How to Cross the Finish Line

Running a marathon? Writing a book? Lessons from the long haul.

Posted Dec 31, 2018

The rewards of completion are considerable.
Source: skynesher/iStock

I have just finished writing a book. Ta da! I’ll pause while you dance with joy. All done? Thank you very much for that. I assure you I celebrated. It is especially satisfying that I finished before the end of the year, allowing me one last great big check mark on the to-do list of 2018.  The confluence of my deadline and the end-of-the-year taking stock led me to think about the rewards of completion, of crossing the finish lines—real and metaphorical—of life. And I am also thinking about what it takes to stick with a long-term goal. In that spirit, I offer some of what helped me. 

Recognize that it is hard for everyone.

Writing a book is hard, as is running a marathon, starting a business, losing a lot of weight, and any other big goal to which you might aspire. Even though this is my third book, I had some low moments when I thought I’d never finish, the book wouldn’t be any good, no one would want to read it. Then I read an interview with novelist Colson Whitehead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and many other glories) in which he said that there is always a point in the midst of writing a book when he thinks he won’t finish, no one will want to read it, it won’t be any good. After that, I noticed that just about every writer says the same. The trick is to push through—a day of writing bad sentences (I’m cleaning up the language here) is better than a day of writing no sentences. It means you have something to work on. Eventually, the good sentences will come.

Big goals are really a series of small goals.

E.L. Doctorow once said that writing a book is like driving a car at night. ''You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." It is an apt metaphor for all big projects and you find a version of it in every motivational blog there is: break your big project up into incremental, achievable goals. Novelist Anne Lamott’s book on the art of writingBird by Bird, takes its title from a similar idea. When they were children and her brother was struggling to write a report on birds that he had left until the last minute, their father told him to “take it bird by bird.”

The advice is ubiquitous because it is true, and it works. We work for reward on a very short-term basis. The neurotransmitter dopamine conveys “moment-by-moment estimates of available future reward,” according to University of Michigan researchers. The brain uses these signals to decide whether to work. Motivation is really the result of a series of decisions to keep working. We are more likely to do that if positive feedback does not come only once a year.

Friends can hold you accountable along the way.

Since my book is about the biology and evolution of friendship, there had to be a mention of friends in here somewhere. The truth is they were essential to the process. Writing is a lonely profession. While you are ultimately accountable to an editor, your days are spent alone at your desk. For the past two years, I have had two friends serve as weekly accountability buddies (shout out to Leah and Suzanne!). We are all engaged in creative endeavors and we must account for what we’ve done over the last week and what we plan to do over the next week, every single week. It helps. It works. It’s why fitness and dieting apps try to get you to join forces with friends. 

Cultivate a growth mindset. 

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck recognized the difference between what she termed a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.  In a fixed mindset, people believe that their intelligence and talent are fixed and cannot be developed further. They believe it is talent alone that dictates success. In a growth mindset, by contrast, “People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.” This framework has been essential for me in writing each of my books. When the words and sentences don’t come, when I can’t grasp the ideas I want to convey, I tell myself to just keep thinking about it, that though my “talent” seems limited in the moment, it can rise to the occasion eventually through hard work.

Train your brain to help.

Training for long-distance running is not just physical, it is mental. In his 2018 book Endure, journalist and elite runner Alex Hutchinson argues that a key element of endurance is how the brain responds to signals of distress—heat, cold, sore muscles—and that it can be trained to improve its response. Okay, writing a book does not require the same physical stamina—rather, it requires resisting the siren call of the refrigerator and the sudden essentialness of every household chore except writing. But the principle is the same. Endurance, Hutchinson says, is “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” You need to train the brain to recognize that those signals are surmountable.  

Looking backwards has its own rewards.

The truth is that there is plenty of work ahead for me. I am not actually “done.” Editing, production, marketing all lie ahead. It will be another year or so before the book actually makes it to a bookstore near you (where of course I hope you will buy it and that you will enjoy it). For now, however, I am just going to take time to savor the accomplishment. Sometimes we are so quick to move on to the next task that we do not do enough of that.

I hope you will take a moment to savor whatever you accomplished in 2018.

Copyright: Lydia Denworth 2018

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