Five Brain Tricks That Will Make You A Happier Writer

What do writers want? Not in the big picture – standing onstage thanking a bunch of folks for an Oscar win – but in the day-to-day struggle that is writing.

I think it is to be in The Flow – that illusive sweet spot where words, sentences, and thoughts pour almost effortlessly from your brain to the page. I’ve written about Finding The Flow in my ScriptMag column after experiencing a particularly long sojourn in that blissful state. And I’ve certainly spent enough time staring that dreaded blank page, tweaking typos, or desperately deleting spam to invoke the slightest sense of forward momentum when coming up dry.

Use Neuroscience to Become A Happy WriterI’ve been working on a book on story, and one of my deep fascinations has been the connection between compelling, delicious, engaging story, why that turns on our brains and how to use those principles to be a powerful storyteller.

I blame the good people at Blizzard Entertainment, makers of World Of Warcraft, and many other computer and online games that are widely popular all over the world. Several years ago, I was asked to speak there about Story Essentials and Creating Strong Stories. But first, they invited me to visit their campus. And that may be where I jumped straight into the rabbit hole.

Outside the main building, there is a giant bronze statue featuring a WOW warrior riding a wolf. Surrounding the sculpture are plaques embedded in the cement commemorating Blizzard’s Eight Core Values.

The one that struck home with me was, “Embrace Your Inner Geek.”

Did I even have an inner geek? It’s not like I’m hanging out at ComicCon or getting decked out for cosplay or LARP.

As I worked on my talk for Blizzard’s top creatives, I soon realized my inner geek was there, loud and proud. My inner geek loves neuroscience.

As I’ve explored using neuroscience for impactful storytelling, I’ve found countless articles and books that fascinated me. But rather than bore you with monkey studies, let’s dig into how to use simple neuroscience principles to vanquish the top five challenges writers are apt to face when they sit down at the keyboard in order make you a more productive and, therefore, a happier writer.

The Neuroscience of Prioritizing

Are you going to work on outlining today? Writing up that idea you had in the middle of the night? Doing a thorough dialogue polish of Act One?

You won’t be able to do them all at once. No matter how rabid a multi-tasker you are, your brain won’t be very successful in helping you juggle all those balls at once.

When you fail to decide what is most important, what to do first, second and last, if time allows, you are sucking up precious brain energy.

The solution is to prioritize prioritizing. Prioritizing can be a brain draining activity, so do it when you are fresh and sharp, leaving brain juice to channel toward what you hope to accomplish.

As David Rock explains in his book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, prioritizing takes a lot of brain energy. Doing it first, leaves you more mental energy to accomplish what you identify as most important, and potentially some left over for more of the tasks on your To Do list for your brain.

Neuroscience Tricks To Make You A Happy Writer

The Neuroscience of Decision-Making

I firmly believe that writing is decision-making and that strong storytelling is the result of many, many, many perfect decisions that contribute to the whole story.

But trying to make the perfect choice can be paralyzing.

And when you’re unable to make a key decision, you’re unhappy. That’s because what happens in your brain when you stress over a decision rather than making a choice makes you feel unhappy.

As Eric Barker says in his article, “New neuroscience reveals 4 rituals that will make you happy,” for Ladders, “Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety – as well as helping you solve problems.” Sounds easy, right? Just choose – from amongst a million possibilities open to a writer at any given juncture. Here’s Barker’s advice on decision-making:

But deciding can be hard. I agree. So what kind of decisions should you make? Neuroscience has an answer…

Make a “good enough” decision. Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up.

Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.

A good enough decision is a great step forward toward the goal of a perfect choice. And as you feel happier, as opposed to stressed and out of control, you will be able to make more decisions and make them more readily. A nice feedback loop. Forward progress > Happiness > Forward progress.

The Neuroscience of Expectations

Great expectations – more than the title of a landmark novel most of us were forced to read in high school, but the bane of the human existence, in my opinion. If my expectations for myself were lower, I could probably have completed this article days ago.

According to neuroscience, expectations play a big role in the brain as rewards and disappointments wreak havoc with our moods. Rewards release that feel-good chemical dopamine. Big boost.

