Motivation to write is often tricky to maintain, even though we are passionate about telling stories. Yet building an intrinsically motivating writing process will help you reach your writing goals. Read 7 ways to grow great writing habits that will keep you fired up to finish:
Building motivation to write: 7 methods
- Cut friction from your writing process
- Replace lone goals with systems
- Stack habits for automatic motivation
- Embrace SMART goals
- Form tiny habits for success
- Minimise distraction
- Create accountability
Let’s explore these winning motivation-building strategies closer:
Cut friction from your writing process
An obstacle that often gets in the way of motivation to write is friction. As James Clear says:
Nearly all of the friction in a task is at the beginning. After you start, progress occurs more naturally. In other words, it is often easier to finish a task than it was to start it in the first place.James Clear, ‘Motivation: The Scientific Guide on How to Get and Stay Motivated’
So how do you eliminate this starting friction (or friction that crops up at other times in the writing process)?
Build healthy, good writing routine habits and cut friction by:
- Scheduling your time to write every week.
- Attaching the habits you want to the habits you already have (more on this below).
- Making it so easy that you can’t say no.
If you’re a parent, maybe you consistently have time free on a weekday evening when your kids have after-school activities.
Schedule time to write for when you know distraction is lowest.
To minimize friction that upsets motivation, make it as easy as possible for yourself and choose SMART goals (more on this below).
Replace lone goals with systems
In his TED talk we’ve shared below, BJ Fogg identifies three types of behaviours:
- Dot behaviours: Actions we perform one time
- Span behaviours: Actions that have duraction, e.g. something we do for 40 days
- Path behaviours: A permanent, ‘from now on’ change
The problem with focusing on a single writing goal is it easily becomes a dot behaviour.
For example, you go on a weekend spree of outlining your new story idea, then put it aside.
This is why building a system that enables you to reach your writing goals and find motivation to write is much more powerful.
James Clear uses the example of a marketer who prays that word will get out about their business:
If your business doesn’t have a system for marketing, then you’ll show up at work crossing your fingers that you’ll find a way to get the word out.Clear, ‘Motivation: The Scientific Guide’
For this marketer, a dot behaviour might form their entire marketing strategy. For example, doing a single paid Facebook promotion.
The marketer who has a system, by contrast, has the ingredients of a long-term, ‘path behaviour’. Ingredients such as:
- A schedule
- Actions or span behaviours with pre-determined durations (e.g. writing a new weekly blog post for 3 months)
- Measurable activites to learn from
When you develop a system for your writing, you have a plan and the means to analyze what you intended to do and what you did. What went right, and what to improve on next draft.
Stack habits for automatic motivation
‘Habit-stacking’ is another method for building motivation to write, exercise, or perform any other beneficial task requiring repeated actions.
In the presentation for his TED talk, Fogg uses the example, ‘after I pee, I will do 2 push-ups’.
This stacks or associates a desirable habit (doing push-ups) with something we have to do, something we do by default.
James Clear describes this as building new habits by taking advantage of old ones.
Motivation to write is a new habit (maybe not yet a consistent, automatic part of your routine) that you can culture by enlisting your old, second-nature ones.
As James Clear explains, our brains ‘prune away’ actions we do not repeat, whereas repeated actions (habits) strenghten neural pathways (like a musician gaining guitar chops). Oft-repeated tasks become easier, developing mastery and efficiency as added bonuses.
So how can motivation to write get a piggyback ride off your existing habits?
Using the habit-stacking formula for motivation to write
Clear provides a simple formula:
After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].James Clear, ‘How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones’.
To build motivation to write, you could use a habit-stacking formula such as:
- After I have my morning cup of coffee, I will write 100 words
- After I write my scene/chapter outline, I will immediately write the first paragraph
- Before I watch half an hour of TV, I will write 100 words
Clear gives one important caveat: The when of your habit-stacking matters. Choose a time with the least possible friction/distraction:
When and where you choose to insert a habit into your daily routine can make a big difference. If you’re trying to add meditation into your morning routine but mornings are chaotic and your kids keep running into the room, then that may be the wrong place and time. Consider when you are most likely to be successful. Don’t ask yourself to do a habit when you’re likely to be occupied with something else.Clear, ‘How to Build New Habits’
Embrace SMART goals
Another useful concept for setting yourself goals and keeping up motivation to write is ‘SMART’ goals.
