This article, written by Patricia Burroughs, is from the J 2019 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
In last month’s Nink, I explained how procrastination isn’t simply a matter of willpower or character, but rather a product of a brain battling with itself over who’s the boss—the executive in the prefrontal cortex or the bodyguard in the limbic system.
Most if not all of the time, we procrastinate because doing The Thing is not fun or pleasant, which means we have a negative feeling about it. It happens quickly:
“In 1/32 of a second we become fearful and we can’t think! THAT is what procrastination really is.”
– Maribeth Blunt,, Psychotherapist & Life Coach
But we are not without weapons, although nothing will work all the time and some things may never work. One of the best and often immediate ways to connect with your prefrontal cortex is to conjure up a good mood. The limbic system is designed to play nicely with your executive functions and even fuel them with stuff that helps you stay focused, energized, and happy with what you’re doing. One suggestion is to visualize happy times with the activity you’re avoiding, simply because doing so establishes the good mood and lack of stress you need to write.
One reason video game designers let people pile up the points before the game starts getting tougher is to give repetition, practice and confidence, so that when the game gets harder, you don’t just walk away. Yes, they get you hooked by letting you win a lot before they make it hard. Creating a habit of writing is similar.
Break the writing or project you’re avoiding into small bits, and recognize that if it’s not working, you haven’t broken it down into small enough bits. If you’re not writing at all, any progress is good. Remember, you’re tricking your brain into doing what you need it to do. No matter how ridiculously small you have to make your goal, do it. You may do this more than once in the day. Or start and go a little further. Or a lot further.
Or get to the very end of that goal and stop—even if your 100-word goal ends in midsentence. Do it. That was the goal and you aced it! Setting a goal that you know you can achieve is vital.
If your brain has a hyperactive rescue mode and wants to fight-or-flight you away from anything that makes you feel tense, stressed, or just plain negative, the key may be to cultivate habits that are as entertaining as video games or YouTube.
No, really. It’s a thing. There are a wide selection of apps that turn establishing productive habits into games, or close to it. (If you want a fun and motivating introduction to gamification along with some unexpected games to turn loose on your life [zombies!], let Jessica at HowtoADHD tell you How to Turn Your Life Into a Video Game.)
Habatica is a full-fledged RPG (role-playing game), complete with the ability to level up, buy gear, earn gold coins, etc. However, to reap those and other fun rewards, you don’t fight battles. You get experience or health points each day for each “habit” you are able to check (you did the good habits, refrained from the bad ones). You write the habits (write a chapter, write a newsletter, write two sentences, however you’ve set it up). There’s a to-do list for one-off tasks that don’t repeat, and the rewards you set for yourself, whether it’s a treat, an episode of your favorite television show, or time on Facebook. When you reach a high enough level you start accruing money and pieces of armor. It’s a real game that even lets you form a “party” with other people you know, adding a social element.
SuperBetter (overview of book and app) (tutorial)) may have the most dramatic storyline. Dr. Jane McGonigal had been developing games for 10 years when she suffered a debilitating concussion that wasn’t healing, was causing horrific pain, and left her so depressed she contemplated suicide. Instead, she developed Jane the Concussion Slayer. That game became SuperBetter, and it’s designed to work for you while you play. You create Quests (daily tasks and habits), create a Secret Identity (which is half the fun), challenges, Power Ups (tiny moves that give an emotional or physical lift) and more. Your negative habits or mindsets are Bad Guys. Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Make it a Quest you’re working toward. This app also has a social aspect.
Finally, and perhaps saving the best for last, productivity consultant Denis Duvauchelle said, “Dopamine can be triggered with meaningful rewards, funny jokes and pleasant pictures. Have trouble motivating yourself to write? Kitten every 100 words!”
Some writers find grounding and motivation in rituals that are creative, sensory, sometimes spiritual and/or religious—and can be designed to get you into the mood.
Remember the ongoing battle chronic procrastinators have? There are many ways to elevate that mood, and rituals are amazing tools.
One writer decided to take the plunge and write full time but quickly discovered that, since he didn’t have to cram all of his writing into stolen hours from work and family, the new sense of freedom led to him frittering away his time. His solution was a simple two-step ritual. Every day once the house emptied, he quieted himself and stroked a mallet down a set of desktop chimes. As their vibrations slowed, he lit a candle, one that would burn for four hours. The chime was his attempt to establish a Pavlov’s dog affect. Chime equaled time to write and he soon had no trouble diving into his work. But the candle was even more vital as once it was lit, it indicated his writing time. As it burned, his time grew shorter. He did allow himself to break as necessary, but even then he was aware that he was burning time, not to mention he had a burning candle he had to keep an eye on! His simple two steps provided a trigger [time to write] and mindfulness [time is burning].
Your ritual could be starting with a prayer. Or turning on music that fades into the background. Or using essential oils or incense.
“Make it so.”
Finally, one of the most helpful tools has to do with establishing new habits—fast.
Not after 21 days or 60 days, but almost immediately. That may sound impossible but this technique is recommended in many academic and psychological circles and is worth trying.
Program yourself to take a positive action or to avoid a negative one through self-talk, either aloud or mentally.
Isolate the precise action you want to take. Then create the sentence—the mantra, perhaps—that you’re going to start saying. It can be a straightforward plan, simple in its execution. “After I finish loading the dishwasher tomorrow, then I’m going to sit down and write for awhile.”
That may sound unimpressive, but if you start saying this in the morning the day before, and if you write it on a post-it and stick it on your computer, or wherever you will see it most often, and if every time you see it, you either speak the words aloud or read them silently… I think you can take it from here. It’s unassuming, direct, and not exciting. But by the time you’ve matter-of-factly and repeatedly reminded yourself of your intention, after you load that dishwasher, sitting down to write is going to be a lot easier than it has been. You’ve been preparing your brain for it for over 24 hours. Have fun with it, if you want. Roll your eyes, laugh about it. Next morning you may laugh all the way to the chair.
Need some extra motivation? Link the action—in this case, writing—to something you want to do, before and after.
“After I drink my expensive, special occasion coffee that I only use for guests, then I’ll sit down and write [two sentences, two scenes, two chapters, two hours]. And when I’ve done that, I’ll go to the coffee house and pick up another bag of those special coffee beans.”
You’ve outwitted your brain because you sandwiched your writing between two things that will make your prefrontal cortex purr happily in anticipation.
Hey, you may have not only gotten yourself jumpstarted, but you might have just established an effective new writing ritual: bestowing yourself with alone-time and the “good” coffee before and after writing because you deserve it.
Because one of the most vital things you can do is develop habits and rituals that take care of you.
Patricia Burroughs has ADHD, dyscalculia, and associated cognitive disorders, all of which are disorders of executive function and the prefrontal cortex. She generally manages her issues through self-education, medication, and therapy. She is not a neurosurgeon nor is she a psychologist. She encourages you to seek more information if you want to understand the nitty-gritty of brain function beyond their squabbles, which may include professional help.