“I hate writing, I love having written,” goes the highly relatable quote by novelist Dorothy Parker. Whilst the creative turmoil of the writer is legendary – even necessary – tinkering with your motivational mindset can make your daily dose of writing torture more bearable. You might even have some fun…
In his book Drive, the author and psychologist Daniel Pink turns to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to make a point about how motivation works.
At one point in the story, Tom is given the loathsome chore of whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s enormous fence.
But as his friend Ben drops by to tease him for having to work on such a sunny day, Tom is hit with a brainwave. He convinces Ben – and then the other boys in the neighborhood – to help by pretending he’s having so much fun whitewashing that big old fence.
It was his idea all along – he says. There’s nothing better to do on such a glorious day! All of a sudden the other boys join in – and Tom’s job gets done in a jiffy.
Some things are far easier to enjoy than others that’s true, but the point Pink makes is that our attitudes towards a task are relative. No task is inherently enjoyable or unenjoyable – it’s all about the mindset we adopt towards it.
Pink writes about some research conducted by Dr Theresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard University and one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity. She asked a group of experienced critics to evaluate the commissioned and un-commissioned work of a group of anonymous artists.
Without knowing anything about the aims of the study, the critics unanimously evaluated the un-commissioned works as being ‘significantly more creative’ than the works the artists were commissioned (and paid) to create.
And in a follow up study, the artists weren’t in the least surprised. For these artists, being paid made them feel obliged to create and so made the outcomes far less creative than they otherwise would have been.
Aside from what Amabile’s experiment might say about how we are (or perhaps aren’t) motivated by cold hard cash, what it reveals in general terms is that the minute a task becomes something we have to do rather than something we choose to do – then we’re less likely to want to do it.
The moment we feel we’re no longer free to make a decision – that we’re being coerced in some way – then we dig our heels in.
And the revelation that we’re all naturally belligerent can help us apply to get through those dark times with our writing.
Specifically, there are three things a writer can do to change their mindsets when staring at a keyboard is about as appealing as whitewashing an enormous fence.
1. Make it ‘fun’
One way to inject a little levity into a flagging writing project is to turn it into more of a game or a challenge. For example, using the Pomodoro technique, writers splurge words in intensive 20-minute blasts followed by a five-minute break – and perhaps cake (cake is optional). Other writers prefer entering ‘extreme writing’ challenges like NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo and 29 Plays Later.
If all that sounds like hard work, simply changing your working environment can make your writing chore more of a treat. Some writers find that simply splashing the cash on snazzy stationery can make them look forward to writing. Alternatively, having your favourite snack, drink or drug handy when you sit down to write can mean you associate one activity with the other and so enjoy the process a whole lot more (adult supervision needed with that one).
2. Make it normal
If your dread of the flashing cursor still looms large regardless of how many Moleskine books you buy or writing challenges you enter – it might be wise to turn to science for help. Behavioural scientist and habits guru Dr BJ Fogg from Stanford University believes that the best way to do something regularly like writing is to develop a habit – and do it unthinkingly.
He also thinks that we can engineer ourselves into getting a new habit by attaching whatever task we want to do regularly onto a task we do every day – in so doing, you make the new task normal and you develop a new mindset towards it. For example, if you know that you have a cup of coffee without fail every morning, make writing for 15 or 30 minutes the thing you do as you drink it. That way you associate ‘drinking coffee’ with ‘writing’ and you do one activity after another without thinking.
3. Make it small
One of the main reasons writers delay writing indefinitely is because they bite off more than they can chew. If you set a goal like ‘write a book that will change the world’ it’s common sense that the prospect of writing it might be daunting. According to psychologist Robert Maurer, the founder of Kaizan Theory, setting a large goal can even trigger your ancient ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. We flee from big writing goals – biologically speaking.
One way to get round this is to change your mindset and yourself a very small goal to start with – and build momentum from there. According to Maurer, keeping it small helps you ‘tiptoe past your amygdala’ and creep up on your big writing goal using stealth. Ask yourself what one thing can I do next to move my writing forward? Set yourself a tiny goal – just sit at your desk or think about your project for 15 mins a day – the key is to make the first step seem do-able rather than daunting.
For more tips and tricks on how you can use science to write more, download our new 32 page ebook for free: The Liar’s Guide to Writing: 10 scientifically-proven ways to trick, fool and cheat your way to becoming a better, more productive writer.