Engineering Self-Motivation

Many writers absolutely love to write. I am not one of them. I love the work it produces, and the fulfillment I receive from it, but not while I’m knee deep in the mess of it all. As novelist Frank Norris famously said, “I don’t like to write, but like having written”.

Motivation to write doesn’t come easy, as with anything worthwhile. Like the gym, half the battle is merely showing up. In the case of writing, it would simply be to open the writing application to pick up where you left off.

There seems to be an invisible force which tries to dissuade us from doing what we know we should. It tries to slow us down with distractions that seem to always be available within arms reach, and we rarely (if ever) say no to them. It is what renown author Steven Pressfield calls, “the resistance” – what I would rather label as “working inertia”. Whatever you want to call it, there are ways we can overcome it and motivate ourselves into doing what we need to do.

1. Never Closed

I no longer close the writing app when I’m done writing. I save my progress, but I leave it open and merely keep it in the background as I work on other things. This saves me from having to motivate myself to get into the headspace of “I am now switching into writing mode”. If the app is already open, I am always in writing mode.

For the gym, it would be to have your clothes already packed and ready by your bed, in order to reduce the friction of doing it when you’d rather sleep in or do something else.

Anticipate and neutralize the opposition however you can.

2. Smaller Bites

Writing a book is a big feat. It typically consists of anywhere between 15,000-75,000 words, which are daunting numbers for authors of any stature.

Large projects like a full-length book can cause some level of anxiety, and discourage many from ever starting the writing process. As a result, it’s much better to break things down into smaller, achievable steps. Similar to eating an elephant “one bite at a time”, we can digest big things over an extended period of time.

If I want to write a 35,000 word book within a year – a typical goal of mine – I simply make it my daily aim to write 100 words (100 x 365 days, minus some holidays). Anyone can write 100 words a day, right? Of course, sometimes I end up writing even more than 100 words, but making the objective small enough makes my motivation to attempt it that much greater.

3. Daily To-Do

My life is run by my to-do list, a simple app that I can’t function without. It lives on both my laptop and phone. It tells me what I need to do that day, and can be set to repeat every day so I can check it off every day after I complete it.

One of my daily tasks it tells me to do, of course, is my 100 words for the day. Checking things off my to-do list releases a dopamine hit almost better than completing the task itself, so it naturally motivates me to mark this tiny task off my list further.

4. Leaving Breadcrumbs

There have been times where I’ve come to start a new chapter, paragraph or sentence, only to be stumped as to where I should go next from where I was previously. It usually requires me to go back and see what I had written in my last session, and feed off that momentum in order to launch into the next phase of the book.

Similar to what some call “writer’s block”, this phenomenon would sometimes keep me at a stalemate for many minutes before I could get back into the groove of things. That is, until I figured out a way to curb it.

These days, right before I am about to end my last few words for the day, I begin to write the next line, but always make sure to stop the sentence half-way through my thought. In other words, I want to incentivize myself to complete the thought the next session, which will have me hit-the-ground writing immediately. For example, I could write something like:

  • The news hit me like a ton …
  • As I stepped outside, I noticed the weather had …
  • Waking up with my sheets covered in …

Once you’ve started filling in the blanks, it becomes second nature to just keep going.

5. Public Accountability

Some people just need another to keep them accountable. It’s why they hire personal trainers, even though they know exactly what they need to do and how to do it (i.e. eat right, and exercise). Having someone else to keep you in check works for many, but how would you engineer this for things like reading or writing?

Theoretically, you can have an accountability partner who could periodically check in on you via text or phone calls, but that may not be feasible for everybody. Others may want to undergo what is now known as “building in public”, which involves social accountability in the form of status updates as to where you are and where you need to be by certain dates – this is usually done through channels like Twitter, Reddit, or similar. Some even live stream their progress through Twitch or other streaming platforms.

For some reason, what works for me is simply turning my phone around and record myself writing. It seems to work on two fronts:

  • It keeps me off my phone, since it is being used to record me and can’t be used for anything else as a result
  • It tricks me into thinking that someone is going to watch these videos later, so I best be staying focused on the task at hand and not get distracted with other things

While this is often a last resort, it has come in handy when a deadline or goal needs to be reached in a small time frame. I recommend it if all other methods fail.

Last Thought

Yeah, there’s other ways to stay motivated: Those YouTube videos are inspiring. Those Instagram pages are interesting. Those Chrome extensions are helpful. But ultimately, this is what works for me, and I recommend you find your own path. Only you know what will work for you, after you experiment with everything.