Harness Your Willpower to Improve Your Writing

I will have more willpower.

I really, really, really, really didn’t want to write today’s column. I’ve been covered in hives all week (the result of an allergy to a medication) and, to make matters worse, I couldn’t think of a topic I found interesting enough.

Then I remembered advice from the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I realized that not only did I have the best possible subject, I also had learned some effective ways to persuade myself to write.

The great thing about The Willpower Instinct is that so many of the facts it contains are either contrary to what we’ve been taught over the years (for example, willpower is not always a virtue) or completely counter-intuitive. (Did you know that willpower is contagious?)

If you feel that lack of willpower has contributed to your difficulty with writing, then be sure to read this book! Here are four facts McGonigal taught me that helped me write today:

1. You have more willpower if you have more sleep.

Shortchanging yourself with sleep may appear to give you more time, but the costs are high. You’ll not only be physically tired but also mentally and emotionally exhausted. As well, your willpower will be compromised. According to McGonigal, our bodies need a minimum of six hours sleep per night in order to maintain willpower. (The antihistamines I’ve been taking to deal with my hives have made me sleepier than usual so I nabbed eight hours of sleep before attempting to write this column.)

2. The best time for willpower is first thing in the day.

I have given this advice many times, as have countless other writing coaches. I’d always attributed its wisdom to the lack of interruptions first thing in the morning (not many people call at 6 am) and the general absence of children (once beyond infancy, they usually resist breakfast before 7 am—11 am in the case of teenagers). But, no, the reason morning is the best time for writing relates to willpower. It’s at its most acute first thing in the morning. (I rolled out of bed today, pulled on some clothes and went directly to my computer. I’ll have my shower as soon as I’ve finished this column.)

3. Willpower is not unlimited.

I had always thought that willpower in the way we used to regard oil—inexhaustible and limitless. But, just as we’re finally learning that it’s not smart to be a bunch of oil hogs, we also need to know that we can’t be willpower gluttons. It runs out. For this reason, we should prioritize. If you have a “to do” list with 17 items on it, your failure to achieve it all stems not from your lack of willpower—it arises from your over-ambition. Spend scarce resources carefully. (I made writing this column my number 1 job for today. If I accomplish nothing else, I will still be delighted.)

4. Doing good gives us permission to do bad.

This is something I’d always recognized and the main reason I caution writers not to spend too much time writing in a single day. You will burn yourself out. McGonigal explains that people who accomplish a goal generally feel they should receive a reward. “They offer the justification, ‘I was so good, I deserve a little treat’ ” she observes. I’m perfectly okay if your treat for writing is buying a magazine, a latte or even watching YouTube for 20 minutes. But I’m not okay if it means taking the next few days off from writing! Don’t write so much on a single day that you feel entitled to take off the rest of the week.

OK, I’m done! I wrote the first draft of this column in 30 minutes. I’m off to take my shower and enjoy breakfast. I’ll edit the column later (after incubating) and, I will write again tomorrow because I’m not burned out. ∞

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About Author

Daphne Gray-Grant

Daphne Gray-Grant, principal of The Publication Coach, gives communications advice to corporations and provides support, advice and training to writers around the world. She is author of two bestselling books: 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better and Your Happy First Draft. Neither is available in bookstores or on Amazon. If you’re interested in buying go to her website.