Monday, June 8, 2009

Procrastination and Loss Aversion

I've been reading Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide over the past week. He's one of my favorite science writers, and I highly recommend him if you're interested in how the mind works. His blog, The Frontal Cortex, is great, as is his first book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist.

Anyway, I just finished the chapter on loss aversion. It's an intersting phenomena that leads people to make foolish choices, especially when it comes to money. It seems our brains are hard-wired to feel loss more strongly than gain. This is why studies show healthy couples maintain a ratio of 1:6 of negative comments to complements - no kidding, it takes six compliments to overcome one negative comment. It's also why it takes a return of $40 to make us feel satisfied for a $20 loss. There is pain associated with loss.

It's made me think about what happens when I sit down to write and why it is sometimes so difficult to sit down and write. It's a lot easier to play spider solitaire with the occasional win than to work on my novel for two hours and feel like I'm not getting anywhere. At least in the short term. Unfortunately, according to Lehrer, the way our brains are wired, we LOVE the short-term burst of dopamine that gets released by that quick win. The long-term, deep soul satisfaction that happens after working on something and watching it develop, happens in the prefrontal cortex, an entirely different part of the brain. The dopamine receptors in our brains would like nothing better than to party all day long and exert a very strong pull on our ability to make decisions for our long-term benefit.

The other thing that I think happens is that no matter what, I am always a better writer in my head than I am on the page. I don't know any writer who is entirely happy with what ends up on the page - we always think we can do it better. So there's the pain of losing that image of perfection that exists in my head until I pick up my pen and actually start to write.

Understanding this made it much easier to come to the page today and get some good work done even though it feels uncomfortable and like I'm wandering through the deep, dark woods without a compass.

I'm reading through Choice (tentatively now entitled The Shadow of Doubt, but it's been other things in the past), which has been a somewhat slow and agonizing process. Yup, that paragraph or scene I didn't think worked a couple of months ago, amazingly STILL doesn't work and needs to be taken out. The first 56 pages are a slow slog, unfocused. After that, the story picks up a lot. It gets much better. Which makes sense. Those first 56 pages are still pretty much what I originally wrote many years ago when it was a short story - I was feeling my way into the story, the characters don't know who they are yet, and the themes of the story were still developing. It's going to take work, but I'm really happy with what happens after those pages. There's actually a lot to play with.

The really painful thing is that those places that seemed most in need of work when I first wrote them, still seem like they are most in need of work. But...those places are few and far between.

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