Friday, August 3, 2012

Mind Games

JAN BROGAN: I've always thought that novel-writing was a little like delivering a baby. Your brain has to deliberately forget all the pain and agony of the event so that you'd consider doing it again.

A new study on motivation (Haung et al, 2010), posted by my favorite blog, PSYBLOG seems to confirm this.  It's all now official: the motivated mind often steps in  with some helpful trickery.

If the new goal is to be achieved, it must be made to seem less daunting. In other words, if viewed realistically, babies wouldn't be born and novels wouldn't be written.

In the study, participants were told they were going to be involved in an ongoing effort to collect one thousand t-shirts to send to refugees in Haiti. To make sure they were motivated, they were given a lot of background on how important their task was, how desperate the state of refugees, and in particular,  how severe a lack of basic clothing.

One group of participants were shown only two full boxes of t-shirts already collected, simulating the feeling we get at the start of a big project, i.e. that there is still a lot of work to do.

These participants coped with this by over-estimating the number of t-shirts already in the bag. In fact, in comparison to an unmotivated control group who thought there were, on average, 92 in the box, those motivated souls committed to the task estimated there were 220 t-shirts.

The overestimating made them feel that the goal was more attainable. A self-delusional jump start.

Towards the end of the project, study participants also had a habit of keeping themselves motivated to completion by  under-estimating the progress they had already made. This helped them  push themselves on harder as they approached the goal, when the temptation is to slack off.

In other words, we lie to ourselves both to start and to finish.

This all makes perfect sense to me,  especially since I am reading the Steve Jobs biography and learning about his reality distortion field. But how about you? Have you ever tricked yourself into starting or completing a goal?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Happens every time I start a hike! "This isn't that long...I've gone farther at a higher altitude. Look, I've already gone 20% of the way!" It doesn't work quite as well for me with writing - as in "Whaddaymean it's ONLY 300 pages?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, yeah. Every time. "Oh, sure, I can write five hundred words a day starting NOW and the book will be finished ahead of schedule." Ha, ha. Only problem is I never have any idea what I'm doing at the beginning of the book... but if we didn't underestimate how hard it was going to be, I don't know how we'd ever get up the nerve to start.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh of course, it's fun in the beginning! Anything is possible. We're getting ideas like crazy and thinking of crimes and suspects. Only later does it become clear that we really had NOTHING. Little snatches of ideas with nothing figured out... I'm in that stage now where I need another 50 pages at least--but I've long since outrun my synopsis.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Are you kidding me? Tricking myself is an integral part of my entire life. My clocks are set fast so I'm not late. I SET THE CLOCKS. And then I "forget."  I don't enter my whole paycheck to my checking register--so I think I have less money than I really have. I'M THE ONE WHO ENTERS THE DEPOSITS. I believe my own stratagems. Oh, and I hide money from myself.  I stash $20.00 in a little pocket of my wallet, just in case. I put it there! But I always forget, and then when I  need, it, I'm SO happy!  About writing? I don't need to trick myself. The fear works just fine.

HALLIE EPHRON: Until I started writing fiction, I was one of those annoying people who got everything finished early. Projects. Thank you cards. College essays. It wasn't hard; I just did it. I found it calming to know I was ahead of my deadlines.

The problem with a book is that the deadline when you start is SO FAR OFF.  Now I'm a ditherer, and no 'trick' other than a deadline bearing down on me can get me to buckle down and write. And sometimes even that doesn't work unless I already have figured out what happens next.

RHYS BOWEN: I can't trick myself when it comes to writing. I'm in full blown panic mode at the start of every single book. The voice in my head whispers "You'll never get this story going. It won't be long enough. You'll say all you want to in 50 pages. It will be a horrible failure and they'll want their advance back." So the first 50 pages are like pulling teeth. Then there is a glimmer of hope. I see my way ahead. I start to write faster and with more confidence. By page 150 we are romping along merrily. I'm on my 29th mystery now and you'd think I'd realize that I know how to do it. But I've found that I need the panic mode to make me work. Several friends say the same.Nut cases, all of us.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I suspect in my case it's less "tricking myself" than blindly and optimistically planning that I'll be able to write to my max word count every day and that nothing in the rest of my life will interfere with my work. HA. I have to confess, I do the same when I plan to drive somewhere. If Google maps says it takes one hour fifteen minutes, I'll assume traffic is non-existent AND that I'll pick up time by speeding on the highways. Result: always arriving late and harried. Why do I keep doing this I don't know.

