No Motivation or Willpower? A Simple Solution

Motivation is a great thing to have, but note this: it’s unreliable. And because it’s unreliable, motivation is NOT a good strategy for making change in your writing life.

Motivation to write comes and goes. I love when it’s there. I love that “can’t wait to get to the keyboard” feeling about telling a story. I had it yesterday, as a matter of fact. Today a headache and list of unexpected “to do” items have derailed my motivation to get into the writing zone.

Willpower? Won’t Power!

The only alternative seems to be using willpower, but that’s a limited resource. You might start the day with a full tank of willpower. If nothing siphons off any of it, by the time you get to your writing, you can look at your goal and be determined. You can use that willpower to write those 2,000 words or whatever your big goal for the day includes.

But many things can use up willpower. Maybe before your writing time–which for many writers is later in the day–you have wrestled with a big decision. Or you went to the gym when you really didn’t want to. And you forced yourself to be pleasant to the clerk who wouldn’t get off her smartphone to wait on you. (Or you dealt with an obstinate toddler all morning.) We use bits and pieces–or big chunks–of willpower throughout the day. If you have little left when your writing time rolls around, you will look at your goals list (“write tomorrow’s blog post,” “outline chapter three,” “write 1,000 words”) and go to the fridge instead.

What’s the Answer?

Counting on motivation to help build good writing habits will give you mixed (and often disappointing) results. Feeling motivated is wonderful, but it is more of a bonus that you can’t count on. Motivation, based on your feelings, comes and goes. It can be affected by anything: low energy, headaches, rejection of any kind, you name it. If you base your writing success on being motivated, it will be very on-again-off-again. It won’t be the daily habit you want that will make you the most productive, help you grow the most, and let you truly enjoy your writing.

So, is it hopeless? No! You can count on writing habits.

As Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, said,

when you’re not motivated to do something, the “willpower cost” skyrockets. And when willpower cost is high, it makes it difficult for you to sustain a behavior over time (and build it into a habit).

Remember: willpower is limited. And I know from many years’ experience that if you grit your teeth with the Nike slogan on your lips (“Just do it!”), you’ll be productive and get sick. Not the happy solution you’re looking for.

For years, I believed those were my only options. I’d work hard to pump myself up with motivation. And when the motivation sagged, I’d invoke the willpower. And when I was low on willpower, I’d push harder and “just do it.” And then I’d get sick (sometimes from gorging on too much sugar, a dead-end in itself.)

Mini-Habits Trump Motivation and Willpower

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s blog, Not Enough Willpower to Reach Your Goals? Make Mini Habits!, creating mini-habits takes care of both problems (no motivation and low willpower). It is almost bizarre how our minds play tricks on ourselves. For days my goal was “write at least 2,000 words.” I just couldn’t get started. Each day had a different reason, but I didn’t feel motivated, I didn’t want to do the work to get motivated, and my willpower was low.

But when I switched to mini habits with mini goals, it all changed. My mini habit of “write 50 words” has consistently gone over the goal (and often over the 2,000 mark). It takes me so little willpower to get started if I only have to do 50 words and can quit. (That’s maybe 5-10 minutes of writing.) I still kept the goal at 50 words. [NOTE: My goal this morning was just to write 50 words for the blog--I'm up to 829 so far and not tired. But when I feel resistance kick in, I quit.]

Most important, I am building in my writer’s brain the idea that I write daily. I am also building the idea that getting started is easy. That might not sound like much, but it’s an area that has perplexed and depressed me much of my writing career.

A Simple Solution

Even if this sounds too simple, I urge you to try “mini habits” if a consistent writing life is a problem. Use tiny bits of willpower for mini goals. Realize that you can write every day, and often more than you intended. That will make you feel motivated from the inside fairly often. But even when you don’t feel motivated to write, you will know it doesn’t matter. Motivation is a bonus, but not necessary, because by then you will be in the writing habit.

And as we all know, writers write. That just means that writers have the habit of writing, plain and simple.

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8 Responses to No Motivation or Willpower? A Simple Solution

  1. Karin Larson says:

    Terrific advice, Kristi! I believe “mini habits” may just be what I need to get back on track! Thank you!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Karin, I’m glad you’re open to trying it. I have loved them! These last two days I was gone and home late both times, but I was able to keep up my (now) six mini habits. I didn’t move any project forward a lot, but I was able to keep track of where I was and tomorrow (when I have all day) I won’t have to sit there and try to figure out where I left off–or try to motivate myself into getting a huge chunk done. Feels good!

  2. Kristi, a writer friend just told me about this post when I mentioned being so tired and not keeping up my writing. She takes your advice and it works for her, so … thank you for sharing about mini-habits – a great idea! Bite-sized goals are much easier to take on, and something I really must do for myself.
    I am going to link to this post in my next blog post because I know it will be helpful to my readers.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Lynn, I’m glad you found the idea helpful, and I hope it is as much help to you as it has been to me and the mini habits groups I ran last year. My past two years have been rather a roller coaster of family and health events, and without the mini habits, I would have totally lost any momentum with my work (and missed deadlines too, I know.) Thanks for writing! You can tell by the scarcity of posts this year that something had to give, but the mini habits kept me writing my books and meeting each deadline. I have his book, also the ebook, and also the mini habits online course with videos. All are great.

  3. I forgot to mention that I added your statement “… writers write. That just means that writers have the habit of writing, plain and simple.” to my quotes page on my blog.

    Thank you for replying to my comment, Kristi. I certainly understand about family and health events, being a caregiver for a family member for 5 1/2 years now – and continuing. Although I try to keep my blog current, and I am writing stories for picture books and have an unfinished novel, I know I’m slacking more and more. I have to get myself into the frame of mind that writing a few words a day is writing and, therefore, success. Thanks again.

    • kwpadmin says:

      You’re very welcome, Lynn. My heart goes out to you as you give care to your family member. Of all the things I’ve seen writers struggle with, that one almost tops the list for difficulty and long-term stress. Maybe that’s the book for writers you could write! There are sure a lot of people out there who could identify with you! Bless you and your writing.

  4. I love this method of getting things done. When I taught goal setting workshops I encouraged participants to take baby steps toward their goals. Huge goals, like writing a novel, are too intimidating. By breaking it down into baby steps, all goals are possible. Mini habits is a great extension of that idea. Love it!! Yes, writers write! A good mantra.

    • kwpadmin says:

      And oh, some days a mini goal is all I can tackle, Darlene! It often grows into more since getting started is the hardest part, but when I know that I only have to write 50 words instead of 2500 words, I can get it written!

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