Priming the Brain for Writing: The Power of Daily Ritual

Welcome to week three of my ADHD and creativity series! During Week 1, I talked about how exercise shattered my writer’s block and helped me double my word counts from February through March. Last week, I talked about how meditation helps facilitate the growth of new dopamine receptors to help soak up all those lovely exercise endorphins, and how meditating when transitioning between tasks helps me focus better.

This week, I’ll be talking about my pre-writing ritual and how writing at the same time every day, doing the same things before you write each day, or both can help get your brain primed for creative work.

First, on my pre-writing routine. I’m religious, so I’ll say that up front. I also write full time, so I have a bit more time for a lengthy writing ritual before I start my work each day.

After breakfast, I head downstairs to my mini-gym and do the first of two short workouts (around 30-45 minutes each) each day. I then move over to my altar room and do a set of daily prayers and devotions to align myself with my purpose. A version of this could be a mind-clearing meditation or a short daily reading related to whatever it is you’re writing about, if you’re not religious. I then head to my office, power up the computer, and dump 3 pages of stream of consciousness into a running word document I use as a journal. If I’m stressed out about anything, having doubts, anxieties, in a really good mood, or just can’t stop thinking about something, writing it all down REALLY helps with purging it before I get started.

I then do a 10 minute meditation, cement my purpose at the end, and start my first writing task of the day. I break my day into two deep work (read: writing) periods and two shallow work (read: journaling, blog posts, correspondence, marketing, submissions, lunch, etc) periods, and I’ll cover why I do this next week. Suffice to say my first deep work period follows the above, and for my second I do my second workout and another meditation.

Doing this specific set of tasks each day before I write brings two main benefits. One: it ensures I actually do these things consistently every day. Journalling is known to help aid in emotional regulation for both ADHD and neurotypical folks, and getting crap out of my head before I start writing means that crap isn’t going to stop me from writing. We’ve already talked about the myriad benefits of meditation. And working out. By making each of these steps a part of my pre-writing ritual, I’m training myself to get them done every day, and giving myself the best time frame to reap the immediate benefits to my productivity in that moment.

The second is a bit more complex. A daily ritual, like a habit, activates parts of the brain your mind comes to associate with tasks that come afterward. E.G., if you drink the exact same tea just before you start to brainstorm for writing, or wear the same hat or outfit or go to work at the same time, the parts of your brain that work together for brainstorming light up like neon signs in Vegas immediately afterward. This works particularly well if you can do these things at the same time every day, as this adds the dual benefit of engaging your Circadian Rhythms, or the parts of your nervous system involved in when to be more active and when to sleep.

So what can you do if you can’t write at the exact same time every day because of a day job with an unpredictable schedule or something else? This is where the behavioral rituals really shine. Back to the tea example – if you use a number of different herbal teas and only drink them just before you engage in a specific writing task, then your brain will come to recognize those sensory experiences as being prep for practicing that task.

Tea isn’t the only thing you can use, obviously. Specific exercises, particular visualizations for meditation (there’s a fantastic creativity meditation on Headspace that works really well for this), putting on a whistling kettle or playing a specific musical album, the sky’s the limit. As long as it’s something you only do before you engage in creative work, most things that engage the senses in some way can function as a pre-writing ritual. The key is consistency. If you choose a musical album, you can’t just randomly play it in your car or you’ll be working against all that training you’ve put yourself through to tie the sounds with writing.

And it does take a bit of training. It took me about two months before my pre-work ritual really sank in, and it may have even been sped up because I’d been doing at least a few of those things for years before writing prior to the setup of my office. The level of detail and complexity of behavior is a personal choice, but I caution you not to give up on the practice if it takes a while to sink in. Often the shift in mindset is a subtle one, and you won’t really physically see the benefits unless you’re doing some kind of tracking outside of just word counts.

I have my word count and habit tracking spreads opposite each other in my bullet journal so it’s really easy to see what happens if I skip one of my essential pre-work rituals. Having the immediate feedback and seeing the numbers grow over time confirmed my internal feeling that this pre-work set of tasks really does benefit me.

Next week I’ll cover Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport and why I segment my work day the way I do. This particular post extends beyond creative work, and I’m hoping some of you can find some use for it in your day jobs as well. See you next week!

Mind Segmentation and Task Transitioning: Why I Meditate Between Tasks

Last week I talked about exercise and how starting up a daily workout routine before I started my writing practice doubled my word count in about two weeks. In that post, I mentioned that I meditate every time I start a new task, and briefly touched on the concept of task segmentation.

Most writers have heard of the idea that editing and drafting use different parts of the writer’s brain and require different mindsets. Some famous authors would literally change outfits or physical hats when they were drafting, editing, or marketing/pitching their work to agents. There’s pretty good reasons for why.

