Writer Sarah Plater shares five research-backed motivational strategies for aspiring authors...
You’re confident you’ve got a book in you. You just haven’t quite finished it yet. If you’re honest, you haven’t actually started. Perhaps you’ve got outlines and scraps of paper with scene and dialogue ideas, and you know that as soon as you get a chance, you’re going to write that world-changing piece of fiction.
But when you do have time to write, you’re not in the right mood. You’ve got writer’s block. You procrastinate. You remember that you wanted to rearrange your writing space, put some laundry on or read last week’s Sunday paper. Why do so many of us hope and plan to write a book, but persistently struggle to get started or stick with it?
John Parkinson is a Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at Bangor University. His research investigates the link between our thinking and our behaviour, with a special focus on motivation.
He says, “There are three influences when it comes to motivation: energy, direction and persistence. The most fundamental of these is energy, and it comes from valuing a goal sufficiently to want to do something about it. But you also need direction. If you have high energy with regards to pursuing a goal, but don’t know how to go about it, then you’ll just feel frustrated.”
“It’s also important where your energy comes from. If you are pursuing novel-writing because you feel you should, or because someone else tells you to, then you’ll struggle to persist with it. On the other hand, if you truly want to write that book for reasons of self-fulfilment or personal enjoyment, then you’ll be highly motivated to find the right path, persist in the face of challenge and ultimately achieve the goal.”
So that’s energy and direction. When it comes to persistence - putting the work in, day after day - there are five research-backed motivational strategies that can keep aspiring authors on track:
1. Break it down
Break your novel into bitesize chunks (e.g. theme, outline, character, chapter one etc) and only look as far as the next chunk. Have a clear plan for each one and set deadlines to give a sense of urgency and achievement.
John says, “Essentially, you’re breaking down a daunting goal into smaller, more achievable units and being precise about how you will go about delivering those units. Don’t wait until you reach the final goal to reward yourself, though; celebrate each small success along the way!”
2. Visualise the process
I thought that visualisation would involve vividly imagining holding my finished novel in my hands, tracing my name on the cover and picturing it piled up in a bookshop display. In fact, John recommends visualising the process instead.
He says, “There’s evidence that visualising the final goal reduces motivation to succeed After all, if you have already achieved it (in your mind) then why bother trying hard? It’s far more effective to visualise the process leading to success, and the specific actions you need to take to get there.”
3. Make your intentions specific
Good intentions just aren’t enough. This is because we tend to be too general and abstract (“I intend to write a novel.”). Instead, focus on the implementation of the steps that will help you reach that goal, and tie them to a specific situation (“When I get home tonight, I will write 500 words of the scene where my two main characters first meet”).
John says, “This strategy is evidence-based and effective, and could work really well for a writer.”
4. Eat that frog
In his book, Eat That Frog, author Brian Tracy recommends doing the thing that you're putting off first of all, before doing anything else. He likens the process to eating a frog for breakfast - instead of spending all day thinking about the frog you have to eat, you just get it over with. This avoids the problem of continually planning to write later in the day, then never getting round to it.
John adds, “The way you plan your day is critical to success. It needs to have some structure that supports goal achievement. So, if you like spending time on Twitter or Instagram then use this as a reward for having done some hard work. Rather than spending the first hour of the day scrolling on your smartphone, spend that first hour knocking out 500 words and then enjoy a well-earned coffee break while looking at social media. It’ll feel more satisfying.”
5. Make a public commitment
Announce your project and deadlines to friends or family, so that you are held accountable. Productivity guru and author Tim Ferriss recommends going one step further: give a friend or family member a cheque written out to a charity or political cause that stands for something you strongly disagree with. Instruct them to post the cheque if you don’t achieve your project when you say you will.
John explains why this is so powerful; “We are loss-averse, perceiving losses to be worse than a win is good. So if we think about failure to achieve our goal in terms of the potential loss, it looms much larger and can be highly motivating. This approach is more about the stick than the carrot!”
A longer version of this piece was first published in the June 2018 edition of Writers Forum magazine.
Sarah Plater is a freelance writer, co-author of Foundation Portrait Photography and Mastering Portrait Photography and the writer/editor/publisher of Go To Sleep: Peaceful Thoughts for Anxious Minds. Find out more at sarahplater.com/writing.
Find out more about Professor John Parkinson’s research at www.backofbeyond.co.uk.