The term was developed in a 1981 paper by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham for Management Review.
What are SMART goals? There are several variations used depending on context, but for writing we can say they are:
- Specific: They identify particular actions with clear parameters
- Measurable: You are able to measure achievement of the goal
- Attainable: The goal is something humanly attainable
- Realistic: The goal is based on a practical sense of what is possible
- Time-based: Pursuing the goal will span a specified duration
An example of a SMART goal to motivate you to finish writing a novel:
I will outline three chapters for my story and finish the first draft of my first chapter within 30 days.
This goal is SMART because:
- it is specific (not ‘I will write a book’ but a smaller, more specific fraction of this broader, more general task)
- it’s measurable: You can see whether you have reached your goal after 30 days, or whether you need to adjust it
- the goal is attainable and realistic – if the average chapter has around three to five thousand words, you will only need to average 100 to 167 words per day
- it’s time-based – you have the timeline to achieve a specific task to completion.
Sit down today to write your own SMART goal for telling your story.
Form tiny habits for success
Tiny Habits® is a method developed by Stanford behavioural scientist and author BJ Fogg. His NYT bestselling book, Tiny Habits: The small changes that change everything explores ways to use environment and ‘baby steps’ to build the habits you truly want.
Fogg’s TED talk ‘Forget change, start with a tiny habit’ shares some of his insights from decades of studying human behaviour regarding motivation.
Fogg uses the analogy of ‘flossing one tooth’ as an example of a small activity you may want to repeat or expand upon later. A key part of building motivation out of this small act is pausing to ‘celebrate victory’.
What tiny writing habits can you foster? To build motivation to write, you could:
- Write 100 words every day for a week
- Stick a post-it in your writing space each time you write describing the scene you’ll write next
- Leave a sentence incomplete at the end of each writing session so you have an easy win that motivates you to write next time (Hemingway is said to have done this)
Maintaining your motivation to write is difficult when there are distractions everywhere.
How do you minimize distraction? Create the conditions you need for dot behaviours to become span ones.
Need 30 minutes to write, uninterrupted? Schedule this time when you know nobody will interrupt you. Switch off your phone. Unplug the internet, even, if necessary.
Jonathan Franzen, writing for The Guardian, talks about ‘barricading’ himself in his office:
Rendering a world is a matter of permitting oneself to feel small things intensely, not of knowing lots of information. And so, when I’m working, I need to isolate myself at the office, because I’m easily distracted and modern life has become extremely distracting. Distraction pours through every portal, especially through the internet. And most of what pours through is meaningless noise. To be able to hear what’s really happening in the world, you have to block out 99% of the noise.Jonathan Franzen, ‘Jonathan Franzen: ‘Modern life has become extremely distracting’ in The Guardian, October 2015.
So if you need to, tune out that 99% noise.
James Clear calls this ‘the power of decision elimination’. You’ll have the power and the motivation because you’ve eliminated the need to choose between writing and less important distractions.
Accountability is an essential part of motivation.
When you say ‘I’m going to write a novel’ and proceed to do it, you’re staying accountable to the goal you’ve set yourself.
Problem is, we’re not always the best cheerleaders (or taskmasters) for ourselves. Habitual behaviours and thought processes get in our way such as:
- Negative self-speak: ‘I’m not good enough’
- Procrastination: ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’
- Working hard instead of smart (or SMART): ‘I have to have read the entire history of 16th Century France before I can start’
To increase your motivation to write, you can:
- Get an accountability partner: This could be a writing buddy or professionals such as writing coaches who have done it before and thus offer knowledgeable guidance
- Use habit-stacking to automate progress: If you have to write before or after you do a routine or rote task, you’re building accountability automatically
- Create reminders for yourself: When you have a writing session that goes well, write about what you enjoyed on a post-it. Stick it above your working space to remind yourself of a motivating aspect of the process
Develop path behaviours and keep writing with the help of your own dedicated writing coach, plus get free peer support in our writing community.