Normally, I have to convince myself to go on a long training run or bike ride by promising myself a carrot, if I finish the workout. And by ‘carrot’, I mean chocolate. Or frozen yogurt with toppings. Or some other positive reinforcement that I can focus on for a few hours, while pounding the pavement. Sometimes, it’s a splurge for quiet time to just sit at the park and people-watch for future story characters. Sometimes, I promise myself a chance to skip some chores for the rest of the day. It gives me something to make the miles go by faster, and I always know there will be a happy ending (of sorts).
Recently, I had an epiphany: I need to do the same thing with my writing!
The Burden of Writing Goals
I see so many writers talking about daily word count goals or predetermined writing timelines, disappointed if those metrics are not met. I’ve tried that approach, but for me it’s too punitive. I’ve seen other authors worn down by goals, too. Life happens. Strict goals don’t always get met, ending in feelings of self-doubt or failure. Even if a daily goal is met, merely finishing a certain number of words a day is often not ‘feel good’ enough to keep me going day after day. How about for you? Over time, isn’t it emotionally draining?
Some Goals Can Hamper Creativity
As writers, our overall goals can be long in coming: finish a 100,000-word manuscript, get an agent, get published, sell books. Oh, and marketing, marketing, marketing. Adding in smaller goals, like daily word counts, keeps the forward momentum going, and makes the overarching path not seem so impossible. And yet, this repetitive daily goal can begin to feel stagnant, stressful, or unattainable.
This can lead to negative effects: writer’s block, poor sleep, self-doubt, manuscript apathy. I can see why so many writers stop believing in their dream and give up. (For tips on writers block, see here).
Feeling Defeated? If timelines are wearing on you, if you’re feeling the end will not arrive, I would suggest a bit of a change.
Find Your Carrot!
Let’s be honest, if you want to be a writer, you need deadlines and goals. It may not be the goal that is the problem, but how you perceive them. Psychology and biology teach us a lot about human responses that cause positive (and negative) feedback. Our brain releases a chemical called dopamine when we exercise or eat foods we like. It gets released with things we enjoy, such as positive feedback and interactions with other people. (For a brief article on dopamine, click here).
The Dopamine Reward Loop
Dopamine not only makes a person feel good, but it conditions the mind to want to repeat an action to get more dopamine. This ‘dopamine reward loop’ is extremely potent.
You’ve probably experienced the dopamine reward loop. Ever find yourself still clicking on social medial 2 hours after planning ‘just a quick peek”? Do you tell yourself just one more round of Candy Crush, one more post to cultivate followers, one more check on notifications… THAT’s the powerful dopamine loop.
Dopamine’s also responsible for lab rats repeatedly hitting buttons for food rewards and for the intense addiction of the human brain to cocaine.
Dopamine can also be a good influence, though. Used right, dopamine can cause you to want to continue good behaviors, such as finishing a goal, getting a job completed, writing that new story outline.
Harness the Positive Power of Dopamine to Boost Your Writing!
Maybe you can’t get rid of all the goals. After all, if you don’t finish the manuscript, the goals of pitching or getting published are probably mute. But if the goal itself is no longer exciting, if it’s no longer releasing dopamine, find a reward for yourself that will, once you’ve completed the goal. In other words, find a dopamine release (your carrot) to make the goal more palatable.
What carrot should you pick? This become personal- each person may need something unique. Dopamine release is complicated by your own experiences-from foods to memories and smells from your past. It may be listening to music, fishing, or just a few quiet moments listening to birds chirp. Maybe it’s a few minutes working on a non-writing hobby. Or a few minutes playing that addictive game on your phone.
How Can You Tell if You Find the Right ‘Carrot’?
Ask yourself a few questions. Are you really looking forward to the reward when you’re done with your goal? Does the thought of it make you smile (inside or out)? When you’re done writing and get the carrot, how do you feel? Keep the carrots that work, toss the one’s that don’t. It may take some experimenting.
Keeping the Carrot Fresh
After time, the same carrot may not be enough anymore. I have to be careful to not eat more than a single snack-sized Hershey special dark chocolate for my carrot. Given the opportunity, I would eat the whole bag. Periodically, I have to find something more compelling than chocolate and change my reward for the day. Maybe today, it’s a cup of coffee while watching the orange-reds of a vibrant southwestern sunset. Tomorrow, maybe an episode of my favorite show.
The Secret Carrot Bucket
One fun way to keep the reward fresh and enticing is to make yourself a secret carrot bucket. A what? A carrot bucket, filled with rewards that you have pre-approved. Start by making a list of things that really make you smile. Brainstorm rewards enticing enough to keep your momentum going toward your goal. Focus on those that positively build you up. Don’t pick any that add stress. Put each idea on a piece of paper, fold it, and toss it into a little bucket.
How to Use the Carrot Bucket
Each time you finish a goal, reach into the bucket and see what your ‘carrot’ is. Not only do you know it will be something you really enjoy, but the surprise element can be fun all by itself. (Who doesn’t like a surprise reward now and then?)
Making Your List
Grab a pen, gather your pieces of paper, and fill your carrot bucket. Now? Yep, right now. Arm yourself ahead of time. I’ll wait while you get it all set up…
…There! You should be all set for your next writing goal. I hope you enjoy keeping yourself motivated and find a new sense of excitement about your writing. And don’t stop there! Apply your goal bucket to other parts of your life to liven it up. Chores can be a whole lot more fun when you know the carrot bucket waiting for you.
What’s your carrot?
Let us know in the comments below what carrots work for you. Do you have a different way to keep your motivation fresh? We’d love to hear it.