I’m reading Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Show How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Dr. Judson Brewer. I love reading it. It’s written in a simple, chatty, and example-laden way and it works well with the way that I learn. I’m savouring the last couple of chapters. I could be done, but I’d rather give the book another day or two to marinate. Plus, I take a small amount of joy in every moment that I get to use a bookmark (when you get a bookmark or think of something that could be a bookmark but really nothing else, don’t you get a little zing from actually using it as a bookmark?).
Anyway, there’s an idea from the book whirring around inside me right now, so I thought I’d share.
This morning I’m interested in what Dr. Jud describes as his “procrastination habit loop.” It goes like this (for him):
Trigger: Deadline for writing a paper
Behaviour: Check the New York Times website
Result: Feel up on the news, behind on the work
(One of the things that Dr. Jud recommends for working with anxiety is to map out your habit loops. He gives a three category framework for doing this: trigger, behaviour, result/reward.)
He goes on to describe how he realized that checking the New York Times was generally preceded by a “white -hot twisting ball of contracting dread” in his stomach. It took him time, but he noticed that a lot of the stomach pain comes from “not knowing the subject matter well enough to know what to write.” Checking the Times presented a better offer for his brain than sitting in the stomach pain (and not knowing), so he’d check the Times rather than keep writing. Eventually, he came to discover that doing research before sitting down to write, combined with having real-life experience with a topic helped him to write more and scroll less.
Dr. Jud describes a new understanding of how to write that goes like this: interest + knowledge + experience = enjoyment in writing = flow.
Now with that setup, here’s how this relates to my writing practice. Here’s how things often go for me.
Trigger: Get excited about writing something.
Behaviour: Start writing immediately.
Result/reward: I’m writing and feel good about it.
This all works rather well until I get into the writing and realize that I don’t totally know what I want to say.
Trigger: Realize that I don’t know what to say.
Behaviour: Keep writing so that I don’t procrastinate.
Result/reward: I’m not procrastinating (sort of).
As I type this I realize that the “keep writing” behaviour is immediately preceded by a fear that I’m not going to finish. It shows up as spinning thoughts and tightening in my chest. As my thoughts spin and my chest tightens, I grasp at whatever strategy seems most likely to get the piece done quickly; getting the piece done will surely release the tightening feeling.
I rarely, if ever, get the piece done when I write through the fear of not completing it.
Here’s what happens: I realize that I’m not going to finish it, allow myself to take a break — that’s self-compassionate after all, and leave behind an unfinished piece of work that I’m afraid won’t ever get finished. As I move into my break, I leave the fear and worry behind at my desk. Again, that’s self-compassion right? But think again, who would want to return to the site of fear and worry? My breaks can often last for weeks. To go back to the writing is to go back to the space of fear and worry. No wonder so many projects have a tendency to languish, half-done.
Here’s what I think Dr. Jud might invite me to do. First, he might invite me to keep mapping out my habit loops (like above: trigger, behaviour, result/reward). The act of mapping will increase my awareness of how my mind works and reduce my uncertainty about what is happening. Second, he’d probably suggest that I ask myself, “What are you really getting out of writing through the fear/worry? Doing that will build awareness of how little I get from this habit; developing a natural sort of disaffection with the behaviour. Third, he’d invite me to get curious when I notice myself writing through the fear, perhaps using a practice like RAIN (recognize, allow, investigate, note) to become more familiar with how I experience these moments. Doing that will start to replace the “write through the fear” habit with a “bigger, better offer” — curiosity. This curiosity might lead me to an awareness of how to write from a more grounded, less fearful place.
In Unwinding Anxiety, Dr. Jud writes about experimenting with a technique of “writing only when in flow,” instead of forcing the work through unhelpful emotions and sensations. To achieve this, he practices walking and sitting meditation, writes when he feels moved to write, and returns to meditation when he feels his procrastination/worry inspired tightening begin. In his mind, the tightening indicates a movement out of flow towards something more like striving (which is rarely helpful to completing anything), meaning that it’s time to pause the writing and get curious.
I’m inspired by this approach and I think that it can work for me. I love writing, so why should I build my writing projects into castles of fear and worry? I want to be drawn back to my writing space by its promises of peace, challenge, ease, passion, intensity, and adventure rather than pushed away by the fear and worry that can linger around unfinished projects. Here’s to unwinding more anxiety (or in this case, fear and worry, which seem like cousins).