Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why don't I want to write??

The Motivation Equation
For Writers

Note: The motivation equation is not my original idea.
Furthermore, this post is almost entirely derivative of the cited articles.
I urge you to check them out. Go to Referenced Articles.


How to increase your desire to write.

Research has proven that motivation and procrastination can be mapped in the human brain using the motivation equation. 

the procrastination equation
Original article by Luke at Less Wrong

Let's look at a story. 

The house is a mess today. Anna grabs her coffee, chugs it black, and runs a hand through snarled hair. She paces between the refrigerator and cluttered dining table awash with bills, manuscripts, writing group excerpts, a mountain of agent rejections, advertisements, magazines, day-old dishes, yes, even stacks of t-shirts, socks, and underwear. Her laptop is somewhere under all that mess.

So is her Middle Grade novel, entering its climax. But who knows whether, if she sits down to write, the words will come out. Who knows whether, if she manages to finish the climax, the novel will need massive revisions. Who knows whether, if she slogs through those revisions, the book will be any good at all, good enough to snag an agent, snag a publisher, snag a readership. And what will all that do for her, anyway? Does any author actually make money today on their work? Is there a point?

She downs a second cup of coffee and decides to do yoga instead.

Mapping Anna's story

Let's map Anna's story in terms of the motivation equation.

E: Anna's Expectancy is very low. She has finished two books, sent them out prematurely with poor query letters to a random selection of agents, and received the corresponding number of rejections. In effort to push herself to write, she stacked them by her computer. Every time she writes, she thinks about them inadvertently. Thus, she does not expect to succeed with this book either, since history has taught her that her efforts fail.

V: Anna does not find her writing time, her butt-in-chair time, very valuable. She doesn't see much in the way of long-term benefits, either, and she's certainly not interested in the large amount of cleaning it would take to actually have a habitable work space. The Value ascribed to writing is very low.

D: The Delay Anna envisions between today's butt-in-chair writing time and any pay-off whatsoever seems to be quite large. True, she might upchuck a few words. She might even finish the book. But since she doesn't find either valuable considering her inhibitingly low Expectancy value, the Delay period until she reaps the heartening rewards for her efforts overwhelms desire to sit down this morning.

I: This factor depends largely on the person. A more Impulsive person will be easily distracted from chosen tasks. A more focused person will have a smaller default Impulsiveness and will need to put in less work to stay on task. Additionally, Impulsiveness can be thought of as one's sensitivity to Delay and reward. Anna's default Impulsiveness isn't written into this story, but one might glean from the state of the dining table that it's somewhat higher than average. Add to that the obvious desire for elusive reward, and you get a high level of Impulsiveness, crippling when multiplied by her perceived skyrocketing Delay.

Avoiding procrastination:

Let's help Anna avoid future procrastination and demotivating attitudes by increasing factors E and V and decreasing D and I. There's robust evidence that these brain states can be changed with practice.

Increase Expectancy with....

1. "Success Spirals." Make small, achievable, but still challenging goals. Note when you achieve them. I like Angelina C. Hansen's "Sentence Pact: Write one sentence. Success! Write another sentence. More success! Repeat." Make sure to decide ahead of time that meeting these small goals counts. Note them, count them, and continue this positive reinforcement over a period of time.

2. "Vicarious Victory." Science proves your mind absorbs the belief in victory just by observing it happen. Watch sporting events, not for team victory but for the players' skill at ball-handling or endurance, etc. Writers, go to readings and listen. Watch someone else write. Weird, but it syncs writing with accomplishment in the mind. Go to the bookstore and pick up books. Don't look at who wrote them. Just feel them in your hands. Let your brain see and feel victory.

3. "Mental Contrasting." THIS WORKS. Watch this video. IT WORKS. But you have to practice. I'm trying very small tasks using this option, one-a-day, increasing my brain's ability to be pulled toward tasks rather than being pushed toward them. I used this step to write this long blog post for writers!

Increase Value with....

1. "Flow." You know that complete joy that can come when you're in the process, feeling the flow of creativity? Practice entering this flow! Free-writing is good to get brain juices going, but it's also good for flow. You can set up your brain to desire this flow by, for instance, practicing free-writing. Recognize that all you want is to train your brain to equate writing anything with flow, and to equate flow with value.

2. "Meaning and Passion." Of course, if you're a writer, you probably know why you write. Lots of us just have to tell stories and bring characters to life, and that's meaning in itself. Maybe we have something to say; then inject this something into your story's theme. Why do you write? Remind yourself of meaning before you put butt-in-chair. While you're driving. While you're walking. Tweet it! Sing it out! And this brings me to...

