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How to Find Your Daily Writing Motivation

writing motivation

How is your writing motivation?

You know the deal: If you want to get better at writing, you need to write.

Preferably daily. Preferably at the same time every day.

But uuuuuugh. What if you’re just not motivated to write every day? What if you can’t discipline yourself? What if you tried for a few days then completely ran out of juice and sat around eating cookies instead?

Every writer struggles with this. “I just don’t have any motivation today,” we say, all sad and desolate, as if we’d completely run out and had no idea where to get more.

This may be because we don’t stock up properly.

Writing motivation doesn’t come from within. It comes from your secret stash.

What Do You Get Out Of It?

I was reading a book on how to develop habits, and one critical point caught my eye. This book argues that one of the reasons we fail to develop “good” habits and keep up our “bad” ones is because our bad habits offer us a better reward.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you decide you need more physical exercise every day (a good habit) and want to quit eating junk food (a bad habit).

It’s easier to start exercising every day if you pick the same time to do it. You decide you’re going to go for a run at 7:00 am every morning. No excuses.

Meanwhile, you decide that you’re going to get rid of all your chips and stock up on healthy carrot sticks instead. Now you won’t be tempted.

Fantastic, right?

But after a few days, you have a rotten day at work and you sleep poorly. You wake up with a bit of a headache, and your shins hurt from those three days of diligent running.  You’re tired. Cranky. Meh.

Anyone who’s ever tried to rejigger their health habits knows what happens next: You skip your run and somewhere around noon, you find yourself at the snack machine pounding at the glass to make that Snickers bar drop down.

What went wrong?

Eating junk food (your bad habit) is rewarding. You get a tasty rush of sugar. You feel satisfied. You feel content. You were stressed out, you got some good stuff, and now you feel better.

Running (your good habit) didn’t come with a reward. You got up early, you ran, you worked hard that day, and then you . . . come home, take a shower, sleep, and do it all the next day.

Where’s the fun in that?

We tell ourselves that there IS a reward for running – in a few months, we’ll be in better shape. But honestly, that’s not much good. We need motivation so we act NOW.

Which brings us back to writing.

What’s Missing From Your Daily Writing?

You have a long-term goal for your writing. For many of you reading this blog, you want to have your novel published one day. For some of you, you just might want to finish that book. Whatever your motivation, it’s long-term motivation.

It’s not something you can accomplish in a day of writing.

Since that’s the case, your mind starts wondering why it’s doing this daily writing thing. It’s hard. It’s tiring. Some days, it’s grueling – a real chore you’re starting to hate. And it doesn’t seem to have any immediate reward.

You’re just going to keep doing this painful daily writing forever and never going to get anything out of it.

That’s lousy motivation.

Long-term goals are great, and you should keep moving toward them. The ultimate reward of achieving your dream is going to be amazing.

But right now, you’re not sitting down to write a whole book. You’re sitting down to write for an hour. One hour. That’s it. And you need a reward for doing that.

You need motivation. Here’s the problem:

Your Motivation Isn’t Internal.

Motivation isn’t some magic force that you either have one day or you don’t. You provide yourself with motivation.

People often make the mistake of thinking motivation is inherent in the act – if we write, we’ll feel good. That’s true to a degree, but while it feels satisfying to write, it’s also difficult do do every day.

And many days, the satisfaction of having written that day is just too intangible a motivation to convince you to sit down and write the next and the next and the next.

So give yourself a motivation you can touch.

Your motivation can be small, and it should be intensely personal. Let’s say that you enjoy fine wine. After you write (not during; after), pour yourself a glass of the good stuff. Not that boxed stuff on top of the fridge; that’s just disgusting.

This is special, just-for-you, reward-for-writing wine.

Not a drinker? (I suppose some writers aren’t…) Alright. Maybe you fancy a truffle from that chocolate place you don’t often indulge in because come on, what do you need with fancy chocolate?

Maybe your motivation is a walk in the cool night air, all by yourself. Maybe it’s freshly-squeezed orange juice. Maybe it’s an episode of your favorite TV show.

It’s anything you want it to be.

