Willpower

Megan Norris Jones

Megan Norris Jones

I look for help with my writing technique in all kinds of books, whether they’re designed for writers or not. One book where I found some really helpful insight is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan Heath and Chip Heath (brothers, in case you’re wondering). I first saw it referenced in a Writers’ Digest article about the discipline of writing, and a month later, my brother gave me a copy. Clearly, I was meant to read it. In the book, the authors discuss research that suggests that willpower is a finite resource.

So what? you say. We’re talking about writing, not dieting. True, but it takes a lot of willpower to sit down in a chair every day and write instead of doing the hundreds of other things that we are also supposed to do.

The book posits that it’s not enough to hold ourselves in the chair by sheer willpower because our willpower will give out, and we’ll start surfing the web or researching agents for that brilliant novel we’ve barely begun. We might even go to bed early. Or we won’t sit in the chair in the first place because we’ll decide that today it’s more important to do laundry, bathe the dog, or mow the lawn. There will always be other things depleting our willpower resources so that we don’t have the fight in us to persevere along the road to publication.

That’s why we can’t just work harder; we have to work smarter. Set up an environment for success around your writing goals. Try keeping a writing log that includes word count, time of day, and place where you wrote. After a week or a month, look back over your log. Where and when were you most productive? That’s where you start. The Heath brothers calls these “bright spots.” Apparently our brains are programmed to see problems more than solutions, so make a conscious effort to find the bright spots and analyze what is working and how to replicate it instead of bemoaning what isn’t working.

Set clear goals such as “Write 300 words at least five days a week” to erase the fudge room where you try to justify subpar performance. If you continue the writing log, you’ll have a black-and-white record of your successes and failures. There have been times in my writing life when I’ve been pulled away by other life events and then was shocked to discover that an entire month had passed with absolutely no progress on my novel. But there are other times when I’ve added up the “words written” column and been amazed at how quickly a few hundred words here and there can add up over the course of just a few weeks.

How do you work smarter? What tricks smooth the process for you?

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