There is a cookie sitting at the corner of my desk.
It didn’t wander there on its own. No one left it for me as a pleasant surprise or an unprecedented reward. I placed it there, still in its wrapping, in that very specific spot — for an equally specific reason.
It is the beginning of January. And despite the usual surge of motivation that hits the general population in large waves this time of year, the absolute last thing I want to do right now is write an article — one that has to be “good” because I’m submitting it to an editor, who will then glance over it and publish it.
Because it’s late, and growing later with each passing moment — so many moments pass without your knowledge when you are staring at a blank page willing the words to appear magically before your eyes — my patience is running out. I know I need to finish this draft. But I really, really don’t want to.
But there it is — the cookie sitting at the corner of my desk.
Not my escape, my excuse, or my guilty pleasure. Something much more important, it turns out.
As writers — and creators in general for the most part, really — we often set, achieve, and celebrate even the smallest of our goals all wrong.
This isn’t a flaw of our own accord necessarily. Many of us have just become used to the idea of instant gratification — not having to wait a significant amount of time for the things we want. We might set goals that are reasonably challenging, and we might even manage to create an effective plan for inching our way toward achieving them. But we’re generally pretty awful at the celebration aspect. We’ve forgotten how “rewards” work.
The cookie at the corner of my desk is my reward for getting my work done. I don’t get the cookie until I save and submit this draft. I don’t get to eat it before I start — not even a bite. I don’t get to taste it when I’m halfway through the job. It stays in its spot, right where I left it, until the work is 100% completed.
This is where many writers go wrong. They’re having a tough time getting started, so they decide that part of their completion reward — maybe even the whole thing — might give them the “boost” they need to sit down and get their writing done.
Often, instead of waiting until we’ve hit that metaphorical checkbox to enjoy our cookie, we convince ourselves that a cookie is what we need in order to get started. “If I eat this cookie now, I’ll somehow transcend into the perfect headspace and I’ll suddenly have the motivation I need to get things done.”
But that’s not how motivation works. You can’t have the reward before you complete the task the reward is meant to celebrate. Positive reinforcement, at least in this context, doesn’t work in reverse. You can say, “I’ll have that cookie the second I’m done,” but your brain needs to be able to hold onto that promise. That anticipation is the key to carrying you through the physical work of “doing the writing thing.”
You really, really want that cookie. I know you do. And it’s quite possible that if you’re not well-practiced in the art of self-discipline, you’re not going to be able to resist having that cookie before you finish your work — and that’s okay. This particular strategy isn’t for you … yet. No worries! Until you have a chance to practice delayed gratification to the point where you won’t reach for that cookie until you’re supposed to, maybe pick a different kind of reward. One you can still see, but one you can’t touch (yet).
Some people enlist the help of a friend, partner, or family member — someone nearby who they can trust to hold onto that cookie and agree not to hand it over until you’ve earned it. You can’t always rely on external accountability to fuel your productivity, but it doesn’t hurt to have that resource when you’re desperate. You never know — it might even work better with a stranger also inhabiting the same library, coffee shop, or whatever public venue you might be writing in today. (If you’re like me, and prefer to write at home, that idea is obviously off the table.)
If you are struggling to get your work done, it’s likely that you need an effective, short-term reward to get you through it. Netflix when you finish that final page. Starbucks when you hit that submit button. Giving yourself guilt-free permission to sit on the couch and read a book after dinner if you have all your writing done by then.
It doesn’t have to be food-related or even a traditional form of entertainment like a movie or your favorite TV show. But a reward does have to be something you get when you’ve hit your goal, something that doesn’t necessarily rely on someone else — making plans with a friend for after you’ve done all your work could work, unless they cancel and you’re suddenly left with no way to celebrate your accomplishment.
Thus, the cookie that remains off-limits until the task is done. You promised yourself this cookie. You placed it in a specific location and you are responsible for keeping it there until you’ve fulfilled that promise. This is something you want — something that you, in this moment, want much more than having to do a bunch of work.
Now, it’s not just the satisfaction of a “job well done” that’s motivating you to work. It’s the craving of the reward you’re so much looking forward to enjoying.
Rewards taste better once you’ve earned them. Not just because you’ve finished a task and it’s off your to-do list, but because you started something and followed it through to the end. No guilt, no regret. You came, you wrote, and now, you get to enjoy something sweet. THAT is how you train your brain to endure the hard days. There must be something bright waiting for you on the other side, only accessible once you’ve done what you set out to do in the first place.
There was a cookie sitting at the corner of my desk.
Until I took a few deep breaths, dove into my work, and emerged from my flow state victorious.
The hardest part about getting work done is starting it.
Once you’re in, it feels like seconds before you’re out again, finished.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.