It’s the bane of every freelance writer’s life: You know you need to sit yourself down and get some writing done, but nothing happens. The writing motivation just isn’t there. Sometimes, you can’t even make yourself sit down with the computer — even if you desperately need to make money writing.
That’s when writers come to me and ask, “Can you help me find motivation to write?”
The truth is, I can’t. That writing motivation needs to come from inside of you. To write for a living, you need to develop an inner drive and the creativity to write, nearly every day, no matter what’s going on in your life – that bad night’s sleep, the pandemic, family stress, whatever.
However. If you’ve been putting a metaphorical gun to your head and trying to ‘make’ yourself write, and it’s not working, I have an idea for you.
Rather than pushing and pushing yourself to write, you might try reversing course.
Let me explain what I mean:
Push vs Pull Writing Goals
Many writers seem to operate on a ‘push’ system. Your focus is on forcing yourself to sit down and write. Push, push, pushing yourself to write.
You may pay no attention to your chronobiology, insisting your brain try to be creative at times that aren’t your most productive. There are no rewards on offer, really – you just gotta write. No pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, except maybe a feeling of satisfaction at creating.
Worsening the situation is the fact that many writers simply have unrealistic goals of how productive they can be. I’m constantly meeting people who think I’m super-productive…when really, what I’ve mostly done all my working life is clock a crap-ton of hours, to get it all done.
I have whole days where I really can’t get any writing done, and so does every other writer you know.
You may be forcing yourself to the screen because you feel you simply need to put in X hours a day staring at the blank page, to feel like a ‘real’ writer. When that doesn’t produce much, you start doubting whether you can do this for a living.
But there’s another way to get motivated to write. An opposite way.
What you’re currently doing is creating a ‘push’ goal. As in: I must push myself to write, right now, no matter what.
The more the ‘push’ strategy fails, the more panicked you feel. The terror that it isn’t working, that you can’t make yourself write on command, is real.
I have good news, though: You can still become someone who’s super-productive and writes daily, even if setting a push goal hasn’t worked.
Hit the ‘Pause’ Button
If you’ve been pushing yourself to write and it’s failing, stop and take a look at that. Remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.
It’s time to change things up, when it comes to getting in touch with your writing muse and getting the creative juices flowing.
First, let’s look at why it’s so hard to push yourself to write.
Are you holed up in your house, never going for a walk, not sleeping well?
Revisit your basic food-sleep-exercise habits. A lot of productivity problems get cured if you commit to treating your body better and engaging in regular sleep, regular exercise, and healthy diet.
Also, what sort of input are you getting from the world?
If you haven’t taken an outdoor walk or called a friend in ages, get that onto your regular schedule, too. Socializing, engaging with nature or doing pleasurable hobbies is like hitting the ‘reset’ button on your writer brain.
Once you start doing the basics that help us write, you can add one more mental-health step.
So, you tried to write today. And it didn’t happen. The key thing is to avoid creating a mountain of fear/terror/worry that lowers your chances of writing tomorrow.
It’s time to practice self-forgiveness. Commit to giving yourself a clean slate, each day. Yesterday’s gone, as the song says.
Everyone struggles to write now and then. You’re not alone, and what you’re going through is normal.
You know that if a writer-friend told you they didn’t write today, you’d encourage them. You’d say, “You got this. It’ll flow tomorrow.”
Now, say that to yourself.
Once you stop pushing, pause, practice self-forgiveness, and set a new course with better basic habits, you’re ready to add a new motivation strategy.
As I’ve said, it sort of works in reverse of setting ‘push’ goals.
Pull Goals: A Story
As you may have guessed, I want you to consider setting a ‘pull’ goal for your writing instead of a push goal.
What do I mean? A short story will illustrate:
My sister, Diane, has long had a garage that’s completely full of stuff. Park a car in there? Never. She’s lived in the same place for over 20 years, and old files, discarded furniture and other castoffs filled it from floor to ceiling, front to back.
