I’ve been there. You’ve been there. We have all been there.
“There” being the “I’m sitting on the couch with my laptop on ready to write but I really don’t want to” moments that so often stand between you and your writing goals.
In all the years I have been writing about writing on the internet, it has come as no surprise to me that “motivation” — or lack thereof — is one of the most common reasons people give when trying to explain why they have wanted to write something for a long time, but haven’t yet.
“Unmotivation” is complicated — let’s be clear on that. There are many reasons why writers don’t write, everything from distractions to self-doubt and other mental blocks. If you are feeling unmotivated to do something, there could actually be a dozen reasons why. And even if you were to identify them all, that alone can’t help you come up with a way to work through them.
Welcome, dear writers, to the Novelty Revisions Unmotivation Guide. It’s not actually called that, but it sure hints at what we’re going to talk about today.
Get ready. This one isn’t going to be easy. But we’re all in this together.
Ask yourself some hard questions. For the vast majority of people, feeling unmotivated to accomplish a task that holds significance to them is not the same as laziness. The “lazy” label is often used to describe a person who doesn’t put in the effort to do something that needs doing, but it is clouded with so much negativity that we often forget there are sometimes underlying reasons for failing to complete a task.
Someone who wants to write a novel but has not written in over a year due to “a lack of motivation” might even be embarrassed to admit it. And I completely understand why. I am often very harsh with my criticisms in this regard, if only because I know there are a lot of people who need to be told to sit down and write — no excuses allowed.
But believe it or not, you can work on combatting this by sitting down with yourself, maybe even a piece of paper or a notebook or some kind of digital note taking device or app, and writing out the questions (and answers) that will help you begin to figure out where your disconnect between “wanting” and “doing” lies. Questions such as:
- What am I feeling when I think about sitting down to write?
- If it’s a negative emotion, what is it? Where does it come from?
- Would I rather be doing something else? Why?
- How will I feel if I don’t sit down and write? Why?
- Am I writing what I want to write?
- Does this specific work align with my personal and career goals?
- If not, why am I doing work that does not fulfill me — and what must I do to change this?
These are some examples of HARD questions that require you to be completely open and honest with yourself about what you do and don’t want, what makes you feel fulfilled and doesn’t, what is and is not working, and most importantly, what you need to do to turn these things around for yourself.
When you ask yourself questions like these, it (hopefully) becomes clear, at least somewhat, some of the things that are holding you back. If you are not motivated to write, there is a reason — you’re scared of failing, or you’re writing for the wrong audience, or you want your work to be “good” and don’t know how to get there.
I call these creative barriers, sometimes “brain blocks.” Moving past them in order to do your work can be extremely difficult. But it all starts with honesty with yourself.
Lay out everything that needs to be done and start with one task or step. If you are reading this, I’m just going to assume there is a specific writing related task that you are hoping to accomplish, such as writing an article or starting a novel, constructing a blog post … the possibilities are vast.
So for starters, if there isn’t anything specific you want to work on, you should probably begin by figuring that out. Specific goals are key when it comes to things like writing. What many people don’t realize is that they approach writing with an “I want to write something” attitude. That’s pretty overwhelming, considering there are likely many things you could and might want to write.
A lack of motivation is often due to a lack of focus. Your next step, whether you have a specific writing goal in mind already or are working on that now, is to narrow your focus to a single writing session, and during that writing session, to one specific writing task.
Example: I have the day off of work today (as I am writing this). When I woke up, I understandably felt very unmotivated to write a blog post. I started to feel extremely overwhelmed by all the posts in my drafts folder, all the things I could and wanted to write, and what I was going to write and schedule this morning before I went on with the rest of my day.
So the first thing I did when I sat down was focus on the most important first step: Choosing a topic for today’s blog post. It turned out to be quite easy in retrospect (depending on your definition of “easy” as a writer, I suppose), since I simply turned my lack of motivation into a quick guide (in progress).
I highly suggest a good brain dump — meaning you physically write out everything that is either on your mind or that you are trying to remind yourself needs doing. It might look like a lot all listed out, but you don’t want that to overwhelm you any further.