Well, okay. Within reason. There are a few rules:

The Motivation Reward Rules

There are only three rules for your motivation:

  1. It has to be personal. If this isn’t something you really want, you won’t want to work for it. Don’t decide to do the glass of wine if you could care less about the glass of wine. Choose a reward that works for you, something you really desire, guilt-free.
  2. It has to be something you can enjoy immediately after writing. This is crucial, because you want to attach your reward firmly to your effort and build association. Your mind will subconsciously connect those two together. It’ll start thinking, “Well, I don’t want to write, but I really do want to go watch the next episode of House, so let’s get this over with.”
  3. It has to be something you won’t do otherwise. If you make your reward something you indulge in all the time, it won’t be special. It won’t be a motivator. Sure, you could have that fine glass of Shiraz after you write – or you could have a glass without writing, just like you did yesterday. Useless. Your reward can be something you used to do intermittently, but once you decide on it as a reward, don’t do it at any other time than post-writing.

That’s it.

Here’s the interesting part: After you’ve used this reward motivator technique for a couple of months, your mind will automatically associate writing in the “good” part of your brain rather than the “painful, dreary, daily slogging to be avoided” part.

That means you’ll start getting the impulse to write even when you know perfectly well it’s not possible to have the reward. Even when you’re out of wine or it’s raining too hard to go for a walk, you’ll still feel motivated, because your mind won’t be thinking of writing as difficult.

It’ll think of writing as rewarding.

Which is all the motivation you need.

So tell me: What do you think your motivation will be? What small thing can you give yourself as a reward for writing? And if you already use this technique, what reward works for you?

About the author:

Preferring a lovely glass of fine Shiraz for her after-writing reward, James Chartrand of Men with Pens devotes her time to teaching students at Damn Fine Words, the best online writing course for business owners yet. Get on the newsletter today!

Image: Boy in pilot’s hat courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com

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42 thoughts on “How to Find Your Daily Writing Motivation”

  • Glori says:

    You know what’s funny? I’ve been moping around all day trying to finish a short story and I found this in my inbox. Great timing, and thanks!
    As shallow as it may sound, I need to use money as the motivation at the moment. :)
    I’ll bookmark this post for the more serious stuff.
    Thanks James!

    • I love using money as a motivator – but money isn’t always specific and your mind might see it as a vague goal. For instance, compare these:

      1) “Okay, I want to write this blog post because I need $100.”

      2) “Okay, I want to write this blog post because it’ll bring me a dinner with my husband and a night at the movies”.

      Number two is a representation of number one – it’s something your mind can see, imagine, look forward to, plan, visualize… you can almost see yourself enjoying the evening, right?

      Better. Go for it. :)

  • Lynn Hess says:

    The last part is the tricky part for me….NOT indulging in the reward unless I actually follow through with the act. It’s so easy for my inner rebel to stick out her tongue and say “I don’t FEEL like doing X, and I’m having the reward anyway, so there!”

    But SOMETIMES I can be a grown-up, and when this method works, it REALLY works. I established a pretty regular meditation practice this way. Now I’m going to apply it to writing as well. Perfect timing, James — thanks!

    • Yeah, I agree, it takes a certain amount of discipline. “Okay, I WON’T read that hot new book I’m loving until I’m finished this 3,000 word article and… oh to hell with it. That book is awesome! SEE YA!”

      So I rarely pick rewards I can indulge immediately. I pick things that require my partner’s presence, or an amount of money I can’t easily access, or an activity that I have to plan out first.

      Good luck!

  • Laura Howard says:

    Ita great to be reminded that I’m not the only one who feels this way about writing! It’s a sort of love/hate relationship, isn’t it? I guess this activity would be two fold for me. I feel guilty sometimes when I indulge in ice cream, but if I use it as a reward… I can lose the guilt. And a scoop of ice cream well-deserved sure beats eating half a carton for no reason ;)

    • Beti Spangel says:

      “Writing is a love/hate relationship” (paraphrased – sorry) and “A scoop of ice cream well-deserved sure beats eating half a carton for no reason” are two of the best one-liners I’ve heard all year. They’re going on my inspiration bulletin board.

      • Well, it made perfect sense to me, but I haven’t had all my coffee yet. ;)

        I personally believe that writing should never be a hate relationship – even in a small way. If there’s something you hate about it, if there’s something you struggle with, then that’s a big signal from your mind there’s something you need to look closer at and fix up so that it becomes an enjoyable task.

