You’re out and about, doing a few errands, when suddenly, a brilliant idea for your next article/short story/poem/essay/thinkpiece/novel/uncategorizable work of genius hits you.
You’re breathless with delight and quickly scribble down a reminder to yourself — this one is not going to get away. People are going to LOVE reading this.
You are filled with enthusiasm, accidentally shoplifting a few groceries as you daydream about your subheadings and the exact angle you’ll take in the conclusion.
So far, so good.
However, as you come out of the shop, you run into a good friend, someone you admire and enjoy while also being secretly scared they might be a tiny bit better than you.
You do your usual friendly greeting and, before you know it, you find yourself telling your friend about your brilliant idea. They’re interested and encouraging and you tell them all about it. Because they’re great, and you want them to think you’re great, and your idea is great, and it’s all just so… great. Right?
The answer is: it depends.
It depends on what you want from your moments of inspiration. If you want to sound really smart and cool and impress people, then you did exactly the right thing.
If, however, you want to actually write your idea, then this happy little fantasy may not have been the best course of action.
In fact, talking about your work before writing it has made it less likely that you’ll actually create it.
What?! But I just made it more real by speaking it out loud.
Exactly. You just tricked your brain into thinking that your literary morsel is real — i.e., already written. It’s going to be harder to get motivated to actually write now, because the idea’s energy has been used up—and subconsciously the mind thinks the job is done.
Maybe sharing our ideas too soon isn’t the worth the feelings of instant gratification. Let’s explore why.
As speaker Derek Sivers tracks in his popular TED talk, “Keep Your Goals to Yourself,” for nearly 100 years, psychologists have been researching the phenomenon whereby talking about a goal, plan, or idea makes a person less likely to actually achieve it.
In one typical study, participants were asked to write down a goal, along with the steps they would take towards it over the next week. One half of participants spoke with the researcher about their goal and reported feeling confident and encouraged. The other half were told to keep their goal private.
The surprising result was that a week later, people in the group that hadn’t spoken about their goal were much more likely to have achieved the planned steps towards it, while the group that had spoken about their goal were less likely to have done anything towards it — yet more likely to report feeling like they were getting somewhere.
Variations on this research have been repeated, ruling out different variables, and what is consistently found is that talking to others about something you plan to do has the effect of fooling the brain into thinking you’ve already done it. Moreover, those who announce their plans have been shown to be more likely to quit while putting them into practice. Why would we push through the difficulties of following through on our plans and ideas when we subconsciously think we’ve already achieved them?
It’s thought that once an idea is used as an “identity marker” (psychologist-talk for something that is used to build or display a sense of self), then our minds believe we’ve already accomplished it.
For example, I have recently been planning to write an article on healthy body image. I have a friend who is interested in the topic, and I found myself telling her about my planned piece. According to the psychologists, what I was doing here was using my plan to demonstrate identity — I wanted to be seen as the person writing the kick-ass article on healthy body image. Problem is, by using my intention in this way, my brain now believes I must have already written the thing and stops feeling motivated to actually write it. My mind thinks it’s already done!
I actually love talking about my ideas and it’s only been in the process of researching this article that I’ve understood why: because I think they’re really great and I want to be perceived by others as a person with really great ideas. But the research backs up my own observation that an idea that’s been talked about before being written tends to lose all momentum and be permanently consigned to a scrunched-up list at the bottom of a bag.
A truly confident writer doesn’t need to talk about their ideas because they don’t need to prove to others that they have brilliant ones. They know in their bones that they’re a good writer, and so there’s no need to prove it by eliciting admiration or respect from others.
Less confident writers can end up in a catch-22 situation: whereas confident writers are less likely to talk about their ideas and more likely to just write them, leading to more confidence, less confident writers are more likely to seek confidence through others’ opinions via talking about their ideas, leading to less motivation, less actual writing, and potentially less confidence.
How do we escape this vicious cycle?
The solution is simple in theory: we just stop talking about our ideas before we’ve actually written them. We stop saying things like, “I’m working on a piece about…” or, “Yes, I’m thinking about doing an article on…” We feel the urge to say these things and we keep our mouths shut. We feel the heat of not getting that instant fix of gratification through the (deluded) feeling of accomplishment. We accept the genuine effort that’s going to be required to really earn that feeling.
Going off my personal experience, it’s a hard habit to break, and so even though you may not be able to stop all at once, don’t give yourself a hard time. Simply watch and observe whether this is something you do and what happens to your motivation before and after.
Even becoming aware of how we do talk about our ideas too soon may be a useful and revealing exercise. I’ve been shocked to realise how often I talk about my ideas to get a sense of accomplishment and acknowledgement without realizing how this “quick fix” has been undermining my writing practice.
A journal can be useful here—but watch out that you don’t use it as an invisible friend who functions in just the same way. I’ve caught myself writing lists of pieces I want to write and then feeling the warm glow of accomplishment…
Author Nick Ripatrazone writes about how some of the best advice he was ever given was to not talk about his novel. The professor who gave him the advice said it was a sure-fire way to kill the impulse to write, and this turned out to be true. He now advises others to keep their literary babies close until they’re actually ready.