Therefore, the most important part of this step in the process is to pick just one thing to start working on right now. You might even physically underline, circle, or highlight a specific task to draw your eye to it. It’s difficult to push all the other thoughts and tasks out of your mind — I know — but do the best you can. Start writing that post. Start outlining that novel. Choose something that you are going to do, and do it.
Use positive reinforcement. The problem with motivation is that every individual, in general, is typically motivated by something different. And if you don’t know the kinds of rewards you need in order to further motivate you to succeed in the future, it can be really hard to move from accomplishment to accomplishment or from task to task without taking the time to train your brain to remember “work = chocolate cake.”
Let’s talk about chocolate cake for a minute. I am in no way advocating for the use of sweets as a go-to reward for checking off boxes on a to-do list. But for our purposes, I’m using chocolate cake as an example of “good,” something that helps your brain come to recognize that when you write, good things will happen.
Not to get too deep into psychology here, but our brains are equipped with pleasure and reward systems. Certain things trigger feelings of pleasure, and over time, our brains begin to make connections between certain behaviors and their consequences — both good and bad, but in this context, let’s focus on the good.
If you start to eat chocolate cake after every occasion that you complete your 30 minutes of writing for the day (as an example), eventually, your brain will start to remember that “work = chocolate cake.” When you sit down to write, your brain will likely begin to anticipate that cake, and your barrier to entry on that task can lower significantly.
This is not the perfect analogy, and psychology is complicated. But in a nutshell, if you assign a form of positive reinforcement to your writing tasks, you might really find the task of “starting” far less difficult. One of the best “cures” for a lack of motivation, for many people, is writing toward a tangible reward.
But for some, the less tangible outcomes can work in similar ways.
Remember your “why.” We have already briefly addressed writing goals in this post, but you can never emphasize the topic of writing goals too much — that is how important they are.
But specifically, when I talk about your “why,” I’m not just referring to a list of writing goals — though having this, even if it’s just one goal, is essential to your success as a writer. Your “why” is actually much bigger than your “what.” Your “why” is literally your life’s purpose. The reason — the REAL reason — you so intensely desire to sit down and write something, even when your motivation waivers.
What is the reason you want to write what you want to write? Is it to help other people change something in their lives? To use your creative outlet to make a (specific) difference in the world? Do you write to cope with the sharp ups and downs of your personal and professional life? What is your motivation?
By identifying both your motivation and why you are unmotivated, you will ideally discover where the pieces are not lining up. Maybe your ultimate “why” is to bring awareness to an issue you have experienced in your life, but you find you are unmotivated to work on that story because you are hesitant to be more open about that experience.
There, then, lies the barrier keeping you from using your motivation to accomplish your goals. There is a problem that needs a solution — it’s up to you to figure out what you need to do to solve your issue and dissolve your barrier. This is a public blog with a diverse audience, and I’m not qualified to do any kind of counseling at this point, so I can only take you so far.
This is, then, where I leave you: We have gotten you to your largest hurdle and you have identified the barrier preventing you from clearing that hurdle. The rest, fellow writer, is up to you.
I will, however, advise you this: Even on your hardest, most unproductive days, when you “want to” want to write but haven’t, when you’re starting to feel down on yourself, when you then start to doubt your goals and whether or not you are capable of achieving them, remember that writing is a process. You are going to have good days and bad days. Good ideas and bad ideas. Alarmingly productive days, and days where you do nothing at all.
Through all this, don’t shy away from your ideas or from your dreams. We all have moments where we want to trade in our writing habits for something more “practical.” But that doesn’t mean we have to reject our greatest passions and desires.
If you are a writer, or any kind of creator, then you have extremely high ambitions. This is not a bad thing! But you will be challenged — if not every day, then often enough to almost never feel completely comfortable or content. This is good. This means you are following the right path.
Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Just because you struggle doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it.
Keep going. Little by little. Every time you think about giving up, remind yourself why you haven’t yet.
Write on. Don’t stop. Be brave. You got this.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.