        Granted, not everyone LOVES writing. And granted, we all run into some times where it’s just not working. But with some introspection as to WHY it’s not working or what we don’t love about it, we can bring writing to a place where it’s a pleasurable activity we look forward to.

  • Thank you so much for this. Just yesterday I was trying to figure out why it was so much easier to write my blog than my book. My blog has more tangible rewards at this point. When I do some good work on the blog, the hits go up and people comment saying they enjoyed it. When I do some good work on the book, nothing happens. Not even the dog gets excited. So now I’m just off to figure out my book reward! Thanks so much for sharing. ~Lisa

    • It sounds like external validation really lights your torch, Lisa, and there’s a good article right here on Write to Done that discusses just that. (Search internal external validation James Chartrand to find it).

      So if external validation is your “reward” (and it definitely can be!) find out how to set that up for your book. Call a friend. Tell them how important it is for you hear “GREAT JOB!” when you call and say, “I wrote 1,500 words today!” Give them money and tell them to surprise you with little gifts when you hit certain markers. A snack you like. A special tea. A new book.

      Making yourself accountable to someone else who cheers you on… it works :)

  • Hi James. I also LOVE the book The Power Of Habit, but I had not taken the time to apply it to writing in this way!

    This is MIND BLOWING perspective! As a writer, we feel we are passionate about our subject and I think we believe that should be motivation enough to deliver to our audience… and in MOST cases it is.

    But not ever day. Day in and day out. I believe the reward system can be extremely powerful.

    I know it is crucial that I find a reward that truly motivates me beyond just wanted to share with my readers.

    I have tried my favorite show after I am done…. but like you mentioned… I started to watch it either way at the end of the day.

    So exclusivity is key! I guess I need to head back to the drawing board and really think of a more “personal” reward. I will be referring back to this post often until I can find something that works.

    Looking forward to hear what else has and has not worked for other fellow writers. Awesome thread so far, with timeless advice. Thank you.

    • Heh, my motivation very rarely comes from just plain old passion. That works for a short time, but not for a long time!

      Habits, yes. Absolutely. Become a word-alcoholic who needs the daily drink (of prose, not of Primitivo Merlot, though that’s always a nice reward.) Build daily routines that make it feel something’s missing if you DON’T write.

      And give yourself weekly treats you look forward to! :)

  • Sylvia says:

    I love this article. I meet with a writer’s group the first Wednesday of every month. We had just talked about and committed to our goals for the month. I committed to writing and reading (writing tips) 1 hour every day. My first novel is in the process of being published. So I really need good motivation to keep to my goals.

  • Khaalidah says:

    It has to be personal.
    Chocolate her I come. This was a masterful post. thank you thank you thank you.

  • Greg Walker says:

    Motivation is always something us writers are looking for – but another thing to look at is the whole issue of willpower. This article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/07/why-willpower-matters) looks at how willpower is a muscle that we can train – the more you just do something, the easier it will become. I haven’t read the book which the article discusses yet, but it makes sense to me. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at rewarding ourselves, but more at just getting down to it and getting the job done?

    • Mmm, willpower just means (at its most basic) the will to direct our actions towards accomplishing a goal. Will means, essentially, desire.

      Dieters need lots of willpower to accomplish their goals – they need a deep, driven *desire* to reach them.

      That’s why most dieters give up after two weeks. It’s work! Wah! They don’t desire losing 20 pounds THAT much!

      Another thing about willpower is that I read a study recently (but for the life of me can’t remember where) that mentioned willpower is a resource similar to a well of water. Deplete it, and you need to find a way to replenish it. Empty it, and you’re done.

      So I don’t think just gritting your teeth and bulling through it ALWAYS works… but yeah, I absolutely agree with you that many people need to just quit whining and do what they say they want to do.

      Or be truthful and stop saying they want to do something that deep down, they really don’t! :)

  • Liz says:

    James, reading your post has great timing for me. This whole week I haven’t felt like writing. It’s been a real effort to get anything out.

    Rewards can be a motivator but I have to be disciplined with my rewards. I’ve been known to just go for the reward without getting the job done first.

    For me reading what others are doing and reading posts like this one can be motivating. One other thing that helps as well are support groups or accountability groups. There’s something about having someone hold you accountable that helps you get the job done.

    Liz

    • Peter Shallard and I recently started having write-offs – we had a LOT of writing to do in a short period of time, and we’d meet up every day and create a challenge to see who could write the most in one hour, no distractions.

