How to Trick Yourself Into Making Major Writing Progress

by | Jan 13, 2014 | Craft | 17 comments

Staying motivated on a regular basis is one of the most difficult challenges when you’re a writer. Not only are there a million distractions, including everything shiny on the Internet, your motivation can also take a nosedive when you look at the clock or calendar and realize you haven’t churned out x pieces or hit your word count goals.

You just might be missing out on a source of motivation that’s building up day by day.

Through over a decade of research, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered a startling key to unlocking motivation called the progress principle — that the most powerful motivator is making progress on meaningful work. And most people are missing out because they think that the strongest motivation comes from rewards or money.

The power of the progress principle is that motivation also comes from celebrating small wins. We tend to think about our goals as big wins, such as getting a piece accepted or hitting “send” on a submission or seeing your words in print or pixel. Big wins certainly are important but when you don’t recognize your small wins, you’re not actually as productive as you could be. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it).

Reframe productivity as progress

John McPhee, a writer known for his prolific output, told The Paris Review that his productivity is from making a little bit of progress every day:

“[I]f you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty-five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.”

The task of creating a few drops in the bucket is less intimidating than the big goal of writing a bestseller, and it ends up paving the way. There’s a cascade of positivity that results from seeing your drop-by-drop progress. You’ll feel more reliably engaged and happy, which then sets up a good frame of mind for creativity and exploration rather than stress and anxiety encroaching on your brainwaves.

When you think about your day in terms of “progress” rather than plainer terms like “word counts”, “work”, or “writing”, you’ll gain motivation from seeing what you accomplished and a visible direction toward where you hope to be tomorrow.

Say hello to dear diary

Professor Amabile and Dr. Kramer point to journaling as one of the best tools to harness the progress principle and fuel yourself with the power of small wins. It can be doubly hard to bring yourself to write even more at the end of the day, but reflection and journaling will ultimately help you acknowledge and recognize all your steps forward, big and small.

Here are three benefits you’ll gain from the practice and some tips to think about along the way:

1. You’ll learn how to work smarter

Sometimes days as a writer feel like a grinding Groundhog Day-type cycle. Taking time to recognize, reflect on, and review your progress will teach you how to work better than just trying to mechanically plug away every day.

For example, you can observe what your natural work rhythms are. When do the words seem to flow out most effortlessly? Once you have a handle on when and how you do your best work, you can better structure your days to protect time for writing, thinking, and creating and allot other times for outward-facing work like emails and calls.

2. You’ll keep the momentum going.

Alexander Chee keeps a daily writing journal dedicated solely to work on his novel. He writes down ideas, thoughts, and comments about the day:

“I make the entry even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save….When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.”

For Chee, his writing journal serves as an ongoing blueprint and work record that helps him to keep motivated and continue making progress.

3. You’ll gather feedback.

As a writer, you’re often working alone (unless you have an accountability group or co-author), which means fewer opportunities for feedback. When you have a regular practice of reflection or journaling, you gain feedback about your work from your own history, which can then be used to plan and gain perspective.

To get the feedback and progress train rolling, ask yourself questions like:

  • What’s something — anything — that stood out about the time I spent working?

  • What progress did I make today, even if it’s a small step forward?

  • What helped or hurt my ability to work today — and why?

  • What can I do to make progress tomorrow?

What are some ways that you gain motivation from your progress?