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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

E.P.’s Recipe for Reducing Resistance Part 2

Have you tried E.P.’s recipe for reducing resistance yet? Did you do all 4 steps and give yourself 4 small rewards? If you have, congratulations and please skip ahead to the “Why Rewards Are Essential Ingredients” section. If you haven’t tried it yet or you skipped over some of the steps, let me direct your attention to the “Bad Banana.”

Bad Banana!

Imagine that someone (let’s call this person Chris) loves your banana bread and asks for your recipe. Chris goes home and, even though your recipe asks for 3 ripe, mashed bananas, Chris decides that the one banana in the kitchen is sufficient and since it’s slightly green and difficult to mash, decides that slicing it will work. The recipe calls for a cup of sugar, but Chris decides that’s too many calories and puts in a ½ cup instead, but doesn’t reduce the amount of flour.

Chris decides 2 eggs will be too much cholesterol and puts in 1 egg instead, rationalizing that because it’s an extra-large egg, it’ll be enough. Chris also can’t see why any recipe would require both baking soda and baking powder and uses just the baking soda (because that’s what Chris could find at the back of the refrigerator). Finally, not willing to waste an hour baking bread at 325 degrees, Chris cranks the oven up to 450 and bakes the bread for 25 minutes.

Imagine your reaction if Chris handed you this burnt on the outside, raw on the inside, flat, gooey mess and told you “Your recipe is worthless!” You can’t skimp on key ingredients and expect the recipe to still work.

Why Rewards Are Essential Ingredients

When you receive a reward, your brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that focuses attention. Together, dopamine and acetylcholine essentially tell the brain “This is important. Pay attention to this. Repeat this behavior!”

This is why it’s vital that you reward yourself for the behaviors you want to become part of your writing routine. It’s also why timing is so important.

When you do Step 1 by turning on your computer and follow that with a small reward, your brain learns this is a good thing to do. When you follow Step 1 with Step 2 by opening a file and giving yourself a reward, your brain learns to associate turning on the computer with both the reward and with the next step of opening your writing files. With repetition, the 4 Steps become one integrated pattern, that is, a writing habit that reduces resistance and eases you into your writing every day you want to write.

Eileen P.’s 4 simple steps is an amazing effective foundation for a strong writing habit.

What Counts as a Reward

Rewards are individual; what counts as a reward for me may not release dopamine and acetylcholine in your brain. Your rewards are what you enjoy. Be sure to give the reward as soon as you take the action you want to make part of your writing habit. Rewards with strong sensory appeal tend to be more effective than those that are abstract (like the time exchange example below).

When I want to give myself a small reward, I take a quarter from the lid of this metal canister and toss it into the Crayon container. The sound of quarters clinking together is my immediate sensory reward. Later, I spend this money on fun, creative things like markers, colored pencils, coloring books or a trip to a museum. I also use this money to buy the dark chocolates I give myself as a medium-sized reward for reaching a milestone like finishing a chapter.

Your small rewards can be food treats like a mini-Tootsie Roll or a swallow of a favorite beverage for each step. Food treats have the benefit of being both immediate and sensory.

A small reward could also be a tally mark that means you get spend 10 minutes later doing whatever you want. Because you’re delaying the actual reward, this may be less effective unless you add a visual or auditory stimulus in the moment like putting a sticker or gold star on a chart or ringing a bell. Do something that gives you the same kind of small joy that the sound of quarters clinking gives me.

Have fun with your rewards and you’ll have more fun – and success – with your writing!

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4 Comments on “E.P.’s Recipe for Reducing Resistance Part 2”

  1. rosannebane February 25, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Hi Caro,
    I recommend David Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for great info about motivation and rewards.
    In short, kids who are rewarded/prasied for their effort will be more motivated to take risks, try new challenges, and perform better overall than kids who are rewarded/praised for their intelligence. (“You must have really tried hard” vs. “You must be really smart.”)
    For adults, it helps to provide rewards for routine tasks; it’s tricky rewarding heuristic tasks (where you can’t follow predetermined steps and have to discover a creative solution, e.g. writing). Check out the podcast I did with Michael Pollock (link to this is a couple of posts back) That’s why E.P.’s 4 Steps work: because you’re rewarding yourself for the routine step-by-step part of getting yourself STARTED.
    If you’re still curious and you’re in the Twin Cities Metro, think about my Around the Writer’s Block class — we spend a whole class session on this topic.


    • caro February 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

      Thanks, Roseanne. I find this so interesting. I haven’t looked at Alfie Kohn in a while, but I seem to remember him being into the idea that it was the punishment/reward system itself that was problematic for future motivation, regardless of what was being praised/punished. I just wonder where the difference is. And of course I can’t remember the specifics of Kohn’s arguments right now (Maybe my mistake is seeing the two things as similar at all … learning – and learning to learn – are really different from getting yourself to do something you want to do but aren’t doing).

      I am in the Twin Cities and may sign up for one of your classes soon. I was in a class of yours 2 summers ago — the one where meditation/trance is involved. I picked up so many useful ideas and have been evangelizing about your courses ever since.


      • rosannebane February 28, 2011 at 11:33 am #

        Thanks for the endorsements for my classes.
        What you reward and how is significant — the research I’ve read indicates the biggest difference is between heuristic (creative) tasks and algorithmic (routine, step-by-step) tasks (and the thing I mentioned before about praising effort vs. intelligence). Take a look at David Pink’s “Drive” for more details.
        Punishment is always problematic because the brain remembers adverse or painful events differently than pleasant experiences. When you experience something painful or uncomfortable, you remember a lot more details because any of those details might be a warning that could protect you in the future. One author, I don’t remember his name, who had been in NYC during 9/11, got anxious for months after the attack whenever it was sunny with blue skies (because the skies had been blue and sunny when the attack occurred). This might seem unrelated and a silly thing to get anxious about, but as the author pointed out, the attacks couldn’t have occurred if it had been rainy or cloudy with low visibility. The brain doesn’t distinguish “this detail is relevant, this detail isn’t relevant” when you’ve experienced a trauma, the brain remembers nearly everything.
        So if you punish your child or your dog for making a mistake, the child or dog doesn’t associate just the “mistake” behavior with the punishment, s/he can associate nearly anything present at the time of the punishment with the punishment. So the trainer/parent gets a negative association, the place gets a negative association, the thing the child or dog did right just before the “bad” behavior gets the negative association, etc.


  2. caro February 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    I can see how the reward scheme works (and it’s worked for me, sometimes). I’m curious what you think about some of the research on punishment & reward in learning. I’m most familiar with it in parenting (Alfie Kohn puts it all together). Basically, kids who are rewarded for doing things right are less likely to take risks, less likely to do the right thing when no one’s looking, less likely to do well over the long term.

    Could using rewards in the way you describe have some of the same pitfalls? Or is it different because you’re rewarding *yourself* rather than getting it from a superior? Or is it different for some other reason I’m not thinking of?


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