      Didn’t have to be perfect. Just the first draft. But the word count? Heh, that was the winning goal.

      And boy did it ever work! Our reward was one-upping each other and crowing about our awesomeness – we wrote like madmen!

  • Charlene says:

    Reward as motivation sounds like a good idea right now. I’ve just managed to find a writing routine that works with my afternoon fatigue issues (so far, but it’s only day three), but I will need something to keep the habit going once my body realizes what I’m doing and tries to rebel :P Perhaps some of those heavenly white chocolate truffles as a perk.

  • Alexandra says:

    Basically, like others in the comments, I was beating my head against the wall because I didn’t want to write today’s blog entry. I know what I need to do now.

    Thanks for the great insight in my inbox.

  • Like some of the other commenters, I sometimes have a hard time not giving myself the reward if I didn’t write. The thought process being that the stress of not writing earns me the reward. But I’m going to reread this post several times and set up a new reward process. I think it will work. And now I’m off to work on that Ebook I’ve been avoiding, with a glass of wine this evening as my reward.

  • Carey says:

    Thanks for this post! I found it very uplifting and have saved it to read from time to time when I need the kick in the pants.

    I’m leaning toward using chocolate as a reward but will need to think it through more first. I do have the tendency to say screw it and have the reward anyway. So I will need to think long and hard on this one – although not too long and hard that I skip writing. :)

  • Michael says:

    This may be a good way to get yourself working I’m the short term, but (perhaps counter-intuitively) it may cause more harm to your motivation long term. Turns out (and there are a lot of studies about this) that the carrot and stick approach works well for boring tasks, but not for creative ones.

    I personally found that the more I tried to trick myself or motivate myself externally, the more I found myself dragging my heels. I’ve come to understand that I was sucking all of the intrinsic motivation out of my writing, and I started to reevaluate what my reasons were for writing in the first place. I stopped giving myself rewards for doing something that I supposedly wanted to do to begin with. I talked to my wife about it.

    Since then I’ve written every day, and it’s been easier. Not that the writing has been easy, but I no longer have to struggle to make myself write. I found that all I really needed was to get out of my own way and let myself write.

    (I’m sure that editing will be another matter altogether :)

    ( I would like to suggest the following read for anyone interested in this further.
    http://www.amazon.com/Drive-Surprising-Truth-About-Motivates/dp/1594488843 )

    • Interesting comment, Michael. Especially the bit about stopping giving yourself rewards for doing something you “supposedly wanted to do to begin with”.

      I wonder, sometimes, whether we like the thought of writing, or being a writer, more than the being (or doing) itself.

      It’s probably different for each person, and I can see how short-term rewards can work, but I think I agree with you: in the long term, carrots will ruin your appetite.

      • There’s a ton of psychology wrapped up in writing, so for sure, introspecting about how we feel about writing and what we get out of it goes a long way.

        As for ‘supposed to want to do in the first place’, there are some tasks we undertake that we have to do – it’s not a question of want or not want. For example, I have to do laundry – I don’t WANT to. But I have to.

        So finding rewards that help me stay in clean clothes for the rest of my life is a smart, smart idea! :)

    • Good points, Michael, but a lot of that depends on where you get your validation from – internally or externally – and whether you’re intrinsically motivated. It sounds like you are, so you’re definitely on the right path!

      And my post of course assumes that anyone undertaking a writing project actually WANTS to write it in the first place – if you’re writing for the wrong reasons, I fully agree that revisiting WHY you’re working on this project can help a great deal (or can can the project so you can do other things!)

  • Bonnie House says:

    You have some great ideas here. After I get all my writing done then I feel I can play internet games or read a good book, or do a craft. So I have many things to motive me to write.

    Thanks for the reminder and suggestions.

    Bonnie

  • Hmm…not to be argumentative but my only reward is the satisfaction of writing the story. I can’t write the stories fast enough and I get frustrated when I have to stop to do something else. Don’t get me wrong, I have blocks that last weeks, but seriously when I sit down to write I start reading where I left off or my favorite passage or chapter of the novel and it usually comes flooding right back. The only real thing that helps me is the point you make of writing at the same time everyday. I’m a night person so I actually only actively write from about 4 p.m. to midnight and I hate stopping then. When I’m not in the mood I either wait it out or sit myself down and start typing a sentence. Sometimes that is all it takes.
    Plus, having a deadline really helps me.

