NaNoWriMo Tips: Use behavioral economics to stay motivated

It’s that time of the year again! No, not election season. If it’s November, it is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

While I don’t plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I do want to piggyback a bit on NaNoWriMo to share writing resources and tips daily throughout November, beginning with some interesting behavioral economics research by Katherine Milkman.

Professor Milkman’s work first came to my attention through her Freakonomics podcast interview, “When Willpower Isn’t Enough,” in which she describes two motivational techniques: temptation bundling and the fresh-start effect.

Temptation Bundling

Think of two activities you want to do, one of which you engage in readily and one of which you tend to avoid. Examples might be listening to a favorite music playlist and cleaning out a cluttered basement. A common strategy would be to reward yourself with the playlist after doing some cleaning or to clean while listening to music.

Temptation bundling takes the second option one step further: listening to the playlist is bundled with cleaning, but you listen to the playlist only while cleaning and at no other time. Milkman explains:

What we’re doing here is basically combining two commitments with each other and they sort of fit like puzzle pieces. So you’re using something that’s instantly gratifying to create a pull to provide the motivation you need to do something that’s unpleasurable at the moment of engagement. And then the other component that’s different is that you can actually have complementarities, which is an econ-speak term for peanut butter and jelly, two things that would go better together and are more enjoyable together than they would be separately. And so, one of the neat things about, for instance, only allowing yourself to watch your favorite TV show while you’re at the gym, is the fact that you might actually enjoy your workout more and you might enjoy the TV show more when you do them together, whereas a traditional commitment device just penalizes some behavior.

For writers, temptation bundling is a bit of a challenge, as it’s hard to multi-task while writing, but we might drink our favorite tea or coffee only when working on NaNoWriMo or some other writing project, or wear a comfy sweater or slippers only when working on our daily word count, or go to a favorite park or coffee shop or museum only when we also write there.

Fresh-Start Effect

Another technique Milkman discusses in the podcast is the fresh-start effect. This one I can relate to a lot (I love new beginnings of any kind). In simplest terms, it means taking advantage of the motivation we feel when we have a fresh start, such as a New Year, new week, new month, or birthday or other holiday. This fresh-start effect helps us to make the initial effort needed for larger goals, an effort that otherwise might seem overwhelming. Milkman explains how this might work:

So one thing we’ve tried is just reminding people that a given day is a fresh start. So, for instance, we have one experiment where we reminded people that a certain day was the first day of spring. And we experimentally compared people who we reminded a certain day was the first day of spring, with another group that we didn’t. And the group that got that first day of spring reminder was more motivated to pursue their goals and receive a reminder about their goals specifically on the first day of spring, when it was labeled as such. And so, you can think about just reframing a given day, reminding someone that it is an opportunity for a fresh start is one intervention that might increase engagement in fresh start behaviors. You could also think about just asking people to do things that are good for them on fresh-start dates. So you might try to roll out, for instance, a planning prompt campaign or offer people an opportunity to sign up for a commitment device or for a temptation bundling device on a fresh start date when we know their natural inclination and their motivation to do things like exercise and diet….

For NaNoWriMo or any long-term writing project, we might build in various fresh starts along the way—planning certain scenes or chapters for Mondays, for example, or even making a big deal about each day’s goal, knowing that the next morning offers a fresh start to succeed all over again.

You can follow Professor Milkman’s research on Twitter and watch her explain temptation bundling in the video below.

What are some other ways that writers can take advantage of temptation bundling and the fresh-start effect?

Bookmarkable Wednesday

Bookmarkable Wednesday: Resources for writers and other creatives

It’s mid-week and time to pass along some good reads that have come my way recently.

Distracted much? Creativity as a pathway to learning.

Just in time to share with my Creative Thinking students, Scott Barry Kaufman offers insight into “The Creative Gifts of ADHD“:

“To be sure, ADHD can make it difficult for students to pay attention in class and organize their lives. The importance of learning key attentional control skills should not be undervalued. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. As the researchers note, ‘in the school setting, the challenge becomes how to create an environment in which creativity is emphasized as a pathway to learning as well as an outcome of learning.'”

NaNoWriMo TypewriterAs the morning goes, so goes the day.

If you read no other piece of productivity advice this week, be sure to make time for Scott Young’s “Build Your Morning Habits First.” Really good stuff. I find that the tone I set in the first minutes of my day carries through for hours. One of my strategies for November is to spend much less time on Facebook, especially in the morning. From Scott’s piece:

“I’m striving to be strictest on myself in the first couple hours after I wake up. Afternoons less so. And evenings I’m trying not to have much structure at all. Build the morning habits first and let them carry you to the end of the day.”

Stop reading right now!

Wisconsin writer Christi Craig offers superb advice for writers on her blog today:

“If you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and you’re reading this, STOP READING RIGHT NOW AND GET BACK TO YOUR WORD COUNT. If you’re not participating in NaNoWriMo but (like me) you’re deep in the thick of rewrites and struggling to find the time to finish, STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW AND GET BACK TO YOUR DRAFT.”

National [Fill in the Blank] Writing Month

Flavorwire offers a host of ideas for how you can capitalize on NaNoWriMo momentum with DIY month-long projects, even if you aren’t an official participant. My favorite:

“National Flash Month! Write or work on a short essay or story every day. Google ‘daily writing prompts’ to get started. Or spend the first two weeks writing, the second two revising.”

Unlearn bad writing advice.

Finally, in Teaching as Unteaching,” Rob Jenkins discusses the ways he teaches his college freshmen writers to un-learn bad writing advice and habits. His tips are good for all writers, in or out of college:

“Students: Can we start a sentence with a conjunction? End with a preposition?

