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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.

Are Your Writing Goals Too Ambitious?

shoot for moon writer's block“Shoot for the stars. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Right?

Wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Overly ambitious writing goals often backfire. “Give it a try, what do you have to lose?” is not always your best strategy.

What you have to lose is your motivation. If you failed before or anticipate the possibility of failure, you don’t land among the stars; you never take-off.

The Habenula and Failure to Launch

When a goal gets too ambitious or demanding, you are likely to remember similar situations where you failed. This will trigger the habenula, which inhibits your dopamine and blocks your motivation. You feel more like a taking a nap than taking a risk.

Habenula? Sounds like a hot pepper, doesn’t it?

When I first saw a reference to the habenula as part of the brain, I was skeptical. I’ve read a lot about the brain and I’d never heard of it. So I looked it up.

The habenula is a small part of the limbic system, close to the thalamus. While scientists have long known about the habenula and most of its functions, recent advances in brain imagining now make it possible to researchers to more deeply investigate the role of the habenula in motivation and mood.

Habenula for Writers

The differences between the two areas of the habenula – the lateral habenula (LHb) and the medial habenula (MHb) – and their interactions with neurotransmitters and other areas of the brain are complex. (Read more…)

Because we’re writers, not neuroscientists, the takeaway for us is that the habenula responds to rewards by stimulating the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that tells us “Go! Do that again.”

The habenula (specifically the lateral habenula) also makes note of failure, punishment or the absence of an anticipated reward. It responds to those conditions by suppressing dopamine-releasing neurons, telling us “Don’t go! Avoid that.”

From a survival standpoint, it makes absolute sense. As Dr. Kyra Bobinet writes in “The Power of Process” in Experience Life:

“This useful tool is thought to keep us from wasting our time (or endangering ourselves) by repeating unsuccessful behaviors. When we measure goals in terms of success or failure, and then don’t ‘succeed,’ the habenula kills our incentive to give things another go. This keeps a lot of dieters, would-be novelists, and aspiring entrepreneurs stuck at square one.”

More about how to avoid over-ambitious writing goals and do what does work to keep you writing in my next post.

Until then consider: when have you failed to achieve writing goals? What kinds of goals were they – word counts, deadlines, combo of so many words by a specific date, publication goals, awards, recognition, something else?


Christophe D. Proulx, Okihide Hikosaka, and Roberto Malinow, “Reward Processing by the Lateral Habenula in Normal and Depressive Behaviors,” from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4305435/ accessed January 2016.

Kyra Bobinet, “The Power of Process,” January/February 2016, Experience Life, from https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-process/ accessed January 2016.

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7 Comments on “Are Your Writing Goals Too Ambitious?”

  1. Joel D Canfield January 21, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

    I knew I had hot peppers in my brain.

    This is fascinating stuff. I love it when brain science tells me I’ve been right for the past 50 years 😉


    • rosannebane January 21, 2016 at 5:02 pm #

      Me too Joel! I love it when my intuition is validated by research. Of course, it is me interpreting the research and connecting it to writing, so my conclusions are probably biased a bit.


      • Joel D Canfield January 21, 2016 at 5:14 pm #

        If your biases match my biases, we’ll get along just fine . . .

        I spend a lot of time and effort trying to foil my confirmation bias, looking for smart folks who disagree with me, so if I find anything that seems to raise questions about this, I’ll holler.



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