These days, you can’t go five steps—or five clicks on the Internet—without reading about some psychological term to describe the state of humanity. Keeping up with the Joneses on Facebook? You’re probably feeling the effects of objective self-awareness, or what I like to call the “every-one-I’ve ever met is the next J.K. Rowling and I’m not” phenomena, whereby one feels like a steaming pile of cow dung post-Facebook crawl. (Or, more aptly titled, the stalk of shame). Ever found yourself desperately trying to fit in? That’s called normopathy. (Don’t worry, it’s totally normal). Aporia, compersion, dysphoria…there are more terms to describe the human state than you might think. Who cares? You exclaim. I’m an artiste, not a Freud wannabe!
Except here’s the thing. Knowing a little bit about how the mind works can be pretty useful for a writer these days. Sure, there’s the whole getting inside your character’s psyche aspect (more on that later), but that’s not all. I’m thinking more specifically about the writing practice. Perhaps it’s because when I sat down at my desk this morning all I really wanted to do was go back to bed and scan Facebook for hours like a digital nomad. Maybe it’s because sometimes sitting down at the desk to write is pretty dang hard. So instead of jumping right to the writing, I began to do a little research (aka the world’s best way to avoid writing).
What I found was fitting:
It’s called the Goal-Gradient Effect and what it does is create an illusion of progress. Essentially, we work harder to reach a goal when we think that it is closer than it actually is. If you’ve ever found yourself at your favourite restaurant or coffee place, punch card in hand, on a fairly regular basis because you’re SO CLOSE to getting that free cup, that’s the goal-gradient effect. It’s the difference between handing out empty punch cards with ten spaces versus a punch card with twelve stamps and two holes already punched out when you receive the card.
This got me thinking. Sure, this is kind of a sneaky trick for those corporate bastards to play on us. But what if it could be used for good and not marginally evil corporate stuff? What if we could harness the idea of the goal-gradient effect for the good of writing productivity everywhere? If it’s true that the shorter the perceived distance to the goal, the more motivated people are to reach that goal, then why not apply it to goals while writing?
Instead of sitting down at the desk and glowering at the stack of unedited chapters, think: “Just one chapter. Just two pages.” Then give yourself a reward—just like those sneaky corporate bastards!—(except yours will be more unique and just for you). For example, when I really don’t want to write, I put a plate of cookies just out of reach on my desk. Every time I look up, I think: “Just one more page and I can have a cookie.” If you don’t like cookies, (a) WHY??? And (b) use something that is more to your taste, like…broccoli…or something equally boring.
Next time you sit down at your desk to write, remember your friend the goal-gradient effect and use a little corporate trickery to get yourself motivated.
Have you ever had to trick yourself into writing? What sorts of ways do you keep yourself motivated?
Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky & Yuhuang Zheng, The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, & Customer Retention. Journal of Marketing Research. 39. Vol XLIII (Feb 2006), 39-58.