If we’re in the habit of talking about our plans to impress those around us, it may take some time, dedication, and focus to break the habit of putting our writerly ideas “out there” too soon.
We may even wish to borrow a technique from addiction treatment and choose other conversational topics as a “replacement drug” when we feel the urge to blab.
I also find it really helpful to cut the bullshit and say to a person straight, “Hey, I think you’re really great and I really want to impress you by talking about my writing ideas — but I’m not going to — I’m going to write them, instead!” This way, your friends and acquaintances can get on board helping you to reform the habit.
It’s a popular, well-accepted concept that a good way to increase motivation is accountability. A business meet-up group, a mastermind, a talk-oriented writer’s circle — all are often promoted as ways to motivate yourself through talking about your ideas.
But based on the research, telling others in this way about the things we plan to write gives us a false sense of satisfaction that is ultimately counter-productive. Yes, we may get good feelings when we tell our circle about that brilliant thinkpiece we’re going to write, or that e-book we’re halfway through, or that article pitch for a top journal. But those are the feelings that we’re meant to feel when we actually publish. We’ve used up our good feelings too soon!
If we talk about our writerly ideas in an accountability group before we’ve written them, we replace motivation-by-good-feelings (now expended) with motivation-by-guilt-or-fear.
We may have lost the urge to actually create, but we said we were going to do it, and we don’t want to look like an idiot or a loser, so…
Our intrinsic motivation to create is replaced by the extrinsic motivation of social expectations — i.e., not looking bad to our accountability group or person. Yes, this motivator will probably work in the short term, just like how threatening someone with a big stick will probably make them do something.
But the problem with accountability as a motivator is that it converts a positive, intrinsic impulse (to create) into a fearful impulse (to not look bad or let people down), and studies have shown that positive impulses are much more effective for long-term motivation than fearful ones.
We can still make great use of each other for feedback and encouragement: just make sure you’re using your meetups and groups to reflect on work you’ve already produced, rather than trying to use others to motivate yourself by talking about your ideas to them.
There is a school of thought that good ideas are hard to come by, that life is one big competition, and that being a creative person means you’re in a fight to the death for a limited pool of ideas. It’s a mentality founded on a belief in scarcity, and the resulting scrabble ranges in mood from anxious to vicious.
It’s a very fearful school of thought, as it encourages people to view others as a threat or a resource, rather than as a collaborator or source of inspiration.
Such thinking will often advocate keeping your ideas to yourself, purely out of fear someone else will steal them or do them better.
However, this is not what we’re talking about here. In reality, there is always more than enough inspiration to go around. The confident writer knows that it doesn’t matter if someone else creates something based on something they’ve shared because everyone will always create through the unique lens of their perspective and talents.
If I choose to keep my ideas secret, it’s not out of fear that someone will take them or write them better. It’s because I want to share them in their most fully realized form… and because I know that talking too soon jeopardizes that sharing.
So if ideas come to you that you have no intention of writing, share them by all means. But if you want to give your literary creations to the world in their most complete form, rather than just as seeds, resist the urge to talk too soon. It may paradoxically be the most generous thing you could do for your readers!
I’m planning to keep quiet about my ideas because I want to retain the motivation to actually write and share them, not because I’m afraid someone else will steal them (positive motivation in action!).
If you’re someone who has grown any kind of plant from seed, you’ll know that when a plant is first growing, it is very tender and vulnerable. Many seeds need to be germinated in warm places, with fine soil and careful attention. Once they’re older and a little more hardy, it’s safe to transplant them out to the harsher environment of the garden, where they’ll face all the challenges of weather, competing plants, and hungry insect and animal life.
You probably get where I’m going with this detour into gardening: basically, our writing ideas can at times be like little seedlings, needing careful germination before they’re exposed to the elements.
There’s a reason editors usually jump into action once a piece is finished, not before: too much critical feedback at the ideas stage can kill the tender shoots of a piece of work before they have a chance to grow and flourish. Using our plans to impress or define ourselves may kill motivation by making us think we’re all done, but it also leaves us vulnerable if the listener doesn’t respond well.
The tender sprout of our motivation can be undermined by too much harsh or critical feedback, too soon. If we keep our seedlings living inside for just a little bit longer, they’ll be more likely to survive the icy blasts of feedback and revisions.
Understanding the psychology behind why we talk about our ideas gives us the ability to recognise the habit and form new ones. If you realize, as I have, that you’re someone who undermines their ideas by talking about them before they’re written, fear not: we can change this.
Yes, it feels good to express a smart, funny, innovative, or useful idea. Almost too good… those feelings are the reward waiting for us when we actually write a piece. And if we hold out for them, we won’t need to motivate ourselves through fear, guilt, and concern for our image any more.
The result? Happier, less stressed writers, more good writing, and less conversations where we’re just trying to sound cool and look good. Yes please!
Right, now back to the totally brilliant piece I’m writing — did I tell you about it? — it’s on…
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. Follow her on twitter: @hosalind