Astute readers of my blog will notice I’ve been blogging much more frequently as of late. What’s my secret? The past three months, I’ve been running a blogging challenge at Hacker School called Iron Blogger, designed to help people blog more regularly.
The concept of an Iron Blogger challenge isn’t original (I believe it originated at MIT, but don’t quote me on that), but I’m pretty happy with the tweaks, both large and small, we made to the formula.
The rules were simple:
- You have to publish one blog entry every week by the following Monday.
- If you miss a week, you owe $5.
A few other logistical rules were layered on top, but for the most part that’s all there was to it. I’ve seen many a blogger let their blog fall into disuse because they got out of the habit of writing on a regular or semi-regular basis; the most important thing for me was to make sure that everyone participating formed a strong habit of writing regularly.
There were a lot of things that worked particularly well with how it was run:
To indicate you wrote a blog post for a given week, you had to cross your name off a leaderboard by the following Monday. Our ‘leaderboard’ was nothing more than a piece of butcher paper posted on the wall with a table on it: each column was a week, and each row was a blogger.
Since checking off was a manual process, rather than buiding some complex automated system, there was wiggle room: if you were a little bit late, that was okay, since the goal was ultimately to get everyone to write regularly, for some definition of “regularly”, rather than necessarily on a super-rigid schedule.
Having it be a physical board also gave it an unavoidable presence in our lives. It’s easy to ignore a web site; it’s harder to ignore a big piece of paper on the wall in your workplace.
You had to write one blog post per week, but “blog post” could be defined however you wanted so long as it was public; we didn’t place any restrictions on length or subject matter.
Ultimately, we figured that each person had their own reasons for why they wanted to blog more and what that meant to them. We set the system up to let each person figure out what they wanted to get out of it. Many people even took it upon themselves to blog daily.
Every Monday, we gathered for a very brief (usually less than five minutes) check-in around 11am. The idea here was mostly to give people a social reminder to check off for the previous week, and talk about why they failed if they had.
We started out without this meeting, but people routinely forgot to check their name off. Having five minutes to gather and look at the board ensured that people remembered to check off and felt social pressure that encouraged them to blog so they could check off.
Hacker School has an internal chat room where every blog post published by a Hacker Schooler is announced by a bot (written by the marvelous Sasha Laundy). This gave us a great venue to both see what our peers were writing and comment on them. We found that having social validation of your peers reading and discussing your articles was a key piece of encouragement. Our Monday morning check-ins also helped with this, as participants would often mention articles they particularly enjoyed from the previous week.
We initially discussed creating formal rules to ensure that people were giving feedback, but decided there was no reason to introduce more rigid requirements unless it became an issue. Fortunately, it didn’t. In fact, having so many great blog posts to read and comment on proved one of everybody’s favorite parts of the challenge.
Ultimately, blogging isn’t the key focus of in most people’s lives. We tried to make this as low-commitment as possible: you were only being asked to blog once per week, and the fine was only $5 per week, which you didn’t need to pay until the end of the challenge.
At the end, we didn’t even end up collecting the money. Just the idea of being fined $5 was enough to serve as encouragement when combined with all of the other feedback systems in place; actually having to pay up didn’t feel necessary. We initially planned to use the money to fund a celebratory pub night at the end of the challenge, but there were enough end-of-Hacker-School events that it wasn’t particularly missed.
It’s worth noting that we didn’t make that decision until after the challenge ended, so when someone failed for a given week they did truly expect to be on the hook for five dollars.
For a program like Hacker School that helps people become better programmers through self-directed learning, blogging is key. There’s no better way to understand something than by explaining it to someone else, and learning how to express yourself eloquently is important not just for being a programmer but for being a well-rounded human being.
From what I’ve heard, both from former Hacker Schoolers and the Hacker School facilitators, this batch saw significantly higher blogging rates than any previous batch. The vast majority of Iron Blogger participants only missed two or three weeks out of twelve, and many achieved a 100% success rate. Many Hacker Schoolers, both members if this past batch and alumni of earlier batches, commented on how much they loved having so many blog posts by Hacker Schoolers to read and comment on.
Blogging can be incredibly rewarding if you’re writing about something that matters to you, but sticking with it can be tough. We found that Iron Blogger struck just the right balance of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to encourage writing without causing burn-out. If you’re struggling to maintain a blog, why not get some friends together and give it a try?