I have trouble with motivation. Usually this problem manifests when my obligations mount, and my time does not feel my own. But when I do manage to tackle an item on my to-do list, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction spurs me on to the next with renewed determination.
That feeling of pleasure and satisfaction is the result of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which is released from the ventral tegmental area in my midbrain to the nucleus accumbens. This Mesolimbic pathway is otherwise known as the reward pathway, which reinforces the positive behavior, and encourages me to ‘want’ to be more productive. It is a process critical to reward-based learning and the survival of our species.
This feeling is far more rewarding if the task I wish to complete is something I am passionate about. Take a whole novel for instance. I completed my first novel while sitting in a coffee shop. While the other quiet patrons may have observed a man leaning back in his chair for a lengthy stretch, I was covertly raising my fists into the air in triumph. Of course, the feeling did not last long, not when I realized how much work still needed to be done, but I set to it with renewed vigor.
Here are some tips to help you complete your works in progress (WIPs).
Use baby steps.
It’s important to work up to your larger goals, and not tackle them head-on. Standing before a mountain is far more daunting than taking it one ridge at a time. You can think of a novel as a series of scenes, or short stories, with each chapter an accomplishment in itself. Motivation will build as more and more of these accomplishments pile up. You can give yourself additional rewards for reaching these milestones, like a night at the movies or a particular food you enjoy. This will positively reinforce the hard work you’ve done up until that point.
But sometimes, the reward stops working, in which case, you are officially an addict going through withdrawal. Indeed, many drugs target dopamine or mimic it in some way. And like all addicts, it takes a little extra reward to get the same sense of pleasure. With planning, you can slowly build up the rewards, making each better than the last until you’ve completed the novel. For the record, I do not advise taking actual drugs.
Find a routine.
Momentum is inarguably, the best way to get somewhere and to keep moving once you’ve arrived. Seeing your word count rise day after day, will not only keep you motivated, but keep the creative juices from stagnating. Setting a routine for yourself, one that matches your own pace, will help you speed through the processes. However, it’s important not to take on more than you can handle, or you can quickly burn out, and the act of completing your novel will seem more an obligation than an aspiration. Take NaNoWriMO, for instance. I’ve heard from many writers that the month is indeed motivating, but can leave you never wanting to look at that particular novel again.
Gain some perspective.
Oftentimes we need validation, assurance that the success we are striving for is in fact momentous, worthwhile, and anticipated by our peers and loved ones. The more worth you pile onto your WIP, the more liberated and accomplished you will feel by the end of it. So it’s okay to daydream about all the success you are going to have, even if those dreams are unlikely to come true.
It’s also important to surround yourself by people who are invested in the outcome of your novel, who can make your hard work feel appreciated, and who encourage you to write more. If you are looking for critiques for your writing, it’s sometimes best to wait until the novel is complete. If a less that positive critique comes back, it can make all your hard work feel pointless and a waste of time. If you still want critiques before you finish, it’s important to ask your critiquers to tell you what you’re doing right. It isn’t in peoples’ nature to dole out praise, but if it’s honest, it is equally if not more helpful than constructive criticism.
Piggyback on a troll.
This is not an actual literary term, but one I made up for lack of a better way to illustrate the concept.
If you need more motivation to complete your WIP, make it a secondary goal to something much more important to you, such as your sense of ethics, values, or loved-ones. Most of us are easily motivated to right a perceived wrong, deal out justice, or confront someone/thing that has offended us or our sense of morality.
And this is where the troll comes in. If you don’t know about trolls, I will do my best to summarize it. Trolls are people who post hateful or inflammatory comments on the internet or other form of media just to elicit an emotional response. Most of the time, trolls just want attention. You can spot a troll’s blog, for example, by the sheer number of outraged comments they have following each post. They love drama. For the record, I have zero respect for trolling, but I make an exception if the only one you are offending is yourself. If you set up your WIP with a moral challenge or dilemma for your characters, you can often trick yourself into seeing the story through to the end just to make sure it ends satisfactorily, and that justice is done. In short, troll yourself. Of course, this works best when you don’t work from a concrete outline and have to discover how the story ends by writing it.
Believe in yourself.
I felt like this post was about to take a turn on cheesy lane when I typed this section’s title, but it bears repeating. If you don’t believe you can do something, you will not have the motivation to try. If, for example, you don’t think you can learn a language, you are never going to attempt it. Again, it is important to surround yourself with people that believe in you. Don’t be afraid to fish for compliments if that is all that stands between you and finishing your WIP.
Finish your work.
This is the last and most important point. Don’t expect to be swept up by motivation halfway through a draft. It is almost always going to fail at some point and become a slow slog to the finish line, but it’s an important line to cross. Once you’ve experienced the pleasure of completing your first draft and then publish, you will have gained all the confidence you need to start your second WIP.
I’m sure there are many more points to cover, but I have run out of ideas, and ironically, the energy and motivation to think more on the subject. But at least I am finishing this post!
This is a really good article that covers many of these same points, and coincidentally, it is titled the Science Behind Motivation.
Please leave a comment if you have more tips to share on how to stay motivated and finish your WIP.
4 thoughts on “The science of motivation”
Addressing the reasons why we do not finish a great work is so substantial. I’m really glad you wrote about it. It may well be the most important piece of knowledge that every artist is looking to understand. “Why don’t I finish that song?”
Self evaluation in order!
Sometimes I envy writers that don’t give a fuck… then I realize that their writing sucks.
Phil, I appreciate your thoughtful and wonderfully sound ideas!
Inspiring to the end!
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A fellow Critique Circle blogger, Mike, recently introduced another aspect of staying motivated: Collaboration. You can read it here: http://www.critiquecircle.com/blog.asp?blogID=245
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A timely post, as I’ve just completed a first draft. It’s been a long process, but I find I’ve used a lot of the ideas you talk about here. Insightful and thoughtful post!
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