She was always trying to force herself to deal with it. It was basically a fire hazard. But telling herself to march out there and empty that rat’s nest never worked.
Then, recently, she realized she wanted to be the Girl Scout cookie mom – you know, the one who stores the troop’s cookies at her house for those table sales and all the individual girls’ neighborhood deliveries. She’d never been able to serve the troop in this role, because of the overstuffed garage.
To achieve her goal, she would have to clean out a large section of the garage.
She really wanted to show up for her daughter and be more active in Scouting. This goal drove her out to the garage to start tackling the enormous pile of garage items..
When I visited, she showed off her mostly cleared garage – now full of cookie boxes.
My sister won by setting a pull goal, when a push goal failed. She created a reward of what she would get if she completed this difficult task, beyond simply ridding herself of an impassable, junk-filled garage.
Envisioning how great it would be to have garage space for this longed-for cookie-mom role made it happen.
Now, let’s look at how to design a pull goal that works to get you writing.
Pull Goal Ideas
How can you create a pull goal for your writing business? Let’s brainstorm:
Plan a vacation trip.
Create a vision board with photos of what you’ll enjoy on the trip. Note how much writing income you need to bring in and how far ahead you need to work to make this vacation happen. Spend a bit of time each day envisioning yourself on this vacation. Then, sit down to write. Even the prospect of a long weekend of no work may drive you forward to get organized and write.
If I can get my writing done early, I get to play a half-hour of online American Mah Jongg. Think of an activity that brings you joy, but that you often feel you ‘don’t have time’ for. See if dangling that carrot doesn’t help you get serious about writing and avoid procrastinating.
Writers read! When’s the last time you treated yourself to a bookstore visit and held a new (or hard-to-find used) book in your hand? Plan a bookstore visit to reward yourself for finishing that difficult writing project. Bet you’ll soon have that hot new bestseller you’ve been longing to dig into in your hot little hands.
Had your eye on a new jacket or pair of boots? Finishing that writing might pay for them, and provide you with positive motivation to complete your work.
I hate to encourage writers to eat, because many of us struggle with overeating and under-exercising. But maybe one square of chocolate if you get it done, or a bowl of blueberries? Whatever feels special for you.
The weather is warm right now, and you could schedule a COVID-safe walk or night out with your significant other, kids, or friends as a reward for getting writing done. Warn them it’s a maybe, you can only go if your goals are met. With others counting on you, you’ll be surprised at how motivated you can get to spit out the words and finish.
Maybe, like my sister, you wish you were doing more to make a difference in your community. Find a cause you love and commit to regular participation. At one point, I signed up to feed the homeless once a month — and knowing I’d committed to be there got me motivated to stay current on writing tasks. Don’t want to let the food-bank team down! Plus, volunteering makes you feel good about yourself, and like you have better work-life balance.
Buy yourself time off.
Many writers I meet work seven days a week. That is a recipe for burnout. Commit to taking at least one day offline — you’ll immediately focus on how to get your work done in one day fewer. Few writers ever go back to working 24/7 once they block out time off, because the lifestyle is so much better. And of course, writers who take time away come back more refreshed and productive. So it’s a double win.
Let your imagination run wild.
Inefficiency in writing is likely depriving you of many things you’d love to be doing. Writing slower eats up the hours. What pull goal would excite you?
This is just a starter list – I’m sure you can come up with more pull goals on your own.
More Carrot, Less Stick
Writers tend to be hard on themselves. Consider offering more rewards in your writing life, and spend less time trying to force-march yourself to the writing desk.
What we do is hard. Create a trail of tempting breadcrumbs that pull you through, and you may find your writing goals are easier to achieve.
One of the best things you can do for your writing career is to surround yourself with other writers. Inevitably, you’ll have those days when you aren’t feeling motivated to write. But with a strong support system and community of writers around you, they’ll be able to help cheer you on when you need it. And when you’re feeling good and the words are flowing, you’ll be able to return the favor and inspire and motivate other writers.
What’s a good pull goal to get you writing? Let’s knock around ideas in the comments.