Gratitude – an antidote to the inner critic

I woke up early enough to catch the sunrise from my desk on Wednesday and captured it in the image above. While I am developing the content for my Flow Writer app I’m also editing my novel to smooth out bumpy passages and enhance characterization. Getting up early seems to enhance my productivity and the sight that beheld me as the sun rose over the Forth filled me with gratitude for that moment. Looking out to sea often evokes a sense of awe and a loss of preoccupation with ‘me’. It quietens the mind and soothes any agitated emotions or sense of urgency that can undermine creativity and productivity. That’s why I chose this apartment and why I put my desk in the window. For the rest of the day, I was unusually focused and productive, so much so that I began to reflect on the ability of gratitude to enhance creativity and concentration.

Coincidentally, today an Atlantic article dropped into my inbox on a recent study of the experience of gratitude during the pandemic. The study found that those who practised gratitude suffered less anxiety and low mood during these uncertain times. Practising gratitude entails taking time to notice and focus upon the positive aspects of life that we should be thankful for. Most often these are simple pleasures, like watching the sunrise, enjoying a good meal, playing with the kids, appreciating your home after you’ve cleaned it (something that frequently happens when I have a lot of editing to do- one of my classic avoidance strategies), enjoying the smell of freshy laundered sheets, or a relaxing bubble bath. Simplicity seems key to experiencing gratitude. Appreciation requires a focus on the present moment in all its richness.

Due to the chaos and unpredictability we have all experienced during the past eighteen months, practising gratitude may be more necessary than ever, but not in a smug ‘I’m alright, thanks’ kind of way. We don’t need to ignore the suffering in our lives or the world around us. Rather, we can practice gratitude consciously as a method for alleviating suffering out of self-compassion. Taking the time to appreciate the little things has proven mental health benefits. It doesn’t mean we ignore the complexities and difficulties of life, but rather for a few minutes each day, we choose to focus on appreciating our positive experiences. This shift in attention away from the negative towards the positive enhances creativity and innovation. In his book, Consolations, the poet and author David Whyte reminds us that:

“Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention” (p.53).

I experienced my sense of gratitude watching the sunrise like a cleansing of the numerous little wounds that my inner critic often begins to inflict upon me before I sit down at my desk, especially when editing my own work. Reviewing and editing need not be a ruthless process, it can be a playful crafting that relishes and appreciates the texture of words, their harmonics, tonality, and imagery. It also occurred to me that I should be grateful for the time to tend to my creative writing in this way, rather than working at a job I dislike just to survive as I have done before, possibly will do again, and many others do every day. However, it seems that gratitude also enhances productivity as the blog Creativity at Work states:

“Gratitude is the antidote to anxiety and fear, allowing feelings of grace, wellbeing, and optimism to flow. Scientific studies have proven there is a link between gratitude and creative problem solving. When we experience positive emotions, we enhance our ability to solve problems and come up with more ideas for action.”

As I got down to editing once the sun was up, my concentration and focus seemed sharper. I was noticing things I had missed in my previous round of editing. I was less distracted and dropping into a state of absorption and flow. So, from today I have decided to begin the day with a small five-minute gratitude practice at my desk. It may be noting three things I am thankful for that morning, or one of the practices recommended by HeartMath. Today, I took three ‘appreciation breaks’. I’ve felt more energised, connected and less frayed around the edges as a result.

“An effective way to improve mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being is to invoke and sustain sincere appreciation. The greater your capacity for sincere appreciation, the deeper the connection to your heart, where intuition and unlimited inspiration and possibilities reside.” HeartMath

If you’re struggling with your inner critic while writing or editing try switching your focus to appreciation and gratitude to dissolve anxiety and smooth the frayed edges of your mind. Practising gratitude enhances creativity and helps establish focused flow. It’s an act of self-compassion and you’re worth it!

Comparison is the enemy of flow

During one of my coaching sessions this week we homed in once more on the problem of overwhelm and how it can be caused by comparison. Often, before any kind of writing project begins a period of research is required. When I’m coaching academic writers, they often begin writing by researching the work of their peers in the field, especially by focusing on keywords and terms unique to their own research. The result can be the discovery of an overwhelming amount of research papers that may have implications for their own work, which they then feed a compulsion to read to stay abreast of current developments. The result can be writer’s block, typically characterised by a sense of excruciating overwhelm, freezing, and feelings of not being good enough to write for publication as someone else ‘probably got there first’. One of my clients discovered that somebody else had once written about a term she believed one of her research subjects had coined during an interview, and asked if it was permissible to use this same term in her paper, or if it would be seen as plagiarism?

