How to be a Writer Who Gets the Writing Done

Filed in Productivity and Time Management by on May 27, 2019 • views: 636

Those writers who put out story after story—
they have a lot of willpower, right?

They must. How else would they manage to get all that writing done amidst the craziness of life?

We all have the best of intentions. We set up new schedules. We plan writing times. But then months go by and we realize we’re behind, or that we haven’t accomplished nearly as much as we wanted to.

We blame ourselves. We lack willpower. We succumb to temptation. Why can’t we be like those other writers who are so strong?

Here’s something to give you new hope—those other writers? Their willpower is probably no stronger than yours.

Instead, they know how to do one thing that improves their chances of sitting down day after day to write, no matter what else is going on.

Writers May Not Need to Worry About Self-Control

Scientists have been looking into willpower for decades, and recent findings have shown that people who say they’re good at self-control aren’t really much better at it than those who say they aren’t when it comes to actually demonstrating the skill.

Yet those who test high on self-control questionnaires have better quality relationships, are more likely to avoid binge eating and alcohol, perform better academically, and are, in general, happier.

Why would that be?

A study published in 2012 reported a possible explanation. Researchers recruited a little over 200 volunteers and had them all wear beepers for a week. These little machines went off at unpredictable times, asking the participants about their desires, temptations, and self-control in the moment.

Results showed that those who were best at self-control actually reported fewer temptations throughout the experiment. In other words, because they experienced less temptation, they didn’t have to use their willpower as much.

Intrigued by this finding, researchers conducted a second study. This time, they observed about 160 university students over a period of a week, tracking their temptations, self-control, and ability to reach their goals.

Results showed that the students who reported exerting more self-control were not better at reaching their goals. Instead, it was the students who experienced fewer temptations that were more successful.

Those who had to resist temptation more often didn’t do as well, and also reported feeling depleted and exhausted from their efforts—which most likely contributed to them not achieving their goals.

The Way to Get More Writing Done

Though studies are ongoing, we can learn something from these results: the key to improving self-control so you can get more writing done is to limit temptation, wherever possible.

In addition to that, I have four other tips that will help.

1. Limit temptation.

Self-control is like a muscle—if you overuse it, it will weaken. So look at your overall writing routine and find where you can limit temptations. Keep your cell phone in another room during your writing time. Turn off the Internet (unless you need it for research).

Clear your calendar so you have at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to work. Put yourself in an environment where you’re unlikely to be disturbed, even if that’s inside of your car.

2. Remember the fun.

If you see your writing as something you enjoy, you don’t need as much self-control to do it. Indulge your inner child and keep the play active in your writing sessions.

When things start getting tough—as often happens in the middle of the novel—remind yourself why you enjoy writing. Tackle a scene that’s more exciting, or go back and do some fun editing before you face the blank page again. Fix yourself your favorite cup of coffee before you start your session.

Anything that makes it more fun will help you limit your use of willpower, preserving its strength.

3. Make it a habit.

Does it take self-control for you to brush your teeth? Shower? Drive to work (most mornings)?

Things we’re in the habit of doing are, well, habitual. That means they don’t take self-control. We just do them because we’re used to doing them.

Make writing a habit. The best way to do that is to set a time every day or every other day that is devoted to writing, then stick with it for at least a couple weeks. Once you’ve established the habit, it will feel weird not to write, so you’ll find it much easier to just do it.

4. Make not writing distasteful.

Some studies have indicated that people who are good at self-control—say, resisting the cookies sitting on the table—have a way of reframing the temptation in their minds to be distasteful.

They may imagine the cookies have bugs inside them, for example, or see them as disguised dollops of spinach.

As a writer, you have an active imagination. When you feel like you want to skip your writing session, use that imagination to create a distasteful scenario in your mind.

Perhaps if you don’t write, you’ll feel awful about yourself the whole rest of the day, or your computer will crash, or your tires will go flat. Use whatever you can come up with to make not writing something you definitely want to avoid.

5. Move toward your goals rather than away from your temptations.

The next time you’re tempted to do something besides write—like watching television—reframe how you’re thinking about it.

Instead of letting temptation take up your thoughts, think instead about your writing goals. Where do you want to go with your writing? What are you hoping to accomplish?

Take five minutes to write that down, and then let those thoughts lead you toward writing. It’s a good way to distract yourself from temptation entirely, and remind yourself about what matters—your writing.

Bottom line—forget shame and self-recrimination when it comes to self-control. Instead, employ these steps to skip willpower entirely, and you’ll find that you can get a lot more writing done.

How do you make sure temptation doesn’t lure you away from writing?

De Ridder, D. T., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011). Taking Stock of Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 76-99. doi:10.1177/1088868311418749

Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1318-1335. doi:10.1037/a0026545

Milyavskaya, M., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). What’s So Great About Self-Control? Examining the Importance of Effortful Self-Control and Temptation in Predicting Real-Life Depletion and Goal Attainment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(6), 603-611. doi:10.1177/1948550616679237

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Comments (4)

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  1. This makes so much sense to me. I’ve read the same thing about sticking to a diet or an exercise regimen—“willpower” will only take you so far, because it gets exhausted quickly. I try to reframe my writing as play, not work, and as a reward in itself. Writing time is “me” time, when I get to do exactly what I want in the quiet of my own space.

    • Colleen says:

      Yes, exactly, Claire. I think most of us have experienced the same thing when trying to lose a few pounds! I like the writing as “me” time, too.

  2. This is very useful and thought-provoking, thank you. In the recent months I have made myself get up earlier (I rise at 6:00 am these days and hope to change that to 5:00 eventually) as I find the early morning hours are the best to focus my mind and get important work done, writing included. As it says in your post, I’ve come to see for myself that creating a habit of writing daily (or anything else you want to to daily) is key. After a while, it does feel weird (and a little like cheating!) if I don’t do the writing (or the editing) I’d planned to do for the day. What I’ve also come to understand is that time is an illusion. We always say we have no time, but the truth is we always find time for doing things if we want or have to, like in an emergency or if we’re close to a deadline. This goes to prove that’s it’s up to us to find the time for anything, writing included. We just have to MAKE the time, decide, and do it. It’s that simple and I can see that now. Thanks again!

    • Colleen says:

      I write best in the morning too, Effrosyni, but I’ll never make 5:00 a.m.! (ha) Yes, the habit-forming really helps–I end up feeling guilty if I don’t get to the writing, and that guilt is a powerful driver to get back to it. And yes, we must make time. I find there are always places where we waste it that we can put it to use!