  • Well…my motivation was ice cream and now, damn it..I’m 20 lbs. later and ‘deeper in debt…’ (or something like that. Yep, I had a punishing year, trying to put the finishing strokes on my series for little kids (and I’m a high school journalism teacher, as well as published writer). No matter–the stress mounted because I’m on the brink of finding out if my project has legs..As for writing at specific time, I’m retired, so no problem…right? For the first time, in my life, I CAN write whenever I wish, and I do–every day from 7:00AM to noon.Now, too, I must learn the ropes of the social media sites, how to Tweet and use Facebook, a herculean task, I might add if one weren’traised in this era.

    You know what I find most daunting? Years ago, one could self-delude with the presumption their work just didn’t hit on the right desk…at the right time…That’s why they weren’t published. Now, with all the self-pub outlets, there is no excuse and we will all find out if we’re really as good as we hope we are…

    No matter–I’ll continue because I am driven to….I have a post on my website writers have told me especially helped them “How a Written Piece is Like a Meal in a Gournet Restaurnat” (see–eating is my nemesis)..I, myself, am in this business for the long haul…

    Just now have to hit the gym more often and drill down on the sweets–my reward…

  • Interesting post. I like the ideas here but can’t immediately come up with one that’s appropriate. My problem is, I’ll reward myself for cleaning with writing, but by the time I’m done I’m often too tired to write, lol. (I’ll definitely need to think this one through. Thanks!)

  • karthik says:

    well a good one.this is what everyone who aspires to write,encounters and those who overcome it become great and their experience turns out to be motivating for those who aspire..

  • I lost my motivation because of something.
    After I write my short story and I read it, I feel satisfied. But I think my story isn’t good for people to read. It’s not entertaining I guess. So I suggest my self to stop writing. But on the other hand I want to keep this hobby.
    Reward after writing isn’t enough to keep my motivation :'(
    I need another motivation source.

  • Kelly Cousineau says:

    James – your article comes at the perfect time for me.

    Currently I pay a coach who requires a blog post for homework once a week. I think this is a “less pain” reward versus a “more gain” reward. Since I purchase a month of coaching at a time, when I don’t submit my weekly assignment, it still costs me money. I get nothing from that investment! This reward will work as long as I retain the coach.

    The best motivating reward for me is feedback, especially positive feedback. I thrive on feedback. It doesn’t matter what I write. It may be that weekly blog post to my coach, an event summary for a client or merely a thoughtful response to an email message. Once I submit it, I literally start checking my email 20 minutes later for feedback. I am especially hoping for “atta boys!” The problem with this reward is that it depends on someone else spending time reading my work.

    Another reward system I recently found is a score sheet to earn points for activity. This tool was developed for marketing activity (compliments of Robert Middleton at http://www.ActionPlan.com) but it could easily be converted for writing. For short pieces, let’s say you assign 10 points for writing an outline, 20 points for writing a draft, 20 points for editing, 10 points for the title and then another 10 points for publishing it. Each day you record appropriate points and watch them accumulate. Try to visualize these points as money in the stock market. Every point you earn from the investment of writing should ultimately produce rewards, even financial rewards.

    Without a hard deadline, writing regularly will be a challenge for me. I’ll come back often to read your ideas and try each of them until one works. Thank you for the inspiration!

  • Wonderful article with excellent advice .
    I am in the biggest writing funk I have ever
    experienced because of some personal issues.
    My thirteen year old daughter has become the target
    of an adult bully whose true intentions are to hurt me.
    I’ve been unable to find any motivation at all.
    I feel paralyzed. I know I should not let this person
    take away something that means so much to me,
    but our minds do what they want sometimes.

    I feel much better after reading this post. I like many of the
    ideas. I can see how it might be a problem choosing a
    reward that we would not otherwise enjoy or the motivation
    behind the reward becomes useles. This is where self discipline
    has to come into the equation.

    I especially like one of the ideas suggested in the comments.
    Hiring a writing coach or having some other motivation to write that results
    in a penalty could do the trick for me.

    Thanks for sharing this.
    I am writing my comment from
    My cell phone so I apologize for any errors .
    I am not good at texting or typing with such a
    tiny keyboard.

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