JAN: Yes, Julia, I do the same exact thing whenever I go somewhere and I never understood why I did it. Predictably. Almost compulsively. Then, in my last book, Teaser, my addictive protagonist, Hallie Ahern, became dependent on the adrenaline rush of danger (think the Kennedy clan) and I thought - okay,  now I've written something I really can't relate to, because I don't even like the thrill of boardwalk rides.  But then one day as I was racing around, leaving myself no time and getting harried in traffic, the thought occurred to me:  Maybe I'm doing this for the adreneline rush.  I mean, why else would I put myself through this all the time?

But that's some other study I'm sure!  How about everyone else out there? What mind games do you play to get your goals accomplished?

REMINDER: Melissa Robbins, your name was chosen to win a copy of No Way to Kill a Lady by Nancy Martin.  Please email me at  with your snail mail address so Nancy can send you a copy.  Thanks! 


  1. I can't believe I do all those tricks that Hank does. I forget I do them, too. Just today, the paratranscam van was coming to pick me up to take me to the store. I was late getting outside and was sure they wouldn't wait. Of course they waited. I always set my clocks ahead. I was out there early. Then I needed to tip Kendall's groomer - no cash. Wait! What's this? A $20 in Kendall's backpack? Yippee!

    So how come I haven't finished that book yet?

  2. Ahhhh... sorry about the auto spell. That would be paratransit van in the real world. Paratranscam sounds very naughty, and I'm wondering where my autospell picked that up!

  3. What a funny post. I also like to hide money, and we put an extra $1000 in our joint checking account and then pretend it isn't there just so we never go below their silly limit and then get charged a monthly fee.

    As for writing? I have no tricks, but am grateful to know that my Jungle Reds have those same feelings as the rest of us, even after all those books: this manuscript stinks, I'm never going to finish it, nobody is going to like it, the publisher must have been high when she accepted it, and so on!

  4. ONe writing trick that really works for me--setting a reasonable goal. YOU know I have a word-per-day chart. I live for filling in those little squares. It's such a tangible proof that I've accomplished something.

    I also love to do lists. Actually, I love crossing things off the to do list.

    Did you see that great example of how motivating lists are?
    1. Make list.
    2. Cross that off the list!
    3. See? It works!

  5. I'm a list maker. I try to psych myself out by writing lists, breaking things down into manageable parts for me to do. The problem becomes that my lists get so long for any given day that I'd need 27 hours and a staff of 10 to finish it all. However, it does keep me working towards the goals, even when I have to reschedule things to the next day or next week.

  6. Jeffrey,
    I do the same thing, but have since called it the list for the week. Because it all needs to get done, but couldn't possibly get done in that day.

    I trick my self in a different way than Hank. I tell myself I only have to write a page, and then I WANT to keep writing. I also tell myself, I should be working on a journalism piece, than the novel feels like this sly bit of fun I'm having.


  7. Hank, I do the same thing with lists. I have lists everywhere on different topics. But unlike you rushers, I am always early. I always tell myself there will be three blocked streets and a journey will take twice as long. Then I'm early. Always. I find it's almost impossible to be late, even when I try.

    I manage to write and to exercise by telling myself "You only have to do this little bit. You basically only have to show up, and even if you don't do much, that's enough for today." And then I run an extra half mile or write an extra page or two. For as much as I tell myself I can, if I get started, I don't slack off. It's the getting started I have trouble with (getting butt-in-chair).

  8. Oh Tammy,

    That is my problem EXACTLY. Most of my self-trickery is designed to just get me started. Then I can really get going. (I also don't' like stopping once I've started, what's with that?)


  9. I'm a list maker and like Hank and Reine the clock beside my bed is set ahead so I have some wiggle room. With the previously mentioned training for Run for the Cure I say I'm only going to run to the next fire hydrant and then I'm stopping. As I come level with it I say I'll run to the big elm tree. It annoys the heck out of my trainer/kid but I can get the whole distance in that way.

