reflection on writing – or – Pavlov’s dog rules

I’m sure we all know the story of Pavlov’s dog. It learnt to salivate at the sound of a metronome/bell. Poor little sod kept on thinking the noise heralded dinner, which it did – but only some of the time.

Now, fast forward via multiple generations of multiple kinds of animals variously teased and tormented in boxes and mazes and other apparatus, and the notion of reward and punishment emerges as a very serious idea indeed. Without being at all precise about its genealogy, I’ll just say that the notion that rewards and punishments could be manipulated to produce desirable behavior became pretty popular. Educators of all kinds seized on it. Bosses decided that it might be a good management tool. And some elected policy makers decided to stake their flimsy political lives on carrot and stick regimes.

And here and now, despite what I say about reward and punishment in all other arenas, I confess that this is the way I make myself write.

I’ve talked about the importance of routine before. Having a regular time to write comes out as pretty significant for most productive writers. My routine for writing is in the morning.

I now want to own up to the fact that writing is a bit more than routine for me. Somehow along the way I’ve got addicted to writing. This happened long before I took up serious academic writing, and even before I wrote pretty regularly for professional journals. I actually do have to write everyday or I start going a bit stir crazy. I’ve tried to make this less compulsive. I’ve been known to go away on holidays determined not to write, so I take no writing implements at all. But I can’t last more than a couple of days and I’m off at the nearest newsagent buying a notebook and pen. I’ve just been at one of those British summer festivals with mud and glamping where there were no notebooks to be had, so I flattened out a Boots prescription box and wrote on that. So I really do mean addiction. It’s morning so I must be writing.

But it’s actually even worse than this. I find that I am most productive when I operate a kind of self-imposed reward and punishment regime. I have a set target each day. This is not a word count, but a chunk of writing. I’m book writing at present so the first chunk of each chapter is always the introductory section where you have to invent something interesting to suck the reader in and then you map out what you are going to do. That’s a chunk. The introduction also maps out the other chunks that have to be done, and so after the first go, there you are with a programme for each morning’s writing.

So yesterday I started a new chapter. And here’s the rub. I couldn’t have breakfast until I’d completed the introductory section. And after that, I couldn’t have lunch until I’d done the first section. Put positively, I rewarded myself for each chunk completed, with food. Just like Pavlov’s dog, or the rat that I used to run in Psychology 1.

Does this routine have a down-side? Oooooh yes. On slow writing days this practice is more like punishing myself for not writing enough and fast enough, rather than rewarding myself for achievement. And have I ever not had lunch? Yes. I sit at the screen until I’ve reached the daily target.

But I also don’t write after lunch. Ever. That’s when I do all the other things like marking and reading and email. Or I go into work and\or I have meetings and tutorials.

I’ve also talked before about cleaning and gardening while writing. This is thinking time for writing. The bad news for me is that cleaning and gardening time doesn’t make any difference to the reward for writing the section. If I have to stop and think for an hour and do something else then so be it. There’s no breakfast or lunch in there. And if I piss about with email and twitter then that’s just more time till I eat. It’s only writing the section/chunk that gets the reward.

Does this all take organization? Oooooh yes. When I’m seriously writing, I not only have to tidy my desk, but also do some serious shopping. The breakfast and lunch have to be real rewards not a desultory scrap of something from the bottom of the fridge. Right now it’s mango, peach, blueberry, rasberry and strawberry season so breakfast IS something to work for. And I’ve stocked up on some good salad ingredients for lunch and some fancy bits of Italian grilled stuff that make it seem something other than just ordinary. Treats are in order.

When people ask me how come I write so much, I generally just laugh. But now you know. The answer is Pavlov’s dog. A combination of routine, addiction and reward and punishment. I suppose there’s a fancy name for this kind of OCD behaviour somewhere, but for now Pavlov’s dog will do. It works for me and so I keep doing it.

I’m absolutely sure, however, that this is not the only way to become highly productive. Do you have secret ways to make yourself write and complete?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in chunking, reward, routine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to reflection on writing – or – Pavlov’s dog rules

  1. Zoe Lim says:

    I’m less a food person and more a nature person. So I write best sitting near to the nature, best on the grass, which means I write better in summer vs. other seasons and better on a sunny day vs. a rainy day. Weather does matter 😉


  2. leroyhill says:

    Food as motivation classic. I much prefer the daily email reminder from to get that writing done. Works well for me.


  3. M-H says:

    I agree about the routine. I always sit in the same place, make a pot of tea before I sit down… Also, leaving the last bit of writing each day in dot point or note form, so when you sit down you can pick up where you left off and continue. If you have to start something new it can be hard to get going.


  4. Pingback: sustain your writing – find a palate cleanser or ten | patter

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