Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Concentration and Procrastination in the End Times

Okay, so maybe 2020 isn't really the End Times, but there have certainly been times this year that it felt like it. How many times have you seen someone comment about just one more thing that 2020 is throwing at us?

Another common theme is that people say they just can't focus, can't concentrate, haven't accomplished anything.

If you're feeling that way, you're not alone.

According to an article in The New Statesman:


"Since February, there has been a 300 per cent increase in people searching “how to get your brain to focus”, an 110 per cent increase in “how to focus better”, and 60 per cent rise in “how to increase focus”. People are paying for apps and services to help their concentration."


Before I go on, I just want to acknowledge that your experience of this pandemic may vary widely according to where you live and how you life has been impacted. I live in NYC which for the past three months was the country's epicenter. We've had close to 400,000 cases and over 24,000 deaths. That kind of thing plays games with your mind - literally. But we'll get to that.


Almost exactly one year ago today, I wrote a post for Seekerville called A 15 Letter Word Not Equal to Lazy. I was reminded of that post this week when I stumbled upon this article - There's a reason we procrastinate and it's not laziness. 

I immediately started to read the article because the title struck a chord. I know I have a tendency to procrastinate, but it's been really bad lately. I have a book coming out in January and that seems like so very far away. But that book is done. How do I concentrate on writing a new one when I have no idea what kind of world will even exist for it to be released into? That kind of insidious thinking can be paralyzing, and it definitely fosters procrastination.

So I read the article. 
As I began to read, it felt familiar. That's when I realized the person being interviewed, Dr. Pychyl, was the same man I'd read about when writing that Seekerville post a year ago. This man has made the study of procrastination his life's work. He has spent twenty years studying it and leads a procrastination research group at Carleton University. He has a book called Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.

This article was focused on how the pandemic has affected us.
"We are in a time when uncertainty, worry and anxiety are dominating us emotionally. We are inevitably going to end up delaying things, but if we only have one word for that delay, which is procrastination, we end up beating ourselves up for it." He goes on to disagree, saying, "I would argue that yes, many things are being delayed, but we need a lot of self-compassion right now. We don't need to impugn ourselves with this notion of procrastination."

Indeed, according to research Dr. Amy Arnsten, a Professor of Neuroscience and a Professor of Psychology at Yale University, our inability to focus is actually a biological response to stress. 

This is where I got really interested and went all Science Geeky. Apparently it goes back to our prehistoric survival days. I highly recommend you read the whole article, but I'll summarize her main point. The pre-frontal cortex of our brain is where we do all our critical thinking, control impulses, and ... focus. But the pre-frontal cortex is also programmed to weaken under stress so our primitive survival instincts take over.


"So essentially, when faced with immediate physical danger, your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can respond quickly and basically in order to protect you."

And that's exactly where we are now, and why concentrating is so difficult.


"Arnsten says there are three major factors that make Covid-19 particularly potent for cutting off our prefrontal cortex: its invisibility; the lack of individual control we have over it; and being forced to go against our normal habits in order to protect ourselves."

So what do we do? We can't just give up and wait til someone comes up with a vaccine or a cure.

Dr. Pychyl's answer is very simple - just start. But start small.


"Here's the magic — the next time you face a task that your whole body is screaming, "I don't want to, I don't feel like it," ask yourself: what's the next action? What's the next action I'd need to take to make some progress? Don't break the whole task down. That will be sure to overwhelm you. I think if most of us broke our whole task down, we'd realize that life's too short, you can never get it all done. Instead just say, "What's the next action?" and keep that action as small and as concrete as possible."

Dr. Arnsten suggests you cut yourself some slack and feel reassured that this is a perfectly normal reaction and at some point it will get better. “I think that’s really helpful to have that kind of perspective and gain that sense of control,” she says.

So let's talk. Does it help you to know that you're not alone and that there is a perfectly reasonable biological explanation?

How are you coping?

Prayer helps. Some people do mindfulness or meditation. My daughter has taken up yoga.

For me, I'm trying the combination approach - starting with prayer, and then getting started - with the understanding that it may be tough, but if I do something I'll feel better than if I just waste away time. I was reminded recently about the Biblical admonitions against sloth. I'll take that to heart too - no time for idle hands.

