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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.

How to Keep Your Habenula from Blocking Your Writing

brain rechargeI love it when brain science vindicates my intuition and gives me the “why” something has always seemed true.

I’ve long known at a gut level that focusing on small, regular commitments (15 Magic Minutes) works better than setting grand goals. Now I know why: it’s all about the habenula.

In “The Power of Process” in Experience Life, Dr. Kyra Bobinet observes:

“Goals are typically outcome-oriented, which means we either succeed in our attempts to achieve them — or we fail. And for outcome goals that take a long time to reach, our efforts can feel like a prolonged struggle against the risk of failure.”

Bobinet refers to research suggesting that failure or the anticipation of failure triggers the lateral habenula (LHb). As discussed in my previous post, the LHb blocks dopamine and destroys motivation.

Instead of setting overly ambitious goals, Bobinet advises:

“To create positive change, don’t obsess over specific goals. Focus instead on problem-solving strategies you can adjust as you go.”

In other words, don’t fixate on deadlines, word counts or publishing credits, just show up for your 15 Magic Minutes every time you say you will. Tracking your efforts will allow you to adjust as needed, and you will achieve your goals.

What to Avoid?

I advise writers I work with (as coaching clients, students or colleagues) to be careful about the expectations they set for themselves. What expectations will inspire and which will trigger resistance depends on each writer’s experience and how reactive her/his habenula is.

Goals that recall previous failure, that will take too long to reach, or raise self-doubt will probably trigger your LHb and impair your motivation.

deadline writer's block canstockphoto16865120 (2)Some of my colleagues are inspired by deadlines. They love having an editor set a due date for them because it gives them focus and direction. The challenge may even trigger their dorsal medial habenula (DHb), which increases dopamine and enhances motivation (read more…). If it helps, think of the DHb as the gas pedal, the LHb as the brake.

When I have a deadline with an editor, by God, I meet it. But when I’ve tried to set deadlines or completion dates for myself, I struggled. Even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about my previous failures to finish a specific chapter (or reach a specific word count) by a specific date, those experiences triggered my LHb to send the “Don’t go there!” message. I lost physical energy, found it difficult to focus, actively sought distractions, and went into panic-mode.

I stopped trying to set due dates. Instead, I set ‘target dates’ and intuitively applied Bobinet’s advice to adjust as I go.  And it worked! (read more…) I finished revising my novel on the target date I set. I sent the first 100 pages to my beta readers the day before my target date.

I was able to do that because I wasn’t freaking out the completion dates; I was focused on doing the work in front of me five days a week. I set target times beyond my 15 minute commitments; I met most of those and didn’t worry when I didn’t.

If you have writing goals you suspect might be too ambitious, consider how you can transform those to small, regular commitments you know you can honor (may I suggest 15 minutes a day, five days a week) and set adjustable targets.


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

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.

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8 Comments on “How to Keep Your Habenula from Blocking Your Writing”

  1. blog251551 May 8, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Hi there, I desire to subscribe for this weblog to take newest
    updates, so where can i do it please help out.


    • rosannebane May 9, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

      Hi Blog 251… On the Home page, below the Featured New Posts and the Search button, there is a “Follow this Blog” button in the right-hand column. Let me know if it’s not showing up for you.


  2. Mary Ellen April 20, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    So helpful. A revelation!


  3. emmajamesonbooks January 28, 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    This is great. I look forward to reading more on your blog. I think it can really help me.

    Stephanie/ “Emma Jameson”


    • rosannebane January 29, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

      Thanks Stephanie! It’s rewarding to hear my blog is useful for my fellow writers.



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