I should be writing.
I should be writing something right now.
We’ve all had that niggling feeling lurking behind our carefree enjoyment.
You’re lying in bed. Or making some toast. Or drawing little pictures of your dream house. Or doing something really quite important, like sorting all your books according to the colours of their spines.
I don’t know about you, but for me, this thought doesn’t actually seem to translate into sitting down at the keyboard.
I should be writing.
I should be writing something right now.
In fact, I would say everything I write is in spite of this thought rather than because of it.
Because “shoulds” are about obligations and expectations rather than an enthusiastic urge to write. And “shoulding” all over yourself happens to kill inspiration.
So I’m not going to give you any advice on “How to Motivate Yourself to Write.”
What I can do is give you some tried and true, well-tested techniques for how NOT to motivate yourself. They are guaranteed to make you procrastinate, rebel, lose all motivation, and collapse in a sad heap on the couch.
This is key. No matter what technique you choose, a good dose of self-criticism is guaranteed to help strangle motivation.
Haven’t written that piece yet? Well, it’s probably because you’re a slack, unmotivated loser who is never going to amount to anything (or insert your favourite self-criticism here).
For this technique to really demotivate you properly, you have to never let yourself off the hook. Forgot a deadline? You’re hopeless. Had a piece in your head for over a year that you haven’t written yet? What a lazy slackass. Over 30 and still haven’t penned that novel? You’re not a writer; you’re a write-off.
Make sure you turn a simple, neutral observation — “Oh, I didn’t do that today” — into an overarching negative conclusion about your personality in general.
Why? Because it’s meaner that way. Try phrasing it as a self-deprecating joke — just as mean, but with a sugar coating.
Luckily, we are pretty good at this already: most of us got scolded harshly as kids by stressed-out parents, teachers, or that grumpy great-aunt. As we grow up, we obediently apply the punitive approach to ourselves, repeating criticisms internally in the hope that we can bully ourselves into action.
Research shows this kind of motivation actually destroys willpower. Being hard on yourself is more likely to lead to anxiety and depression — great for killing the spark to write — and reduces self-efficacy (belief in your own abilities).
Plus, it creates a fear of failure, meaning you won’t even try things in the first place. What are you waiting for? Get criticising!
And don’t believe any of that self-compassion mumbo-jumbo. That’s just indulgence and self-pity — you’ll give in to failure for sure that way.
If you were kind to yourself, you could end up feeling confident and happy, which may lead to enthusiastic urges to do things you’re passionate about — not what we’re talking about here. Crack that whip!
You’ve read some great novels and watched some TV shows full of razor-sharp, witty dialogue.
You know what perfect looks like. And you know what your first drafts look like.
Not the same, right?
First attempts don’t come out perfect. So a nice, easy way to avoid failure is to give up and never make that first attempt. You’ll never have to stumble over a sentence or receive lukewarm feedback (or learn… or improve…) ever again!
My personal favourite.
I imagine myself at some vague point in the future as a successful writer. Then, and only then (I think), will I be able to pen scintillating articles, lyrical novels, and ground-breaking essays.
Make sure you don’t stop and think about how you might actually need to work to become this figure through trial and error, small wins, setbacks, and persistence.
Nope, just… wait.
One time I was off on an exciting adventure sailing to the Subantarctic Islands. I contacted a well-known magazine and asked if they’d be interested in an article on the trip. They said yes!
I set off, spewed my guts out for most of the trip, and arrived home barely able to stand, let alone write. I never replied to that email, and never wrote the article. Damn.
Now, when I want to kill all enthusiasm for writing, I lie back and think about this sad scenario.
Thinking about lost opportunities like this stimulates regret, which is a proven method to feel depressed and threatened, further undermining motivation. Just consider how great you could have been by now if you hadn’t missed that chance, and how there’s no going back.
Start with “If only…” and go from there. Guaranteed to keep pen from paper for days.
This one is a winner.
First off, set outrageous goals and then feel super bad about yourself when you don’t meet them. Conclusion: You Suck.
Second, read the media constantly and only expose yourself to stories of rich, famous, and successful people and writers. Compare their lives with your career and trajectory.
Third, make sure to only hang out with completely invulnerable people who boast about their achievements all day long and never admit to worry, doubt, or insecurity. Tell yourself this is normal.
The result: you’ll create such high expectations, and make such an unrealistic schism with reality, that all action will become paralyzed.
Oh, and remember – you ARE your achievements.
If you’ve never done anything stupendously awesome, you can’t possibly be a good writer. Being a human who likes to write, and who does pretty well at it, can’t possibly be enough.
When you get negative feedback, rejections, or criticism, don’t take it as just someone else’s opinion. Don’t use it constructively while discarding anything that’s not useful. Don’t keep trying by using different outlets, editors, personalities, or drafts.
Nope, you should assume that by extension no one is going to like you, or your work, so you should just give up straight away.
With this “motivational” technique, it’s important that you don’t actually value your own writing yourself but instead take all your cues from what other people think of it. I promise this is a highly effective method to avoid all rejections and setbacks.
Plus, you’ll have much more time to watch YouTube.
Make sure you focus on success as a method of getting acceptance and recognition rather than as a way of sharing your talent and insight with the world. That way when you hit a setback it won’t just mean people miss out on your wisdom — it will mean your whole self-worth is on the line.
Oh, and it’s your fault.
There’s no lucky breaks involved, no accidents of time, place, and writing style. Nope, it’s all your fault that you’re not making it big — you’re entirely to blame.
We’ve all achieved great things.
But don’t think about them: focus on all the other things you haven’t yet done.
Blank out your successes by forgetting them, giving the credit to others, saying it was a fluke, or telling yourself they were a bit crap anyway (see number 5 above).
Want to take pride in your achievements as a writer?
Better not. That would be getting too big for your boots, and people might not like you in all your talented glory.
Of course it’s your job to look after their insecurities. It’s safer to play it small, hold yourself back, and avoid making anyone jealous.
I saved the best until last.
If all else fails, just lie to yourself and pretend you didn’t want to write anyway.
You were just doing it for fun. It was a hobby. You never cared, not once, about hitting publish or sharing your words with the world.
This genius move will take all the sting out of not meeting your own impossible standards.
Of course, there may still be a lurking feeling of frustration or failure, but this can be numbed with a bit of alcohol or caffeine.
This one is particularly good, as it allows me to pretend I’m being kind and easy on myself when, in fact, I’m just not admitting what I really want to do — write — in case I don’t get whatever I perceive that to be. Very clever.
You get the idea.
We’ve all got our own tried and true techniques to perversely avoid writing — that thing we supposedly really want to do. All our creativity has to go somewhere, so why not into excuse generation?
Given the abundance of terrible, mean options out there for how to motivate ourselves, it’s a miracle anything gets written at all.
Imagine how much creativity and energy could be freed up if we all approached our work a little kinder, a little smarter, and with a few less fixed expectations.
We might even end up full of enthusiastic productivity, or something terrible like that.
Ok, time to get back to sorting my books by colour…
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.