Motivation is a Mechanism in your Brain

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone weasel their way out of the creative life by saying they don’t “feel inspired,” I could quit my day job. Others will go days, weeks, or even months without picking up their pencil to work on a new drawing.

If you are comfortable with this lack of production, that’s entirely acceptable. For most, there is no moral imperative to keep creating artwork. We often place unrealistic stress on ourselves to “produce,” and the goal of this blog post is certainly not to shame others for their lack of consistency.

But at times, most of us find that we do wish we were more motivated. We hem and haw and wait for the moment that inspiration will strike. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation.

Most people think that the chain of events that leads to the accomplishment of something goes like this:

Motivation>Task>Task>Task>Completion

Since the first domino never falls, they don’t begin their first task, and they make no headway in their creative life.

We tend to think of motivation as an abstract concept, like that of the Muse. In reality, we can easily dupe our brain into providing “motivation” through simple physiology.

The neurotransmitter most associated with motivation in the brain is dopamine. Simply put, when your brain needs to get things done, signaling of dopamine occurs, and you feel the compulsion to complete a task. This is why people all across the world guzzle coffee each morning, desperately trying to tap into this physiological reaction in the brain.

Endogenous dopamine, (that is, dopamine naturally occurring in the brain,) can actually be utilized in a much simpler way. Numerous studies have shown that ticking a task off your To-Do List, no matter how simple or trivial, activates this neurotransmitter.

In much the same way that strength-training tells your brain that it needs to grow more muscle, completing a task tells your brain that you’ll need more dopamine.

So, in actuality, the chain of events that leads to productivity goes like this:

Task>Motivation>Task>Motivation>Task>Completion

Have you ever wondered why on some days, you’ll get into a rhythm and clean your whole house in a whirlwind, while on other days, you can barely muster up the strength to do anything but watch TV on your couch?

This is why.

It’s the same rationale that leads countless self-help experts to advise people to start their day with the simple act of making their bed. These “gurus” know that by accomplishing one menial task, you’re cascading a series of events in your brain that will likely lead to the completion of many more.

So, what’s the secret? An incredibly simple one: any time you’re feeling unmotivated, complete one miniscule task, and give yourself permission for that to be the end of it. Tell yourself, “I’ll just sharpen my pencils to prepare them for the next time I’m ready to draw,” or “I’ll open up my Word Processor and just jot down three ideas for a short story.”

Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through drawing or writing your next masterpiece.

Five Quick Tips to Beat Writer’s Block

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I’m convinced every living writer has at least one shared experience: staring at a blinking cursor on a word processor, entirely unsure of how to proceed. And although writer’s block might be the plight of every wordsmith, there are a few tips and tricks that help to keep it at bay. Here are five techniques I’ve recently put into practice to stop procrastinating and start writing:

1. Practice Mindfulness Meditation to eliminate “White-Room Syndrome”

White-Room Syndrome occurs when you haven’t added enough sensory detail to help your reader adequately imagine a scene’s setting. Instead, it gives off the impression that all the action and dialogue is occurring in a “white room.” It’s important to note that in terms of description, quality beats quantity. You don’t need to pad your chapter with blocky purple prose and lush description. Instead, your description should match the content of your book. Consider, for instance, the sparse, austere description employed in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In such a novel, a Tolkien-esque description of flora and fauna would hardly be appropriate.

In order to combat white-room syndrome, writers can utilize a pretty simple trick. Prior to writing, immerse yourself in a 15-minute mindfulness-meditation session. When you’ve tuned your brain to soak up all sensory input, you’ll be better able to draw on your five senses and write compelling settings. This can be easily coupled with the next exercise, which is to… 

2. Shower, as it’s a Poor Man’s Sensory Deprivation Tank

Have you ever noticed you strike upon some of your best ideas while in the shower? Did you ever stop to wonder why that is? The concept here is simple. The shower acts as a sort of poor man’s sensory deprivation tank, drawing out your inner-thoughts more easily. While showering, your eyes are typically shut (or at least they have access to the unexciting images of a tiled wall,) your tactile senses are stimulated by the hypnotic drizzle spouting from your showerhead, and the running water creates a steady white-noise that drowns out conversations or the television in the other room.  

