The Fudge vs Broccoli Choice
By Missy Tippens
My husband handed me a folded newspaper section the other day and said it was a good article I might like to read. And I admit, I mentally rolled my eyes and wondered what hint he was dropping this time—would it be about eating right, losing weight, sleeping enough, exercising or drinking gallons of water?
So being the stubborn person that I am (and knowing I wasn’t in the mood to be convicted about living a healthier lifestyle), I set it aside. Several days later, he asked if I had read it yet. In a bit of a snit, I yanked it up and read it. And was actually very intrigued! (I’m a science geek, what can I say?)
The article was from the January 4th Athens Banner-Herald, titled Brain Might Sabotage Success of Resolutions, by Lauran Neergaard (AP). And all I could think about as I read it (besides the fact that I need to quit eating in front of the TV!) was that this info would make a great blog post. So I’m going to try to boil it down so maybe we can figure out why writers sometimes struggle to sit in a chair and write, even when they love writing.
The article talks about how hard it is to keep New Year’s resolutions and says the problem is that bad habits get wired into our brains. But the good news in the article is that they know some tricks that can help replace the bad habits with good ones.
The key: we’re fighting against the power of an immediate reward. I got my title from the author of the article saying, “It’s the fudge vs. broccoli choice: Chocolate’s yum factor tends to beat out the knowledge that sticking with veggies brings an eventual reward of lost pounds.”
So take, for example, the fact I like to eat my breakfast and have my coffee in front of the TV with Good Morning America every morning. The creamy cheese of my omelet, the rich, sweet creamer in my nice strong Double Black Diamond coffee and the camaraderie of my favorite morning show hosts cause a release of a pleasure-sensing chemical in my brain called dopamine. It conditions me to want that experience again and again. And each time I do get the reward (every day!), it strengthens that bond. A dopamine-rich part of my brain then memorizes the rituals and routines so that eventually, the environment itself triggers my brain to pretty much make certain behaviors automatic.
So now, I sit down to watch Castle at night, and I want to eat something rich or sweet or to make coffee.
Okay, time to look at writing habits. I can tell you one that I have that I’ve been working on breaking. It goes like this:
Click on Safari (Internet browser).
Yep. It’s automatic, like some kind of reflex wired into my fingers. And it’s BAD, BAD, BAD!! My new goal: retrain the brain to click first on Word.
Here are some other bad writing habits I’ve either experienced of witnessed with friends…
--Plan to get up early for writing time but hit the snooze. I need to sleep today. I’ll get up early tomorrow.
--Plan to write at night after the day job. Oh, man. Today was awful. I don’t have a brain cell left. I should wait until tomorrow when I’m fresher so I don’t write garbage.
--Have a deadline and need to work through feeling stuck in the story. But gosh, I’ve got four more months. Maybe I should stop for a while and see if inspiration strikes.
--The next scene is going to be really difficult to write. I don’t have the energy/time/experience/research to tackle it just yet.
--Have a request for a manuscript from a conference. What was I thinking when I made that appointment? I can’t send out this book. It’ll never sell.
--General negative self talk.
I’m such a fake at trying to act professional in the writing world.
What made me ever think I’m qualified to write inspirational fiction?
I’ll never sell a book.
I’ll never sell another book.
My editor doesn’t believe I can do this/won’t like this book/must hate me.
That agent/editor will laugh her butt off when she reads this.
I’ll never be able to do this job.
--Decent contest scores and even contest wins on a manuscript—from fourteen contests over three years. I think I’ll make some more changes on this fifth version of the mss and see if maybe Editor so-and-so will like it better this time.
--Need to write x-number of words a day to finish a story in time for contest or deadline. I only have thirty minutes now and maybe twenty minutes later, so I might as well not get started. I can’t write anything in short bursts like that. I think I’ll have a few hours this coming weekend.
--Have just a few chapters to go to reach the end of a manuscript. Oh my gosh, I just got the best idea for a new story! It won’t leave me alone, so I think I’m going to go ahead and start it.
Do you recognize yourself anywhere in there? Or can you pinpoint your own bad writing habits? Never fear. The article says there are ways to re-train our brains.
1. Repeat the new behavior over and over. And they say to do it at the same time each day to form a new routine. I know this can be difficult with our crazy schedules. But find the time that works best to write for the most days each week, and do it as often as you can. The brain will eventually recognize the new habit. Then you’ll feel bad when don’t do it.
2. Reward yourself with something you really desire. Again, this helps re-wire the brain. Did you write all you planned to write this week? Reward yourself. I don’t suggest food!
But aren’t we all a little weird in that we get our jollies by things non-writers would never think of-- like office supplies? Reward yourself with a trip to Staples for a new pen. Or maybe with a book you’ve been wanting (like maybe pre-ordering A Family for Faith by Missy Tippens!). A month of the new good habit? How about a pair of conference shoes or a new tote bag/computer bag. Or a movie with friends.
3. Exercise actually raises dopamine levels. So if you’re feeling needy and old habits try to creep back in, get out and take a walk. Then come back ready to be positive and jump in with all the good you’ve been working toward.
4. Be extra aware during times of stress. The author of the article says, “Stress can reactivate the bad-habit circuitry.” In such a case, I’d suggest the exercise to help release the stress. Lots of other things to do for stress, but that’s another post. :)
5. Here’s one last tip. And it’s a biggie. Cut out the rituals that go along with the bad habits. Is the last week before a deadline linked with eating bag after bag of potato chips? Break that link. Does the sound of the alarm clock make you dread turning on your computer or make you hate your story? Break the link. Does the thought of typing the last five chapters of a book send you to brainstorming a new one every single time? Break the link.
This may take some work to figure all this out. But try to figure out your triggers. Investigate your environment and create a new, positive connection. I can do it. You can do. And we’ll be more productive for it.
I hope you’ll share your triggers and what you’re going to be doing about it so we can all learn. Also, say ENTER ME in the comment to be entered in a drawing for some chocolate. Unless, of course, you’d prefer broccoli in your new environment. :) In that case, let me know. I’ll see what I can figure out. ;)
Oh, and in case you missed the moment of shameless self-promotion above, I just last week found my upcoming book from Love Inspired, A Family for Faith, is available for pre-order!
When Faith Hagin sees widower cop Gabe Reynolds every day in her coffee shop, she can’t help but feel for the struggling single dad. She’s raised a teenager of her own—and sadly, knows what not to do. But thanks to his matchmaking preteen daughter, Chelsea, the whole town’s praying for Gabe to find a wife!
Even though Faith thinks she’s content being just friends, spending time with him and Chelsea starts to feel like a fresh start at having a family. And their love may be the answer to everyone’s prayers.