Finding the willpower to finish the first draft

By Tom:

We’ve all been there. January the first. This is the year! I’m finally going to get that first draft finished – just watch me go. There’ll be smoke rising from my keyboard…

February the first is a different matter.

The burst of energy and excitement that fired you up in the new year is starting to fade. Fatigue is setting in, along with its unwelcome sibling, doubt. After weeks of work, your great idea (which seemed so full of promise), begins to seem stale, forced, boring. Even worse, in addition to the writing starting to seem like a labour, everyday life intrudes, progress slows, and you realise that yet again you’ve slipped back into the old pattern of procrastination. Do I force out some words, or do I check Facebook? We both know the answer.

Ooh! Cats.

Beyond the frustration of failing to meet our goals yet again, this pattern of behaviour has a damaging impact on our self-esteem. It’s hard to think of much that is more demoralising than recognising in ourselves the seeds of our own downfall, our failure to live up to our own aspirations. Breaking out of this destructive pattern is essential to success. Understanding why it occurs, and what you can do to stop it, is the first step in getting your dreams back on track, getting your first (and second and third) draft finished, and getting to the point where you can finally pass on your vision to readers and have them share your creation.

So, why does willpower so consistently fail us? Why are most new year’s resolutions dropped within weeks? The heart of the answer is this: willpower is for sprints not marathons.

Using enthusiasm to motivate yourself, using self-talk, and group spirit, and fantasies about a golden future in which you realise your writing dreams, takes effort. It’s cognitively demanding. By definition, you are having to go beyond your normal levels of motivation and push yourself to do something new, extra; extraordinary. It’s a powerful way of transcending your usual limitations, but it comes at a cost. Energy is needed to sustain willpower, and we all have finite reserves. It’s unsustainable.

Ultimately, therefore, willpower is the wrong tool for writing a book. Any long term goal will require sustained work, rather than a burst of hyperactivity that then dwindles back to nothing, and books are definitely long-term goals. Even the most prolific authors take months to produce a finished novel or non-fiction manuscript. For those occasional Artists like Kerouac who hack out a draft in a few weeks, the process of editing the stream of consciousness into something readable is much slower and steadier work (not to mention the years of preparation in Kerouac’s case). You can certainly care about a book for long enough to take it to completion, but it’s hard to be excited about it for that long. There’s a lot of typing involved.

So really, this is a game for tortoises (or disciplined hares). Willpower or new year’s resolutions are great tools for starting a new project, but not for seeing it through to completion. That needs new tools, and the most powerful tool I know of is Habit. There’s a fascinating new school of thought in psychology about the power of habits and the impact that they have on our lives (well summarised in a recent bestseller: The power of habit by Charles Duhigg). The basic message is this: habits are our autopilot mode, and require little to no effort to execute, but a lot of effort to break. Once we get into a regular behavioural pattern, we can carry on without expending precious mental energy on thinking about it or planning ahead or analysing… or even noticing that we’re doing it. You don’t have to motivate yourself to brush your teeth.

So a better strategy, and a better new year’s resolution, is to resolve to develop the habit of writing. Instead of focussing on the finishing line, focus on getting out onto the track day after day after day and getting the training in. Even when it’s raining.

Especially when it’s raining

Really, success in any long term endeavour comes from the aggregated outcome of lots of small gains. Marathons are won in the hours and hours of training, not in the race itself, and just so with a book. Developing the habit of writing requires a very different perspective from rushing to finish a book. It’s harder to get excited about the idea of developing a steady writing habit than the idea of holding your book in your hands. But that subtle shift in mindset pays dividends a hundred times over, as the real thing that finishes a book is a lot of sentences typed out with care over days and weeks and months, and then strung together into a glorious whole.

And another secret about this is that resolving to develop a habit is a much more modest and attainable goal than resolving to complete a masterwork. It’s actually freeing. “Oh, all I have to do is sit down every day and write a few hundred words? I can do that!” If a few hundred seems scary, then a few dozen will do. It’s a cliche that houses are built one brick at a time, but even though we all know it, a house is still a formidable sight. So, don’t tell yourself that you are going to build a house, tell yourself that every day you are going to lay a brick. You’ll have your house before you know it.

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2 Comments

  1. Can it really be as simple as generating new habits? Will that enable me to re-start my life in a healthier,more productive way? I wonder …

    • Hi Johanne,

      It really is that simple. Simple to say, and simple to understand, but simple to do? Not so much.

      Habits are hard to shift – we have all spent a lot of time developing them, after all. I think there are two major methods that help: 1) Try and identify when the old habit gets triggered, and intervene at that moment. 2) Make the intervention a small, attainable change that you will actually do.

      So, for example, if you have developed the habit of clicking over to the Facebook tab whenever your writing energy starts to falter, you need to have an alternative behaviour ready for the next time it happens. So, the trigger in this case would be “I’m struggling to get words out, I want some comforting distraction,” and your brain has learned that Facebook can supply it. A small change you could make would be to place a notebook beside your computer, and when you next feel the urge to click over to FB, pick up your pen and write, “I want to be a successful writer” on the page. Then, you are allowed to go on FB if you want. Putting that extra step in the habit loop will do two things: disconnect the immediate FB fix from the trigger, and remind yourself (and your subconscious brain) what your real goal is. You could then escalate it to writing “I want to be a successful writer, and Facebook will not help me.” The goal is to gently disrupt the old habit, and gently introduce a new superior habit.

      It is a slow and steady process, with some experimentation and creativity needed. But that’s the proven method: minor changes, modest targets, and gradually accumulating small wins until they have a big impact.

      Good luck!

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