The net effect of being in a shower is that you’re keeping all of your senses busy with a static input. This allows you to focus inward, and can greatly improve your creative powers. When you’ve turned down the dial on all of your senses, so to speak, the volume of your mind is turned up and your brain can go out and play.

3. Create “Stand-ins” for Characters

If you’ve got a great concept for a scene, but you haven’t yet fleshed out your characters, an easy way to commit that scene to paper is by using a “character stand-in.” Get a rough approximation of the type of person your character is, and then substitute the closest analogue you can find from fiction. You can always go back and add nuance later.

Need an unflappable leader who eschews the rules for your suspense thriller? Pretend Captain Kirk from Star Trek is facing the same problems as your main character, and make him react accordingly. Do you want the protagonist of your Rom-Com to be a man who uses humor as a defense mechanism? Write the first chapter from the perspective of Chandler Bing from Friends.  You get the idea.

4. Use Word Association (with music)

Simple word association has been a staple in my writing arsenal for years. If I am truly at a loss as to where to begin writing, I put on some music, pace around, and let my brain off its leash. You can do this by either latching on to a lyric and “giving the horse its head” when it comes to your thoughts, or you can literally sit in front of a word-processor and type in stream-of-consciousness everything that comes into your brain. Personally, I find that physical movement helps loosen up my thought patterns, but your mileage may vary.

5. Try Word Sprints

This is an idea that first appeared to me in 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox. As the name of said book implies, Chris’ creative output is astronomical. The idea here is simple: you set a timer, sit down to write, and don’t allow yourself to stop or become distracted until after the alarm has sounded. This exercise is absolutely a numbers game: by measuring how many words you write, you can set lofty goals as you gradually increase your word-count. In his book, Chris delves into alternative methods to up the ante, such as using dictation softwarebut these are optional.

Threescore Years and Ten of Writer’s Block (poem)

To quote the infinite monkey theorem: if you were to
be one of a million monkeys at a million typewriters
or keyboards, spread across eternity, time constraints
not-with-standing, you would eventually put
to ink the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s work.
Be certain of that.

That is what worries me, though–that the theorem
is correct; that the typewriter is my own; that I’m
the lone monkey in
question.

Errant Thoughts

My muse didn’t stop by my house today. She couldn’t work up the motivation, because her muse didn’t visit her. Turns out, my whole creative process is predicated on one muse inspiring another muse inspiring another muse, and now my lack of creative output makes sense.

Still, I have a responsibility to put some ink on the page, irrespective of quality. Because, as it were–

They do not serve who stand and wait, if those who stand could’ve served.

Talking Shop: Overcoming Writer’s Block

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

No ailment vexes wordsmiths across the globe like writer’s block. At one point or another, it haunts the steps of all who dare to pick up the pen and scribble down their thoughts.

If I could prescribe one antidote to the scourge that is writer’s block, it’d probably be this: Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and call me in the morning.

The War of Art (titled, of course, as a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) is a call to arms for artists everywhere, imploring them to utilize self-discipline to overcome the self-sabotage that so many creative-types fall victim to.

It’s no coincidence that the book utilizes a lot of war imagery. Pressfield is a former Marine who draws on that selfsame level of tenacity and grit to win his creative battles.

In Pressfield’s book, he suggests that we label all of our self-defeating behaviors and thought-patterns as “Resistance.” This Resistance keeps us from fulfilling our ambitions, whether they include finishing a novel, beginning an oil-painting, or opening a self-made business.

Pressfield suggests we re-purpose our “Resistance” and self-doubt as a sort of compass.

If there’s a creative pursuit that we feel disinclined to start, Pressfield argues, that’s precisely the project we should dive headfirst into. In such a way, we can overcome obstacles in creating art.

Others advocate a less militant approach to overcoming writer’s block. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

The implication here is that artists should steal away, sneaking in a few minutes when they can. They should look at their creative processes with an ever-changing, new perspective. This approach brings to mind experimenting, squeezing in a time for writing whenever possible, and embracing the spontaneity of the creative process. In some ways, it almost seems diametrically opposed to  Pressfield’s approach.

Still, I don’t think either perspective is wrong.

Simply put, each writer must come up with their own method for overcoming creative obstacles. For some, that means a well-regimented routine. For others, it means writing when you can. Which rings most true for you? Or do you subscribe to a different method entirely?