Newslettering My Way Into Personal Accountability

in My Process

My new monthly and annual newsletter habit

Illustration of me running away from a newsletter

The problem with independent-creator projects is that there’s no one at the other end to hold you accountable. There are no bosses, investors, clients or employees waiting on you, so projects tend to drift on in perpetuity, especially if they’re not-for-profit initiatives. This project drift has been a personal problem of mine for the past ten years. Within this time, I co-founded a research collective, ran a group blog, authored a webcomic, launched a job board, and even programmed an Elance-like service. With almost all of these projects, I lost track of time after they launched, and I let them drift on, sometimes for years at a time. It was easy to continue working on them because they were “interesting.” It was easy to continue working on them because I had no clear milestones to hit (or miss). No one was watching at the other end.

This all changed this year, after I started writing monthly and annual reviews for my projects.

The monthly habit

I started Jason’s Comics Newsletter in November 2015. I had heard that newsletters were a good marketing channel, and I needed to start marketing my upcoming graphic novel. For the first few months, I did just that —  marketing — I stuffed my newsletters with links to and images of my projects.

But as the I sent out more and more monthly newsletters, two things happened. First, I bored myself. I was bored putting together laundry lists of what I had worked on month after month: copy, paste, write a line of cheesy marketing copy. Secondly, I noticed that I was inadvertently constructing a larger narrative about my progress and about how I was doing personally. Unfortunately, this narrative was buried between the lines of my laundry lists.

I then thought about which newsletters I’d enjoyed personally. My friend Ben Valentine’s newsletter came to mind. For the past year or so, he’s used it to chronicle his travels in and around Cambodia, the ups and downs of moving, and his work with a community center cum art space there. It had that uncanny, intimate, and (for lack of a better term) Tinyletter magic. I realized that what I liked about Ben’s newsletters was that I could keep up with how he was, because his letters always began with a short status update about his life. (He ended his newsletters with a handful of lightly-narrated photos.) I intuited that this is also probably what my friends — the majority of my newsletter subscribers thus far — wanted to get from my newsletter. I imagined them asking themselves, “How the hell is Jason doing, all the way out in Hong Kong?”

March was the first month that I adopted this new format. I start with a little diary entry about the previous month, about what I’m up in the current month, and a little teaser of what’s to come: no pictures yet, just a short status update about myself. (Then I put up a few pictures, three “visual highlights,” from the past month.) It felt good to write a short, public diary entry about the month. It was re-affirming to review what progress I’d made, and motivating to plant a flag in the sand by declaring what my plans were. By putting it out there, in the open, I had suddenly created a sense of accountability with myself… and with anyone who had left me some space in their inbox.

The annual habit

Last week, I wrote my first ever annual review of one of my projects: the Add Oil Comics Year 1 Annual Report. I serendipitously stumbled into the annual review format when my attempts at writing a more conventional “growth hacking” essay flailed and floundered. In writing it, I forced myself to look through old comics, analyze audiences statistics, and re-read reader comments. The experience was both humbling (I remembered several facts wrong and had drawn faulty conclusions from them) and re-affirming (I had grown more than I realized).

As with the monthly newsletter, it was incredibly powerful to write in the open, and to plant a flag in the sand to declare what my year two Add Oil Comics goals are. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about what I wanted to do in year two, it’s that I never had a reason to organize my thoughts and articulate them.

With both my monthly and annual newsletter habits, the act of pausing to reflect and to mark the time has given my projects a sense of much-needed rhythm. With the monthly newsletter, I have an open place to celebrate the wins and losses each month, and if something runs late, I’m beholden to my subscribers. With the annual newsletter, I’m building an understanding of how much I can achieve in a given year. As I move closer to the 1.5 year mark for Add Oil Comics for example, I’m able look back at my goals and make an honest evaluation about how I am doing so far.

If there’s one lesson to be drawn from this new newsletter habit, it’s that I have to first focus on writing for myself. I initially approached newsletter writing as an exercise in self-promotion, but over time, my practice has morphed into one of personal reflection. This shift in mentality was inspired by my friend Winnie Lim, who, amongst other talents, authors an amazing online journal. At first, this concept of writing for myself was counterintuitive, but I’ve since realized that “writing for myself” does not mean thinking of myself as the sole audience member — it simply means I have believe in what I’m writing, and that I find it personally meaningful in some small way.

Charting my progress within my work, honestly and openly, warts and all, is meaningful to me. As someone who works solo on most of my projects, it’s one of the few ways that I’m able to keep myself accountable.

Sign up for my monthly comics newsletter here.

This article is also published on Medium.

By Jason Li

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