Your Circus. Your Monkeys. How Writers can Leverage the Power of Self-Motivation
This morning was an ideal start of my day as a self-employed writer.
Heads down, no nonsense, words on paper for two hours using an online library of research material and notes, followed by the daily battle with emails and the joy of connecting with pals around the world through four social media channels.
The strange thing is, I didn’t even stop to think about how I was going to use the technology and tools available to me, to transform thoughts and ideas into words and then share them.
I simply grabbed on tight to the energy of the moment and let the flow take me where it wanted.
Because of course, not all days start this way.
There are some precious and rare mornings when we wake up with a spring in our step, bursting with energy and excitement about the amazing things that we are going to experience that day. We cannot wait to get started!
But then there are the other kind of days, when we could happily pull the covers back over our heads and forget about getting up at all. It is only the threat of poverty or social media photos of what we look like collecting the kids from school, while still wearing our pyjamas, that forces us into a sluggish form of action.
Why can’t we hold onto that enthusiasm and apply it to every project?
Surely we don’t want to sink into that feeling of self-loathing that comes with lethargy and procrastination?
Self-Motivation – What’s that all about?
We all know about motivation, don’t we? After all, fiction writers spend hours working on the motivation and background histories for the characters in our books.
The psychology of our personal motivation is quite different but equally important.
One key aspect is whether we believe that we are in control of our lives and our careers.
“Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control, and that we are moving towards goals that are meaningful. It’s that feeling of self-determination that gets us going. You have to have a crystal clear understanding of the deep internal motivation. This is fundamental. If you don’t know what your motivation is, you will struggle to maintain your work when things get tough.” Charles Duhigg
This concept that we each have the power to control and create the future that we want is at the heart of self-motivation.
Self-Determination Theory is a broad psychological framework used to study human motivation and personality.
The theory focuses on three basic psychological needs which can be described as:
#1. Autonomy and Self-Empowerment. You are able to express yourself freely and make your own decisions about what matters in your life. You have the luxury of choice about what you do and how and where you do it.
#2. Competence and Self-Efficacy. You have the necessary time, skillset, knowledge and training to carry out any task you want to complete and master it.
#3. Relatedness. This has to do with the relationships we have around us with our loved ones, friends and social groups. Our support structure and human connection is important and shouldn’t be neglected.
If any of these three psychological needs is missing or unsupported, then self-determination theory tells us that we won’t be able to become fully self-motivated.
Using the Power of Self-Determination to Drive Self-Motivation
Consider the key aspects of this framework.
- Do you feel that you have full control and are deeply motivated about what projects to work on?
- Do you feel fully invested and in control of whatever project you are working on and know that you can own it and drive it forwards?
- When you start work on a project have you ever felt that you did not know what you were doing and did not have the skills to complete it or the will to learn those skills?
- Do your family and friends support you in your work as a writer? Do you have a network of pals who understand why you do what you do and are there for you?
If the answer to any of those questions made you sigh out loud and shake your head, then you are not alone.
The key thing to realise is that you can become self-empowered and develop rock-solid confidence in your abilities and your future purpose-led life.
Change Starts from the inside out.
Mindset Exercise: The Virtual Plank Test
In his book, The Now Habit, Neil Fiore describes a thought experiment where he invites us to use our imagination and carry out a simple test. I have shamelessly borrowed the concept and adapted it for this example.
Here is the task. All you have to do is walk down a flat, safe, solid wooden board which is four inches thick, a foot wide and maybe three or 4 four feet long. It will not warp or twist when you walk on it.
Situation One: Place the wooden board flat on the floor.
You can skip, run, and hop, salsa if you want, but you have to walk down the entire length of the board from one end to the other.
It only takes a few seconds. No stress. No problems. All good.
This board represents the two rough pages that you are going to write today over coffee, tea of your favourite beverage. Two sides of paper are about 500 words depending on the size of your paper and your writing style.
Situation Two: lift the board and prop it up with a solid block under each end of the board, so that the board is about 12 inches off the ground and you have to step up to stand on it.
The 500 words are now the synopsis for a new story idea which you have to submit tomorrow to an editor so that they can approve a new contract.
Don’t forget. You can take one step back down onto the floor at any time.
How do you feel about the board now? Um?
Maybe you should change your shoes? Or wait until someone is around to hold your hand, in case you fall those 12 inches.
