Values-Driven Writing Goals

When I conduct my first coaching session with writers, I introduce them to the ACT approach that I have integrated into the Focused Flow model. ACT is a collaborative coaching intervention that was developed by Professor Steven Hayes as he struggled to overcome his own personal challenges following his divorce. Previously a highly competent public speaker and lecturer, Steven found himself freezing up when he went to speak and experiencing panic attacks which quickly developed into a full-blown panic disorder. As a psychologist, he tried all the standard approaches to deal with his condition, but none seemed to resolve his problems entirely. You can read more about how he struggled to overcome his problems and how this led him to develop the ACT approach here.

The ACT approach is based on a six staged process that is represented by the hexaflex.

The Hexaflex

I came across this approach after training in the more traditional mindfulness-based approaches of MBSR and MBCT, both of which require a regular meditation practice. While studying at the Centre for Mindfulness Practice and Research at the University of Wales, I found out that many of my peers had difficulties maintaining a meditation practice due to a lack of time, heavy workloads, and family responsibilities, meaning they often found these approaches difficult to follow. I was drawn to ACT, because while the approach teaches mindfulness skills that develop a greater awareness of how the human mind works, it does not require a meditation practice. That’s right- no meditation is involved! In fact, ACT exercises teach us how to develop mindfulness on the move, during the ordinary activities of everyday life. This alone aroused my interest, so I took an experiential training programme that required trainees to apply ACT to their everyday experience. After we were presented with the hexaflex and the theory was introduced we began stage one of the process called ‘front loading your values’.

When looking at the hexaflex above, it might be difficult to imagine how this approach could be applied to the writing process to help overcome blockages and optimise productivity. At first, this wasn’t my intention at all. It was only after working with a coaching client who had been trying to finish her PhD thesis for twelve years that I discovered how useful ACT could be for overcoming obstacles encountered during the writing process. I simply took my client through the six staged process with a focus on the importance of writing in her life with fantastic results. She then went on to finish her thesis in nine months!

The first stage involved front loading her values. As is often the case, she was unclear about what her values actually were, especially the values that were driving her writing goals. Values and goals are different. Goals are milestones of achievement while values steer the direction we want our lives to take. So, if we’re unclear about our values, we’re not sure where we’re heading, and so we’re much less likely to get there. Often, when my clients complete the values clarification exercises, they discover that the values that had been steering their life so far had never been their own values, but had been adopted from another source, such as parents, teachers, their partner, or even the accepted conventions of society as a whole. Russ Harris illustrates the difference between a values-focused life versus a goals-focused life in this short video below.

For those people struggling to complete a long-term writing project, understanding which values are driving their writing goals is crucial. It’s also important to understand if writing is associated with a lack of fulfilment of other values and how both sides of the coin interfere with the writing process. I’ll give you an example to illustrate what I mean.

Let’s return to my previous who had struggled to complete her PhD thesis for almost twelve years. When she started clarifying her values, she realised that despite the importance of the values of creativity, learning and adventure that steered her PhD research, she also associated spending extended time on her writing with a lack of time with her partner doing things they enjoyed such as travelling together, sharing leisure activities and seeing friends.  She discovered that subconsciously she was associating writing with relationship problems, social isolation, and even the loss of her partner to a less boring academic type! So, when we were front loading her values, we also had to reframe her writing in terms of her valued relationships, and unravel the association between writing and neglecting her partner and social connections.

As we did so, she realised to her surprise that her inability to focus on writing was at the core of some her problems with her partner, as her frustration was affecting her mood, energy levels and enjoyment of shared activities. She felt hunted by a sense of guilt and failure, and this was being expressed in her relationships in all kinds of indirect ways. Her partner was becoming associated with her inability to focus and write, although all her partner ever did was try to encourage her! Quite soon, we were able to reframe her writing as support to having a healthier relationship, as she saw how her reluctance to set boundaries to dedicate time to writing up her thesis was undermining her ability to be fully present to her partner and enjoy their time together.

In this case, front loading her values set her on a path to unlocking the time she needed to dedicate to writing, while she used mindfulness skills to detach from the guilt inducing inner commentary that would often arise when she made time away from her relationship to sit down and write. She established some values driven writing goals in the short, medium, and long term that enabled her to achieve a greater sense of fulfilment in other areas of her life. Once she had clarified the values driving her writing process, she was clear about where she was heading and could map out how to get there. This is the territory I cover with my clients in their first two coaching sessions using the Focused Flow workbook as a guide.

In the next post, I’ll explain how the mindfulness exercise of cognitive defusion helps establish the focus needed to drop into the flow state when we face obstacles with productivity even when we have plenty of time to write. Overcoming our inner obstacles to the writing process can be our greatest challenge. The Focused Flow model is especially designed to identify and uproot inner blockages to establishing the flow state, a vital and creative state of mind that is key to optimising productivity.

I look forward to any comments on this post.

Focused Flow- what is it?

Welcome to the Focused Flow blog where I will write about the origins of this approach to the writing process and describe the techniques used to overcome obstacles and optimise writing productivity.

The ‘flow state’ is a well-researched optimal state of mind between boredom and anxiety where you perform and feel your best. Flow is the experience of being so engaged in an activity that you drop into a state of vital, sustained productivity such that you may lose track of time, sometimes even forgetting to eat and drink. I have experienced my flow state when writing from different perspectives, including academic writing, fiction writing and article writing. This blog will share how I have managed to overcome internal obstacles to my own writing process, continued to write in a range of difficult circumstances, and have since gone on to help other writers do the same.

