Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.
In part six of this series based on Sean D. Young’s bestselling book Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life—for Good, we’re taking a look at the second C in SCIENCE, Young’s acronym for those strategies that lead to lasting change: Captivating.
In Chapter 7 of his book, Young shares a fact that should give us pause the next time we hear the pleasant ping from a cell phone as a new message arrives: Both the casino industry and mobile phone designers make use of insights gleaned from the science of behaviorism to keep us hooked. More specifically, they make use of two principles: the Quick Fix and the Trick Fix.
When you enter a casino, one of the first things you hear is the sound of coins flooding a machine, a reminder that you too can win—that’s the Quick Fix. Of course, the reality is that the table is always tilted in the favor of the house, and you’re more likely to lose money when you walk in those doors than gain it. But casinos engineer their systems to provide a big payout just often enough to keep people coming back. That’s the Trick Fix.
Similar principles are in play when we find ourselves picking up our phones to check email and then falling down the social media rabbit hole. All of those push notifications make it seem like something hugely exciting is waiting for us if we tap the Facebook icon (or, at the very least, that we need to get rid of those notifications before their number gets out of hand). Nine times out of ten, those notifications don’t correspond to anything all that fabulous—but just often enough, there is something truly rewarding there: a note from a friend, a funny meme from a family member, or a comment on our latest blog post. That’s the Trick Fix.
And the Quick Fix? That’s the pleasing array of colors, shapes, and sounds associated with both the phone and its apps, which exhibit what’s known as “persuasive design.”
Young points out that the combination of the Quick Fix and the Trick Fix are captivating, in that they keep us returning to the same behaviors over and over again. And while the principles behind them can be used to manipulate people into forming an unhealthy addiction, like gambling or obsessive scrolling, they can also be used to establish a healthy habit—such as, say, a regular writing practice.
What one person considers rewarding won’t mean much to someone else, so a key part of harnessing the power of Captivating to establish a regular writing practice is understanding what you personally find rewarding. Here are some ideas for how you might do that:
Give Yourself a “Cookie”
The bestselling novelist Jess Walter tells a story about how, early on in his career, when he had small kids at home and was struggling to find time to write, he decided he would get up at the crack of dawn and make it happen. Except that when the alarm went off, all he wanted was to roll over and get a few more ZZs.
His wife came up with a (genius) solution: At the beginning of the week, she’d make a batch of chocolate-chip cookies, and each night, she’d leave one sitting out for him on the kitchen table. That cookie became Jess’s reward for getting up early enough to write, before the chaos of the day began.
Before long, he started to feel excited about getting up early to write, because as soon as he awoke, he knew that cookie was waiting for him. This helped him establish a new habit, by offering him a Quick Fix—and even after his kids got older and he stopped needing that cookie to get motivated, he still enjoys getting up early to write.
If you’re not a fan of sweets (or watching your calorie intake) your “cookie” might be a special cup of top-shelf coffee, a toasty English muffin, or a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice—anything that feels like a little treat for you can do the trick, by helping you look forward to writing.
Reward Yourself for Good Behavior
If you’ve gotten in a groove with a regular writing practice, you’ll likely find that you don’t need that quick fix anymore to get yourself motivated, just like Jess no longer needed that cookie. But eventually, you’ll reach a point where that momentum starts to wane, and this is a great point to reward yourself with a Trick Fix.
Personally, I love to listen to music while writing, so sometimes after reaching a milestone, like completing a full revision of a short story, I’ll give myself a treat by downloading a great album for writing, or creating a dedicated writing playlist for the next leg of my project.
For someone else, that Trick Fix might be getting a new book, or taking a lazy Sunday morning to read, or even just taking the time to go for a long walk and listen to a favorite podcast. Granting yourself small pleasures like these as a reward for staying engaged with the writing process can help to keep you coming back for more.
Share Your Work
Some people get the jitters at the mere thought of standing up on stage and sharing their work, while others love the spotlight. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, sharing your creative work can be hugely rewarding—and in the long slog involved with writing a book-length manuscript, it can help to remind you of what lies at the finish line: real people, and real connection.
If the idea of being featured at a local literary event causes you to break out in hives—or there are no local literary events where you live—you might share your work as part of an online reading series, or even post snippets of it to social media.
However you approach it, having the courage to share your creative work can be both inspiring and galvanizing, and that in turn can help to keep you returning to the writing process, day after day.
If you love to write, the act of doing so is captivating in and of itself—but there will always be times when doing so feels tougher, whether it’s because of the “story problems” you’re wrestling with or because of life getting in the way.
Employing the science of captivating rewards is one of the ways you can keep yourself excited about and engaged with a big writing project, all the way to The End.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She offers a free masterclass, Fiction As a Force for Change, here.