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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.

Why Rewards Work for Writers


If you’ve seen a border collie run an agility course, you’ve seen the epitome of self-rewarding behavior.

Clearly, these dogs are eager to run. You might think that because these dogs are having so much fun, they never needed to be rewarded for doing agility, that agility was always its own reward. Not so!

What you see is the result of years of training with positive reinforcement, that is, rewards at the right time.

Smarter Than the Average Dog

Of course, you’re smarter than a dog (or at least smarter than the average dog; border collies are in a category all their own).

Unlike a dog, you’ve got a great big, wonderfully complex cortex that makes you want to and able to write.

But your cortex is on top of and intricately connected to the limbic system, aka the mammal brain or the emotional brain. Your limbic system is not all that different from a dog’s limbic system, and operant conditioning works just as well for humans as it does for any other mammal.

You might think that rewarding yourself can’t work because you’re not willing to deprive yourself or put your partner in charge of dispensing cookies. Deprivation is not required for rewards to work. I certainly don’t starve my dogs and they are still rewarded by treats.

It doesn’t matter if you feel silly or doubtful about rewarding yourself — rewards work. If you give yourself something pleasant, your brain will release dopamine and acetylocholine. You don’t have to consciously will your brain to release these neurotransmitters or to create associations; that happens outside your conscious control.

Why not take advantage of that brain fact? If you don’t approach every writing session with the eager anticipation of a border collie running agility, why not use the principles of behaviorism to train yourself to be a more consistent writer?

I don’t always feel eager anticipation about my writing; that’s why I keep rewarding myself. It’s how I keep showing up 99.99% of the time I say I will.

Motivating Writers

I studied behaviorism and motivation as an undergrad and, of course, my research on neurology added to my understanding. But my most significant lessons came from a completely unexpected source: my dog, Blue.

Over the years, I’ve worked with some amazing trainers who helped me understand my dog and myself. I never anticipated that so much of the training would be about me learning to get it right; I thought I’d be training the dog to follow instructions.

Instead, Blue teaches me, and she is the most consistently observant, forgiving and loving of all my teachers.

Blue and I will never compete at the highest levels, but we have fun as you can see if this video

Let me assure you that even though I draw on my experiences in agility to explain motivational concepts like “rewarding approximate behavior,” I do know the differences between motivating people and motivating dogs.

In Part 3 of our series on Rewarding Yourself, I’ll brag about Blue and connect the dots to show you how to reward your own approximate behaviors to become a more agile writer.

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3 Comments on “Why Rewards Work for Writers”

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