Monday, September 3, 2012

Motivation: What Keeps Me Showing Up

It's why we show up to work every day. (Motivation: paying rent.)
It's why we eat dinner at night. (Motivation: hunger.)
It's why sometimes we make dinner even after a 10-hour day instead of nuking a bowl of oatmeal. (Motivation: delicious food.)
It's why we skip dessert. (Motivation: still fitting in pants.)
It's why we start writing. (Motivation: quieting the stories in our heads so they'll leave us alone.)
And it's why we finish writing.

But where does that motivation come from? Sometimes we do things just because we want to. Other times, we have to drive ourselves by finding external drivers.

External vs Internal Motivation

I blog every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I do this for the motivation of establishing a routine, in hopes that when I am published, I will continue this good habit. Blogging regularly (theoretically) will increase my readership and show my readers I appreciate them. This is a reward-based motivation: external. It's my long-term motivation.

I also blog because I enjoy it. Every blog I post gives me a chance to put my words out there. This is an internal motivation: I do it because I get an emotional reward.

I began researching publishing news because I thought it might be helpful to the other authors I've networked with, and continued researching because it also helps me grow, too. That's also an internal motivation: I like the feeling of knowing I'm improving.

And when I've posted blogs, sometimes I see the page views go up. Post, look at page views, go away, come back later and see the numbers have gone up. (Squee!) That's an external motivation: post, and see readers visit (reward-based.)

Most things we do provide both external and internal rewards. I water the plants on my balcony every day so they don't die (external), and I have plants on my balcony because I like smelling flowers and having live plants (internal). The same goes for writing: no matter how much we love it, we also get rewards for it.

Choosing Rewards

An important factor to motivation is figuring out what is rewarding for you. Do you blog because you like seeing your audience grow and leave replies? Then you may be more externally motivated, and your rewards should probably be external motivations. Or do you blog because you like the feeling of having posted a blog, even before someone reads it, because it gives you a sense of accomplishment? Then you're probably internally motivated.

Okay, probably both. So how to tell the difference? Ask yourself, "How do I feel when I make a post no one reads?" (In other words, how do I feel when I don't get the reward?) If the answer is "Frustrated, because what's the point if no one reads it?" then you're probably better off rewarding yourself with external rewards. If the answer is "Disappointed, but whatever. I posted it and that's what matters," then you're probably internally motivated.

For people who respond better to external motivations, you'll want to give each of your short-term accomplishments some kind of external reward. These don't have to be expensive or even indulgent. "I get to post on Facebook what kind of progress I made" is a good example, because it's a reward you cannot get without achieving your goal (I suggest joining a group of writers who encourage each other, so you don't annoy non-writers or slow writers with constant posts about your word counts!)

Reaching your goal may usually seem like reward enough. But sometimes it isn't, and when you're bashing your head against a writers' block, a little external motivation can go a long way. Don't be afraid to use it. We're human, and that means sometimes we get frustrated and need an extra push.

Choosing Motivators

"One day I'll publish and make a million dollars" might seem like a great motivator, but in actuality, it's not. Why? Well, for one thing, it's unrealistic. It implies that writing is easy (it isn't), and that an author is likely to make millions (we're not). So when the motivator is proven fallacious, the desire to keep writing falls.

The long-term motivation for a writer may be to publish, may be to say "I finished what I started," or might just be to finally find out what happens at the end of the book. But a long-term motivation is a long-term goal, and we write in the short-term, on a day-to-day basis. "One day I will publish" turns into "One of these days, I'll get around to writing."

So we need to make motivators for ourselves to accomplish our goals. Often the internal motivation "writing is fun" isn't enough, because writing isn't always fun: it's hard work, and sometimes leaves us pulling out our hair or making forehead-friends with writers' blocks. And there are days where we're just too busy to lend an ear to the storylines that chase us, so that doesn't fill the bill, either.

What we need are short-term motivators with sharp, clear-cut guidelines. First, decide what needs to be accomplished. Then choose definable steps to accomplish them. Every time you reach one of these mini-accomplishments, you get a reward.

Sometimes the motivation is a short-term goal. Sometimes it's the possibility of getting a reward (or punishment), and sometimes it's just the desire not to look like you've been lazy. But what it always is, is something that holds us accountable.

Motivator Examples
  • Daily or Weekly Word Counts
  • Deadlines
  • Joining a weekly writers' update group
  • Feeding your hungry beta-sharks readers
  • Making a promise
  • Getting a provisional offer
  • Being accepted as a member of a group
  • Allowing yourself to read a book for meeting a goal
  • Telling your mother what you did in the last week
  • Competing with a rival
  • Telling someone else you're going to do something

What motivates you to keep writing? When do you find yourself needing an extra push, and what rewards do you give yourself?


  1. Deadlines are my best motivator. Which sucks, because I end up doing exhausting power sessions close to the deadline and the quality is lower than it should be.
    Just getting things done is a good motivator...but a very slow one. It's like gravity- a major force in the big picture, but my god is it weak. It is unfortunately much weaker than the procrastination monster. Especially if the procrastination monster is trying to get me to do something else productive that isn't quite so imminent.
    My blog-related writing suffers more than my paleo-related writing, which is as it should be. I managed to make myself procrastinate less now than I used to, but a large portion of that procrastination is doing other productive things that I won't see the fruits of for much longer. I still feel bad when I only give my readers one post a month, but "GPA before SCA", as the saying goes.

    1. Deadlines help me a lot, too. I've gotten into the habit of giving myself arbitrary deadlines when I want to get a big project finished, with the last one preferably a few days before the actual due date so I have at least a little time for review and fixing. Otherwise I'm right in the same boat of doing less than my best, and I hate knowing I could have done better and didn't!

      Completely agree about gravity vs. the procrastination monster. Mine is big and mean and dangles cookies and internet in front of me. But it's conquerable and priorities help! Have to say that's a good saying... work before play, as always.

  2. To keep writing? Gosh. I just love it? That might be it. But then sometimes I stop writing for a long time... and I don't think that means that I stopped loving writing, just that I needed a rest. But yeah. Love is my key motivator.

    1. I've taken writing vacations before myself, and while I always wake up one day with an itch in my fingers I can't escape, sometimes it's just easier not to write for a week or two, and if I don't give myself a deadline or a goal that turns into a month or two... Always have to push myself back to doing the things I love most. This strange love we have, huh?