Why is it that we often believe that we need to be motivated to write? A lack of motivation is one of the top reasons that we don’t get our writing done. Think about it – when you have a looming deadline (like tomorrow!), do you need to search for motivation before you write? No, usually you are writing like someone who has gone quite mad at that point.
What if you could harness just a little bit of the madman or madwoman in you on a more daily basis to get your writing done? Is there a way you could hack your brain to create the conditions that make it think it’s motivated to write? You can if you take advantage of a little neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Dopamine as motivation
To understand how dopamine works to keep you motivated, let’s take an example of that incredible dopamine delivery device that you carry with you every day – your smartphone. Open up your email and there are your shiny new emails. Open up your social media, and there are your shiny new tweets, Facebook messages and memes. Even LinkedIn has those little badges that tell you that you have something shiny and new in there just for you – go ahead and open it up. Google-ing something? Just keep clicking – you will soon be rewarded with the information that you are seeking, Keep going. You’re almost there. . . Each one of those messages, memes, and badges is firing off dopamine in your brain and fueling you on to just one more click. It’s kind of like playing the slot machines in Vegas. That next one is going to be the winner for sure! Just keep going. . . .
If we spent as much time on our daily writing as we spend on these other dopamine-driven activities, we would be filling up the Library of Congress with our prolific works. Why are these platforms so addictive when writing is not? Are we really having fun when we surf the net, or are we exhibiting obsessive or compulsive behaviour? Do you often feel pulled into your writing the way you feel pulled into your email? Just one more paragraph and then I’ll stop! No. . . writing does not deliver the dopamine that Facebook harnesses, but you can create conditions around your writing that will. In short, you can hack your writing motivation.
Putting Dopamine to Work for You
I can think of two ways to make your writing more dopamine-driven. You may have other suggestions, and I encourage you to share those in the comments section.
My first suggestion is to create a reward environment around your writing. Make it as pleasant as you possibly can. This is how I manage to get up every morning to write at 4:30 a.m. I have some nice, warm and wonderfully smelling coffee on automatic brew, I have a super comfy chair to sit in, and a nice warm fuzzy blanket. My cat has even been cooperating in this hack lately by sitting on my legs, which if you are a cat person, is one of the most wonderfully awesome feelings ever. Of course, you don’t have to get up at 4:30 a.m., or have a cat to make this work, but do think about how you can make your writing environment more pleasant. You could write at your favorite cafe, or even outside or with a friend. It can even be as simple as having a nice cup of tea or other beverage of your choice to accompany your writing session.
My second suggestion is to join an online writing group or schedule writing meet-ups with a buddy. Google Hangouts is a great way to check in online with someone you know, do a meet and greet, and then get to the writing. If you already have a Google account, you only need to sign in and get started. If you don’t know anyone who is willing to do this with you, you can find writing buddies online as well. NaNoWriMo offers the opportunity to find a writing buddy either online or locally in your region. While NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and technically held in November, they offer support year round. There’s a #5amwriters club on Twitter which is as easy to join as typing in the hashtag #5amwritersclub and posting a short tweet before you start your writing morning. I haven’t found the #lunchtimewritersclub or a #10pmwritersclub for those who are not early birds, but you could always start one. If you are an academic, AcademicLadder offers a supportive group coaching platform that includes writing chat rooms where you can meet up with other academics for joint writing sessions. For fiction writers Called to Write offers similar services. Academic Ladder and Called to Write are paid services, but they offer a lot of support. Be careful not to use these forums to procrastinate and end up chatting with your writing buddies instead of getting your writing done.
Notice Your Productivity Zapping Dopamine Triggers
Finally, all of this advice will be for naught if you continue to suck up large quantities of time in non-productive dopamine-driven tasks of the email/internet/social media variety. Becoming aware of when you are in that state can help you to shut it down and get back to more productive endeavors or engage in a real break. Pay attention to what pulls you into an endless loop and distracts you from your writing goals or what you are using as a break but is really draining you in the end.
WARNING: One way not to use dopamine to fuel your writing drive is to wait until the last minute and then binge write. While this will put you in a crazy, obsessive writing state, you aren’t really using dopamine here – the reward center of the brain – you are using your crazy amygdala – the flee from a saber-toothed tiger part of your brain. And the amygdala likes to accompany that drive to finish with a whole heck of a lot of stress hormones. This approach is not recommended.