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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.

When Mental Clutter Limits Your Writing, Clearing Your Mind Takes New Meaning


If you feel scattered and find it difficult to focus your attention on your writing, you’re not alone, not weird, not wrong.

You’re probably suffering from mental clutter. Your brain is filled with too many things to think about, remember, ponder, take action on. You’re struggling to make sense of a cacophony of demands on your attention from email, social media, news media, all the stuff in the world around you, people who matter and complete strangers.

Writers juggle the diverse facets of writing with a multitude of other responsibilities and challenges. Many of us have another job as office manager/CEO of our writing business, teaching, editing, or working somewhere else to supplement income. We all have families, friends, communities that require our time and attention. We all live in a complex, and often scary, world.

Deciding what and where to focus your attention involves three brain networks:

  1. Alertness Network: constantly monitors what’s coming in through our senses and is always on the lookout for the unusual
  2. Orienting Network: causes us to look at, listen to and sniff the unusual to get more information (this is the “Oh, look! A bright and shiny object!” moment)
  3. Executive Network: decides whether to give the unusual stimulus sustained attention or ignore it in favor of what we were previously focused on.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in the Executive Network’s decisions about how to response to a stimulus. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that anticipates the future, evaluates possible outcomes, plans, discerns what’s important and what isn’t, and is capable of delaying immediate satisfaction for the sake of a larger, long-term gain.  

If your prefrontal cortex is not available, you literally cannot decide what to focus on.

When a specific, tangible threat triggers your limbic system to take over, your attention is appropriately focused on avoiding the tangible threat. (more about limbic system takeovers in chapter 2 of Around the Writer’s Block and here)

But when non-specific stress triggers your limbic system, effectively disconnecting the cortex’s Executive Network, you can’t decide what deserves your attention.

The fear of missing something important and the stress of having too much to do, too much information to attend to, and no way to choose what you can safely ignore triggers the limbic system and makes it impossible for the Executive Network to decide what to do, what information to attend to, and what to ignore.

The only way to break this vicious cycle is to consciously, intentionally choose to relax.

Choose to focus on nothing but your breathing and let your body go limp. Relaxing will bring your prefrontal cortex back online (more about that in chapter 2 of Around the Writer’s Block and here).

And as soon as you’ve got your prefrontal cortex online, you can choose what to let go of, what you will not do, what information you will not process, what you will ignore.

When you feel so frenzied, you can’t figure out which of the hundred things clamoring for your attention you should do next, do nothing.

Relax. The world isn’t going to stop turning if you take 5 to 10 minutes to reboot your prefrontal cortex and remember what’s truly important.

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2 Comments on “When Mental Clutter Limits Your Writing, Clearing Your Mind Takes New Meaning”

  1. Hell's Bells and Mast Cells June 16, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

    Training my brain to overcome my chronic illness (brain fog, pain, etc.) at few minutes at a time. Hard work, but rewarding!
    P.S. I don’t know how many years ago I read Around the Writer’s Block, but now I have a poodle competing in Master’s level AKC agility! Still working on the book though…

    Like

    • rosannebane June 21, 2018 at 2:11 pm #

      Hi Hell’s Bells and Mast Cells, yes, training our brains is so rewarding. What a gift it is that we can do that for ourselves even in the face of chronic illness. Kudos to you for putting in the effort! And congrats on reaching the Master’s level in AKC agility. Keep showing up — for your book, your poodle-partner and yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

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