The first is personal, but I’m sure many of my fellow writers (and ADHDers in particular) can relate. If I try to edit while I draft, I get so fixated on getting things right that I end up cutting my productivity to shreds. Accepting that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft, or even a good one, that every first draft I’ll ever write is going to be crappy and that’s okay was the first step I took on the way to mind segmentation.

The second is a bit more broad. Breaking down tasks makes them seem more manageable, which means we’re more likely to do them. We’ve all heard the advice that, “write a novel” is a massive, overwhelming task when thought of as a whole, but drafting a specific scene or even outlining that scene before we draft it is far smaller. Taken this way, task segmentation makes sense. “Draft a scene,” is far less overwhelming than “write a scene and edit as I draft it so it’s as close to perfect as possible when I’m done so I don’t have to do a bunch of editing later, even though I know I’m still going to have to edit no matter how much work I do now.”

Whether I think about things in those words or not, that’s the implication of editing while writing. But in my personal practice, I take things a step further.

Covenant of the Hollow converted me from pantsing (E.G. writing by the seat of your pants, or without a written plan) to plotting for a simple reason. If I had to figure out what was happening in a scene as I wrote it, I wrote a lot less. So outlining a scene, or the “generative work” of creating that scene in my mind, became another segmented task.

Whether or not I outline my whole book (which I did for Covenant of the Hollow and my current project, Prisoner of the Hollow but not for Diary of the Hollow) or just one ​scene at a time is less important than the fact that I outline the scene and its important details before I start the drafting process.

Which brings me to meditation and task transitioning.

Now, writing a scene is broken into the following three tasks, each of which present a different mindset. “Visualize and outline the scene, including important sensory details, emotions, point of view, other characters and their motivations, and how it all relates back to the book’s theme,” then, “Write a crappy first draft of the scene and accept the fact that it’s going to need to be cleaned up later,” then, most likely further down the line, “edit the scene with the outline and the book’s outline in mind, making sure the scene accomplishes everything it needs to for its place in the book.” Notice how each of those stages require a different type of thinking?

We’re back to ADHD. People with ADHD often have a hard time transitioning between tasks. Neurotypical people do too, but to a far lesser extent. It’s hard to shift gears when your brain naturally loves to jump all over the place, and the blank space between “Task A is finished,” and “Start Task B” is a vacuum, and as with all things in nature, mind-vacuums are begging to be filled with STUFF.

What kind of stuff? Writer’s block stuff. Surfing Facebook stuff. Chatting with a friend stuff. Watching a YouTube video and getting sucked into a 3-hour long binge stuff. Eating everything in the fridge stuff. Starting a video game for just one round and playing for hours instead stuff. You get the idea.

Not writing stuff.

So what do? What I found helps the most is to quiet my mind with a 3-10 minute meditation when transitioning between any tasks, including transitioning from drafting scene 1 to drafting scene 2. Even though it’s the same mindset, quieting my mind before it can tell me “how much more interesting the buzz from my phone is than drafting scene 2,” and how “scene 2 will be just as hard to draft tomorrow as it is right now,” has made a huge difference.

I adore the Headspace mobile and desktop app for this reason alone. They have a number of mind quieting meditations, some of which come with visualization and reflection on a particular topic built in. At the end, when the narrator tells my mind to “be free,” I set an intention for when I open my eyes, so I’m ready to sink fully into whatever task I transitioned to.

If you don’t feel like paying for an app, a simple breathing meditation can be a simple alternative. Set a timer on your phone for 3-10 minutes, then set it down and close your eyes. Check in with the world around you. Sounds, smells, bodily sensations, the mood of your mind. After a few moments, focus on your breath. The length, the depth, where you feel it. Then, start counting. In breath, 1, out breath, 2. Count up to 10, then start over. Over and over again until the timer goes off. Thoughts are going to show up and distract you. Don’t judge yourself for that. If you catch yourself thinking, let go of the thought and come back to where you were when you were counting. Can’t remember? Start at 1. When the timer goes off, tell yourself (out loud if possible and not too embarrassing) what your intention is next, as though you were doing it. “I’m drafting scene 2.” Then sink into the task.

If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a task, where your brain is telling you you can’t go on or are spent for the day, try the 15 minute exercise burst from last week or the meditation from this week. It can really help, especially if you build a regular practice outside of just task transitioning. Meditation teaches that all of our thoughts are fleeting, including limiting beliefs about our own distractability or the feelings of anxiety that can crop up if we get stumped. It allows us to let these thoughts and feelings pass, rather than fighting them and giving them power, then move on and get whatever it is done.

Next week I’ll touch on my pre-writing habit ritual, and why I write at the same times every day if possible. I’ll also discuss habit triggers, and how to redirect unhelpful ones and deal with the need for consistency even if your day job gives you a random schedule.

What do you think? Have you had trouble transitioning between tasks? What does meditation do for you? I’d love to hear from you.

See you next week.