It’s week seven of our online writing group!
We’re almost finished! It sounds as though everyone has made solid progress on works-in-progress, and that makes me feel warm and gooey. I, myself, have gotten more done with this group than I would have without it, and that makes me feel grateful for all of you who are participating. Thank you!
This week, we welcome Donna, who’s going to pop into the group for our last two weeks. I’ve also got some tidbits about willpower from health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, and later this week, we might have a surprise guest post. (yay! surprises!)
And now, let’s get to the goals.
Week Seven Goals:
- Alena: I’m nearly finished with the short story I’ve been working on; however, I’m burnt out on it. I’ve started a new short story. It’s pretty experimental so I’m not sure it will eventually get published or anything. Nonetheless, it’s been a good writing exercise for me. My goals for week seven are to work on anything. Just write.
- Anne H.: Finish draft of Prince poem on long road trip this next week. I drafted the first half on a road trip a few weeks ago. If I get this done, perhaps I’ll make a guest post for the next writer’s group on writing while driving. I do quite a bit of work while driving, and I’ve learned a few tips which might be useful, especially for those with long commutes.
- Donna: My weekly goal is figuring out a name for my main character and what she desires most.
- Katherine: Last week I did a line edit of 110 pages and made some structure revisions to the end of the book.
This week, I need to make my line edits on the computer. I have thirty pages edited on the computer so far. I am also not entirely happy with the final couple of chapters. I want to take a closer look at those next week.
- Laura: This week I’m going to keep working on revisions to my short story. I’m not ready to start something new, and I’m happy just to keep working on it every day this week. If I need a break, I’m going to investigate the new horror magazine Belladonna Horror for submission guidelines, and then do a bit of brainstorming.
- Lisa: My goal for this week is to revise a story. I need a break from the work I’ve been looking at, so I’m mixing things up this week.
- Matt: This week my focus has gotten even smaller, as I find myself spending greater amounts of time on smaller passages. Sometimes completely restructuring sections for clarity, sometimes just cutting out all the synonyms and dialogue tags. It all feels like a natural pace. The next couple of weeks I have more fewer days away from work so I am just hoping to maintain my momentum.
Meanwhile, I was contacted by my thesis adviser from college, Maxine Scates, who oversaw the original creation of the exact story I’m chipping away on at the moment. Having previously given conditional assent to read a draft of my book, she has now requested that I send her a hard copy. So I am in the process of printing that copy now, and I’m pretty excited to get it into her hands as soon as possible. The version of this story that will be included is already out of date, of course, but there’s nothing to be done about that now. It’s a pretty current incarnation, different from what she read twenty years ago, and will be accompanied by hundreds of pages of stories following the same characters that she saw me develop in the mid-nineties. I feel that her participation in this process will be invaluable, whatever form it takes, and I am unbelievably relieved that she is willing to read this thing.
- Matt the Second: Coming soon…
- Mike: I managed to get through the next four pages of revisions on my short story (out of the five that was my goal) but I didn’t have a chance to publish the blog post as I hoped. For this week, I plan to revise the next five pages of the story and actually finish and publish the blog post.
- Robert: Goal is 7000 words.
- Rosalie: I have a very little bit of work and I will be finished with this project. We will be on vacation next week and I won’t be doing any work but I have set aside Sunday the 24th as my finish date. It has been fun and helpful to be in this group. (And it’s been great to have you!)
- Sarah: Other than a rather organized guest bedroom closet I got nothing done this week. So I am carrying over my previous week’s goals. I am reading a book called Possession, which is inspiring a great deal of thought. Now to capture that in scripts and videos. To the batcave.
Sounds great, everyone!
This week I wanted to talk a bit about productivity. There are so many books and methods and systems out there aimed toward increasing productivity. If you Google the word, you’ll find not only definitions, but lists upon lists upon lists of “tips” from highly productive people. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them just rehash the same-ole, same-ole. Not that keeping to a writing schedule and being accountable are bad — these things are good, and they’re why we’re all here, aren’t they? But we all know that we need to make time for writing, that successful and prolific writers are those who make writing a priority during their day, no matter what. We know this.
But, how do we actually do it?
Like so much else in life, we need to practice: practice using our willpower and self-control in order to strengthen it for the important activities in life, like writing.
