I had a conversation on Twitter the other day about motivation and rewards, namely my use of stickers. Everyone seemed interested in this, so I thought I’d blog about it. Jessica Spotswood posted one a few months back. You can read hers here.
I started using stickers several years ago for marathon training. When I train, I always type up my mileage schedule on a calendar so I know what I will be running every day until race day. I have to do this, as I have to mentally prepare myself for twenty milers. I’m not a spontaneous person. I can’t just go out and run twenty miles. Physcially, yes. But running long distance is extremely mental, and I have to know in advance that I will be running it so I can think about it and form my plan.
Anyone who runs marathons knows the taper is the most horrible, nerve-wracking time in a runner’s life. For those who don’t know, the taper is the time period (usually 2-3 weeks) before a marathon where you decrease your mileage in order to rest your body so that it will be able to run the marathon you’ve been training for. The taper messes with your mind. I have a tendency to get a cold during this time. I worry that I am resting too much. I get antsy, I check the weather channel hourly, I worry that I won’t be able to hit the time I’ve been training for.
So I started using stickers on my training calendar. I give myself a sticker every time I do the run as it is scheduled. The great part about this is that nothing looks so wonderful as a month filled with stickers. Then, when I get nervous and full of doubt during the taper, I can look back at the calendar and know that I have done my part. I have trained properly. I am ready for this race.
When I started writing consistently several years ago, I wrote 1k a day. I didn’t need any gimmicks to do this, as it was something mentally I knew I would do. Running taught me discipline, and I was pretty good at hitting my word count. Some days I wrote more. Some days I wrote less. But I always aimed for 1k, and books were written and revised just fine.
But this spring I needed to draft a book pretty quickly. I wrote the first book in a planned trilogy last year, and a lovely friend suggested it become book two and I write a new book one. She also gently suggested I get it finished by May. It was March.
I teach high school English, which means that when I get home after a long day’s work, I’m tired. Very tired. I write every day, but I was going to have to write more every day if I was going to get this book finished. I needed to hit 2k every day, and since I had trained myself to do 1k, I knew I was going to need more motivation. In the form of stickers.
They worked. I earned a sticker when I hit 2k for the day. There were days where I wrote 1500 and didn’t think it would be possible to get 500 more. But the thought of having a hole in my calendar kept me writing. On the days when I began to doubt, when I began to hate the draft with the fire of a thousand suns, I looked at my row of stickers and felt better. I could fix anything that wasn’t working later. I just had to write something to fix first. And I didn’t want to break my streak.
I’m not always a fan of fast drafts. I believe that great art takes time. But my drafts are always rough, whether it takes me five months or five weeks. My stories come out in the re-writing.
I spent five weeks using stickers to motivate me to hit my word count, and at the end of five weeks, I had 84,000 words and a finished draft.
Whether marathon training or drafting, the stickers help me log consecutive days of work and are reminders of the preparation I've put in, enabling me to toe the starting line on race day. Because in the end, writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint, and those weeks of drafting get me ready for the real race – revisions.
Now if I could just get someone to man my aid station of revision refueling essentials: coffee and Twizzlers.