But perhaps the best reward, because we are writers, is that our story world can take us away. There, we are in control. There we make the decisions; we have the power.
And that may give the affirmation we so desperately need.





Remember the Calgon, Take Me Away ads?


So, go write today! And let's hear how it worked for you.

But if you''re procrastinating and are willing to hang around, let's chat.  Let's talk about your experiences, and let's try to work our way back to productivity.

54 comments:

  1. I find it hard to concentrate on reading and writing reviews and can’t focus on TV but I work everything off so my garden is almost weed free. My family says I work to hard but lots of things get done. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Yes, Lucy. I was focusing on writing, but it's absolutely true of anything that requires mental focus. I'm a teacher as well as a writer, and I saw the same problem in my students as they tried to focus on schoolwork.
      I'm so glad you have a garden to work in. I live in an apartment now, so I miss that. I remember how much I used to love working with my father in his garden.

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    2. Oh, Lucy, aren't gardens great? I have a small one and I can just lose myself fussing over the tomatoes.

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    3. I tried to do an indoor garden of herbs last year, but everything just shriveled up within a week. :( Some day I hope to have a garden again.

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  2. This reminds me of Elisabeth Elliot's famous advice: "Do the next thing."

    When life is overwhelming, sometimes the best thing to do is to do the next thing God has set in front of you. Sweeping the floor. Making dinner for your family. Taking a plate of cookies to the neighbors. Writing one paragraph.

    Then when you've finished that task, do the next thing after that. Write another paragraph. Wash a load of laundry.

    Sometimes, taking even one step is hard, but taking that step is progress.

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    1. Jan, yes! These articles were focused on people's reactions to the pandemic, but the New Statesman one referred to any kind of stress. I always knew stress scrambled my mind, but I didn't know why. But focusing on the next thing gets you moving.

      Thanks for sharing that.

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    2. Jan, I have been living on "Do the next thing" for about 30 years. I had no idea it came from Elisabeth Elliot but I'm not surprised. Yes, do the next thing. If it's dishes or laundry at least you'll have clean dishes and clean laundry when you have to face the dreaded chore.

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    3. It's funny. I can "do the next thing" really well under stress (if it's something physical), but now as well in normal times. I think my brain must respond to the mindlessness of the task and I get momentum.

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  3. Cate, what a powerful post. And it can apply to anything, not just writing.
    "Procrastination research group"? Love to be a fly on THAT wall.
    It is easy to get overwhelmed. I had a meltdown this past weekend because my husband and I could not find a place where we could eat indoors. First-world problem, but when first-world problems pile up it is still frustrating.
    Haven't had that much trouble getting motivated to write, mostly because I have more time than I've ever had before. But I still haven't cleaned any closets etc. or all the other fun stuff people are doing in the quarantine. When I'm done writing I really want to go P-L-A-Y. Except there's no place to go.
    I think it's a good thing to build in writing habits before something like COVID 19 strikes. Then it's like muscle memory. But I agree it's easy to get distracted in These Times.
    This is a catch-up day for me, working my newspaper gig, continuing to cut an earlier MS for possible LIH, reading final edits for "Settler's Hope," working on my blog tour for "Settler's Hope," and preparing a 280-character summary for FaithPitch. There is plenty to do and I am blessed to have the time to do it.
    Back later,
    Kaybee
    Making it work in New Hampshire in a pandemic

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    1. I hear you, Kathy. I thought I was going to have SO much time to lose myself in writing because I would have no commute and virtual school had shorter hours. It did not work out that way. For the first few weeks, once that final virtual classroom door closed, I just sat and stared into space for an hour or more because I was that exhausted. Zoom fatigue is real!

      I hope you are able to rework your ms for LIH. Emily tweeted her list of needs the other day and LIH was second on the list after Amish contemporary. I'm rooting for you!

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    2. Tks Cate. I would love to do an LI-anything.
      Today I'm cutting 150 words from each chapter. Should be relatively painless. If I can get some Novocain.

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    3. Ouch! I've been so tempted to try a historical for them. I started writing historical. But my editor prefers me to stick with LIS, so I'm working on the next one of those today.

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    4. By the way, this would be a great revised state motto.

      Making it work in New Hampshire in a pandemic.

