Hey guys. Remember when we were back in school, or applying for our first jobs, and “self-motivation” was a thing? Like, it was a quality you touted during job interviews, and that your teachers may have called out on your report cards, maybe.

Anyway. I have decided this is not really a thing. Everything, aside from basic like functions like eating and sleeping, seems to require some kind of self-motivation. Showing up to a job interview, applying for the job, seems to take some kind of self-motivation. Not falling asleep in Comp 80 class: self-motivation! Going for that donut run instead of attending Brit Lit: self-motivation!

Okay, I’m being absurd. Sure. But honestly, I can’t think of a single thing that doesn’t require some self-motivation. Even the stuff I love to do, like reading and writing, requires some self-motivation. But some days are harder than others. And some things are way harder than others, for one reason or another.

Most difficult things, in fact, seem to require external motivation.

I find myself up against two of these things lately. First, I’ve been more than lackadaisical when it comes to drafting my second novel. I’m super excited about it; I just … have other things to do. I find myself dragging my feet at the most idiotic things: it too me two and a half weeks to print out a piece of research, one of those that would allow me to draft the next few pages.

And I’ve been been embarrassingly lax when it comes to my own fitness. Part of that is due to travel; part of it due to injury; most of it is due to injury sustained because I’ve been lax about my own fitness. Basically, I’m at rock bottom.

The second is relatively easy to solve. I just go back to what I know: Set aside time. Make it sacred, and a priority. And then set a goal. So I have a browser window open right now that’ll sign me up for a half-marathon in a couple months.

The first of these is a life-long problem when I don’t have a deadline. Writing things on-spec requires bucketloads of self-motivation. Oh, sure, there may be one or two days where I’ll crank out a thousand or even a couple thousand words, but then weeks–WEEKS!–can go by with no progress whatsoever.

So I fell back on an old standby: the thermometer chart. I made one for myself when I was drafting my first novel, and it worked like a charm. Here’s this year’s version, which takes into account a few things I didn’t need to address last time around. More on those later.


A lot of people, when I mention this chart, seem surprised or impressed. I’m surprised that more people aren’t doing this. It works like this: The increments are marked off each thousand words. And every five thousand words, there are little awards, like this. Sometimes they’re little: a new tube of lip balm; a new sheet of stickers. Sometimes they’re bigger, like a day at the aquarium.


The progress is marked by colored bars, or doodles, on the left-hand side of the chart, like so:


Now, this is a new chart, but an old project, so I’m already at 19,650 words. That’s actually way more than I thought I was at. But I’ll be starting to track progress daily from here.

I’m also planning on pulling the trigger on some accountability partners. You know, the people who e-mail you and say HEY YOU. WHAT DID YOU DO TODAY? Predictably, by the time today I get around to it, it will have been over a week since a friend emailed to say that she’d be interested in being my accountability partner. Which I feel bad about.

Actually, I think that’s probably the more efficient way to look at self-motivation. Do the shit you have to do so that you don’t feel bad about not doing it.

Anyway. Tell me about your, uh, self-motivators below. I’d be curious to hear what you do when you’re in a rut.


  1. Deadlines. Also, pretending I’m back in an MFA workshop, which combines a deadline with a need to impress – and on time.

    Deadlines are so critical that when a very good critical reader friend (who’s been reading and critiquing my current revised draft) suggested we Skype “soon” to go over the latest changes, I texted back, ” Can we set a date? I need to know when to have this chapter done or I’ll take forever doing it.”

    I love your chart! But I think if I got too interested in charting I’d do that instead of editing. 😛

  2. I just read your “Stuck” article in “The Writer” and I have experienced going weeks without writing too many times. I wrote throughout college, and so class, working, studying, theatre all caused me to write in chunks. I did not write every day, but would spend some weekends writing non-stop. Now, I am working on my first novel and I am about 20,000 words in and trying to find the best way to make sure I write every day. I like the idea of your chart. I might give something like that a try!

    1. Thanks for checking in, Amanda! I really like your explanation for why some of us might be inclined to write “in chunks”–it seems our education and work systems are just geared to make us productive that way! 20,000 words is a HUGE milestone. Congratulations! Progress charts are good, but now I’m beginning to think that REWARDS are more the answer than anything else! 🙂 Keep us posted on how you’re doing!

  3. Yi Shun I’m loving your blog. You’ve got such honest buoyant energy and the combination of eloquence, wit and practicality in your diction gives consistent delight.

    So here’s what I do to battle the enormous writers block/resistance/dysphoria that rises up with saliva dripping fangs to stop me from sitting down at my desktop to write. First, if I’ve got it bad, I lie down and do deep breathing and meditate/pray. Usually I’m just tired. But lying down and going deep also helps with feeling scared. And like I might possibly be just as alone as I feel.

    Second go-around is I read the last thing I wrote. Let the brain wave state adapt. BTW this is random but it also helps to have salty nuts/ice cream/chocolate/cookies/popcorn/tequila etc. right there by my notes. Keeping them and me safe from, you know, drought and famine and disaster.

    I also definitely do what you do… giving myself little rewards. My fave is to “do something hard, then do something fun (could be anything, from doing some easy writing after completing something hard, doing hard/easy, hard/easy etc…. or it could be reading the news on NPR or going outside in the sun for a while or taking a break or, if I’ve done A LOT and my credit cards aren’t on fire, I go buy a dress or something else. Even doing laundry provides relief when I’m under writing stress.

    Thanks for listening.

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