3 Psychology Secrets Behind NaNoWriMo (and How to Stay Motivated to Write All Year)

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people they need NaNoWriMo.

Okay, that’s completely unfair. For tons of writers, NaNoWriMo is a transformative experience, and there’s a reason for that: the structure of National Novel Writing Month is powered by psychological principles that help focus the human brain on achieving a goal and staying motivated.

Seeing as NaNoWriMo is wrapping up, I’ll show you three psych secrets that might help you tap its motivational magic all year.

NaNoWriMo Secret #1: Set SMART Writing Goals

If you’ve done a leadership course, you might be familiar with SMART goals.

We have the greatest chance of following through on a goal when it has five important attributes: it's Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

  • Specific goals are well-defined and unambiguous, and therefore easy to stay focused on. For NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words of a novel is much more specific than just “writing a book.”
  • Measurable goals have some kind of metric for success. For NaNoWriMo, it’s the word count, which you can track daily and weekly.
  • Achievable goals set realistic expectations. The NaNoWriMo word count is an ambitious target, but not impossible.
  • Relevant goals feel worthwhile and provide results that matter, like starting and/or finishing a novel.
  • Time-bound goals come with a deadline and milestones. By constraining NaNoWriMo to the 30 days of November, it provides a reason to write every day and maintain progress.

You can use these principles when NaNoWriMo is over.

On December 1, set a new writing goal for the month to come. It can be another 50,000 words, or if that’s too much to sustain, set something more reasonable: a 5,000 word short story, or 3 chapters of a novel, or 20 pages of your screenplay. 

Break that month-long goal down into manageable weekly and daily goals. You might also want to estimate a year-long goal to see how your monthly progress could add up to a novel, or a screenplay, or a short story collection.

Photo by Estee Janssens

NaNoWriMo Secret #2: Track and Celebrate Your Progress

The NaNoWriMo website actually hosts a word count tracker, and compares it to how the Fitbit keeps track of your daily steps.

This takes advantage of the progress principle, which the Harvard Business Review summarizes like this:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

When you take the time to write down and acknowledge your progress, the more motivated you'll stay as you write.

If you have a bad writing day, don't get down on yourself. Focus on producing a "small win." Work on punching up a description that you've been looking forward to improving, or write a scene with your favourite character.

NaNoWriMo Secret #3: Find a Writing Buddy or Workshop for Accountability

The scope and enthusiasm of the NaNoWriMo community is one of its greatest assets. Everyone wants to cross the Nov 30 finish line together with a draft of a novel, and that can be a real engine for writers in search of motivation.

But what happens when November ends?

I recommend finding a writing buddy, or a workshop.

Photo by Alexis Brown

The psychological principle of accountability says that the presence of other people has a powerful effect on how we behave. If we know that we are going to swap critiques with a writing partner on Friday, we're much more motivated to make time to write and show up with new work to share. Ideally, if that partner is supportive when we stumble or don't make our word count, it creates a safe space for failure as well.

Setting up  a small writing workshop of 3 to 6 people can also be helpful for holding writers accountable to weekly or monthly writing goals, as well as providing valuable feedback on the work as it happens.

However, I might recommend against using large groups or communities for accountability. There's a psychological principle called "diffusion of responsibility" that describes how the larger a social group is, the less compelled individuals feel to take on the burden of a collective responsibility. In a huge writing workshop, writers might not feel particularly accountable to any one person when they show with their weekly material. You might find it's harder to stay motivated if no one notices when you skip a work or don't hand in new work.

Stay Inspired

And if all else fails, always look for ways to challenge yourself and expand your range as a writer.

I designed The Story Engine Deck so writers could create and customize their own writing prompts quickly and easily. Prompts help focus your creativity into a particular subject, while also forcing you to make creative connections to make sense of the parts of a prompt.

Right now, you can download a free 60-card demo of the 180-card deck to print at home. It might just be what you're looking for to give you a boost of inspiration when NaNoWriMo is over.

Get a Free Demo PDF

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