    Reine I think you've coined a new word. Paratranscam sounds very sci-fi to me. In the van there's a special camera that projects your energy into a kind of robot and allows you to interact with the world for short periods of time. Then there's a massive failure of the power grid and your consciousness gets trapped in the robot while your body is on battery back-up life support in the van. The city is in chaos. You need to get back to the van and somehow get your consciousness back into your body before the battery runs out of energy because if your body dies so will your consciousness in the robot. But of course there are bad guys conspiring behind the scene and they need you in robot form for some nefarious deed.

    Whoops! We may have to write a book.

  10. My watch and all my clocks are set way ahead. I always arrive at appointments at least half an hour early...which seems late to ME. If I can't sit in a waiting room for at least thirty mnutes, I feel like I am being rushed. Since I always have some sort of reading material with me,I have plenty to do while I wait. A Kindle now allows me to pick and choose among many things. I almost resent it when the doctor or dentist is ready to see me - just let me finish reading this chapter or that article! (One time when I was at Physical Therapy,my PTasked if my watch was right; "how can your session be over if you just got here?" I told him about how all my clocks,etc, are set way ahead. He thought it was ...interesting.)

    I cannot live without lists! I must know WHAT I need to do, I must know WHEN I need to do it;I must list all the things I need to pack if I'm going away. Items I need at the store MUST be on my list. If something is not on my list,there is no guarantee that it will be done,or purchased, or packed.

    Today is the first day of my vacation. I'm not going anywhere; relatives are coming in tonight and they will be here for three or four days. Initially,I thought they were not arriving until tomorrow. I found out on Wednesday that they can come today instead. I am delighted that they will be here early - but my stomach is having a really hard time adjusting to the changes that are being made to my list of priorities!(It NEVER likes change!) Probably a sign that I need to keep an eraser handy for my list! All of this is why I like to know "What is the worst case scenario?" That way I can have a Plan B. I might not LIKE Plan B...but at least I had some sort of preparation/plan off in the back of my mind somewhere.

  11. I'm seriously thinking of using Hank's clock-setting trick. Of course, that would mean the kids are out an extra ten minutes waiting for the school bus in the morning. On the other hand, fresh air is good for 'em.

    Jan, I never thought that I might be unconsciously seeking an adrenaline rush. It's a very interesting idea...

  12. Oh my god Deb, when I get to any appointment even five minutes early, I feel like I have been rooked out of five minutes of my life.

    Maybe that's what's at the heart of it all, impatience? Hatred of waiting rooms?

    I am so compulsively five minutes late for everything that PSYBLOG should do a complete study on me.


  13. Jan, you made me laugh so hard! I have friends and relatives who are like you! One of them drove me to the hospital for surgery a few years ago. I told her that I had to be at the hospital half an hour earlier than I was actually told to show up (I NEEDED to have that extra time!) and I had us allow an extra twenty or so (okay,it was thirty!) minutes to get there (the hospital is in another city and it takes about half an hour to get there with no traffic),in case of morning rush hour traffic. There was NO traffic that morning,and the office staff in the presurgery area was just arriving as we walked in. But I was relaxed! (Well, as much as a person can be when having major surgery in an hour and a half or so, give or take another hour!)

    Okay,I guess I should start going over my to do list, doing some cleaning, preparing a side dish to take to a family reunion tomorrow, making my grocery list,getting to the store, and taking time to tell my stomach that "we will get through this. We have a list". (Oh! I need to put "pick up relatives at train station" on my list!)

  14. This is really shameful, but I make a to-do list at about 8:00 in the morning (when my husband wakes up for work) and it's all stuff I've already done, which is usually a lot because I'm one of those obnoxious people who pops out of bed at daybreak, full of energy. So by 8 a.m., I've accomplished pretty much all I'll accomplish until I get my second wind at 3 p.m. So I write a list of all I've done, cross it off, write what I need to do for the rest of the day--and go back to bed. Or play on Facebook.

  15. Reine, I'm cracking up. I couldn't figure out whether the operative ending for "paratranscam" was "scam" or "cam". Either would give it an entirely different meaning...

    I am never early. I have ZERO time management skills, and always think I can do twice as much in the time allotted as is humanly possible...
    But I think that's another post.

