Sunday, 10 November 2019

10 psychology-based ways to find your writing motivation: cognitive evaluation, positive reinforcement and incubation effect

Person writing in a notebook

*This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I will gain a small commission if you click on the link + if you decide to make a purchase* 

November is the month of writing, the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. During this month, aspiring writers attempt to create a 50,000-word creative piece. That's one heck of a task! The most difficult aspect of writing relates to finding your motivation. 

You know, consistently engaging in a task, getting in the zone instead of putting off writing to one side. Engaging in any creative pursuit requires great determination. Fear of failure, judgment and imposter feelings are only a few factors that may lead to a reduction in a writer's motivation. 

As a whole, writers also tend to be highly sensitive and affected by negative emotionality and the environments around them. If you are a writer, trying your best to find motivation daily, I am here to help you out. 

In this post, I will describe how to find your writer's motivation by reflecting on useful psychological theories and research, including cognitive evaluation theory, positive reinforcement and the incubation effect. 

What is motivation? 

Simply put, motivation can be seen as the process that maintains your goal-oriented behaviours, like writing. In the context of NaNoWriMo, your primary goal would be to produce the 50,000-word manuscript. The goal that's associated with this, relates to your sense of achievement as a writer. Without motivation, we tend to be in a state of "I can't be bothered with this, I will do it later". Motivation helps to engage you into action. 

According to motivational theories in Psychology, there are two key types of motivation. Motivation has been studied in a lot of depth by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. They helped to clarify the nature and factors of motivation. They argue that it is important to consider motivation type and not just the amount of motivation someone has. According to the researchers, your motivation type or "orientation" can affect your attitudes towards a task. 

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation relates to feeling motivated to act on something because it is enjoyable. For instance, writing because you enjoy writing. Intrinsic motivation is seen as a deeper type of motivation. It is more powerful and has a greater influence on your actions. 

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation relates to feeling motivated to act on something because it gives some additional value to you. For instance, writing because you want to get famous for your work. Extrinsic motivation is all about behaving for an external reward. Another way of illustrating extrinsic motivation is to think of a student who studies merely to get better grades. 

Right, now you have a better understanding of motivation is (mind you, there are far more theories of motivation out there, but I don't want to overload you!), let's explore some ways that can help you find your writing motivation. 

How can you become more motivated as a writer? 

1. Learn to perceive your competence 

As a writer, it is likely that you feel like an imposter. You think that your writing is not good enough compared to more successful people. As a result, it can be difficult for you to perceive your own competence and understand that "you are good enough".  This poses a problem, as competence is a basic psychological need that needs to be satisfied for intrinsic motivation.

Cognitive evaluation theory proposes that greater perceived competence can help to enhance your motivation. When you undermine your performance, your interest in a task subsequently diminishes. For instance, students who are given positive feedback on tasks perform better than students who are given negative feedback. The influence of feedback is explained by students' perception of competence. This means that in order to maintain consistent motivation levels, you need to work on your perceived competence. 

Self-efficacy (your belief to succeed in a task or a specific situation) is extremely important when it comes to your motivation. You can think of your perceived competence as a pillar of your writing motivation. 

Changing your self-perception can take time and determination. If you lack self-esteem, perceiving yourself as a competent writer may feel like an impossible task. You need to track your achievements, put your life in perspective. Don't let that voice inside your head, that keeps criticizing your writing efforts let you down. You are good enough. 

2. Stop overly relying on your inspiration 

When it comes to writing, you need to feel inspired to write. The problem with inspiration is that we don't have inspiration all the time as writers. This is referred to as your writer's block. That moment where the place of ideas in your head is like a dry Sahara desert. When you are experiencing a writer's block, you are more likely to feel frustrated with yourself.

This can significantly influence your motivation to write. As writers, we can get into a state of "I don't know what to write about, so I'm not even going to bother".  This is the wrong attitude to have, you need to stop overly relying on your inspiration. 

Sometimes, it is just a matter of writing, even if it's an automatic stream of consciousness writing. Writing is all about consistency if you reduce your writing consistency, it can become harder to find your motivation to engage in this task. 

3. Become aware of your negative self-comparisons 

You need to become aware of your negative self-comparisons, you know when you start undervaluing your work because other people appear to be far better writers than you. Self-comparisons can become a habit, almost like second nature. When this happens, we tend to stop challenging these thoughts. 

