Psychological Hacks for Writers

Four psychological hacks for writers when The Muse refuses to play. In other words, how to be more productive as a writer. Or how to tame The Muse. In my experience the answer is a mixture of motivation, focus, prioritising, and pacing. There are a limitless number of writing exercises to help bring out creativity but exercises don’t address writer psychology. As writers, there is also a psychological element that can hold us back from reaching our potential.

Confession time…

November was the month I set my mind on writing my novel. My month to prove I am a “real” writer and not a hack. I bombed spectacularly. The universe didn’t get the memo: Tannille is busy — nick off. Instead, I got saddled with appointment after appointment because in Australia many workplaces shut for the Çhristmas period (mid-December to mid-January), so there is always a mad rush for workplaces to get shiz done before Christmas and finish up the year. December rolled along, and I entered a state of depression — I failed at writing in November. I was soooo going to finish that novel like a professional. I wallowed in self-pity and let the doubt take over. Do you hear the violins?

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I Told myself “January”, you know, to get through Christmas and New Year. Then reset my routine because I couldn’t cope with another reset and fail. My writing buddy gave me a guilt trip, “start now”. A bit hard to say “yeah, nah” after he shared a fudged-packed day involving snow, a broken heater, death anniversaries, and a mountain of dog doo ranging from frozen to sloppy. Yet he managed to get words done despite what sounded like the most shite day I have ever heard. So, I got back on that writing horse. I took the Christmas weekend off and worried I would lose my motivation. It turned out fine, and I learnt some tricks to manipulate my mind and muse along the way.

Focusing on One Thought at a Time

There is a lot of BS about motivation. Like there is a magic wand solution and we just need to wave our wand, and poof, willpower will follow. The big issue with motivation techniques is one size does not fit all. I’ve tried planning solutions, investigated what other writers do, and invested in courses — oh yes, I am one of those people. Focus has been a huge issue for me over the past few years. Not the desire to write. More unpleasant appointments and worry repel The Muse. There is a downward spiral. I can see other writers achieving their goals. So what’s wrong with me? I’ve completed manuscripts before. Then I stumbled on this gem of an explanation as to what motivation is.

Motivation is the ability to focus on one thought at a time.

Motivated people are not special, they have just mastered the art of focusing their brains and rejecting the little voice that suggests they go do something else. For example, the alarm goes off in the morning. A “motivated” person only thinks about getting up. The thought of rolling over and going back to sleep is fleetingly present but is rejected, and the “motivated” get up.

Translation for writers: Set aside time to write, bum in chair (or stand if you’re that way inclined), and only think about the project. When the mind wanders (and it will) or intrusive thoughts enter the brain, tell yourself “focus” and direct your brain back to the project. Reread your last sentence if you need to and focus on the words. The method gets easier with practice. Sometimes will be harder than others, accept your brain will throw in other thoughts but know you can push them away for later, “focus”. Once the writing time is up, it’s up. Stopping on time is important because your training your brain how to focus for time periods. Honour the time.  

Bore out The Muse

Some days, the brain will not focus. I know these days well. The sun is out, and the temperature is perfect. The body has ants in the pants syndrome. The urge is to move. Or play. Some days we just want to do nothing. Netflix calls. Just one more episode. It’s not like you can focus, anyway. It’s one of those days. Fixating your attention to the project isn’t happening. Give up. Clean the house. Go for a walk. Clear your thoughts.

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STOP! Procrastination alert!

Even if you are engaging in another to-do task to free time for later, you are procrastinating. You’re giving your brain the option of not working. The brain prefers chores and entertainment over work. The only thing brains hate more than work is boredom. Bore The Muse out. Set your time to write. Stare at the curser. But, do not move. No clicking on the internet or checking the phone. The Muse will come out. It might not be the most productive day, but you are taming The Muse and training your brain. 

Note: Going for walks and cleaning can free the brain when creatively stuck, there is a difference between a tired brain that needs a break and a lazy brain that demands to do other things.

Writing — the First Task of the Day

For several years now, novel writing has become my last priority. Not by choice! Something pressing always seems to pop up. Most of us are juggling too much. Even though novel work is on my daily to-do list, the task always ends up after X, Y, and Z. I freaking hate X, Y, and Z… I don’t really (except for medical appointments) and that’s the real problem, I want to do everything. But, after X, Y, and Z, I am often too tired. Many writers get up an hour earlier to write. Fat chance I’m going to do that. I’m not a morning person. Grumpy and unpleasant… well, more groggy with a slow brain (hey, don’t be rude). Instead of waking up early, my rule is to write as early as possible in the day. It feels great to get words in and the feeling of being productive early in the day is a great motivator. My brain has acclimatised to working mornings rather than evenings. The conditioning took maybe a year of starting my day earlier and getting a head start on X, Y, and Z. If this night owl can do it, so can you. If you can’t do the morning because something came up, that’s ok, just put in time as soon as possible. Even 20 minutes is better than nothing. It keeps the creative wheels turning. My biggest hurdle has been irregular writing habits. The stopping and starting kills my focus and motivation because the story goes cold. It takes more time to warm up again.   

Creative Explosions Lead to Muse Burn Out:
Pace Yourself

Ah, creative explosions are awesome. The Muse is on fire. She drives the motivation to work around the clock. The project is exciting and new… Then it’s not. WTF. The Muse bails on the project and takes the motivation drive with her — beetch… “The Nothing” takes hold. The unfinished story lays dormant. Many writers don’t suffer from The Muse burnout. I do. The highs are fantastic… the lows… FRUSTRATING. That is because when The Muse is on fire, there is a dopamine hit. When there is burnout, the dopamine has vanished. Without the hit, we lose motivation and interest. To break the burst-and-bust cycle, don’t work on any single creative project for more than 2 hours a day. It trains the brain to be creative without the hits. For the better part of a month, I have only been working two hours a day, and so far so good, my output is steady and I don’t feel bored with the novel. I will admit, I cheat a little. If I need to research or plot, I will do it after my 2 hours are done. Researching and plotting are rabbit holes for me and words don’t get done — procrastination baby. The 2 hours are for words only. 


So there you have it. Four psychological hacks that have reined in The Muse; 

  1. Focus on one thought at a time and force intruding thoughts out
  2. Work on the novel for no more than two hours a day
  3. Write as soon as possible each day
  4. When The Muse rather be elsewhere, stare at the blinking cursor

These hacks might not be for every writer. For example, night owls work best at night and not all writers suffer from muse burnout. Some writers swear by the creative bursts and can rapidly pump out a novel over weeks. Others need to treat novel writing like a marathon. Life changes, what works one year might not work the next. At the moment, the psychological hacks are working for me and hopefully will kickstart pumping out novels. Time will tell. 

Are you struggling to rein in your muse? Do you have any psychological hacks to add?

Categories: Writing, Writing Battles

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11 replies

  1. Reblogged this on NobbinBlog and commented:
    I thought I’d share this for anybody who struggles with motivation or focus like anybody who’s not named Stephen King, and maybe even a few who are.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I need to keep this close at hand to read when my focus or motivation wain. Oh shit! I’m not supposed to do that. O.K. I’ll only do so outside of my working hours.

    You’re good at these articles, T. I should read more of them, but then, I wouldn’t be writing.

    Liked by 1 person


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