How to harness your writing brain’s hedonic hotspots: lessons from neuroscience part 1

Writing is never going to be something you do on autopilot – it’s way too difficult for that. But there are some simple methodologies based in neuroscience you can use to make you, and your writing brain, feel more positive about finding a regular time. But first, you need to get to know your hedonic hotspots…

Neuroscientists tell us that your brain (and therefore your behaviour) is constructed from neural networks.

Some of these networks are strong and some are weak. If you come home every evening and raid the cookie jar – that means your cookie-eating-from-the-jar network is strong and your resistance to that behaviour is weak.

If you want to improve your diet, you need to weaken your cookie-eating network and strengthen a different one – like your kale-eating one.

Neuroscientists call this function of the brain neuroplasticity. It’s why we’re capable of changing our behaviour; it’s how we learn new things and rid ourselves of bad habits. It’s important to understand if you want to develop a more regular writing routine.

Say hi to your hedonic hotspots

Our brain’s ancient reward systems play an important role in how these neural networks are formed and how they increase or decrease in strength.

Neuroscientists tell us that when we satisfy our pleasure centres or hedonic hotspots we get rewarded with a release of dopamine which keeps us craving more.

When you reach into the cookie jar you’re satisfying your hedonic hotspot and every time you do, you’re strengthening that network.

Why really should, really sucks

All too often, when we think of writing – or any other activity which isn’t as immediately rewarding as say, eating a huge slice of cake – we think of it in terms of something we really should do.

But just saying to yourself that you really should do something – whether that’s write more, lose weight or eat your greens – doesn’t give you a strong enough motivating force to do much of anything at all.

And that’s because really should often associates the action you want to take (like write more) with negative emotions like guilt and reminds us how tough writing can be.

In short, it makes your heart sink and that means you’re far less likely to do it.

“Saying to yourself that you really should do something – whether that’s write more, lose weight or eat your greens – doesn’t give you a strong enough motivating force to do much of anything at all.”

To make writing feel less of a slog, neuroscientists tell us that we need to reframe how we think about it. So, you stop associating writing with toil, disappointment and grim determination, and start associating it with things that are going to get that hedonic hotspot of yours firing.

Related reads: Understanding your writing psychology will make you more productive >>

Actionable tip >>

One great way to do this is to create a list of 20 to 50 really positive things that will happen when you complete your writing project. This is called ‘visualising’ and we’ve written about how it can help with goal setting here.

The exercise shouldn’t take long – it should be a rapid-fire brainstorm that you can do on your own or with others. Ask yourself:

  • What will it feel like to finish that book or article?
  • How will you feel when you hold the finished book in your hands or see your article published?
  • What opportunities might it open up for you and your family?
  • Will you win prizes, get a pay rise? Think big!

Write down as many tangible thoughts, feelings, dreams and actions as you can.

Neuroscientists tell us that creating positive visions of the future – thinking about your future success – triggers the same part of the brain that get activated when you’ve actually achieved your goals.

Thinking about the positive things that will happen releases dopamine into your brain – which makes us feel happier.

Get trigger happy

All habits and routines have triggers or cues. For example, I’ve got into the waistline-expanding habit of having a pastry when I have a coffee around 11am.

I always used to have the odd pastry but now, I’ve unintentionally strengthened my pastry-eating neural network by associating it with a something I’ve always done and like doing. Like having a nice coffee.

The morning coffee is the trigger, the pastry is the habit. When I don’t have a pastry, it feels a bit weird – like something’s missing.

But remember what those clever neuroscientists tell us! Our brains are plastic. We are able to strengthen some neural networks and weaken others. We are able to change, adapt and learn new behaviours – if you know your brain.

When-then… what!?

The writers who find writing the least stressful have normally developed some kind of when-then plan to help them find a time to write – even if they don’t necessarily know they have.

You can use when-then planning to introduce new behaviours into your life that you want to do more regularly. You can also use when-then planning to identify behaviours that you might want to do less of too.

A when-then plan is a simple technique you can use to make writing more routine-like – and less stressful. And this is how you get one…

Related read: The persuasive power of ‘when-then’ planning to make you a more productive writer >>

Actionable tip >>

First, think of an action you take every day without much thought. It’s crucial that it’s a regular, everyday activity and it’s something you quite like doing. Something that gives you a small pleasure.

For example, going to the gym; taking the dog for a walk; returning home to a quiet house after dropping the kids off; getting home from work or your afternoon coffee break – that kind of thing.

“We are able to strengthen some neural networks and weaken others. We are able to change, adapt and learn new behaviours – if you know your brain.”

Now, make one or more of those activities you take without doing much thought the trigger for your next writing session – using this ‘when-then’ formulation:

  • When I get home from the school run, then I’ll do 30 minutes of writing.
  • When I have my first coffee of the day, then I’ll write 500 words of my article.
  • When I get back from my run, then I’ll spend 45 mins on my report.

Another tip is to try to make the plan as specific as you can, so: when I get home in the evening, before I start watching TV, then I’ll spend 30 minutes writing.

This tactic works because you’re fusing together a pleasant action that you do regularly with an action that you want to do more of. This means you’re starting to strengthen the neural pathways between those two behaviours.

Connecting a writing session with a regular, pleasure-inducing behaviour strengthens those networks even more because you’re also getting an extra hit of dopamine.

Using this tactics, you’ll train your brain to associate writing with an every-day activity, and soon it will seem weird not to write with your first coffee of the day.

In summary…

Your brain is incredibly complicated but also, quite simple to understand. Built out of networks which increase and decrease in strength, these networks formulate our behaviour and ultimately, are responsible for whether we achieve our goals – or not.

The hedonic pleasure centres reward us for taking certain actions and drive us towards developing habitual forms of behaviour. Our equally ancient fear centres of the brain stop us from doing things and ring alarm bells when we take on too much. It’s these we talk about in part two of this series.

Read next: How to freak out your writing brain’s fear centre: lessons from neuroscience part 2 >>

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Big thanks to Dr Gabija Toleikyte, neuroscientist and business coach at University College London for her expertise and early inspiration for this post.

Further reading:

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

Think Small, Owain Service & Rory Gallagher

Hooked, Nir Eyal

Mindset, Dr Carol S. Dweck

Super Better, Dr Jane McGonigal

One Small Step Can Change your Life, Dr Robert Maurer

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | failed academic and ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.