• logo for Writing Tips

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?

How Election 2016 Has Changed Me for the Better

me_vanou https://www.flickr.com/photos/me_vanou/5958633851/in/photolist-a5xyfp-dVQX8j-a9g9xX-8g9EjT-STaja-dGwTa9-aeHvLA-72BaM-btrC8U-pXTmvx-q1LCsj-8F37Ne-cUiBnA-nMUaB1-4jyEr1-dcKDfQ-6tKF42-bjLtYT-83mYWp-6pnWGR-8ytoZb-8yqkST-6HDVzH-4HU1hm-nj15N8-53niJE-4fivMH-6HJ1z7-4e6fbZ-9rYAb5-nFTtE3-qDEY7C-HdZUaY-bbUJNM-q96zgL-5WUYDc-nK1juV-7DZarw-4ik7Tk-nTGcWJ-rfQQw6-pT6nUL-bunoF2-nFT1vd-4TvXGT-qiqNu4-jVhE3J-5uWvcg-mHME8R-75XbXi "be quiet" (CC BY-ND 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

“be quiet” by me_vanou (CC BY-ND 2.0)

There’s not a lot of joy in this election. keke many other Americans, I sometimes wish I could sleep ala Rip Van Winkle through the next twenty-four days (I’ve already voted, so I could actually sleep for twenty-five days).

However, while watching Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire speech yesterday (video at the end of this post), I was reminded that this election season has changed me—is changing me more each day—and for the better. For the first time in my fifty-two years (the same age as our First Lady), I am realizing just how much I have allowed my own voice and emotions to be hushed.

How is this election season changing me?

Silence no longer feels like an option.

I am expressing my views more readily, regardless of whether those around me will understand or be offended or take me seriously or even listen.

I am examining more carefully what it is inside my mind and heart that holds me back and makes me feel powerless and less than, knowing I have the agency to change.

I am reminding myself that I can be compassionate and giving and supportive while at the same time attending to my own needs and desires and voice, that self-compassion and self-care are not selfish.

I yearn to follow Michelle Obama’s example in learning to honor my own emotions, in refusing to internalize the belief that just because they are a woman’s emotions, they are trivial.

“Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet” ~ Michelle Obama

As I am fortunate enough to be able to speak—and to write—I now more than ever feel obligated to do so.

hush

she stopped talking as an anorexic stops eating, slowly at first
forgoing the extra word, skipping the unnecessary reply in
favor of the nod or smile, a simple experiment, really, a
goal to improve oneself, until she got the taste for it
no one noticed as she purged the superfluous, sent
phone calls to voice mail, rationed herself to one
hundred spoken words per day by hoarding
sentences in a notebook and bingeing on
thoughts, saving precious syllables
for public use, bringing them
out only when necessary
speaking less and less
until she was finally
engorged and
silent

The above poem was one I scribbled years ago and recently pulled from a pile of drafts to share with my writing roundtable. Only now am I beginning to understand the depth and breadth of lives and experiences that make up the collective “she.” My understanding will no doubt continue to deepen, and I will continue to grow.

All because of a presidential campaign.

“We simply cannot let that happen. We cannot allow ourselves to be so disgusted that we just shut off the TV and walk away. And we can’t just sit around wringing our hands. Now, we need to recover from our shock and depression and do what women have always done in this country. We need you to roll up your sleeves. We need to get to work.” ~ Michelle Obama (read full transcript)

Post update: Michelle Obama transcript quotations added October 15, 2016.

Self-compassion for writers (it’s not what you think)

In a recent Study Hacks blog post, Cal Newport, “a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age,” quotes Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s advice on learning:

“If you have compassion on yourself, you will learn to budget your hour; every hour will have its own task. You should decide before you begin how much time you want to spend at even mundane matters…Your hours should not be left open, but should be defined by the tasks you set for them. Write out a daily schedule on a piece of paper and don’t deviate from it; then you will reach old age with all your days intact.” [Rabbi Shapira, quoted by Cal Newport]

Read the entire short and accessible post here, and see an example of how Cal plans his day here.

Photo credit: Courtney Dirks https://flic.kr/p/9Lcbki (CC BY 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Photo credit: Courtney Dirks (CC BY 2.0)

What struck me about the quotation was the word compassion. We are all busy. We are all easily distracted. Some of our brains have been hijacked by the election season. Finding time not only to write but to have a writing life of purposeful reading, daily practice, long-term goal setting, and regular submissions may feel like anything but a form of self-compassion.

However, if we think of such habits as self-care and kindness toward ourselves by creating a more meaningful life, rather than an obligation imposed from the outside, perhaps they will get easier.

TTFN. On to sketch out today’s to-do list.

Writers, have you ever taken a break from social media?

This summer I have taken a bit of a social media sabbatical. Only after a couple of months now have I started dipping into Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, and have yet to add the apps back to my phone.

 

Next week I’m going to write more on my reasons and what, if anything, I’ve learned, but first I’d love to know if others have done the same. Reply in the comments, drop me an email, or answer on Twitter or Facebook (yes, I see the irony).

Have you ever taken a break—complete or partial—from social media? What was the result?

See also Kristen Lamb’sBreaking Facebook Dependence—How to Create an Enduring Author Brand.”

Social media apps

Photo credit: Jason Howie, Social Media apps, (CC BY 2.0)

Writers: Stop pretending to yourselves to be anything but what you are

Why do we write?

It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot and one I’ve asked here before. I always come back to the same answer:

I write because life is more meaningful when I do.

As August begins—and on a Monday (!), which adds an extra oomph to the feeling of starting anew—we can pay attention this month to how we feel 1) when we write, 2) when we have written, and, perhaps most important, 2) when we have not written. This summer I’m working on strengthening my commitment to a life spent writing, with a goal to write 500 new words per day, and here’s what I’m finding: On those days when I don’t write, I go to bed feeling worse than on the days when I do, regardless of what else happens during the day.

Photo credit: Denise Krebs, 2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: Denise Krebs,2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

This is the part that has surprised me the most: the feeling of well-being (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with what I’ve written, what genre or topic, whether it is for publication or just for myself, or even whether what I wrote was any good. It depends only on accepting the challenge of the blank page. Somehow the very act of writing makes me feel more myself, more authentic, more grounded, and better able to tackle the rest of what life offers.

J. K. Rowling offers a clue as to why this may be the case in her 2008 Harvard Commencement speech (video at end of post):

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” ~ J. K. Rowling [emphasis added]

In order to grasp fully Rowling’s decision at that point in her life, we need to allow our imaginations to go back in time before the world had heard the words “Harry Potter” (difficult, I know). When she committed herself to writing as a way to be who she was and to do work that mattered to her, it was not with the guarantee or perhaps even dream that she would create a cast of characters and books that would define a generation. That wasn’t the point at all—the success was only a byproduct. The turning point was that she fully accepted that she was born to be a writer and changed her life to be more in line with that realization.

What will it take for us to stop pretending to be anything but who we are, and to start directing energy into what really matters to us? What does that mean for your daily life?

The topic for Wednesday’s post will be social media, especially the idea of taking a social media sabbatical. Until then, I’d love to hear why you write.

See also

The Purpose of Your Writing Life