There are many things that can kickstart your writing and keep you going when motivation is low, life is busy and you have no time to write. Find out how observation can help you build the tools, tactics and techniques to keep you writing long term.
Yesterday I was driving in the middle lane of Manchester’s M60 motorway. In the slow lane to the left of me an articulated lorry laden with goods made steady progress, on my right an Audi was speeding to overtake me. Suddenly, we all slowed to the same speed. All around us there was a coordinated calming down of the traffic.
We were being observed. A police car was parked up in the layby beyond the hard shoulder. With the eyes of the law on us, we were on our best behaviour – at least until they were out of sight.
Setting aside the threat of punishment for breaking the speed limit, being watched influences our behaviour. It forces us to comply, even when our instincts would have us act another way. This is known as the Observer Effect, where the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. The theory applies across numerous disciplines, and has bothered scientific researchers who fear the act of setting up an experiment will have already impacted the results. In social sciences where humans are being observed it is known as the Hawthorne Effect. While there is much debate about the original findings, the observer effect feels true and many writers swear by it to help them achieve their goals.
Accountability to write
The Observer Effect can be used as a form of accountability. Being answerable to someone or something external creates an obligation to write and behavioural researchers have found that connecting with others reduces procrastination and distraction.
Writers’ groups are a tried and tested method for doing this, whether it’s a local creative writing group, a university structured writing session such as Shut Up and Write! or an online community like the Writers’ Salon writers’ hour. If you are more of an introvert or shy of participating in a community, you can book a FocusMate – a website that pairs you with an accountability partner for a live, virtual coworking session.
One of the reasons these are so effective is because they are a pre-commitment strategy; a decision made in advance to promote self-control and reduce reliance on willpower. As much as I’d love to be the sort of person who leaps out of bed each morning and land at my desk to thrash out the words, I am not that person! I need to pre-commit by scheduling an appointment in my calendar and combine it with the fear of letting someone down if I don’t show up.
This morning’s focus mate was a woman on the other side of the world who needed to work on her overdue accounts, a task she’d put off for months. For 50 minutes we were ‘observing’ each other as we got on with our respective tasks; things to do that otherwise would not have happened.
Much of what we do at Prolifiko taps into that psychology. Our 7-day writing sprint is a community-based platform where we post daily prompts and check-in to see how people got on. The bootcamp is a month-long course tailored to respond to an individual writer’s needs and our coaching offers bespoke support as we work with writers to achieve their goals long term. We are there to advise and support, which means we ‘see’ what people do.
What’s the catch?
External accountability can work wonders, but what happens when you stop having someone watching over you?
I saw this all the time when I managed a writers’ retreat centre. Writers of all ages, experiences and genres would work wonders for the week. The houses provided the time and space to write and the all the support and encouragement people needed, from frequent snacks to expert tutors who offered guidance, inspiration, exercises to trigger ideas, and one-to-one feedback on people’s writing. Like a benign Big Brother or Truman Show, the whole environment was designed to help people write.
However, when the week was over and people went back to their regular lives full of obligations and distractions many stopped writing. Some would return each year having not written a word in between – the retreat was the one magical place they could get the words out – they struggled to recreate the conditions in the real world beyond.
>> Read more: Writing systems: finding yours, why it matters
That can be a problem if you are looking for long-term behaviour change, for example, building a writing routine that leads to a body of work, or a long-form project like a thesis, novel or collection of short stories or essays.
Writing systems not writing habits
Writing habits are hard to create and easily lost. The definition of a habit is something done with little or no conscious thought. There is no willpower involved; no thought, decision or plan – they are automatic behaviours.
Turning up at a pre-scheduled writing session is not a habit nor is attending a week-long online sprint or going on a writing retreat. While you are doing them, you may develop a writing routine, but change the environment and they slip from your grasp.
We grapple with this problem at Prolifiko. Our job is to support people to figure out what helps them to write and tackle what stops them writing. At the heart of what we do is observation – but it’s not us watching you, it’s you watching yourself.
Before we fall into a self-surveillance rabbit hole (waves to philosopher Gilles Deleuze) all we’re asking you to do is take time to notice when and how you write, to reflect on what works and what stops you, and adapt as you go along.
That’s the foundation of creating a writing system, and that’s what will help you achieve you writing goals long term.
Using observation to help you write
Creating a writing system requires observation, thought and deliberate action as you discover what works.
There are many things that can kickstart your writing and keep you going when motivation is low, life is busy and you have no time to write. Start by brainstorming all the things that could help you. Think back to what has worked in the past, take inspiration from others, imagine what you could do in an ideal world.
- Write! None of this works in theory, so you need to practice.
- Reflect on how it went. If it didn’t work – bin it; if it did, use it again.
- Adapt your system. How you write will change across the life of project and as your circumstances changes so keep flexible.