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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Too Distracted to Write? Here’s Your Next Step


relaxWhen you realize you’re too distracted to write, kudos! Recognizing distraction (or any other form of resistance) is Step 1 in responding effectively. As soon as you recognize the distraction, you can stop wondering if you have ADHD and takes steps to refocus your attention and get back to writing.

Your next step is to relax. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even if you spent the last two hours (or the last six months) farting around with one distraction after another, you need to relax.

Whether distractions forced their way into your awareness or you went looking for them, you’re no longer in your “write mind” and relaxing is the key to getting back to it.

How is Your Brain Like Lincoln’s Cabinet?

Team_of_Rivals_coverAccording to noted neuroscientist David Eagleman, they’re both a team of rivals. 

There an amazing variety of areas in the human brain that perform a dizzying range of functions. One the simpler ways to identify the team members is to think about the brain as three brains in one:

  1. brain stem (aka the reptile or lizard brain)
  2. limbic system (aka the mammal or leopard brain)
  3. cerebral cortex (aka the human or learning brain).

Your desire, commitment and ability to write resides in your cerebral cortex. As long as your cortex is in charge, you’re good to go. Trouble is, your cortex isn’t always leading the team.

Royalty-free 3d computer generated people clipart picture image of a white person with a red head attached to an on/off switch lever, set to on.When you’re stressed or threatened by a potential emergency, the Reticular Activating System (RAS — think of it as a toggle switch in your brain stem) shifts control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system. This shuts off the cortex’s ability for nuanced, innovative thinking and sophisticated analysis.

You’re still conscious, you can still speak and calculate, so you usually don’t know that your cortex is no longer in charge. But it’s your limbic system that determines how you think, what you say and how you act at those times. And to the limbic system, writing is, at best, unimportant and irrelevant, or at worst, a threat to be avoided.

The limbic system follows the fight-or-flight instinct. One of the most popular forms of fleeing is to distract yourself with something that, unlike writing with all its uncertainty and vulnerability, is not threatening. Something like sorting your sock drawer or cruising social media.

If you have even a tiny awareness that you might be distracting yourself, you can turn things around. You can get the RAS to flip control back to the cerebral cortex. All you have to do is relax.

When your body physically relaxes, the RAS switches the limbic system off and the cortex back on. That’s why it’s vital to select a few, simple relaxation techniques in advance so you know what to do in a writing emergency.

How to Relax in a “Writing Emergency”

relax post-it 123rf 27866716_sFirst of all, remember there are no real writing emergencies. We aren’t running ERs, operating rooms or the control center of a nuclear power plant. It may seem like this is a critical, defining moment in your writing career, but no one ever died for lack of words on the page.

Allow yourself a little perspective.

Surrender your expectations. Expectations cause stress and stress triggers the limbic system. Show up, put in your time and do your best. You’ll get there. You’ll get there faster if you don’t weigh yourself down with expectations.

Make sure your commitments are small enough. The thought of a big commitment can trigger the RAS to engage the limbic system and trigger the lateral habenula. Fifteen minutes really are magical.

7360135 - young woman doing some breathing exercises outdoorsBreathe! Most of us breathe with only the top third of our lungs. Rapid, shallow breathing keeps the limbic system engaged.

To relax, you need to breathe deep and slow. Inhale all the way down to your belly. Hold it for a few seconds, then consciously exhale all the air and wait a few seconds. Repeat as necessary.

Consciously Tighten and Relax Your Muscles. Start by consciously tightening the muscles in your feet, curling your toes and feeling the tightness in the arch and ball of your foot. Notice this tension and when you’re ready, let it go with a sigh. Then tighten the muscles in your calves and knees and continue tightening, holding and relaxing the remaining parts of your body.

If you want guidance, listen to the relaxation track of my Dancing in the Dragon’s Den Guided Imageries CD.

54728563 - woman relaxes in yoga asana savasana - corpse pose outdoors in himalayas. himachal pradesh, indiaPlay dead. Try the yoga ‘corpse’ pose where you lay flat on your back and breathe. Yoga is not only a great way to relax in the moment, it’s one of those on-going self-care practices that make your RAS less reactive in the long run, so your cortex will be online more of the time.

Play. Creative play, what I call Process, can be as simple as coloring or doodling. Try finger painting. Play around with a harmonica. Knit. Bead. Make something out of Play-Doh. Anything that you do just to do it, without expectations of a specific outcome, will relax you.

Practiced regularly, 10 or 15 minutes of Process will also make your RAS less reactive in the long-term.

When you relax and bring your creative cortex back online, you’re ready for the next step: respecting the wisdom in your resistance. Watch for that in our next post.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Step 4: Redirect Your Writing Past Distraction | Bane of Your Resistance - July 7, 2016

    […] we distract ourselves to diffuse anxiety, Step 2 is to Relax, so you don’t need to keep distracting […]

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  2. Step 3 Out of Too Distracted to Write: Respect Your Resistance | Bane of Your Resistance - June 30, 2016

    […] Step 2 is to relax, which will bring your creative cortex back online. […]

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