3. "Rewards." Reward yourself for meeting little goals, for completing little tasks. Reward yourself for thinking about writing...  But only if your thought is "I genuinely want to write." Not "God, I need to write." "Good freaking Lord, I haven't written anything all day." Those last two are struggle-infused push thoughts and not naturally-motivating pull thoughts. There's a huge difference.

--How do you reward yourself? Smile. Inwardly or, better yet, outwardly. Laugh! Tweet! (I <3 Twitter.) Jump! Clap! Seriously. I know it's silly, but do this. Let the anticipation build between thought and butt-in-chair action. Eventually, you'll feel like you can't stop yourself from writing. That craving you get for a big, creamy, deliciously happy cupcake? You'll get that kind of visceral desire for writing.

Decrease Delay and your sensitivity to it by....

1. "Setting goals." Which you get to reward upon completion! Little ones, remember.

2. I love #wipmadness for this. Wipmadness was originally engineered by Denise Jaden and is currently hosted by Jaye Robin Brown. You set weekly goals (which for me turn into daily goals), and meet or struggle with them to a round of cheers and encouragements from fellow tweeps and writer/bloggers.

3. Weekly writing groups are an absolute must. Think how a writing group increases Expectancy -- you consistently succeed in bringing in 10 pages, more or less polished, for constructive critique. And Value -- you hopefully like the people you're working with. Seeing them light up with encouragement and ideas for your WIP is thrilling. And it decreases Delay. Once a week, you get the satisfaction of bringing in material. (Check out my crit girls: the lovely and talented Leigh Madrid & Karin Tobiason.)

Pull not Push

If you're like me, you may have trained your brain into doing things by pushing yourself rather than feeling a  natural positive energy to accomplish a task.

Kaj_Sotala has written a full article on this. I recommend reading it, as it shows how continually pushing yourself to do something you're naturally unmotivated to do (check the motivation equation for deets) can train your brain into confusion. It will equate pain (instead of pleasure) with tasks that bring accomplishment and success. No wonder writers burn out! "Pushing yourself" might feel intuitive -- "If I don't write, I can't call myself a writer, so I'd better write" -- but long-term this kind of brain state is harmful.

Check out PJ's Mind-Hack video on mental contrasting for a sure-fire way to begin retraining your brain to feel desire (pull) for writing.

Referenced articles:

1. How to Beat Procrastination
2. Pain and Gain Motivation
3. PJ's Mind-Hacking Video 


  1. Wow that's very useful stuff, if only I could have the courage to apply all that on myself. I was born with a constant inclination towards laziness so...:)

  2. You have great ideas on how to stay motivated! My main motivation is a love of the story and characters. If I don't have passion for what I'm writing, I don't write. Sounds simple, but passion is not easily forged. I have to feel it deeply, or my writing sucks. : )

  3. @unikorna One way to increase your motivation to apply these motivation techniques is by increasing your expectancy that they will work, for example by following Lora's link at the bottom there: "Check out PJ's Mind-Hack video on mental contrasting for a sure-fire way to begin retraining your brain to feel desire (pull) for writing."

  4. @E.R. King: Passion is pretty key for me too.

    One trick to help forge it is to reward yourself whenever you do feel passionate! Just to keep up the positive pull motivation.

    Anyway, I'm just so excited about all this mind-hacking stuff... I'm kind of bursting to share :D

  5. Really interesting!! And thanks for the tips. They came in handy! I always find myself to procrastinate a little when I'm in the very middle of my book.
    Loved the vicarious victory thing. Sounds like The Secret! :D

  6. My only problem is getting started. Once I'm there, there's no stopping me.

  7. Great post! That video was pretty neat. Definitely going to try it out!

  8. How do you know to write exactly what I need to hear? This is spot on for me and I think I need to implement...oh...all of it. Thanks Lora!

  9. @Monica: Glad they came in handy! I'm they same with my WIP. 2/3 thru and I want to pull my brains out. The Angelina's Sentence Pact worked for me this time around. :D

    @Nancy: Getting started is my--er, Anna's--problem too! Now whenever I'm procrastinating, even if it's just getting off the couch, I try to identify which factor--E, V, D or I--is causing the fuss. Then I fix it. :)

    @Alexia: Yay! The vid is super useful.

    @Deana: So glad it was encouraging!! I hear the big C word is coming for you. May those changes bring success and growth xoxo

  10. Ooh, I like this. It's great insight and something I think we can all use:) Great post!

  11. Interesting stuff, Lora. Thanks.

  12. This is awesome, Lora and so useful. Thanks for posting with all the links too. I'm off to watch that video.

  13. Thanks, Lindsay and Lorena! I found it incredibly useful myself. Hope you can try out some of the steps.

    @Juliana: Do it!! Work that video :)

    @Empress Awesome: Girl, you're too much. lol. Watch the vid, though. It's not too math-y and makes loads of sense :) To me anyway....

  14. Totally retweeting - this is an awesome post.