How to Write Without Motivation

credit: Mike Lewis,

credit: Mike Lewis,

Confession: I have no motivation to write or do any kind of work because in a few weeks, I’ll be going on vacation. Since half of my brain is already at the beach and the other half is making packing lists and researching the best place to rent a Jet-Ski, there’s really no room left for writing, or doing work of any kind. But somehow, I’ve got to make room, because it’s my job and because there’s still a (very, very) tiny sliver of my grey matter left that absolutely hates slacking off.

So, in the absence of real motivation to do any work whatsoever, here are a few strategies I’m using to power through the next few weeks.

1. To start, just show up. If you’ve got a time set during the day to write, plant your butt in a chair behind your desk whether or not you feel like you’ve got anything to say. Then open up your work-in-progress and put your fingers on your keyboard. Type something. Just one word. Now type another word.

Now you’ve got half a sentence, so don’t leave it hanging. Finish it and begin a new sentence. Now you’ve got another half-sentence you need to finish. Before you know it, you and your empty-headed writer’s brain have accomplished something.

2. When possible, go on autopilot. Some tasks you can do with half your brain tied behind your back, so if you need to update your query spreadsheet, make a contact with a source for an article that’s due in two weeks or simply tidy up your writing space, do it. The idea is that momentum, not motivation, can carry you through until you’ve arrived at a place where you can comfortably continue doing work without feeling like you’re scraping the bottom of your mental barrel.

3. Gamify it. Ever wonder how incredibly stupid games like FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga got so popular? They were so adept at wasting time because they used proven systems of gamification—work/reward/work scenarios that humans, for some reason, universally find fun whether they’re tired or not, happy or not, motivated or not. To get some work done, turn it into a simple game of work and reward. For example, turn your daily word count goal into a series of small work/reward scenarios. If you manage to bang out 500 words in an hour, you move on to the next 500 with no reward. But if you get them done in under an hour, even if the clock says 59:59, you get to go directly to the grocery store in your pajamas and buy a pint of ice cream. But here’s the thing: you don’t get to eat it yet. To actually crack it open, you’ve got to write another 500 words. Then you can eat half of it. And so on, and on, until you’ve finished.

4. Talk to someone about how unmotivated you are. You’ll get one of two reactions: empathy, meaning the other person responds with, “I totally understand! I’m not motivated to do any work either,” or shame, as in “I wish I had the time to be unmotivated. I’m just too busy.”

Whenever I do this, there’s roughly a 50-50 chance I’ll run into the motivation-shamer instead of the motivation-sympathizer, which means that there’s a 50-50 chance that I’ll go back and sit at my desk thinking, “Wow, maybe I’d better do something.” Hey, negative motivation is still motivation.

5. Do something that directly benefits someone else. If you’ve got three projects on your desk and one of them is a press release for a local nonprofit you’re helping out, do that one first—the feeling of assisting someone else is often an unconscious motivator, according to TED writer Jessica Gross, and can inspire you to do other work when that project is finished.



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