Finding the Write Carrot

Normally, I have to convince myself to go on a long training run or bike ride with some sort of carrot I promise myself, if I complete my goal. 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 is 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).

I realized recently that I need to do the same thing for my writing. 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. 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 not ‘feel good’ enough to keep me going day after day.

Over time, it’s emotionally wearing.

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.

If you’re feeling defeated by not meeting your writing goals, 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.

Psychology and biology teach us a lot about human responses that cause positive 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. Dopamine not only makes a person feel good, but conditions the mind to want to repeat the behavior and get more dopamine. This dopamine reward loop is extremely potent. 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 is the power of dopamine. Dopamine’s also responsible for the way lab rats repeatedly hit buttons for rewards and for the intense addiction of the human brain to cocaine.

Why not harness this same science for positive, natural body feedback to spur your writing?

If word count isn’t releasing that hormone, find something positive that will. Each person may need something unique. The hormone release is complicated by your own human body experiences-from foods to memories and smells from your own past. It can 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. Maybe it’s a pre-determined number of minutes playing that addictive game on your phone.

How can you tell if you’ve found the right ‘carrot’? Are you really looking forward to the reward? Does the thought of it make you smile (inside or out)? When you’re done writing and get your carrot, how do you feel? True, after time, the feedback may not be enough anymore. I have to be careful to not go above a single small, snack-sized Hershey special dark chocolate for my carrot. Given the opportunity, I would eat the whole bag. Periodically, I have to find something I’m looking forward to more than chocolate and change the reward. 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.

One fun way to keep the reward fresh and fun is to make a list of things that really make you smile. Brainstorm a list of 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 another stressor. Put each idea on a piece of paper, fold it, and toss it into a little bucket. After finishing the day’s 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?)

Hopefully, this has given you some ideas to help keep your motivation fresh and rewarding. As a bonus, it can be applied to so many other facets of your life, not just writing.

How do you support your writing motivation?

What’s your carrot?

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