Last winter I read a book called The Willpower Instinct, by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, which was much more satisfying than other self-help and pop-science books I’ve read. McGonigal, a lecturer at Standford, used her ten-week willpower seminar as a model for this book, and she recommends looking at each of the ten chapters as a weekly lesson to be thought about and then practiced before moving on. She also uses gobs of psychological studies as the basis for her conclusions and her advice, which I appreciate. (And, yes, “gobs” is a very scientific term. Thank you very much.)
Now, the reason I mention this book is that McGonigal’s thesis resonated with me. Writing each week is not really about creating a tidy work space in your house (sorry, guys), but it is about having the willpower to turn off the t.v., get off your Facebook app, stand up from the couch, and tell your family you need twenty minutes of alone time to write. That. Is. Literally. All. It. Takes.
So why is it so fu@%ing hard?
Well, McGonigal, citing studies from psychologists Roy Baumeister and Matthew Gailliot, among others, writes that “willpower is a muscle you have to build” (McGonigal Ch. 4)*. She uses a “muscle model” of willpower, which likens your self-control to a literal muscle that can be strengthened with targeted practice and exercise. And like all of our other muscles, your “self-control drains throughout the day.” There’s only so much willpower we have to tap into, so if we’re using the same stash to navigate our family, hold productive meetings with work colleagues, eat fewer donuts, and to write more (or write consistently), we might find that there is less and less at the end of the day.
In her third chapter on strengthening our willpower muscle (the fourth chapter of the audiobook), McGonigal writes about Susan, who wanted to start her own business but had to contend with her hour long commute and a ten-hour work day at a demanding job. When Susan got home at the end of the day, she felt too tired to work on her own business plans. She’d been using her willpower up all day long, and it was spent by the time she pulled her car into the garage.
Susan realized, though, that instead of starting her morning at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee, checking her work emails, she would use that same time for her own project. That early morning kitchen table time and space was when she felt clear-headed and full of energy for the day, so why give it up for someone else? She could certainly wait until she got to work to check those emails; she needed to prioritize herself when her willpower was at its strongest.
Clearly, identifying when our willpower is strongest can help us choose when to schedule our own writing time. But that’s not all there is to it: we must also practice using our willpower for small things so that when the time comes and we are supposed to sit down at our writing space, we can actually do it.
This is where Baumeister and Gailliot come in. They aimed to answer the question “could willpower exhaustion simply be a result of the brain running out of energy” (McGonigal Ch. 4). Gailliot used sugar to boost participants’ energy levels, and then looked at how those participants were able to exert willpower. The study’s findings ultimately discovered more about the effects of blood sugar levels on willpower, and supported the scientists’ hypothesis that willpower could be strengthened with exercises in self-control (because mental exercises are a better idea than just eating some sugar every time you need a boost to get some writing done [I’m running an unscientific replication study using Twinkies in an effort to disprove this; I’ll let you know my findings.]).
If the body, and the brain, is out of energy, it may resist exerting extra energy for self-control. And you know that this is true: it’s almost impossible to get out of bed or off the couch if you’ve got a cold or if you’ve had an emotionally taxing day. So how do we strengthen our willpower to make sure we have it when we need it?
McGonigal looked at the Baumeister/Gailliot study, along with others, and found that small exercises can help. She writes that “committing to any small, consistent act of self-control — improving your posture, squeezing a hand-grip every day to exhaustion, cutting back on sweets, and keeping track of your spending — can increase overall willpower” (Ch. 4).
The reason these small acts work is that in order to get into the habit of doing something small, like saying “yes” instead of “yeah,” your brain has to be on alert and then pause before you make the decision. Training your brain for that kind of mindfulness will help you apply it to larger tasks and projects, like your writing.
So these are your jobs this week:
- Identify a time of day when your willpower is at its strongest, and then use that time of day for yourself, even if you’re accustomed to using it for someone/something else;
- And do something small to practice your willpower. You can focus on improving your posture throughout the day, drinking water instead of soda, or eliminating your own verbal tic (saying “um” a lot, consistently using a slang term…). Choose anything you like, just be aware of it and try to adjust it every day this week.
If nothing else, by the end of this week you’ll have some insight into when you’re most motivated to write, and how good your posture is. This information will be useful!
*my citations are for the audiobook, which labels the introduction as “Chapter 1”, so chapter labels in the hard copy will be different
McGonigal, Kelly. How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Gildan Media, LLC, 4 Jan. 2012. Audiobook.
Baumeister, Roy F., Matthew Gailliot, C. Nathan DeWall, and Megan Oaten. “Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior.” Journal of Personality 74:6 (Dec. 2006): 1774 – 1802. Web. 18 Jul. 2016.