Writer's Block

I know why you’re procrastinating! Now, if I could only figure out how to stop it.

Don't shoot the dog by Karen Pryor
You should check this book out from the library and read it with me. (And no, the fact that I took a picture of a book titled, “Don’t Shoot the Dog” that is propped up on a cat tree is not at all lost on me.)

I am a strong believer in positive reinforcement. I have even talked about it here before in relation to writing. I have often wondered how I could use positive reinforcement to become a more productive writer. So, I just about jumped off the couch a few minutes ago when I stumbled upon a scientific explanation for writer’s procrastination in a book I’m reading titled, Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training, by Karen Pryor.

The following excerpt describes a “phenomenon that occurs on very long [reinforcement] schedules: slow starts.” According to Pryor, a subject “tends to “put off” starting for longer periods as the schedule of reinforcement gets longer.”

This is sometimes called delayed start of a long-duration behavior, and it’s a very familiar aspect of human life. On any long task, from doing the income taxes to cleaning out the garage, one can think of endless reasons for not starting now. Writing, even sometimes just the writing of a letter, is a long-duration behavior. Once it gets started, things usually roll along fairly well, but, oh! it’s so hard to make oneself sit down and begin.

In other words, the longer it takes to complete a given task and get to the reward at the end, the more likely you are to put off starting the task. And how many projects will you take on in your daily life that will take you longer to complete than writing a novel?

It’s no wonder finishing the laundry suddenly becomes of the utmost importance when it’s time to sit down and write! Throwing clothes in the washer is a short-term task. So why not rush for the quick reward of getting that short-term task out of the way in favor of putting off something that involves a much slower pay-off?

Pryor goes on to explain that the trick to overcoming this “slow-start phenomenon” is to break up the beginning portion of the task and give yourself small rewards for completing each small step of the getting-started process. For example, maybe you reward yourself with a small bite of chocolate simply for sitting down in front of your computer, or for taking out your notebook and pen.

Once you have completed that first small task, maybe you can give yourself additional rewards for, let’s say, writing to the end of the first paragraph or writing for five full minutes. The trick is to make the reward as small as possible to avoid falling asleep because you ate too much!

Okay, so maybe I made up that last part. But Pryor does explain in detail why small rewards are often more effective than larger ones. I just don’t have the room here – or the time – to explain it all to you in more detail. I guess you’re just going to have to join me in reading the book. Maybe together we can formulate a strategy for using positive reinforcement to increase our writing productivity.

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