Last week, I was chatting with some friends and lamenting my lack of progress on my latest edits for Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. I had a self-imposed deadline for it that was coming up fast, but I wasn’t getting much closer to being done. I was frustrated with myself because I’m normally pretty good about making myself keep my own deadlines.
And then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t feeling any motivation on this project. I’d given myself a deadline, but I hadn’t affixed a punishment to it. I hadn’t assigned myself a consequence.
It can be hard sometimes to feel like a professional in this trade, especially if you’re not making a working wage and claiming tax exemptions and putting out a new book every two months. Any given project is less likely to make me a dollar than it is to make me yell at my kids because, oh my giddy aunt, how can they always tell when I’m trying to work and know the perfect way to ruin it? *clears throat* Anyway, if the rest of the world isn’t treating you like a professional, it can be hard to think of yourself that way as well. But that kind of thinking can easily nudge writing a little lower on the pecking order of what gets our time and attention and before you know it, you’ve blown half of your project time and aren’t any closer to your goal.
There are lots of ways to combat this struggle. For me, I respond unfortunately well to looming punishment. I assign myself terrible consequences and—here’s the important part—I follow through on them. I once confidently told my friends that I would have a story to them by a certain date and declared that I would run a mile for each day I was late. Yeah. I was eleven days late. I hauled my non-runner-rear down to the track and ran eleven miles in one go, fueled entirely by determination and high fructose corn syrup. It hurt so badly I worried I’d damaged something, and I was wincing and limping for days. But I haven’t missed a deadline since.
Now I’m not suggesting you immolate yourself in retribution for dropping the ball once in a while. (Seriously. Please don’t damage yourself.) But I am suggesting you find the things that motivate you. By leaning into the things that you love/hate, you can amp up the motivation to do a thing that maybe isn’t quiiiite as high on the to-do list as it should be all by itself.
So if this sounds like something that might help you hit those goals a little harder, here are a few ideas for coming up with your own system of rewards and/or punishments.
What is your goal?We’ve talked about making smart goals here before, but just for a very brief recap, make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (aka- has a deadline). Maybe you want to finish an editing pass, or write a single chapter, or enter a short story in a contest. Knowing exactly what you want to do and how you’re going to do it is the first step. Always have a goal. (And when you attain it, make another one! Onward and upward!)
What do you love? These things make excellent rewards. Pick a thing that you really want, or that you really want to happen, that you won’t just go out and get/do for yourself regardless of whether you hit the goal. Just make sure that it fits the size of your goal. Promising yourself a vacation to the Caribbean every time you draft a new scene isn’t very sustainable.
What do you hate? These things make excellent punishments. Pick a thing you don’t want to happen, and that is an appropriate punishment for the crime, but is still mild enough that you’ll actually go through with it. Maybe do a hard workout, or pledge a small donation to a political party you despise, or go sing on karaoke night, or whatever you wouldn’t normally do. But if you won’t hold yourself to it, don’t assign it. Make yourself miserable, but not so miserable that you flake out.
What is a reasonable deadline? As Goldilocks would surely tell us, you don’t want a deadline that’s so ambitious that you have to stop feeding your dependents to achieve it, or so lame-sauce that you won’t have to worry about actually working on it until it’s time to retire. Instead, pick a deadline that’s juuuust right: challenging, but possible if you put in a balanced amount of work.
Who can help you stick to it? Not everyone needs this part. Some people have all the grit ‘n’ gumption they need to make it happen no matter who is or isn’t watching. But then again, not everybody can just will themselves to follow through with their rewards or punishments. If you’re one of those people, grab a buddy! Writing pals, parents, partners, whoever—let them know of your task, your deadline, and what they’re to pressure you into doing at the end of it all.
Once you answer these questions, bring all the elements together into A Plan. Your plan, and those looming consequences shadowing it, will give you that extra burst of motivation to hit that goal out of the park. I know it works for me every time.
After pinpointing my lack of consequences, and therefore lack of motivation, my friends stepped in to help. In short order, they had assigned me a nightmarish punishment (they will deprive me of my ancestral right to piri piri sauce and high quality olive oil and instead make me watch a musical—a musical, people *shudders*) and then—poof!—just like magic, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world.