Dopamine is the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” of the brain. Super delicious when you can get it naturally, and when we can’t, we’re willing to turn to any source, no matter how illegal, illicit, and dangerously addictive, to get that high.

David Rock references the work of Professor Wolfram Schultz, explaining, “Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones.” Bigger boost.

But Rock goes on to caution:

However, if you’re expecting a reward and you don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one; it feels a lot like pain. Expecting a pay raise and not getting one can create a funk that lasts for days.

Gigantic low.

The secret: Manage your expectations. Per Rock:

Great athletes know how to manage their expectations. They don’t get overexcited about the possibility of winning, as this ruins their concentration. And if they are worried about losing, they try not to expect that, either.

You might not win the writing contest, be accepted to the prestigious program, or ever get a reply to your query letter. Don’t obsess. Don’t hold your breath. Find the middle ground. Pinning your hopes on hitting the bull’s eye in a situation largely out of your control could obliterate the pleasures of the smaller but significant accomplishments you can achieve under your own steam.

It will enable you to complete the outline, delve into the new idea, and deliver a smooth and shiny Act One – all excellent dopamine-boosting rewards. And now you’re well on your way to hitting it out of the park.

The Neuroscience of Labeling

You’re trying to write, but you feel antsy, frustrated, down, and doubtful about your ability to make any progress much less succeed in this extraordinarily challenging business. The more you try to push the bad feelings away, the bigger the swirling mess of negative emotions, and from there it’s easy for the hopes of a good day’s writing to slip down the drain.

Neuroscience shows that taking a moment to give a name to your emotion – labeling – diminishes its impact. Choosing an evocative word or two to describe your feelings run amok instantly activates the part of your brain that minimizes negative emotions, calming that area of the brain in a way that trying to force down bad feelings can never accomplish.

Seems too easy, right? Okay, here’s the neuroscience explanation courtesy of David Rock:

To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system.

Simply said, consciously recognizing emotions by labeling reduces their impact.

The Neuroscience of Focus

While focus conjures up images of gliding forth toward the horizon, sails filled with forward momentum, on the path to the happy land of finishing this damn thing, in our tech and information overloaded society, distraction is the evil villain in this rosy picture.

Ah, if only I could focus long enough to finish writing this article.

So how do I get there from here?

According to a pioneer in the field of neuroleadership, Frederike Fabritus, in her article “Fun, Fear and Focus”:

Whenever a new text message pings, the telephone rings, or a colleague walks by your cube or your open office door, your brain activates a primitive response that was originally designed to counter threats and pursue potential rewards. Of course, you can train yourself to ignore or resist these distractions. But resisting distractions takes willpower, and willpower requires energy, energy that could be better devoted to the task at hand.

Another conundrum.

Just trying to battle distraction is draining you.

According to Fabritus, “That’s why the best way to guarantee focus is to eliminate as many distractions as possible in advance, by shutting off your phone, closing your browser, clearing your desk of any materials that don’t pertain to the task at hand, and, above all by discouraging interruptions by colleagues, however well-meaning they may be, either by closing your door or putting in ear buds so it’s obvious to all that you’re temporarily unavailable.”

Clear out as many distractions as possible before you begin, so you can save your energy for being creative.

The Neuroscience of Giving It A Rest

I’ve said before that many of my most creative thoughts happen when I’m not trying so damn hard, when I’ve given up staring at the screen, when I’ve shut downy he computer for the day and hit the shower.

Turns out, that’s no accident.

In her HuffPo blog, “3 More Ways to Use Neuroscience to Improve Your Productivity,” Amy Bran advocates for daydreaming:

The state our brain enters into when we are resting has gained a lot of attention recently. In most organizations value is placed on doing things. These may be tasks or thinking. Rarely do organizations applaud people for sitting quietly and simply daydreaming. Whether recognition is yet given or not to this brain state many people will experience it on a daily basis, perhaps themselves without acknowledging the good it is doing them.

We do know that the network within the brain activated during this time, the default mode network, has been linked to both higher insight and creativity.

When even big corporations acknowledge that daydreaming is good for business and encourage it, then it’s clearly time for you to give yourself a rest.

Just like the well-deserved one I’ve earned by making it to the end of this article. Brava!

There’s endless advice out there for combatting Writer’s Block. Give science a try.

Let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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