My response was ‘reference it’, note the source, and continue. However, the discovery of the previous investigation of a similar phenomenon risked overwhelming my client. Suddenly, she wondered if she would soon discover a well of information that would take months to process. We discussed whether any ideas were truly unique, as new ideas always build on previous research and tend to be eclipsed by emerging ideas later. This describes the evolution of the investigative process that drives all types of research. The answer we agreed upon was clearly ‘no’.

Often, as the writer and literary critic Raymond Williams once explained, new ideas tend to emerge spontaneously in geographically diverse locations in response to a given zeitgeist that characterises a particular period in history. Each interlocutor may well express an emergent idea in complete ignorance of others expressing something similar or the same elsewhere. Emergent ideas arise through a complex, dynamic and intersubjective cultural process that germinates the seed of the new in response to the dominant culture and the residues of tradition. Therefore, almost no ideas are unique due to their emergence from a historical and cultural process. Following this discussion, we returned to the issue of writing in the flow state, and how comparison and structural framing might be better applied after the raw content had been written in a state of flow.

Dropping into our flow state may also be disrupted by the overreach of digital communication and culture. After a discussion of my previous post, exploring awe-walking as a method for shaking off the energetic stagnation that can settle in at the writing desk, my client began to dig deeper. To access flow, it may be necessary to disconnect from the digital world for a while. For example, as I’m writing this, I see an email has arrived. I am in my flow and so I decide not to open it but am aware of the urge to open it disrupting my inner writing process. This overreach of digital communication posting notifications inside the very tools I use to create is disturbing indeed, so setting boundaries to minimise interference is required.

All too often I have followed up some notification, either an email or social media post and an hour later find myself overwhelmed with information; either of no purpose or indicating another line of enquiry that I could pursue. Also, other people’s reports on their progress with their projects surreptitiously invite me to compare myself with them and see myself as lacking. However, most people carefully curate their social media profiles. Each time we log into social media, we are invited into a matrix of online personas apparently untroubled by the everyday hassles and complexities of life. This social network of self-policed identities aims to persuade or celebrate rather than present any kind of truth, yet the act of persuasion involves a subtle form of comparison and plays on our desire to improve. Too much comparison can be paralyzing because there are always people who are doing better, know more than you, have achieved more than you.

Therefore, I asked my client to stop conducting research, or indulging in comparison, and instead focus on her snack writing exercises from the heart, free of referencing and editing. The result was a more poetic, nuanced, and original writing style that was able to express her previous research findings in the context of her new work. She explained to me that disconnecting from the internet and just writing a paragraph at a time had enabled her to write in a more embodied way that ‘flowed’. I suggested that setting a boundary around the overreach of digital communication had helped prevent her from indulging in comparison.

As the educationalist and philosopher, Krishnamurti said

…you are educated to compare…your brain has been conditioned, educated, trained to compare – right? … psychologically …We are trained, educated, programmed to repeat. […]That is how your brain has become mechanical, routine; it is repeating, saying the same thing over and over again: ‘I can’t do it, I must do it, it is too difficult for me, I don’t understand, tell me all about it.

Isn’t comparison a form of violence?

All comparison is based on competition, effort, and struggle. This is the very opposite of dropping into your flow state which feels effortless, joyful, and natural. The 6 -week Flow Writer Challenge will focus on removing all obstacles to dropping into the flow state while writing. Comparison is the enemy of flow and sabotages the content production stage of the writing process.  Structure and referencing may be important but should be the focus of form, not content production. Once this is understood, a writer can dig deeper and discover their unique voice.  Comparison dilutes individuality, promotes conformity, and prevents the perception of the present moment in all its immediacy and richness.

Awe walking- a mindful movement exercise to establish focused flow

This week I’ve been busy developing my app that will deliver the 6-week Flow Writer Challenge when it’s launched in a few weeks’ time. The blog had been put to one side while I got on with designing the challenge and the post-challenge programme. I then realised I was again flirting with my old friend overwhelm, which has also been reflected in the feedback from my writing coaching clients- all of them struggling with overwhelm, some due to multitasking and finding it difficult to carve out time to write, some overwhelmed by a need to organise rapidly multiplying ideas into a coherent plan for an article, others struggling with writing up their research design for a PhD upgrade. As I build my writing coaching practice, I am coming up against the problem of overwhelm over and over. This seems to be rooted in having too many things to do in a short space of time, but it is also a product of overthinking and catastrophizing by focusing on the potential for failure. These are very human problems that don’t only apply to writers of course. However, the isolation that accompanies the solitary occupation of writing can make it very difficult to step back from catastrophizing the future and reconnect to the reality of the present moment. When I need to reconnect to the present and realign to my flow, I take a short walk to my special place in the image below.