But you can do it. It took a long time to build up the courage but it was actually not too bad.
Situation Three: We lift the board and prop it across two solid chairs at hip height.
How do we feel about that walking down that solid piece of wood now?
Those 500 words are the submission letter to a famous literary agent or a query letter to a big publisher. Who might reject you! Or might even find out that you are a fraud and an imposter?
Now all you are thinking about is the fear of falling and the distance between the board and the hard floor, and the potential outcomes from stepping onto the chair and then walking down that plank of wood.
- If you fell off you could hurt yourself. Even getting up there to try is a mistake.
- If you break your ankle you wouldn’t be able to drive or walk the dog or go to work or…
What is Nina thinking?
I am thinking that we are now totally focusing on the fear and imagining the worst case scenario for the outcome, and all of the negative feelings around those poor outcomes.
The task is still 500 words and the equivalent of two pages.
You probably text and email more than 500 words every day without thinking or worrying, because you have not layered and associated those words with a particular negative feeling or end result.
So what happens in real life?
We stand on the edge of the board, tottering back and forth, but too frightened to take that first step onto the board to get across – until something pushes us forwards.
The deadline for a contest or a submission deadline is next week and the book has been sitting there for months.
There is a fire burning behind your back and the only way to escape the flames is to somehow get across this board to the other side. There might even be someone pushing you.
You have to do it. No choice. It is too late to do anything else. The time pressure is enormous and you have run out of options.
So you get down onto your knees and grab onto the board, close your eyes and inch your way along the board, ignoring the fiery pit beneath you, praying to your choice of deity that you can make it across in one piece.
So of course you do the work, but at 2am on a school night.
At the end you feel exhausted and deflated because you got the job done just in time.
But was it your best work?
Was it a true reflection of your talent and skill?
Probably not. You are emotionally exhausted, and it certainly was not a positive experience.
You have just created a negative memory associated with that task.
So what happens next time you are in the same situation?
That negative memory kicks in and you feel even less likely to get started.
This cycle of negative associations with your work will continue unless you do something to break the loop and replace that negativity with a positive emotional experience.
Stakes and outcomes mean that context is everything
All of the fear is about the context our brains create around the simple task of writing those 500 words.
So what happens when we are faced with a big task such as writing a book or submitting our work to a literary agent or publisher?
Anxiety. Fear. Terror!
This is when we step back from a great idea, because we are afraid of future negative consequences.
So we self-sabotage. To keep safe. To protect ourselves from rejection and failure, or huge success, which can be pretty scary too.
So we watch TV or videos of kittens on YouTube and spend hours on social media instead, kidding ourselves that this is “research”.
It is way too easy to go backwards when we hit that brick wall of a challenge where something does not work as we had expected, and the constant chipping away at our self-confidence finally creates a hole where self-doubt and fear can slip inside.
All we can hear is the negative brain chatter telling us that we are fools for even trying.
Even worse, that failure feeds into a cycle of more self-doubt.
The project feels doomed and no longer worth out time, so we turn to another idea, which has not been contaminated with the feelings of failure and frustration.
Only the cycle repeats itself until we give up entirely, exhausted and demoralised.
So how do you build a fantastic solid bridge across the valley of death underneath that virtual wooden board?
You find something which is bigger and more powerful than the fear, and it lies on the other side of that bridge.
The bridge is made up from the solid foundations of your deep internal motivation, your mojo and your personal power and drive.
“The bigger the why, the easier the how.” Jim Rohn
You are going to stride out across the bridge.
And below you can hear the screams of all the people who are lying on their death beds and full of regret and bitterness that they never told that person they loved them, and never wrote that book which was their hearts’ desire.
They allowed fear to take control of their life.
And now it is too late to be the person that they knew in their hearts that they were meant to be.
You are going to focus on what you want and you are going to want it so badly that you it will pull you across that bridge, no matter how high it is above the ground, by the power of positive energy and enthusiasm and passion.
You can push through anything if you know and understand what you want to achieve a specific objective. Nothing is going to get in your way – including yourself!
You become the best version of you.
You are going to find your deep purpose and use it like a James Bond jetpack to power you across that bridge. Legs akimbo, skirts or trousers in the air.
That doesn’t matter, because you have taken the control back from fear.
Now you have the power to create the life and career you want. You already have everything you need to make it happen.
Your monkeys. Your circus. You are the ringmaster. Let’s get this show on the road!
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