When you’re stuck in a writing rut it can feel hopeless—we know, we’ve coached thousands of writers over the years at Prolifiko—but you are capable of transformation and improvement and it all starts with understanding more about your brain. Everyone falls into bad habits and writing is no different. But neuroscientists tell us that your brain is plastic–your behaviour can change. Bad habits can turn into good ones but only if you take action.
Here’s how with our five most popular neuroscience-powered writing tips:
Make writing something you want to do: Visualise the future
All too often, when you think of writing, you think of it as something you really should do.
But when you do this, you associate writing with negative emotions and you’re reminding yourself how tough the writing process can be – and this means you’ll be less likely to do it.
To make writing something you want to do, neuroscientists tell us that you need to reframe how you think and start associating it with positive things that please the pleasure centres in your brain.
Try this >>
Create a list of 20 to 50 super-positive things that will happen when you complete your writing project. The exercise shouldn’t take long – it should be a rapid-fire brainstorm. Ask yourself:
- How will you feel when you see your book published or hold it your hands?
- What opportunities might it open up for you and your family?
- Will you win prizes, get a promotion or a pay rise? Think big!
Write down as many tangible thoughts, feelings and positive outcomes as you can.
Researchers say that creating positive visions of the future – thinking about your future success – releases dopamine into your brain which makes us feel happier and so, more motivated to start.
Make writing more habitual: Find your writing trigger
Trying to find the time to write (rather than actually writing) can be depleting and stressful. The key to making writing a normal and natural part of your day – rather than something you struggle to make time for – is to make it more habitual.
Neuroscientists tell us that habits have cues and you can develop your own trigger to write by formulating a ‘when-then’ plan – a simple technique you can use to make writing more routine-like and so, less stressful.
Try this >>
Think of an activity you regularly do without much thought – like commuting, eating, taking the dog for a walk, arriving home or having a morning coffee. Think of actions that give you a small pleasure.
Now, make one or more of those activities the trigger for your next writing session – using this ‘when-then’ formulation:
- When I get home from the school run, then I’ll do 30 minutes of writing.
- When I have my first coffee of the day, then I’ll write 500 words of my article.
- When I get home from work, then I’ll spend 45 mins on my book.
Try to make the plan as specific as you can, so: “when I get home in the evening, before I start watching TV, then I’ll spend 30 minutes writing.”
Research teaches us that when you fuse together an action, you do regularly with an action that you want to do more of, you strengthen the neural pathways in your brain.
Soon it will feel weird not to write while you enjoy your 11am latte!
Make writing less overwhelming: Go in small steps
Have you ever started a new writing routine or fitness regime only for it to fail a few days later?
Neuroscientists say that when you take on something that’s too ambitious or too complicated, you can trigger your brain’s fear centre (the Amygdala) and this can lead to overwhelm, procrastination and delay.
But when you start super-small – not thinking about the writing project as a whole but just the next thing you can achieve – you can tip-toe past your mammal brain without setting off any alarm bells.
Try this >>
Think through how you could start small – here’s some examples:
- Show up at your desk once a day at a set time and even if you don’t do any writing – reserve that time solely for writing and nothing else.
- Write for 10-15 minutes each day and slowly increase the time the over the course of two weeks.
- Produce a piece of freewriting every day (an unblocking technique where you splurge your thoughts without judging or editing).
- Write in a journal every morning or evening.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. Get yourself a timer and find somewhere you can’t be interrupted, set it for 25 minutes. Write. Then, take a five-minute break. Set the timer for another 25 minutes.
Make it more likely you’ll meet your goals: Think bright!
Your brain is always on the look-out for things that might cause you stress, discomfort or effort – it wants to protect you at all costs. When it comes to setting your goal and carving out time in your day to write – don’t make it effortful.
Scientists have dubbed these kind of goals ‘bright line goals’ and they’re effective because they’re clear and unambiguous. You know instantly when you’ve stepped over a bright line which reduces the amount of mental effort required to put the rule into practice.
Try this >>
- If you aim to always write on a Monday and on a Thursday after work, it becomes crystal clear when you miss a day.
- If you know that Saturday morning is your writing time, it becomes obvious to you (and to others) when you don’t do the writing.
Bright line goal setting works because it makes adopting new routines less effortful and stressful which in turn means they don’t signal the sirens in your brain’s fear centre.
Bonus Tip 5!
Make It More Likely You’ll Keep Going: Give Yourself Rewards
Don’t just stop at taking away the effort and stress of writing; make it something you look forward to by using rewards.
Neuroscientists teach us that rewards are important to keep us going when the writing is tough. When you give yourself small rewards, you trigger your brain’s pleasure centres and this means that your writing habit will be more quickly embedded.
Try this >>
- Ask yourself, what small reward could you give yourself after your next writing session?
- Don’t make your reward too big or too tiny, make it something small that you would look forward to receiving (or eating!) after a writing session.
- Remember to always reward the effort you’ve put in, not the quantity of writing.
Ready to get brain positive?
Neuroscientists teach us that two of the most important aspects of our brain’s structure are its reward centres and its fear centres.
Our reward centres help us to maximise contact with things that are good for us whilst our fear centres minimize contact with things that are bad for us.
Knowing about both can help us understand how we develop habits and routines, why we become overwhelmed and how we can start using both to feel better about writing and adopt positive behaviours into our lives.
Big thanks to Dr Gabija Toleikyte, neuroscientist and business coach at University College London for her expertise and early inspiration for this post.