Dear Kay: Help! I’m working on a writing project but I’m having a terrible time focusing. I’m writing in circles, starting and stopping, making myself miserable, not finishing anything, bored with what I write and the whole process of writing. My lack of productivity is making this drag on and on. How do I get the magic back? –Bored in Philadelphia
Dear Bored in Philly:
I know this space you describe! And I too know the paradox of writing boredom–the more disengaged I am, the longer it takes, and the more bored I get. As I think about it, I realize that even the writing projects I’m excited about are boring in between the bursts of enthusiasm!
The most reliable relief I know comes from compassionate witnessing of my own process in which, without judgment, I simply note to myself–“ah, there I am, doing what I do, writing in circles without saying anything. Is there a better choice?”
Usually my “better choice” has to do with structure and accountability. Yours may vary, but here’s an example of what works for me. Try it if it sounds helpful, or use it as a model to devise your own.
When I sit down for a writing session, I typically set the timer on my phone to 30 minutes. When it goes off, I check in to see if I’m engaging with the writing or editing in a useful way, or if I’m avoiding, procrastinating, or prolonging.
“Engagement,” as I know it, doesn’t necessarily comport with productivity. I can write and get nowhere for numerous cycles, but there’s a difference–and it’s recognizable–between writing in tight circles (e.g. going nowhere) vs. writing in widening spirals (e.g. getting somewhere, even if I’m not quite sure where that is).
Frustration is a frequently reliable emotional cue. Again, there’s a recognizable difference in the quality of the frustration. My favorite frustration is when something is “there” but not yet word-ripe–the sorting and sifting and reaching for the elusive thing that hasn’t kicked in yet. This is the frustration of delayed (but intellectually purposeful) gratification, which is lots different from the frustration of feeling like I just don’t have it in me and I’m wasting time.
While I am engaged in this compassionate witnessing process, I’m usually inhaling the scent of my favorite sandalwood soap (I keep a bar in my desk drawer) or a zip-lock baggie filled with coffee beans (also in my desk drawer). Both of these scents have specific positive associations for me. From a neuroplasticity standpoint, scent is a particularly powerful anchor to help neurons fire and wire together so that neural connections to the positive (mindfulness, intention to focus, creativity) can be strengthened.
It doesn’t matter what the scent is so long as you have specific positive associations with it and a replication of it is readily available for you. So if you associate the scent of lavender with something positive–your grandmother’s perfume or your favorite long-soak bath salts or your trip to Provence, your “remembering to remember” and compassionate witnessing will register more deeply. Although scent is most powerful from a neuropsych perspective, if you don’t smell well or you are hypersensitive to scent, use any other sense (auditory, visual, tactile, taste) to pair with your mindfulness check-in and the “better choice” question.
Try these tips, or adapt them, and see if you can bring back the writing magic.