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Writers Talk About Writing

How to Increase Your Writing Willpower

I really, really, really, really didn't want to write this column. I've been covered in hives all week (the result of an allergy to a medication) and, to make matters worse, I couldn't think of a topic I found interesting enough.

Then I remembered that I'd recently finished the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I realized that not only did I have the best possible subject, I also had some effective ways to persuade myself to write.

The most interesting thing about The Willpower Instinct is that it offers so many facts that are either contrary to what we've been taught over the years (for example, willpower is not always a virtue) or completely counterintuitive (did you know that willpower is contagious?)

If you feel that lack of willpower has contributed to your difficulty with writing, then you should consider reading this book. Here are four facts McGonigal taught me that helped me write today:

  • You have more willpower if you have more sleep. Shortchanging yourself with sleep may appear to give you more time but the costs are high. You'll not only be physically tired but also mentally and emotionally exhausted. As well, your willpower will be compromised. According to McGonigal, our bodies need a minimum of six hours sleep per night in order to maintain willpower. (The antihistamines I've been taking to deal with my hives have made me sleepier than usual so I nabbed eight hours of sleep before attempting to write this column.)
     
  • The best time for willpower is first thing in the day. I have given this advice many times, as have countless other writing coaches. I'd always attributed its wisdom to the lack of interruptions first thing in the morning (not many people call at 6 am) and the general absence of children (once beyond infancy, they usually resist breakfast before 7 am... make that 11 am in the case of teenagers). But, no, the reason morning is the best time for writing relates to willpower. It's at its most acute first thing in the morning. (I rolled out of bed today, pulled on some clothes and went directly to my computer. I'll have my shower as soon as I've finished writing.)
     
  • Willpower is not unlimited. I had always thought that willpower in the way we used to regard oil — inexhaustible and limitless. But, just as we're finally learning that it's not smart to be a bunch of oil hogs, we also need to know that we can't be willpower gluttons. It runs out. For this reason, we should prioritize. If you have a "to do" list with 17 items on it, your failure to achieve it all stems not from your lack of willpower — it arises from your over-ambition. Spend scarce resources carefully. (I made writing this piece my no. 1 job for today. Even if I accomplish nothing else, I will still be delighted.)
     
  • Doing good gives us permission to be bad. This is something I'd always recognized and the main reason I caution writers not to spend too much time writing in a single day. You will burn yourself out. McGonigal explains that people who accomplish a goal generally feel they should receive a reward. "They offer the justification, 'I was so good, I deserve a little treat'" she observes. I'm perfectly okay if your treat for writing is buying a magazine, a latte or even watching YouTube for 20 minutes. But I'm not okay if it means taking the next few days off from writing! Don't write so much on a single day that you feel entitled to take off the rest of the week.

OK, I'm done! I wrote the first draft of this column in 30 minutes. I'm off to take my shower and enjoy breakfast. I'll edit the column later (after incubating), and I will write again tomorrow because I'm not burned out.

Thanks, Kelly McGonigal.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 8th 2012, 2:54 AM
Comment by: eric W. (pittsfield, MA)
Timely advice. Thanks for soldiering on through the hives!
Wednesday August 8th 2012, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Robert W. (Syracuse, UT)
I agree. Very timely advice. I'm struggling to get something written.
Wednesday August 8th 2012, 1:41 PM
Comment by: theodore R. (Santa Monica, CA)
Thanks for the tip; I used it to muster the willpower to finish writing this comme

;)
Wednesday August 8th 2012, 2:49 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
This is a wonderfully inspiring column, even more so with its author battling hives. Thanks, Daphne: as usual, you tell us just what we need to hear. Before my fast-approaching vacation, I must finish two small writing jobs and one larger editing and rewriting one. Staying up too late to read the news on line (and becoming distracted by You Tube) has not been helpful for me the last couple of nights. No wonder I find it just as easy to become distracted at 9:30 a.m. as I do at midnight! I've been using up my willpower.

P.S. I love Theodore's "unfinished comment" -- funny!
Wednesday August 8th 2012, 10:33 PM
Comment by: NEENA D. (NEW DELHI India)
Daphne your advise and views on writing are always good. Its a pleasure reading your articles. Thanks
Thursday August 9th 2012, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Billy G. (Santa Barbara, CA)
Kelly: Great tidbits of advice. I know what I'll be doing today. That is, just as soon as I'm done thinking about procrastinating. (Don't want to rush into it.)
Thursday August 9th 2012, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Michael S. (Rockville, MD)
I am also reading The Will Power Instinct and have followed Kelly McGonigal's career for over five years. She has a unique capacity to translate scientific research into guidelines for meaningful human action. Google her name and you'll find several videos in which she gives additional insight.
Friday August 17th 2012, 3:31 AM
Comment by: Carol B. (Rockland, ME)
I disagree with the part of this article that asserts one will burn out by writing too much. If writing is at the heart of what one does, then keeping that heart beating is essential. We all know instinctively when to take a breather.
Sunday August 26th 2012, 8:41 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Another golden suggestion and this time it is very real and time tested.
Morning is the excellent time for writing provided you enjoyed a good night sleep. But, alas most of us are deprived of that precious opportunity-as such willpower never sustained not more than few days a week.
Some people are born writers. Just give them a topic they will write million characters making true reliable sentences. I wish to be like one of them.
Monday October 21st 2013, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Carol B. (Rockland, ME)
writing too much? that is called work ethic, not something leading to burn-out

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