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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 You Must Never Skip a Writing Reward


No reward, no writing!

What happens when you promise yourself a writing reward, do the writing and skip the reward?

Because you’re at least as smart as a dog, you stop trying. This video demonstrates what happens when dogs know they’re being cheated out a reward they earned.

You might think that not giving yourself a promised reward is better than not showing up to write when you said you would.

But what we know about the habenula strongly suggests that failing to reward yourself when you do show up is more damaging than not showing up at all.

I’ve written about the habenula before; here’s what we need to remember now. The habenula has two parts: the medial habenula that releases dopamine and acts like a gas pedal in the brain’s motivation system and the lateral habenula that suppresses dopamine and acts like the motivation system’s brakes.

When you anticipate or receive a reward, the medial habenula releases dopamine, giving you more energy, focus and willingness to try.

But when you anticipate or experience failure or punishment, the lateral habenula activates to suppress dopamine, deadening motivation, energy and focus.

Most important, the lateral habenula slams on the brakes when you don’t get an expected reward or get a significantly smaller than expected reward.

You’re better off never tapping the power of rewards than rewarding yourself haphazardly.

Rewards are most effective when given in the moment. Give yourself a small reward when you start, even if you’re planning a big reward for when you hit a milestone like completing a chapter or finishing a draft.

It’s this time-sensitivity that makes missing a reward more devastating than missing a commitment to write.

Of course, it’s preferable to show up when you said you would, but as long as you show up sometime during the day you committed to, you can avoid a lateral habenula triggering failure.

If I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you in a class, you may remember my story about realizing near the end of a particularly intense day that I hadn’t done my 15 minutes of Product Time. At 11:45 pm, I didn’t have the creative energy to generate anything new, so I Googled ‘mules’ for tidbits I might include in my novel.

I honored my commitment. Instead of feeling I’d failed, I earned a win and kept my motivation high.

Instead of being embarrassed by almost forgetting something important, I created a story that inspires other writers and demonstrates the big benefits of small commitments. If I’d committed to more than 15 minutes, I might have given in to the temptation to skip it, which would have triggered my lateral habenula and probably derailed my writing for days, if not weeks.

Most important, instead of adding to a list of broken promises, I rebuilt trust in myself as a writer. (More about that in an upcoming post.)

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8 Comments on “Why You Must Never Skip a Writing Reward”

  1. Catherine A. Brennan September 7, 2018 at 1:50 pm #

    I have been enjoying my writing time so much, I have forgotten about rewards(though I think my cup of tea has been rewarding me). I hear you Joel! I have been meandering along with how to come to a completed section, or finishing, with certain projects. Now I remember how to set myself on track. Far out!

    Like

    • rosannebane September 11, 2018 at 11:19 am #

      Great to hear, Catherine! Yes your tea is a reward, and I’m delighted to hear you’re making the adjustments needed to keep writing. Adjustments are part of the artistic/writing process; I’m making some myself right now.

      Like

  2. kperrymn September 7, 2018 at 11:42 am #

    Me too, Joel. I tend to minimize the importance of rewards. And I do love those big benefits from small commitments. Many thanks!!!

    Like

    • rosannebane September 11, 2018 at 11:18 am #

      You’re welcome KPerry! I’m delighted to hear you keep improving the practices that keep you writing.

      Like

  3. Joel D Canfield September 7, 2018 at 11:36 am #

    This series could not be better timed for me. Marvelous.

    Like

    • Catherine A. Brennan September 7, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

      Joel, I am in a similar place.

      Like

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

      I’m glad to hear it’s resonating with you and others, Joel.

      Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How Trustworthy Are You? | Bane of Your Resistance - September 20, 2018

    […] you don’t keep your promises to yourself — not showing up to write when you said you would, “forgetting” a […]

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