The Elusive 10,000 Hours

A week or so ago, I calculated how much time I spend writing each day, based on 400 days worth of data that I’d collected1. The data showed that I average about 42 minutes and 15 seconds of writing time per day. I have written every day for the last 267 days, and I’ve only missed 2 days out of the last 410. So I am writing every day.

This is the first period of time in my life where this has been true, although I have been writing stories now for more than 20 years. Prior to 2013, I wrote in small, dense scraps of time, producing one, or maybe two stories a year, and spending perhaps a total of 20 hours writing for the entire year. However, from February 27, 2013 to the present moment, I’ve spend about 289 hours of my life writing.

In the big picture, it is not all that much. In that same span of time, I’ve spent about 2,400 hours of my life at the day job. I’ve spent approximately 2,700 hours sleeping. The time I have for writing is roughly 1/10th the time I spend at my day job and 1/11th the time I spent sleeping.

I was thinking about this in the context of the 10,000 hours that it supposedly takes to become an expert at something. 10,000 hours sounds like a lot, but in practice, it really isn’t. If you could work at something–say, writing–for 8 hours a day, you’d hit your 10,000 hours in less than 5 years. Even half time, you’d still hit your 10,000 hours within a decade.

But I don’t have that kind of time. I can spend, on average, about 45 minutes/day on my writing. Occasionally, I can spend more time, but that is offset by the days that I spend less time.  Which means that even writing every day of the year, which I do, I’m spending less than 300 hours a year writing. It’s not difficult to take that number and figure out how long before I hit my 10,000 hours. Excluding everything that came before last February as marginal (I’ve written more in the last 400 days than in the last 20 years put together), it will, at my present pace, take me nearly thirty-eight more years to hit that magic 10,000 hours. At which time, I will be 80 years old.

This assumes, of course, a steady-state, and that is unlikely. I try to set goals that are obtainable when it comes to my writing, things that are in my control. Rather than have a goal to sell 10 stories or win some award, I pick things like: average 1.5 hours of writing per day by the end of 2015. Where will the time come from? That is part of the challenge. I don’t want to take away from family time. That leaves other areas of my life. I’m not giving up my day job, and I’ve more or less optimized my sleep. That leaves little wiggle room.

So I’ve started to prioritize what’s important. I started the second draft of my novel a few days ago, and I recently gave up my book review column at InterGalactic Medicine Show, and yes, the two are related. This was a paying writing gig, but the time it took can be redistributed toward my writing. Then, too, I am constantly on the lookout for ways I can automate things so that I don’t need to spend time on them.

I try to keep my goals modest, but I would love it if I could reach the stage where I could write 2 hours per day. That’s 2.9 times what I currently manage, and that means cutting my time to hit 10,000 hours from 38 more years down to 13 years. Now we’re talking. I’ll be around 55 years old and much closer to thinking about retirement from the day job. And with the practice and expertise I will have gathered from 10,000 hours of writing, who knows, maybe at that point, I’ll be able to support the family with my writing.

  1. 412 as of today.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

1 thought on “The Elusive 10,000 Hours

  1. I read somewhere else that in writing it’s not about the hours, but about the word count. And, I think the count is somewhere like 500,000 words. I’m not sure, but I thought that was based on the style of writing (e.g. 500kwords in novel writing v. short story or fiction v. non-fiction); but just as likely a total word count…or novel count since there’s the obligatory rewrite.

    In law school it took me four papers (out of one required) until I could just sit and write at a level I thought was suitably expert (my only A was that fourth paper).

    I figured it would take me four novels to get my style down, and I’m drafting #3 now. Originally the series was going to be five novels at 100kwords (500kwords), but I’ve dropped the novel length to 75kwords (and the series length is planned at 16, though I’m not going to stop at #4 and try another series). I’m at about 246,000 in my novel series right now and still have a bit of a problem writing the third (of four) acts.

    All that said, thanks for posting your writing progress. It motivated me to do the same, though at a lower pace…and I’m now 10 days behind schedule. I suppose that means I should stop writing comments and get back to work…

    keep it up.

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