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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?

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