Me: To quote Winston Churchill, “That is nonsense up with which I will not put.” Seriously folks, the truth is that there’s nothing you can’t do in a piece of writing if you have a good enough reason.”

What bookmarkable resources have you found so far this week?

Happy writing!

My NaNoWriMo Lesson: Tinkering Is Not Writing

A lot has happened since I last posted here:

  • I finished NaNoWriMo (yes, this year, I did it!). Now I need to look over and begin revising the very messy, incomplete draft birthed in November.
  • The term at the college where I teach ended just before Thanksgiving, which means I graded papers and exams and projects during NaNoWriMo… and survived!
  • My husband and I spend a wonderful few days over Thanksgiving with our son and daughter-in-law in Boston (that’s us, below, in the photo on a frigid pilgrimage to Fenway).
  • I’ve begun a new academic quarter, this time with five classes. Don’t ask me why. I’ve never taught more than four, so this is a bit of a test of my competence or sanity or both.
  • A former student allowed me to use as a guest post at Psychology Today a terrific piece he wrote on what it’s like to live with ADHD: “We half-bloods need the ideals of Rome: Order. Structure. Integrity. Discipline…” Read MoreFenway

My NaNoWriMo Lesson: Writing Is Not Tinkering

I learned a lot from completing NaNoWriMo—for some reason “completing” feels better to me than “winning” as a way to describe the process. The first week to ten days went more smoothly than I expected. I cranked out my word goal most days without much trouble and even had time to do some tinkering along the way. More about that later.

The middle third of the month was much harder. While I had sketched out some of the story in my head beforehand, I didn’t have much prepared, and I quickly ran out of plot and direction. This coincided with the work needed to submit over 100 students’ grades. Frustration was never far away.


By the end, however, my fingers were once again flying over the keyboard. What changed? I no longer had the luxury of doing that word tinkering I’d mentioned. I do love to tinker with words, but the whole point of the month-long challenge is not to revise during the rough draft phase, as Tai Reichle, a NaNoWriMo middle school author, reminds us: “Every word you delete, every font you change, and every link you click will bring you closer to my hopeless state.”

When I finally took that mission to heart, my story really came alive. New characters barged on the scene and quickly made themselves at home. Two new time periods (this is a time travel story) and new points of view grew from nowhere. I was able to get to 50,000 words with one day to spare.

What’s Next?

Now that I know I can get my writing mojo on, I’m seriously considering doing NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) for January. I’ve missed the deadline to sign up for December by just a couple of days, but I will probably get a head start on it by posting here more frequently in the coming weeks.

What is your experience with either NaNoWriMo or the ongoing battle to resist the temptation to tinker rather than write?

Giving Up Facebook for NaNoWriMo

I have a confession to make. I’ve been a member of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for nearly seven years, and I haven’t completed the challenge once.

Not once. In fact, I don’t think I ever got past a couple of thousand words. Click on the image below for the sad, big picture.

NaNoWriMo Small

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. In those seven years I have written and published four books—one (non-fiction) with a large New York publisher, two (also non-fiction) with a smaller independent publisher, and one (children’s historical fiction) as an indie author.

However, my NaNoWriMo failure continues to haunt me, and this is the year when I’m going to do something about it.

Failure isn’t too strong a word here, because I’m not using it to be hard on myself. I’m using it to figure out how to do things differently. This academic term I gave my creative thinking students the assignment of writing a “failure resume,” which is an exercise developed by Tina Seelig of Stanford’s D-school and author of inGenius: Unleashing Creative Potential:

“If there are rules in place where you get punished if things don’t work out that’s really unfortunate because you’re obviously not going to try anything new.

To get over this, I think leaders should fail publicly and acknowledge it in a thoughtful way, ‘You know, we tried this. It didn’t work. Here’s what we learned from it.’ That’s the point – you need to mine the failures for insights.” Read More

Many of the students struggled mightily with acknowledging rather than ignoring their failures, and their struggles helped me to see that I, too, refrain all too often from looking closely at places and times in my life where I’ve fallen short in areas that are important to me. The goal isn’t to berate myself but, as Tina Seelig says, to mine them for insights, to change, which is the same as saying to grow, to be alive.

That’s where NaNoWriMo comes in. I find that I can’t simply forget about it. Each year I regret never having seen it through, not because I have never finished a novel-length book but because my own personal demon is persistent and preemptive editing. I like to share with my students Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird to be willing to write a “shitty first draft”:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

The problem is that, until now, I haven’t succeeded in following that advice myself.

What will make this year different? The insight I have mined from the NaNoWriMo item on my failure resume is that lack of planning has been my downfall in more areas than this. Like everyone else I know, I’m busy, and November is a busier month than most for me, in part because our college has final exams the week before Thanksgiving, which means well over 100 papers and 100 exams to grade and extra time spent in office hours. I will not shortchange my students. I also do freelance work, which I love and brings in a nice chunk of extra income. Then there are my family, my friends, household tasks.

But the writing time has to come from somewhere, and if I don’t plan for it, it won’t mysteriously appear (insight!). I know my body well enough to realize that I cannot sacrifice sleep. Something else has got to give. That something is Facebook, at least for the month of November. The only exceptions I will make are brief, once a day checks (five minutes, tops) using Messenger and Pages apps after I’ve reached my daily word count goal.

It comes down to this: What is my writing worth to me? What am I willing to do—or not to do—to wake up on December 1st knowing that I have completed the NaNoWriMo challenge once and for all (or at least until next year), not just to have a new draft but to have a new set of skills and sense of personal accomplishment?

The choice is easy.