At the end of A Meeting With Your Writing one day, a participant shared how she’d managed her focus on a project that brings up difficult emotions.
I’ve been dealing with one thing that was very hard … with some rough comments that I’m still sort of sorting through after getting some feedback from my coauthors. … I had another writing project so I split my time a little and treating the other one like a reward made me feel kind of more excited to do it.
It’s helpful to only try and do bite-sized chunks because if you stare at the comments for too long, you stop having perspective. It’s not efficient, maybe, but it is emotionally more supportive.
This concern with efficiency comes up a lot. I don’t think most people have stopped to think what “efficient” might really look like. In this case, the strategy of only doing bite-sized chunks is more efficient than doing nothing, because you’re feeling anxious. By doing it in small chunks, you’re able to do the work. All the time that you’re devoting to this particular project is actually spent focused on it.
It’s possible your gremlins are saying: “You should be able to stick with this! You should be able to spend more than 20 minutes!“, but the fact is that you could sit there and be ‘officially’ working on this project for longer, but you know you’re not actually working on it. You’re getting into an anxiety spiral instead.
What makes it emotionally difficult?
In this example, the emotionally difficult part was related to the way comments from peer reviewers had been worded. I address that in the Dealing With Reviewer Comments class, but even with some reframing, working on the project might still trigger anxiety.
You can know intellectually that this reviewer sees potential in the project and is trying to help you, or that this reviewers comments are unreasonable and the editor doesn’t even want you to address them, but it still feels like a gut-punch when you sit down to do the work.
This is normal. It can be for a whole host of reasons, including experiences of being bullied by supervisors or colleagues in the past. You need strategies for working around that because healing is difficult and takes time, even when you have the mental health support you need (which is hard to get).
That’s not the only reason your project might be emotionally difficult. Sometimes it’s the content of the project. Another Studio member had used a similar tactic for a memoir project she’s been working on. She’s writing rough drafts of memory stories while she figures out what the whole project looks like. Just writing one is enough work on that project, so she’s got two projects on the go. When she comes to A Meeting With Your Writing, she does some work on one of these stories and then she works on something else, because it’s just too emotionally intense.
You don’t have to feel any shame about the fact that a project is bringing up loads of emotional gunk. You just need to give yourself a trigger warning. “I can only do this for this long, but I can do something.”
How long is “bite-sized”?
This varies a lot. It depends on the particular trigger, how you are feeling in general on a particular day, and all kinds of other things. Sometimes you feel the anxiety before you start and need to push through a little bit to get started. Sometimes, the emotions build as you work. I’ve been using 10 minutes as an example. If that is too much, do 5. If 15 or 20 is okay, then that’s your “bite-sized”.
Start by noticing! In A Meeting With Your Writing, I prompt participants to notice how they are feeling in general, and also how they are feeling about the project they plan to work on. I then ask them how their focus might be affected by those feelings. Getting in the practice of noticing will help you adapt your writing strategies to your emotional capacity on a particular day, as well as to the specifics of the particular project.
One of the things I’ve learned in my yoga practice is that you don’t have to push yourself beyond your limits to expand your capacity. Physical discomfort sends a message to your brain to protect your muscles, so stopping before the discomfort can help you build up trust that allows your muscles to stay relaxed. You could experiment with how that works in terms of your emotional reactions.
Stop before you get into the anxiety spiral.
You won’t be able to do this right away, so start by stopping as soon as you notice the anxiety (or whatever difficult emotion you are feeling). Once you’ve noticed, you can ask yourself: “What are the things that happen before I’m really in it?” The next time you are working on this project, maybe you’ll notice one of those earlier signs, and can stop there. Over time, you may find that you’ll be able to do longer and longer, without going into the anxiety spiral. The change won’t be linear though.
Be compassionate about yourself.
The best time to stop may have been 20 minutes ago, but the next best time is now. It takes a lot of practice to notice before things feel really bad.
If you are already upset or anxious, get up. Get a glass of water. Do some kind of physical movement to burn off the stress hormones. Don’t go back to the same project. If you are going to keep writing, switch to another project. Or call that the end of your writing for now, and go do something else.
You might figure out that the amount of time you can spend on this project is pretty consistent. If that’s the case, you can then plan to work on it for that amount of time regularly.
You can also decide to just work on it for as long as you can, and have a plan for what you’ll switch to. Or when you’ll come back to it.
This is one reason why I focus on writing practice over detailed planning to meet a deadline. It is not productive to work on this project once you’ve started getting anxious. Pushing yourself too far will also require more recovery time, which will affect your other work. It may also affect your sleep, which then makes it harder to regulate your emotions, focus, or do cognitive labour. You can’t magically make this work differently. You need to meet yourself where you are.
How to schedule these “bite-sized chunks”
These examples come from A Meeting With Your Writing, which includes 90 minutes for writing. If you’ve blocked a longish chunk of time like that to write, the strategy of swapping between projects can work well. Starting with the emotionally difficult one means you won’t avoid it altogether. Limiting the time means you move it forward without getting into a shame or anxiety spiral.
The other project can be your reward for having done [bold italic] something on this project. It can just be another thing you are working on. Or, it might be an opportunity to feel like you [bold italic]can stick with something for more than 10 minutes. That said, if you have to do everything in 10 minute chunks, that’s a legitimate strategy.
The other way to do this is to recognize that you can’t work on this for long, so you might as well not even bother trying to block longer writing sessions. The beauty of this strategy is that it’s a lot easier to find 10 or 20 minutes to write than it is to find an hour or more. (I have said a lot more about different kinds of writing time and how to use them to build a practice in Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing, A Short Guide)
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thoughtful about which 10 or 20 minutes you devote to this, though. You want to have some emotional resilience when you work on this project. This suggests working on it before doing other tasks that will require emotional work or trigger difficult emotions.
If you are a morning person, doing 10 or 20 minutes at the beginning of your work day, before you open your email or walk into a classroom or meeting, can be a good strategy. If you decide to do it in the middle of the day, after lunch (or a snack) is better than on an empty stomach. Low blood sugar doesn’t do anything good for your emotional resilience.
I recommend finding time for this project during normal working hours. I know that’s hard. You are already finding it difficult to work on this project. If the emotional triggers are about reviewer comments or other feedback, they are already making you upset and angry. You don’t need to add resentment for eating into your personal time to the list of reasons you find this project emotionally difficult.
If your emotional reaction is making it difficult to get started, you are going to have to push yourself a little bit. One useful strategy here is to give yourself an out. Make yourself work on it (every day? 3 times a week? Be specific.) but allow yourself to stop after 10 minutes if it’s bad. You can allow yourself to continue if you are feeling okay, but you don’t want to make the difficulty of starting worse. You also need to really make yourself keep your commitment. If you are on your way to bed and you haven’t done it, stop and do your 10 minutes. Do not go longer. It’s the end of the day. You also need rest.
Your goal is more than finishing this project.
Yes, you need to get these revisions done and submit the revised manuscript. Or you want to actually finish this article, book, or whatever.
But that isn’t your only goal.
- You also want to spend less time feeling anxious, upset, ashamed, or whatever.
- You want to spend more time feeling competent.
- You want to feel confident that you can do this work.
- You can do this.
Sometimes it’s really difficult. Be compassionate with yourself.
A loving kindness meditation for your writing – by Katherine Firth at Research Degree Insiders approaches this kind of issue from a different angle.
Other posts about Optimizing Focus can be found in this Spotlight on Optimizing Focus.
This post is based on a conversation that happened during A Meeting With Your Writing, part of the Academic Writing Studio. It has been shared with the permission of the Studio member involved.