When you are aware that you are engaging in this behaviour, you can take the steps to challenge these comparisons. Negative self-comparisons can impose on your perceived competence. Remember that every writer is an individual and this means that every writer can offer something different to the writing community. 

There is no such thing as a good or bad writer. Writing is subjective, it depends on your reader's taste. Instead of comparing yourself with other people, try your best to enjoy writing as an activity. 

4. Remember to change up your environment 

When you engage in demanding writing project (such as NaNoWriMo), you may feel tempted to barricade yourself inside a room and live a hermit lifestyle. As much as it might seem like a fantastic idea at first, over time you can become stuck and isolated. Isolation, in turn, can give rise to negative emotionality and overthinking. Your environment can become the representation of your negative thoughts. 

It is good to do things differently and get out of your comfort zone. New, fresh environments can stimulate your mental processes. Changing your environment can help you feel more engaged in the writing task, motivating you as a result. 

Sometimes, even tidying your space can be enough. If you are constantly surrounded by mess, your mind can also feel disordered and that's not good for your motivation. 

Open notebook with writing that says don't compare yourself with others

5. Don't forget to reward your writing efforts 

Although I have mentioned that extrinsic motivation is not as influential on your actions compared to intrinsic motivation, it is still important to reward your writing efforts. I suppose it's less about writing for the sake of obtaining rewards, but more about treating yourself with kindness. 

The effect of rewards on behaviour has been examined in behavioural psychology research. You know, the psychology that you associate with rats and salivating dogs. Although behavioural psychology is somewhat reductionist, as it ignores the importance of internal mental processes, it still provides value to understanding the factors of motivation. 

B.F Skinner is an influential behavioural psychologist who has developed a theory based on operant conditioning - using rewards to reinforce behaviour and punishment to reduce it. He proposed that behaviour is reinforced by consequences and these consequences can be good or bad. 

This is where positive reinforcement theory comes to play. Positive reinforcement theory proposes that following a behaviour with a reward (in other words a positive reinforcer) increases the likelihood of that behaviour. 

When it comes to writing, you can reward yourself by treating yourself to something that you enjoy. The reward can take the form of self-affirmation as well. It's all about recognising and appreciating your hard work. Rewards can give you an extra motivational push to write. 

6. Pay attention to your basic human needs 

When it comes to your writing motivation, the first thing above all else that you need to make sure that you are doing is related to your basic human needs. You need to make sure that you are hydrated, filled with energy and comfortable. Are you eating well? Are you sleeping enough? Are you taking after yourself? When you forget to take care of yourself, it can negatively affect your motivation and cognitive processes. 

Abraham Maslow proposed a fundamental theory called the Hierarchy of Needs. The theory depicts human needs in a hierarchical pyramid, where basic physiological needs are at the bottom of the pyramid, followed by safety needs, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation at the very top. Maslow explained that you need to achieve the lower-tier needs before you can proceed with those at higher levels. 

Over time, Maslow realised that this is actually a rigid way of understanding motivation. Instead of being seen as a rigid structure, the hierarchy of needs can be flexible and it depends on you as an individual of how you progress through the pyramid. As a writer, remember to take care of yourself on the physiological level. Motivation will come to you when you are in a healthy shape. 

Maslow's hierachy of needs pyramid diagram

7. Work on eliminating your fear of judgement 

When it comes to writing, you need to make sure that you are writing for yourself and not for other people. When you write purely for other people, you can get lost in fear of judgement. As a writer, you can become easily reliant on what other people think about your work. You need to work on eliminating your fear of judgement, as it can reduce your motivation to engage in writing. 

Remember that the intrinsic form of motivation refers to your internal attitude towards goal-oriented behaviour. Not only fear of negative evaluation can act as a threat to your perceived competence, but it can also diminish your interest in writing as well. 

When it comes to our work, we fear judgment as it is believed to be damaging for our status. This is a completely natural human response rooted in our evolutionary past. In order to reduce your fear of judgement, you need to actively define your own personal worth. 