Aware of the temptation to fuse with a sense of overwhelm, despite the fact I’ve met all my goals and more this past week, I decided that rather than sit down at my desk and tackle my to do list, I’d try and shift my energy outward, and drop into the present moment. This is practice I recommend to my writing coaching clients who feel stuck or overwhelmed, and especially when they feel isolated. Writing is a solitary occupation. For an off the scale introvert like myself, lots of time alone rarely presents a problem but the stagnant energy that can result from sitting at a desk for hours can be an obstacle to maintaining motivation. That’s why the mindful focusing exercises I will be recommending in my 6-week Flow Writer Challenge will involve movement, rather than sitting. Today, rather just taking a stroll, I went for an ‘awe walk’- a mindful movement practice that helps overcome feelings of isolation and disrupts the inward downward spiral of overwhelm. All too often, writer’s overwhelm can result from focusing on an imaginary future where we fail to meet our writing goals.

I am fortunate to live on the Fife coastal path next to a beautiful fishing harbour (in the photo above) and large park with beaches, lawns, picnic benches and woods. So, when I need to take a walk in nature and reconnect with my environment, I merely walk out of my front door! Others who live in towns and cities may not find accessing nature so easy, but the mindful practice of awe walking can unveil a fresh appreciation of the apparently mundane while shifting stagnant energy and reconnecting us to our surroundings. Research has found that awe walking helps overcome feelings of isolation while also being good for our physical health. Awe is very powerful, and can reignite our creative process by dissolving a tendency towards overthinking and getting stagnant energy moving. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley offers a guide to a short 15-minute awe walking practice. I suggest visiting the site and following their guidance.  I quote from their website below:

“With the right outlook, awe can be found in almost any environment, turning a mundane experience into a flight of inspiration and wonder. It is most likely to occur in places that have two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These could include natural settings, like a hiking trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like at the top of a skyscraper. You’re more likely to feel awe in a new place, where the sights and sounds are unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old. No matter where you are, the key is to be in the right frame of mind. This practice is designed to help you get there—to turn an ordinary walk into a series of awe-inspiring moments, filled with delightful surprises.”

It is preferable to do this alone, with your phone on silent. I take my phone with me to take photos of the sights that evoke a sense of awe, but I always put the phone on silent. The guided practice from the website is reproduced below.

1. Take a deep breath in. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Feel the air move through your nasal passages and hear the sound of your breath. Come back to this breath throughout the walk. 2. As you start to walk, feel your feet on the ground and listen to the surrounding sounds. 3. Shift your awareness now so that you are open to what is around you, to things that are vast, unexpected, things that surprise and delight. 4. Take another deep breath in. Again, count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. 5. Let your attention be open in exploration for what inspires awe in you. Is it a wide landscape? The small patterns of light and shadow? Let your attention move from the vast to the small. 6. Continue your walk and, every so often, bring your attention back to your breath. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Notice—really notice—the multitude of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are dancing through your awareness, usually undetected. 7. Once you get in the habit of taking walks like this, you may be struck by how frequently you have opportunities to experience awe—they are practically infinite.

The walk can indoors or outdoors. For example, those in an urban setting could visit a gallery or museum if the immediate outdoor environment lacks novelty. You can also follow the guided awe walk meditation in the video below.

I enjoyed my awe walk today which I found energising and uplifting. It enabled me to reconnect with my environment and a sense of joy at being alive. On return, I sat down and wrote this post easily, in a state of focused flow. My awe walk imbued me with a fresh sense of possibility and freed me from overwhelm. If you find yourself overthinking the future and becoming overwhelmed at your writing desk, consider taking a short awe walk, or even a long one. The benefits to your writing process may surprise you. I intend to make this a daily practice. Cultivating a sense of awe regularly has enormous benefits by shifting the stagnant energy that can block access to your flow state.