    On tricking myself, I've tried every game in the book. (Excuse the pun.) This time I'm setting a word count a day EARLY and sticking to it. But I also find the "if I just write a page" trick works well, too. I usually will keep going, and if I don't, well, at least I have a page...

  16. Hank and I are obviously sisters from (very) different mothers! All my clocks are set ahead. Deadlines are marked days ahead of their actual date on my calendar. Stashed cash, oh yes. I make an Excel chart for every book that shows my quota of words for the day and a spot to fill in what I wrote.

    Unfortunately, I channel Julia while I'm making that chart and assume that life will not throw unexpected boulders in my way. Still, I cheat on the deadline, so even when I'm frantic because I'm pushing the limit, the actual deadline is a week or two later (and I forget and am relieved to find I finished early!).

    Ben thinks it takes five minutes to get anywhere, including NYC from KC, and he doesn't see any reason to start until there's only four minutes left. Wouldn't want to be EARLY now. He never starts a project until the deadline is about to pass and then he's frantic because he can't find what he needs or it turns out there's lots of research to do. He's an expert at begging for extensions--on everything. When we travel, I want us gone by 9 am. He sees to it we don't leave until mid-afternoon. I call him the law firm, Dither, Dawdle, & Delay.

    So I lie to him about the time we're expected anywhere. It's the only way we ever make anything on time. And I'm a person who abhors lies and tries to be honest in every part of my life. I guess I abhor being 2 hours late even more.

  17. When I worked as a psychologist in private practice, I was very, very conscious of time. One of the things we were taught to look for was the patient's resistance to the process of understanding difficult things about him or herself. Coming late was an obvious manifestation--even 5 minutes--and needed to be discussed:). Sounds hokey but it almost always brought up important stuff...just sayin'...

  18. I keep all the clocks in the house at the right time . . . except for my alarm clock, which is set ahead. And the clock in my car is set ahead. I despise being late for things, and am not good at last-minute rushing around to get where I am supposed to be on time. Invariably, I tend to be early.

    I never thought about scheduling things ahead . . . I am a grand master at the “procrastinate-now-and-panic-when-I’m-out-of-time” mode of operations. Somehow, though, it always gets done . . . .

  19. I set my clocks ahead too.

    I co-run our church's Vacation Bible School every year. We do two weeks, and have over 300 participants, and over 100 volunteer each week. Every year, I forget how hard it is. Well I remember, but like you said about pregnancy, it doesn't seem that bad. Every year, the week before, I am cursing myself for taking this project on. 3 years ago, on the Sunday before it started, a mom sent me a thank you note, even though we hadn't started yet. It said something along the lines of " I cannot imagine how hard this is to coordinate this. Please know how much we appreciate it, how much it means to the kids, and that I'm speaking for many parents when I say you've made a tremendous difference in our children's lives." Hasn't been quite so hard since that day...

    I try to keep that in mind when I do anything now. That I don't know how much difference I'm making in lives. So please know that, dear writers. That you are making a huge difference in my life with your books. They make me happy. Thank you.

  20. Lora,
    That is such a sweet thing to say!

    I used to tell my kids, thinking about doing something is so much harder than actually doing it.

    Seems like NOT THINKING ABOUT IT while doing it, may be the way to go.

    I am hoping that this late in August, your camp is winding up and you are getting ready to relax in the last few weeks of summer.


  21. Lists are a popular trick for readers here. Put me on the list of list makers. Unlike Mark, I find that breaking a task down into tinier and tinier pieces helps. I have the satisfaction of checking off items zip, zip, zip and sticking lots of gold stars on my forehead.
    And like Ramona, I add completed items to my list just so I can check them off. But I don't give myself stars for them. That would be cheating.

  22. Skipper,

    I did a chart with gold stars recently. Oddly effective. At least for a while!

    And I think you could get away with awarding one for a previously completed task - every now and then. For isn't this all about self-delusion anyway?

  23. Darlene and Deb... just woke up... rereading all this and found your posts... so funny... can't stop laughing. I'm afraid to google paratranscam. I had a nightmare about being kidnapped and videotaped on the green line between Symphony and Museum, because I was suspected of "gender availability"[??? No, no. Don't tell me] and my captors were going to put the video cam on a live YouTube feed. I think I should go back to bed.