Friday Motivation Tip

Whenever you embark on any goal or process — especially one that may not yield immediate results, such as learning a new skill, losing weight or writing a book — you can start off with a blast of determination but find that you falter when you hit a plateau or a roadblock.  In small things, you can often pull yourself through the plateau (or over the obstacle) with gritted-teeth discipline and from force of habit.  I hate going to the grocery store, but with my trusty list (habit), knowledge of the store layout (habit) and understanding that we’ll starve if I don’t put something in the cupboards next to the cans of Ghirardelli hot chocolate (this is one thing I never allow myself to run out of), I manage to accomplish the shopping every Monday (habit and discipline).  Although, in truth, it is sometimes Tuesday or Wednesday before I can force myself to do it.     


On the other hand, I like to cook.  I have no problem chopping and sauteing and broiling.  Nothing is more enjoyable to me than trying to figure out how to make a meal out of a handful of crackers, three onions and a chunk of cheddar.  I have a friend, on the other hand, who would run screaming from the kitchen if you gave her that challenge.


My point, and I do have one, is that while we can accomplish things through the establishment of habit and discipline (I haven’t starved yet) that doesn’t mean we’re particularly motivated to do the thing (i.e., go grocery shopping) and if something else more interesting crops up, we are pretty darned likely to do that instead.  


I recently had conversations with two writers who were feeling a bit lost and unmotivated.  Both were in the process of writing book proposals.  This is a process that can make even perfectly sane people go stark raving mad.  So, people look for motivation to help them do it.  They set deadlines or ask me to, set timers or ask me to, force themselves to slog through the process, develop useful butt-in-chair habits and invoke steely-eyed self-discipline.  And still they find themselves doing everything but working on their proposals.  How, oh how, they ask, can they get motivated?


I think they’re asking the wrong question.  At the end of the day, if you really want to write the book, you’ll write the book.  Or at least the proposal for it.  So the question they should be asking is, Why don’t I have the motivation to write the proposal, if it’s so important to me? 


The most common reasons I see are:

* the person doesn’t believe he/she can write the book

* the person makes the book and/or proposal an all-or-nothing proposition

* the person is unwilling to commit without guarantee of a reward


Discipline and habit aren’t going to help overcome these motivation-stoppers.  What might is to stop weighing the process down with so much baggage.  One of the afore-mentioned struggling writers said to me, “I really believe this book is it.  Either it appeals to editors and I make a success of it, or I’m going to have to stop trying to be a writer.”  Which is ludicrous, but she believes it’s true.  Until she stops believing it, of course she’s going to have trouble finishing the proposal.  She’s made it into a do-or-die situation — but wait, if she doesn’t do, then she doesn’t fail, and she doesn’t die.  So obviously she’s better off not doing the work.  Which is all backwards.


The other writer was already discouraged before she even got her first round of rejections.  Before she’d even written her first word.  “I know it’s impossible to get published, and it’s even more impossible to get an agent, so I don’t even know what the point is.”  Well, wow.  Neither do I, I guess.  There’s no pep talk in the world that can overcome that kind of belief.


If you need a little motivation to move forward on your current project, stop telling yourself why you can’t do it, why shouldn’t do it, and why only one outcome is acceptable.  Give yourself a break.  If this proposal or project doesn’t succeed, maybe the next one will.  If you’re afraid of wasting time with no guarantee of a reward, ask yourself how that investment in watching Lost is paying off for you. 


Most of all, please don’t make this any harder than it has to be.



  1. Your list of "reasons for stalling on proposals" reminds me of a favorite point from David Allen's book "Getting Things Done." He talks about procrastinating on completing things on to-do lists, and asserts that we are likely to put things off if we don't list tasks as clear, describable, specific ACTIONS. Listing tasks as completed results, whether "write book proposal" or "do taxes" doesn't trigger a clear image in our brains of what, exactly, we need to be do in order to complete the task.

    For me, in book proposals that dynamic tends to operate in spades, because the world of agents and publishers seems so incredibly vague and nebulous when we try to imagine what, exactly, a proposal should be. I've had the experience of doing complicated proposals and getting agent responses that tell me nothing more than "it's a good idea but it's not what they need." (Well, then, what DO they need? No reply, as a rule.) Citing another book that sold well, particularly an entirely different kind of book, with a "make it more like that" is not generally helpful.

    So like with Allen's task list, I have no clear sense of what, exactly, I'm supposed to write to please an agent who may not know herself what she's wanting. "I'll know it when I see it" is really a poor substitute for an instruction manual.

    I don't know that there's a solution, but I do think this explains my own choking at the thought of doing another proposal.

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