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  4. I am definitely a procrastinator and once I get in the habit of not doing something, it's really hard to push myself over the hump and get started. This year we've had some family stress on top of the pandemic and having gotten back into the writing habit in January I've been able to keep up a slow but steady pace on my WIP, which has actually been so good for my mental health. Like you said, our stories can be a great escape, so I'm thankful that I've had a bit of a diversion in the midst of a very stressful time.

    I've also done a couple of crocheting projects, which is such a great relaxing-yet-productive activity for me. Working the hands settles the mind.

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    1. I'm sorry for all the family stress, Glynis. That is the worst on so many levels. But I'm glad that you got writing again and that it helped. We were chatting about that on the Harlequin FB page yesterday, how the habit is so critical. Unfortunately for me, I got out of the habit while I was teaching virtual school - TOO much computer time. My brain was fried.

      I think something like crocheting is wonderful. I used to do so many needle arts but I got a pinched nerve in my neck that gives me grief whenever I try. I miss it.

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    2. I can't make two needles work together or even one, sigh. Don't have the coordination. Admire anyone who does.

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    3. Funny you should say that, Kathy. I was really good at embroidery, crewel, crocheting. But knitting was always a mess. My grandmother was an amazingly accomplished knitter and she tried to teach me, but it didn't take. After reading the comment by Glynis earlier, I was thinking I should try again. Maybe older me will have more patience.

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    4. Glynis, that's great that you've been able to keep going! I've found painting helps me to relax, to feed my creative soul.

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  5. You KNOW he's just studying procrastination because he doesn't want to get his real work done!

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    1. I imagine he gets LOTS of jokes about that, Mary. Even the interviewer was teasing him about the procrastination research group.

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    2. Can I be in the group or is it closed? Never mind, I'd probably not get the paperwork in on time.

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    3. LOL I think you have to be a student at Carleton to be a member.

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    4. .
      "At least if your job is procrastination no one can tell if you are working or just goofing off."
      .
      "He made procrastination his career because if you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life "

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  6. I'm different. It's not procastination that is my problem but brain fog caused by months of non stop vertigo. Currently I'm writing daily devotional sheets for children. A process that is extremely difficult. But I keep pushing through. On my fictional stories the ideas keep growing. Now for the storms to end and the Vertigo to take a break. Hope everyone has a great day.

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    1. Gentle hugs, Wilani. I can't even imagine trying to write with vertigo. I hope something can cure that for you.

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    2. Wilani, I'll be praying the vertigo ends! I'm so glad you're able to do some devotional sheets.

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    3. Hope you are feeling better. But you are doing important work with the children's devotionals. Not everybody has the knack for that.

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  7. Mary Cate, I cracked up when I saw the Calgon video because I was just thinking about those commercials the other day. I thought, "Man, there are some thing even Calgon can't do." We're surrounded by bad news. I don't ignore it, however, rather than dwelling on it, I tend to immerse myself in something positive, whether it's through working or reading or watching a Hallmark movie. (BTW Christmas in July is almost here. Christmas movies all month long. Woot, woot!) And, of course, lots of prayer. It's hard to remember that God is still in control when everything around us seems so out of control, but that makes communion with Him all the more imperative. Hugs, sweet friend.

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    1. LOL, Mindy. And I've been thinking there are things even Hallmark movies can't cure. Especially when I've seen them all dozens of times. Of course the good part of that is I can tune in at any time and know exactly what's happening.

      It's interesting that you bring up prayer, because I know a lot of people say they also have a hard time praying during stressful times. It seems particularly unfair to be unable to concentrate on the one thing you need most. I think that's when ritual prayers are most helpful.

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    2. Mindy, I'm not doing Hallmark but I'm doing Westerns on two oldies stations. Up to three hours a day. I chalk it up as research. I can rationalize anything.

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    3. I think that sounds perfect for inspiration. I've been binging Murder She Wrote. It's such a weird trip back in time to see how different things look back in the 80s and 90s and how much has changed. My memory is constantly being stretched.

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    4. My husband and I have been watching non-Christmas Hallmark movies. We don't normally watch except at Christmas, so any movie we find is new to us. We have also found some of the mystery series we like on the Hallmark Mystery channel. So we have been enjoying that.

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    5. Kathy, my husband has been watching a lot of old westerns, too. In his case, though, he's simply reliving his childhood. ;)

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    6. Sandy, we didn't used to have the Hallmark Movies and Mystery channel, but I discovered just last night that we do. I'm so excited! Now I have two to choose from.

