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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.

Refine Your Writing Rewards


Reader comments on my previous post, Writing Should Be It’s Own Reward, Right? Wrong!, highlighted where I need to clarify a few things for everyone’s benefit. (This is one of the reasons I love your feedback; another is that your comments tell me my writing mattered to you, which tremendously rewarding for me.)

Joel Canfield wrote, “Eager to read the next installment, where you debunk all those excuses I was making (more or less that entire list.)”

Any excuse or compelling reason you and Joel might offer to support a belief that rewards won’t work for you could be perfectly logical. And completely irrelevant.

It’s Not About Logic

It’s about physiology.

According to neuroscientist David Eagleman, 95% of what the brain does is below or beyond conscious awareness. The logical ego-self is a surfer deluding itself it has conquered the ocean.

Rewards have physiological effects regardless of what you think. When you receive a reward or anticipate receiving a reward, the reward center of the brain is activated and dopamine is released. This happens automatically, without conscious choice.

Thinking that rewards are the most ridiculous, indulgent waste of time won’t change the physiological effect of rewards.

You know the old saying about calories don’t count if you eat ice cream from the carton over the sink? You know that what you think about calories and whether you believe in counting them can’t change the physiological effects.

If you’ve ever experienced caffeine withdrawal or a sugar high, you know that food not only affects your body, it changes your emotions, thoughts and behaviors. So do rewards.

And just as the physiological effects of ice cream last far beyond the momentary pleasure, so do the physiological effects of rewards. How you reward yourself today can influence your writing for weeks.

A Reward by Any Other Name… Is Still a Reward

Michaeline Duskova commented, “I’ve had some luck in the past with ‘pre-warding’ — making sure I have a fruity drink for a summer writing session, or hot cocoa with extra marshmallow (and a spoon — getting up to get a spoon in the middle is a Tactical Error which leads to doing the laundry or doing ‘just one more thing’ and losing all my writing time).”

Michaeline is absolutely right about the importance of gathering what you’re going to need before starting a writing session to avoid distractions. She wisely combines preparing for a writing session with rewarding herself. ‘Pre-ward’ is a nifty word for a reward specifically for getting started.

Timing Is Everything

The timing of a reward or pre-ward is crucial. For sustained Product Time sessions or other tasks you want to keep doing for more than 5 minutes, it’s most effective to give a small pre-ward as you start and additional small rewards at intervals as you work.

Getting started is often the hardest part of writing, so reward yourself for it. I used this reward plan (right) to remind me to enjoy a bite of protein bar when I’m at my desk and ready to go. I set my timer and give myself rewards for writing 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes and when I finish.

Most rewards need to be small so that you can reward yourself often. You can give yourself some rewards after writing — e.g. for every minute of Product Time, you take one minute of guilt-free video games or recreational reading later. Some rewards have to wait — you can’t really work and get a massage at the same time.

But most rewards should come during Product Time (or other behavior you want to reinforce). Michaeline can maximize the benefit of her fruity summer drink or hot cocoa by taking a sip every 5 to 10 minutes as she works, rather than waiting to drink the whole beverage when she finishes.

Small, frequent rewards are more effective than a single reward at the end. Remember, your brain releases dopamine and acetylcholine every time you give yourself a reward. Even better, neurons in the anterior cingulate start to fire in anticipation of a reward. Frequent rewards mean you’ll focus better and both your writing process and the writing itself will improve faster.

Don’t Reward What Is Intrinsically Rewarding

Michaeline also mentioned “Over the past two years, I’ve been buying into the ‘writing is its own reward’ myth more and more. You are absolutely right! Writing isn’t its own reward; finishing is.”

Because finishing is intrinsically satisfying, we don’t need to give ourselves a reward for it, and in fact attempting to add an extrinsic reward to intrinsically rewarding tasks can decrease motivation. (In-depth explanation in chapter 7 of AWB.)

Furthermore, if you give yourself a reward only when you finish Product Time, your brain releases dopamine when you stop, and you are, in fact, training yourself to stop working. Rewarding yourself as you go, on the other hand, trains you to keep going.

Rewards Are in the Eye of the Receiver

Tracy observed “I don’t currently reward myself for a completed writing session, although I do like adding the word count to my daily logs, and seeing the numbers creep up, which is a psychological pat on the back that reinforces the need to get more down tomorrow.”

Tracy doesn’t think she rewards herself, but adding word counts to a daily dog is a reward for her.

A reward is whatever the person getting it values. What Tracy, Michaeline or Joel find rewarding might be “mngh” for you.

Rewards might be:

  • beverages: sip of special coffee or latte, tea, hot cocoa, lemonade
  • food: a bite of a cookie, a few M&Ms, a piece of chocolate, a cracker, a bite of a protein bar
  • money: a quarter for every 5 minutes spent writing, an additional dollar if you go past the time you committed to
  • free time: for every minute of working on writing, a minute to do something frivolous and enjoyable; if the task was particularly challenging, give yourself two minutes for every minute invested in the work
  • self-praise and a smile: “Good for me” “Yes!” “Good job” “I’m really improving”
  • praise from others: ask a trusted ally to give you positive feedback and ONLY positive feedback (discerning feedback that will help you revise and improve the writing is valuable, but it is not a reward)
  • physical pleasure: taking a hot bath, getting a pedicure or a massage, going to a movie, even something as simple as stroking the inside of your arm.

Tracy discovered the power of rewards. “I didn’t just give myself a reward, I built whole system of rewards to help me sustain good habits. I have a reward for writing each day, and a reward for not missing a day during the week. Just figuring out what the rewards will be is a reward of its own. It’s fun!”

A torte is a great reward. But studying torts? Failing to reward yourself is a really bad idea!

Make a list of small rewards you can give yourself during Product Time, medium rewards you can give yourself after Product Time and large rewards you can give yourself when you reach a milestone like completing a chapter or finishing a draft.

You Must Deliver on Your Promises

If you reward yourself for getting started and again at 5 minutes into your writing session, and again at 10 minutes in, but get so immersed in the writing that you forget to give yourself additional rewards, there’s no need to worry.

But if you routinely forget to deliver rewards you promise yourself (or another person), you’re doing more harm than good. I’ll explain why in our next post.

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2 Comments on “Refine Your Writing Rewards”

  1. Joel D Canfield August 30, 2018 at 9:23 am #

    Furthermore, if you give yourself a reward only when you finish Product Time, your brain releases dopamine when you stop, and you are, in fact, training yourself to stop working. Rewarding yourself as you go, on the other hand, trains you to keep going.

    Priceless. This is the goods.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can negotiate a chair massage while I’m working . . .

    Like

    • rosannebane September 11, 2018 at 11:16 am #

      Thanks Joel. Let me know how the writing chair massage works.

      Like

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