Keeping Yourself Motivated

“I sit in the dark and wait for a little flame to appear at the end of my pencil.”
~ Billy Collins
Poetic, but it’s not very realistic. What if you never feel inspired? Or ready? It’s foolish, not to mention unproductive, to write only when you are inspired or ready. It’s not OK to wait for the flame to appear. It is OK to use some of the motivational strategies below.

  1. Set a daily writing goal. Make it something you can accomplish in your scheduled writing time, which by now should be a minimum one-to-two hour block of time for at least five days a week. Two pages every day. One thousand words a day. Outline second chapter and write one brief summary paragraph for each heading and sub-heading in the outline. Complete a first draft of two sections in chapter three. When your writing time is focused by having a specific goal, and you work on one goal at a time, you will be more productive. Remember, you can’t write a dissertation or a book today. But you can write three paragraphs or three pages…and move your project to completion.

  2. Schedule your writing as early as possible in the day. If you fear or dislike writing, then once it’s done, you experience a tremendous sense of relief that you have the rest of the day to do everything else you must do…without having to think about your writing. If you find there is little available time in the day to write, schedule your writing time for an hour or two before you typically start your day, and you will not have to worry that you won’t find time….again…to write.  Even if you are a “night person,” you increase the probability that you will write each day…and write enough each day… if you write the first thing in the day. (Hey, if you discover you have more time to write later in the day you will be even more productive.)

  3. Think ahead and plan backwards. This advice comes from Michael Zygmond and Beth Fischer, neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh and directors of the university’s Survival Skills and Ethics program for graduate students and post-docs. If you have a deadline for a paper or presentation, or an anticipated defense date, then plan your writing schedule backwards from that date. For example, if you plan to have your Ph.D. conferred on May 16, 2014, you know that your dissertation must be deposited by May 11. If you give yourself two weeks to make changes to your dissertation after a successful defense, then you must defend by April 27. You must give your dissertation to your defense committee by April 13. So what do you need to do the week of April 9? And the week before that? And the week before that…planning backwards all the way to this week.  This thinking ahead and planning backwards helps you to know what you must do this week, and what you must accomplish today, if you hope to meet your long-term goal of dissertation completion.

  4. Work with deadlines. (See posting #7). If you find yourself repeatedly missing deadlines, even if you have good reasons for doing so, then you know that you must schedule more days to write, or you must write more hours in a day, or you must produce more writing in each session. If not, you will miss your deadline and must bail out on your conference presentation or job interview or postpone your graduation. (I find these consequences very motivating but also very painful. So perhaps another motivation strategy is to write now and avoid pain later.

  5. There is no writing, only re-writing, Steve Mintz, director of the Columbia GSAS Teaching Center, told our Dissertation Boot Camp participants. Lamott (1994) said, “Get it down, so you can clean it up.” Shaw (1993) said, “There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good re-writing.” If it helps to motivate you, you do not need to write a final draft, or even a good draft today. You must write a draft today so that you can produce good writing when you edit.

  6. Reward progress. Some of us are adequately rewarded by the satisfaction of completing good writing. (We have an internal locus of control) Some of us need something more – tangible, tasty, real rewards. So reward yourself at points throughout your writing but only after you have completed something substantial. (No candy bar after each completed sentence.) Silvia reminds us to “never reward writing with not writing. Rewarding writing by abandoning your schedule is like rewarding yourself for quitting smoking by having a cigarette….Don’t lose your good writing habits” (p. 45).

  7. Motivate (and comfort) yourself with stories of other good writers (and how they suffer, too). Ralph Keyes in The Writer’s Book of Hope explains that he keeps a file with such stories: “A San Francisco Examiner editor returned an article to Rudyard Kipling with a note saying, ‘This isn’t a kindergarten for amateur writers. I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language’” (p. 142).  Even good writers have bad days.

  8. Read others’ acknowledgments to motivate you:  They “can be a treasure chest of useful and reassuring information” (Keyes, p. 143). Writers demonstrate in their long list of acknowledgements that, through times of AFD (anxiety, frustration, and despair), there were those “who encouraged them, who supported them, and who kept their spirits up” (p. 143). When my graduate students were having a rough time with their momentum and motivation (or even were fearful of starting to put words on paper), I encouraged them to write their acknowledgements. It’s fun and easy to write, it makes the dissertation begin to look like an actual book, and advisors and committee member will never suggest edits to your acknowledgements. Writing a page of acknowledgements can provide motivation and encouragement. (I read James C. Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity many years ago. When I read the author’s acknowledgement of his wife, I was moved to tears reading about the academic author and his wife, neither of whom I had ever met. Since then, the acknowledgements are the first thing I read when I pick up a book. I’m always amazed at how many people have helped, encouraged, and sustained the authors through the writing of their books. For me, writing a book’s acknowledgements means that I get to thank the people who have mentored and encouraged me, so they can see their name, and my appreciation, in print. That’s a real motivation for me to finish the manuscript.)

  9. And here’s another good motivational strategy: Donate $5 to your favorite U.S. presidential candidate’s opponent for each day you do not write (Boice, 1990).

Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Keyes, R. (2003). The writer’s book of hope: Getting from frustration to publication. New York: Owl Books.

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books.

Shaw, H. (1993). Errors in English and ways to correct them. New York: Collins.

Silvia, P. (2007). How to write a lot. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).