Cognitive defusion and ditching the internal editor

Photo by Quentin Ferrer on Unsplash

In my previous post I touched on what mindfulness is and isn’t by debunking some myths about mindfulness. Acquiring mindfulness skills doesn’t require a meditation practice, in fact, meditation is only a small subset of mindfulness practices. I would never recommend writers take up a seated meditation practice given the act of writing involves sitting for very long periods of time in isolation. Instead, the Focused Flow approach involves developing ‘mindfulness on the move’ and applying these mindfulness skills to overcome internal obstacles such as self-doubt, procrastination, and a harsh inner critic that often tries to edit the work before it’s even been drafted! A combination of these obstacles can even lead to writer’s block as described in the previous article.

To drop into the flow and optimise your productivity, it is essential to let go of the inner critic and maintain your focus on your writing goals. To enter the flow state, your writing goals should be challenging, but not so difficult they induce overwhelm, and not so easy so that writing becomes boring. For each writer, setting the scale of the challenge required will be different, but once you enter the flow state, the act of writing becomes a source of vitality and joy. Sometimes, faced with a blank page and a whole lot of notes or ideas, as soon as we begin typing, the inner critic pays us a visit and starts suggesting edits and changes before we’ve even completed the first sentence. Often, writing coaches refer to this intrusive commentary as the ‘internal editor’. Rather like the ‘I’m not good enough story’ mentioned in the previous article, the ‘internal editor’ can undermine our confidence and prevent us from getting off the starting block if we ‘fuse’ with the thoughts that arise and begin to believe in them. One alternative is applying mindfulness skills to detach from the internal editor and continue writing anyway.

According to the ACT model, we can learn new skills termed ‘cognitive defusion’ techniques which evolve from a mindful awareness that you are NOT your thoughts, you are NOT your feelings, and however overwhelming these internal experiences are, you CAN still choose to behave in ways consistent with your values and goals. It takes time to learn these skills, and it isn’t an easy or comfortable process at first. It involves facing the shadows that haunt your mind and directing a bright light onto them to expose the fears lurking there- including uncomfortable drivers of avoidance common to writers such as harsh self-criticism, severe self-doubt, and the dread of failure or rejection. When my coaching clients start learning these skills, they may make mistakes and give in to reactivity at times, but they do progress.

The path of progress is not straight, or linear, but cyclical. There are ups and downs. This is perfectly normal. Gaining these skills involves uprooting a lot of well-established coping mechanisms that have outlasted their usefulness. They may have had a tight grip on your mind, heart and body for a long time. So, if you decide to give these exercises a try, you must be kind to yourself when you fall back into old patterns, if you do. Once you recognise this has happened, that is an act of mindfulness! You then make amends with yourself, dust yourself down, and carry on. Any instances of reactivity or overwhelm will decrease in intensity over time. These techniques are designed to help you detach from the internal editor that plagues many writers, by helping you to undermine the power of unhelpful thoughts and arresting the development of overwhelming feelings so they no longer control you. In this post I’m going to suggest two simple strategies for defusing from the internal editor that will enhance your ability to drop into your flow state over time.

1. I am having the thought that….

First, bring to mind a thought you have often when you try to write that troubles or upsets you. It might be a self-defeating thought that prevents you from getting going on a project like ‘I’m too stupid,’ ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I can’t do this,’ or some other kind of self-limiting thought. Next, keep that thought in mind and focus on it intensely as you can for a few seconds. Notice how it makes you feel. Notice the sensations in your body, your breath, your heart rate, and your emotions. Use mindful awareness to really register how thinking this thought affects you bodily, emotionally. Jot these observations down. Next, take the thought and insert in front of it ‘I am having the thought that…’ Run it through your mind like this for a few seconds. Notice how this makes you feel in the same ways as above… use mindful awareness to really focus on any differences between how you feel now, and how you felt before. Jot these observations down.

Using the same self-limiting thought again, or a different one if you prefer, keep that thought in mind and focus on it intensely as you can for a few seconds. As above, notice how it makes you feel. Jot these observations down. Next, take the thought and insert in front of it ‘I notice I am having the thought that…’ Run it through your mind like this for a few seconds. Notice how this makes you feel in the same ways as above… use mindful awareness to really focus on any differences between how you feel now, and how you felt before. Jot these observations down. If you notice few if any differences, try the exercise again with another thought.

2. Thanking your mind

Another one that works for me, although it might seem a bit eccentric at first, is thanking my mind. This exercise is explained by ACT coach Russ Harris in the video below.

There are many other cognitive defusion strategies that can be used to detach from the internal editor. You could try Googling the term and finding other variations or look into my book that specifically adapts these exercises for writers. Try them and let me know how you get on. You can comment on the blog forum at Focused Flow or email me at I am building a unique set of resources for writers and welcome your contributions.

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.