage 4 in the productive failure process.
  • Introduction to systems thinking: From Pegasus Communications, this is an excellent overview of the subject. It’s best used to learn better ways of evaluating your results.

Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts. Do you do any of these things already? Are you conscious about learning from failure in a systematic way? Let us know in the comments.

Bea Kylene Jumarang is a blogger and fiction writer, obsessed with connecting writing to everything else. When she’s not writing at Starbucks, she’s investigating fonts for her upcoming e-book, Techified : Silicon Valley’s Secret Guide to Writing. If you want first dibs at the book, head on over to the Facebook page for her new blog’s launch. Once the blog goes live, you’ll be the first to know. You’ll also get the e-book, along with even more free stuff!

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  1. Hi Bea

    I don’t manage my time as effectively as I should, and that is probably my biggest failing. I spend far too much of my time doing non productive activities. That are not blog related, opening emails being one of them. The annoying thing is that I already know what I’m doing wrong. It’s just that at this moment in time. I can’t seem to focus enough to put things right.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for commenting.

      The significance of focus can’t be denied. However, if you’re finding it hard to focus and put things right, then may I recommend a nuclear bomb option. For example, if you know you spend two hours on online things, then go for the bomb option and say you’ll do everything in one hour. A previous guest post of mine here on ProBlogger might help you. The link is below.

      Anyway, that post has a great system for fixing bad habits, like spending too much time online and not committing to blogging tasks.

      Hope it helps!

  2. I used to be scared to fail because I believed that people would laugh at me and judge me for failing and I would die of humiliation. This belief totally immobilized me until I realized that the people that would laugh we’re the ones who were also scared of me laughing at them. And that the true humiliation would be looking back at my life 10 years from now and telling my unborn children why mommy never followed her dreams and took a chance on life. I love what you said about adapting – failure doesn’t make you a failure, it just means the strategy failed and you have to learn to change strategies and rethink your approach.

    • Vangile, thanks for commenting!

      I think the fear of humiliation is something that really holds a lot of us back, myself included. Hence, I do understand your point about being immobilized because of such fear. That said, I do applaud you for choosing to overcome that fear, in favor of following your dreams. Certainly, it’s much better to say that you’ve tried and failed, rather than failed to try. As for my bit on adaptation, I do hold to it. Failure doesn’t make a person a failure – failure is just a failure of strategy which can always be changed.

  3. Fail early and fail often. That was something that I never realize happened in every other area of my life, whether it was work, athletics, or personal life. It’s how you get good at stuff. Plus, it makes you a better teacher. You know the struggle.

    What your article talks about is what I’ve started to do with my business. Fail. And make sure I track those failures. That way I can fix the mistakes and come up with a successful product.

    I really enjoyed the article. Thanks.

    • Kevin, thanks for commenting and I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Anyhow, failing early and failing often is an excellent approach to life. Also, it’s true that most people tend not to notice the fact that it’s actually how they improve. That said, I’m glad you’ve started to take a proactive tracking approach to your business failures. Tracking is integral to improvement.

      Best of luck with your business – hope it succeeds and brings you more blessings.

  4. Just watched the Tim Harford TED talk. I love the idea of the God Complex… I suffer often; we are in a time when good “sounding” answers resonate more than “tested” answers.

    • Conor, thanks for the comment.

      Anyway, I’m glad the TED talk had an effect on you. For me, my life and viewpoint changed when I watched that. The God complex is something a lot of people suffer from, especially those who are in positions of authority. I think, therefore, that it’s vital for us to rigorously test all assumptions and discard those invalidated by gathered data.

  5. Great rules here and thanks for sharing Tim’s video here. I also think that a blogger should be ready to face every difficulty, As a blogger they’ll run into a lot of setbucks, so you shouldn’t give up.

    • Hey Ehsan, I appreciate your comment!

      It’s true, a blogger really will face lots of difficulties, and those who want to succeed in the field must be prepared for all sorts of problems. I do advocate learning about blogging before one starts, along with understanding one’s goals and points of focus before jumping into the blogging fray.

  6. Interesting post, Bea…

    I think it just depends on our state of mind before, during and after whatever incident or event we perceive ourselves to have failed at.

    How many times do we feel that if something happens it will be “the end of the(our) world, yet, within minutes, hours or days we press on with a new perspective on this “something”…’s more of a putting it into the proper perspective type of thing….

    Failure(and winning) are just states of mind….

    • Daniel, I appreciate your engagement with my article. Thank you for taking the time!

      As far as perspective, I agree with you that the right perspective can change our perceptions about a situation. Hence, I truly think it’s important for us to cultivate a perspective which allows, and maybe even celebrates, the failures we encounter. Aside from keeping us more optimistic, this sort of perspective helps us take a lighter approach to things which might have upset us, if we were to think a different way.

  7. Thank you. Once again I find your articles very insightful. I am very aware that my best time is very early in the mornings. I am bright and awake, my hubby is asleep and the phone doesn’t ring. Now to be productive with this time is my key failing. I like blog hopping far too much and tend to waste too much time reading everyone’s blog, even ones not related to my blog’s ‘field’
    Also I am not sure about what you mean by failing within my blog. Sure I have some articles that are more popular than others but I have only just started and have not enough readers to judge accurately. When someone does make a suggestion then I consider it carefully and act on it if appropiate. I really want to keep it basically as a travel blog with excerpts of my life and thoughts along the way.
    Is there any organization that can give unbiased and helpful advice on my blog?

    • Michelle, thanks for your comment.

      First off, I’m glad to hear that you know when your best writing time is. It’s surely a step in the right direction, and the early-morning choice is popular among many writers. As far as your blog hopping problem, I think that’s remedied with focus. You really need to drill down and make sure that you do your writing first before anything else. Prioritization is key if you want to do more in less time.

      As far as failing with your blog, I don’t only mean posts with no comments. Failing in blogging can include everything from failing to write a post due to procrastination, forgetting to promote a post for some reason, or a reason similar to the ones mentioned. However, it’s good practice to take suggestions thoughtfully into account. I commend you on that.

      Now, when it comes to helpful advice about your blog, feel free to turn to the ProBlogger community. Somehow, I’m sure you can get someone to make a critique.

  8. Amazing write up Bea! I really enjoyed Tim Harford’s video rules of failing productive. Very informative and inspiring indeed! I love the ideas since they teach a lot of achieving the best despite of failure. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    • Carla, thanks so much for the comment. I’m also glad you liked Tim’s video, which has really been a constant inspiration for me in my own life. My work has never been the same since I watched that video, and I hope it can bring you the same effect as well!

  9. Hi Bea.

    I love what Problogger is giving out here. These are so inspiring rules and I really enjoyed teh video, very informative and educative. I’m at least very encouraged and educated so far. I look forward into applying teh same in my blogging, Thanks for sharing.

    • Shelby, thanks for your comment.

      I’m glad to hear that this post and its associated video has been beneficial to you – that really makes me feel like I did a good job. I hope you achieve some awesome results with your own blog, since that would be the ultimate test of whether my particular advice works.

  10. I think bloggers never fails on productivity. They should produce more and more productivity.
    It feels so awesome that you have come up with some thing new.
    Thank you for such an awesome post. :)


    • Hey Zane! I really appreciate the comment.

      It means a lot that you found this post awesome, as you said. I must have done something right, huh? And yes, we do need to aim for more and more productivity. In the end, the more productive we are, the more time we have to relax. Relaxation is always good. ;)

  11. I like this post a lot, you have shared very nice point.I will be waiting for more great posts from you, thanks a lot.

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