Countless productivity apps and life hacks help you organize your to-do lists and block out distractions, all designed to help you get your butt in the chair and put words on the page. Many of us struggle with procrastination, and research shows that it might in fact even be part of the creative process.
But when it comes to getting words on the page day after day, perhaps the best life hacks are the simplest ones.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the writer best known for Eat, Pray, Love, often shares wisdom for writers and for women in interviews and on social media. At a recent signing for her new book The Signature of All Things, I asked her about some advice to writers she’d given on her website — advice that’s always stuck with me, but which I can never seem to follow:
“As for discipline — it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.”
Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love).”
But how do you do this? I asked her. How do you forgive yourself when you slept through your alarm when you were supposed to get up and write? Or when you do get up but waste twenty minutes deciding whether you should write or work out that morning before leaving for your day job? How do you find that extra push, day after day?
As Woody Allen once said, 90% of life is showing up. And we know that, especially for novice writers, showing up day after day to our work can be the most important key to success. Do you have these times, too, Elizabeth Gilbert, even after selling untold millions of books?
Gilbert explained that every writer has an inner self-loathing writer; an inner stubborn, arrogant writer; and an inner lazy writer; and that we should think of them all like toddlers in a minivan. At some point, you just have to be the mom of the minivan and say “Ok, I’m going to drive this minivan now” and tell them to calm down.
“I cajole, I beg, I barter and I even reward the toddlers in my minivan,” Gilbert said. “I’m not above going online and telling myself that, ‘Ok, if I write five more pages I can buy these yoga pants that are exactly like the ones I already have — even though I never make it to yoga.’”
The audience laughed.
“No, really. I’m not above rewarding myself,” Gilbert told us.
It’s an unorthodox strategy and one that many self-help wonks, entrepreneurial strategists and productivity hackers — not to mention diet gurus — would frown upon. We don’t really deserve a reward, and it should be intrinsic anyway: the joy of the writing process, the loss of a pound or two, the increased energy and confidence.
But productivity experts also say that the further away the reward, the more we tend to discount its value. So by giving herself a reward that’s not far away — the new yoga pants — Elizabeth Gilbert is helping herself achieve a reward that’s further away: the birth of her first novel in thirteen years.
Do you reward yourself for making progress towards your writing goals? Or do you hold your celebration until the goal is achieved?