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It's a Writer Thing -- It's All About Control

This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss. 

Hello lovely writers! Welcome back to my It’s a Writer Thing mini-series on stimulus control and generalizability. As you may recall, I’m a clinical psychologist, which means I get to take advantage of all those great psychological theories and put them to work for me in my writing, and I want to share that with you.

In my last two posts, I talked about the benefit of ingraining a very powerful urge to write by creating a habit. Writing under the same circumstances every day for a few weeks can create stimulus control in which the environment triggers our writing behavior. But I also cautioned that we can sometimes hinder ourselves if we limit our writing to only that special circumstance. We don’t want to limit ourselves! We want to be productive no matter where we are, right? So, to avoid that, once we’ve established a good habit, we need to vary our writing environment (while still sticking with our routine) so we can train ourselves to write under a variety of stimuli. This will allow for optimal productivity.

Today, I want to add in two new concepts: cognitive control and locus of control.


Cognitive Control: The way people’s behavior can be driven by mental constructs such as plans, instructions, goals, and prior events. It also refers to the way our behavior can vary in real time, allowing it to change as our plans, goals, and values (etc.) vary. This allows our behavior as a whole to be flexible instead of rigid.

Locus of Control: In other words, to whom or what we attribute our success (or failure). Is it because of things inside of us (i.e., internal locus of control) or things outside of us (i.e., external locus of control)?

How does this all fit in with stimulus control and generalizability?


First off, we must recognize that external stimuli impact our behavior. That’s exactly why stimulus control and generalizability work, right? Whether we’re talking writing behavior, eating behavior, study habits, whether we get on Facebook or get to work on that MS instead, we can’t ignore the impact of external factors on what we do. If we try to, we’re losing out on some potentially helpful stuff and maybe even setting ourselves up for failure (like if we minimize the impact of a coworker bringing donuts to work when we’re trying to count calories).

So, step 1, just remember that external factors impact us.


External factors don’t have to be the end-all be-all of our behavior. Yes, stimulus control is powerful, but so is your brain. We need to remember that the executive control of our behavior lies within us. 

All too often I hear people saying things like: 

I can’t work out today, because I got stuck in traffic. Or 

There’s no point eating a healthy lunch because I’m going to have an unhealthy dinner. Or 

There’s no point writing; I’ve only got a half hour and I need at least 45 minutes to make it work. Or 

Why try to write? My kids are being all loud and making a mess.

What do all of these situations have in common? They all are examples of external locus of control. In other words, they’re all examples of situations where we assume the external environment has the ultimate power to decide what we do.

Cognitive control is like our trump card, the one that bypasses all of these barriers. By putting the locus of control back inside us, we exert cognitive control. Instead of letting the environment drive our behavior, we can use other important stimuli to drive it instead. Stimuli like: our goals, our values, our decisions, our plans, our prior preparations, the deadline we committed to with our editor/agent/critique partner.

Stimulus control and generalizability are tools to increase our writing by training our behavior around external stimuli. They’re perfect for helping us get productive. Cognitive control and an internal locus of control mindset are tools to overcome barriers and stay productive even if the environment isn’t aligned in our most optimal set-up. 

Your comfy chair and tatty robe won’t write your story for you, right? YOU write your story. And you can do it whether you’re in the perfect spot or in your really uncomfortable work clothes or surrounded by a lot of distraction or with a glass water instead of a huge-ass mug of coffee or jazz instead of polka (you know who you are). 

No matter how powerful the stimuli in our environments, we are always the ones with the executive control. We are in the driver’s seat. We get to veto all the other stuff and put our brains to work for us. So, when I use the mantra shared with me by my dear friend, You can do it! You can write!, I’m literally invoking our powers of cognitive control. 

This concludes my mini-series on stimulus control and generalizability. How will you put these powerful psychological tools to work for you and your writing? Feel free to leave a post in the comments and share.

Thanks to Amber Gregg for hosting my posts on her fabulous site, “Judging More than Just The Cover,” and don’t forget…

You can do it! You can write!

Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially her husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand. 

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