We all of us, writers or not, have good and bad days, suffer ups and downs in our energy levels, have times when we find it easier to concentrate and days clouded with brain fog. Obstacles to achieving our writing goals can arise internally through experiences like self-doubt, procrastination, and lack of confidence in our abilities, or externally- due to a poor night’s sleep, stress at work, or like I am experiencing right now – the constant noise of my neighbour’s DIY activities!

Most recently, many of us will have experienced the extra collective stress of lockdown. This definitely impacted upon my productivity as an editor and writer. In fact, so much so, I wrote a short account of my international lockdown story, about how I got stuck between countries and couldn’t travel, and the impact of lockdowns on the country where I used to live- India. I especially wrote about the impact of lockdowns on the village where I once lived while I was studying mindfulness and meditation in Bodhgaya, India, and the foodbank I’d established with some local young people to help alleviate hunger there. In this way, I managed to turn the obstacle into the focus of my writing for a while. Once I had settled back in the UK and things began easing, I became more aware of the internal obstacles to my writing process that were related to the fall out of social isolation during the lockdown. This inspired me to return to using mindfulness-based techniques, specifically those rooted in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help me manage and overcome a drop in motivation and self-confidence.

As I did so, my mind went back to when I ran a retreat for writers near Kandy in Sri Lanka from 2011 to 2012. At that time, I was also teaching mindfulness-based approaches to counselling and psychotherapy at a Buddhist monastic college on a part-time honorary basis. I had a regular meditation practice and was immersed in a state of flow on an ongoing daily basis, thoroughly enjoying everything about my life. I remembered how successful the ACT techniques had been unblocking writers who attended my retreat and returned to the workbook I used to guide them through the coaching process. I decided to apply these techniques once again to my own life which felt blocked and stagnant during and after lockdown. I also realised I’d suffered a drop in motivation that was difficult to reignite even as the restrictions eased.

I am fortunate to have an apartment overlooking the ocean on the Fife coast, just outside Edinburgh, so began taking daily walks as the weather improved in spring. However, these weren’t just any old walks, they were what are called ‘awe walks’, where I paid very close attention to all aspects of the environment around me free of judgement and open to wonder. I regularly stopped to admire the play of light on the ocean, and the smell of the brine mixed with blossom in the wooded park by the sea. I paid attention to the way my body felt- often achy and stiff due to a long winter confined by dark nights and lockdown, but then as I lengthened my walks, lighter and more energised. After these walks my mind would clear of fog, my heart felt lighter, and I felt more connected to the world and less isolated. Yet, due to the restrictions still in place, I’d only fleeting social encounters with other walkers and neighbours on the way.

I also take photos on my walks to share on social media and lift the spirits of others living in areas with less access to nature. Others’ appreciation of my images of the Fife coast during lockdown also relieved my social isolation. I will share the photos here and in videos that I’ll be making to illustrate the mindfulness exercises that are key to the Focused Flow model. I hope you enjoy them!

After taking these regular ‘awe walks’ as the days grew longer my motivation began to return. I began to reflect and re-organise my life in relation to my values rather than living in mere survival mode, working as a freelance editor in the ‘feast or famine’ cycle familiar to many freelancers. I returned to my old writings that needed review and began rewriting my ACT coaching workbook as a specific tool for writers. As I did this, I made sure to keep using the techniques myself to reorientate my life away from mere survival, and in the direction of greater fulfilment.

The Focused Flow writing coaching model was the outcome. After pitching my model and business plan, I managed to obtain some funding to establish a new business as a writing coach, with access to free mentoring and various online resources. However, this venture is not just about making a living, but about living a life as a writer in line with my values. As an experienced educator and supervisor, I also value lifelong learning, adventure, and creativity. I value community and service. Gradually, I set aside task-based work driven by my lockdown survival mode and began embracing more creative activities that returned me to a values-driven life path as a writer and writing coach.

By using my own experience as a testing ground and reviewing the successes of the past when I was living in my flow state, I applied ACT to my own writing process to overcome obstacles and optimise my productivity. When I began discussing this with other writers in my wider networks, they were excited and enthusiastic, and my first coaching clients arrived.

As I take them through this course, I will report on the different stages of the model and how they begin to obstacles to obtaining the state of ‘focused flow’. This blog will also be a research tool, detailing the ups and downs on the way to help me invest further in the services I offer and communicate the techniques to other writers. I hope you will join me in charting the roll-out of this unique approach to writing coaching, while I also continue my own creative writing and guest article writing for other blogs that will be linked here as they are published.

You can also read more about the model in the free preview of the E-book on Kindle, currently available at the discounted launch price of just £2.99. I hope you find my blog posts helpful and look forward to your questions and comments, whether about the posts, the approach, or the E-book if you decide to buy it. In service of the values that steer my writing, I also donate 25% of all profits to the foodbank in India where lockdown restrictions are still in place and causing widespread hunger. You can read more about this project here.

Be sure to sign up to the blog to get my newsletter and updates on the Focused Flow approach, as well as some heavily discounted summer school coaching offers.

Have a great week, Jo.