8. Don't worry about not being in the zone 

When it comes to writing, my motivation is heavily reliant on my ability to focus. You know, I can't ever be motivated if I'm not in the zone. I used to force myself to focus on writing, it was frustrating when I couldn't get myself in the zone for writing. Turns out, you don't need to be focused in order to write. Recent research shows that mind-wandering can be beneficial for your creativity (Baird et al, 2012).

Cut yourself some slack, don't worry if you are not in the zone for writing. Don't worry if you think that you will be easily distracted when you start to write. Use your distractions as a source of creative inspiration. 

When you remove this requirement for careful focus on a task, it will be easier to get motivated, as you will be pressurizing yourself less. It's all about seeing writing as a fun activity rather than a chore. 

9. Take regular breaks from writing 

When you engage in writing, you need to make sure that you take regular breaks. Incubation theory explains that taking breaks is beneficial to your cognitive performance. Studies employing the incubation paradigm, have evidenced that participants who take a break from a task perform more effectively compared to those who don't. 

Incubation (or break taking) results in better solutions to problems. If you write without a break, you might encounter a mental block. Taking a break can help to clear your head. 

10. Regulate your need for perfectionism 

You need to accept the fact that it is unlikely that you will write a best-selling novel overnight. Writing is all about the process and your development as an individual. Perfectionism can impose unnecessary pressures on you. 

You need to stop wanting to be the very best (*cue* the Pokemon theme...). This means that you need to regulate your need to be perfect all the time. 

When you are more chilled out about writing, it will be easier to get motivated. Engage in writing and stop spending your time worrying about whether your work is the best representation of your abilities. 

Wait a minute...I need to share one last thing with you! 

When it comes to writing motivation, my all-time favourite tool that makes my writing life easier is *Grammarly. I used to find it so hard to get motivated to write blog posts, but now I feel like I'm far more productive. 

*Grammarly is a website extension that you can install and it takes minutes! I don't have to worry about double-checking my spelling and grammar anymore, it's brilliant! You can also purchase a premium plan if you want to elevate your writing to the next level (it offers readability analysis, checks for plagiarism and all that jazz!). If you are a writer, whether you write for your blog, as a student or a professional, I definitely recommend installing this tool!

This marks the end of this post on finding your writer's motivation. You have learned more about the types of motivation and some of the psychological theories underlying motivation. I hope that you will find these tips useful. 

Utilize these tips to become more motivated, not only as a writer but in your daily life as well. You can apply these tips to any goal-oriented behaviour. I hope that you have learned useful methods that will help you to get more motivated as a writer. If you are participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you all the best of luck. 

Do you have any motivational tips? If you are a writer, how do you find your writing motivation?

You can follow my blog for more psychology-filled content. You can also follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.  

Pinterest graphic that says how to get motivated to write


  1. Absolutely loved this, and learning the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Thinking back, I find times where I was motivated by either.

    Comparison is a killer of any kind of motivation. Yet it is hard to look at another book and not wish it is yours. At least, it was in the beginning. Now it is much easier to look at what I have written and smile, or perhaps frown and walk away for a couple of days. Taking a break lends itself so well for me to think and come back with fresh eyes.

    1. I'm glad you have learned something new! Hope reading the post will help you with your negative comparisons :) Best of luck!

  2. Such a thorough article, brilliant! I know that for me inspiration comes in clumps, so for a while I'll be able to write like a machine, and then I hit a period of week or 2 when I simply can't produce anything worthwhile. But when I know that, I make sure I have extra posts "in stock" that I can publish when I give myself a little break before I find inspiration again.

    1. Hey Teresa, I'm glad that you found the article useful! I am the same as you, my inspiration does seem to come in clumps as well :) Inspiration is all about experiencing the world, so keep your eyes peeled, even little human situations can be inspiring :) Thanks for reading!

  3. Thanks, I needed this today.

  4. I absolutely agree on these. A lot of what keeps me from writing is starting to write and all of the self-doubt that comes with it. It's always a hill to climb, and then once I start writing, that all goes away, and I focus on the task at hand until it's out in the world.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this! I'm a baby writer (just finished the first draft of my very first manuscript) and this was such an insightful read! I learned so much about a lot of the behaviors I exhibited while I was writing, and what I should look out for going forward. Thanks!

  6. I never thought so seriously about the subject of the letter, but after reading your article I discovered a lot of new and incredibly interesting.


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