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  8. Cate, I just posted a link in the upcoming weekend edition about this very thing!! The post was at Fiction University yesterday or Monday.

    It's very reassuring to me because I have felt in a total fog for months. I did get started again on a proposal but only after my critique partner started texting me every day to see how I was doing. The support really helped. But then I got sidetracked again with caregiving and taxes and everyday stress.

    Yesterday, once I finished the last of paperwork for my mom, I actually had some time to work again on my proposal. It felt so good to accomplish something! My mind got in the flow once again.

    Meditation and deep breathing really helps me. I can almost feel the stress level fall. Yoga with prayer has also been great for me.

    Thanks for sharing this study! I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the meditation, yoga (with prayer) and deep breathing. I keep meaning to follow some simple Tai Chi videos because I've found the breathing and gentle movements really help reduce stress (and blood pressure!).

      I'll be looking for that link in the WE.

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    2. Missy, good for you for getting going again. I'm not in a fog about writing but I am about Pretty Much Everything Else.

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    3. Kathy, I'm thankful your writing hasn't taken a hit with the brain fog!

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  9. Mary/Cate, thanks for a great blog.

    I got through those beginning days of wondering how we would endure by focusing on prayer and cooking. Live streaming services, taking time to pray as a family and then time for private prayer punctuated my days. At night, I tried new recipes and provided yummy meals when we offered thanks for farmers, truck drivers and grocery workers who kept food on our table. I also tried to learn as much as I could about this new virus. As you can imagine, I didn't get much written.

    But as we began to better understand the threat, I returned to my WIP and the words began to flow.

    Taking small steps is sometimes helpful. I've been cleaning my office by setting a timer and tackling the papers and clutter for ten minutes a day. Knowing I don't have to clean the entire room keeps me from getting discouraged.

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    1. Debby, I was thinking of you because the Pomodoro technique was one of the coping strategies mentioned in the New Statesman article.

      It's funny. I guess I'm struggling with adapting to the writing part of it now because I was so caught up in the teaching at the beginning. I had no choice but to dive into that, so I did with full concentration. Now, as I transition to summer writing, I'm struggling to find my footing.

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    2. So much unrest surrounds us these days, Mary/Cate, which makes it hard to focus on our stories. At least, we're not alone as you pointed out. Many have struggled during this time of trial.

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  10. I have struggled since March with this. Clinging to the 'start small' advice. Because that's about all I can deal with at the moment.

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    1. You've got a lot going on besides the pandemic, Erica. I think you definitely owe it to yourself to be lenient. But I am also finding that since I am forcing myself to work, I feel better.

      Sending hugs and "start small" wishes.

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  11. .
    "The hardest part about procrastinating is the wait".

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    1. Haha, Vince. Thanks for the smile.

      But as writers, we should be good with that because publishing is all about the wait.

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  12. I remember once asking my dad about the End Times or the Apocalypse or the Anti-Christ maybe and he said, "The times have always been right. There has always been someone who could be the anti-Christ. When the end times finally come we'll look at someone and realize, That Guy, oh, yeah, I see it now."
    So the point...we should always be ready.
    And that's not what your post is about but in my free wheeling mind that popped in.

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    1. True, Mary. I was just being funny with the title, but you are absolutely right about always being ready.

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  13. Very informative, Cate. That really explains why it is hard to concentrate when stressed. I am finally getting at my revision of my WIP. It feels good to actually be doing something. But I have also had a hard time concentrating. I like being home, though. I am working inventory without customers mornings in the book store, then have the rest of the day free. I am not going too many places yet. I don't have the desire to eat out or go a lot of other places. Still not going to church or the gym. I did get to see my dad on Father's Day and that was nice. I just wish I knew when this would all go away. Just knowing for sure would be a help!

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    1. Thanks, Sandy. I think it helps to understand why we feel a certain way. It may not change it, but it explains it, and I find that comforting.Honestly, I like being home, too, Sandy. But the going out part (when I have no choice) is super stressful. I'm so glad you got to see your dad for Father's Day.

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  14. .
    "It's all those guys who won't commit and 'pop the question' who have given 'procrastination' such a bad rep over the years but who have also given generations of romance authors enough conflict to keep them writing with a smile."

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    ReplyDelete

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