A writing retreat in the mountains close to Madrid

How I Beat Pandemic Brain Fog and Improved my Focus

You don’t have to go away for this to work, but it helps. Here’s where I stayed!

What is pandemic brain fog?

Pandemic brain fog, or as I like to call it, poo brain, has been affecting a lot of us lately. Besides making us zone out and forget things, a bad case of poo brain ruins our ability to focus for long periods of time. And while it’s fine for us writers to be a little distant or forgetful – expected even – losing the ability to concentrate on what we’re doing is fatal. If we are unable to immerse ourselves in alternative realities, we can end up staring into space, completely blocked.

Unfortunately, there’s been other more pressing matters on our minds these last 18 months: a real-life pandemic that has proved itself to be so much stranger and at times scarier than fiction, that our bright interior worlds have paled somewhat.

Write a novel!

“Stuck indoors during lockdown for three months? Write a novel! You writers love to be alone!  came the rather crass response from the man up brigade.

The mythology surrounding writers tells us that we ought to thrive in conditions of isolation. But even back in the 17th century, John Donne knew this myth to be wholly untrue: “No man is an island… any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” And there have been deaths aplenty, the reaper going on quite a spree as we cowered in our homes and compulsively watched the news, hoping against hope for a positive change in an unrelentingly ghastly situation.

Trapped in a destructive cycle

For me, this has been the heart of the problem. Addicted to checking the news, I hoped that by educating myself I could regain some control over a spiraling situation. And it wasn’t only the news I was checking, starved of human contact, Facebook and Twitter became a lifeline, connecting me with dearly missed family and friends. And yet that too, along with my doom scrolling, became a nasty habit I failed to break out of lockdown.

Of course, the knock-on effect of a constant diet of fear and distraction was that my writing began to suffer. It got to the point where I was compelled to physically pull out the ethernet cable from the back of my computer and consign my phone to the bedroom before a writing session. But even these drastic measures were not enough to lift my pandemic brain fog. Sat at the computer, I found I could only focus for short bursts of five minutes or so. When I printed out my manuscript and took it outdoors leaving my phone behind at home, I fared a little better. Which is when the thought struck me: I need to perform a radical reset. I needed to go on a creative writing retreat.

Out of options

Visions of yoga sessions by the beach and intense discussions with other writers filled my brain. Feverish with excitement, I began to Google my options. They were precisely zero. Creative writing retreats often involve air travel, groups of people getting together indoors for long discussions, and, if you’re lucky (or unlucky depending on your preferences), maybe a bit of yoga. With the first two still difficult if not impossible to achieve, it looked like I was bang out of luck.

Slumped on the sofa, clutching my smartphone and scrolling the news again, barely reading anything, I felt like crying, until another brainwave hit me. A writer friend of mine lives in the mountains just outside my city. How about I rent a place nearby and we have ourselves a little intimate retreat? Just the two of us and the fresh mountain air? Galvanized, I quickly wrote to her and booked myself into a lovely little Airbnb for five nights.

How to Cure Pandemic Brain Fog

Breakfast on the veranda of Recoveco House in Los MolinosI promise this picture of my holiday breakfast is relevant. I’m not just trying to make you jealous!

1) Digital detox

The first rule I made for myself was simple: don’t read the news and sign out of social media. While I’d found that doing this at home was nigh on impossible, stimulated by a new environment, it was actually pretty easy to follow. However, the first evening, I messed up by getting embroiled in long Whatsapp conversations with friends and family. Trying to read the chapters my friend had given me to critique, my eye was continually straying to my phone. So, quick tip: shut your phone off completely or better yet, leave it behind entirely.

2) Focus on what you’re doing

The second rule was to meditate every morning, a practice I’d fallen out of. Mindfulness focusses the brain on the here and now, gently guiding the consciousness back to the breath when it becomes distracted. Unfortunately, one session is not enough to clear pandemic brain fog. This became painfully apparent when I snuck a peek at the timer on my phone and found I had only been sitting still for six minutes rather than the very modest goal I’d set myself of ten.

Luckily, I’d thought to bring along a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the first chapter he gives some great tips on how to do the washing up. No, honestly, keep reading, this stuff is gold. His advice is that you think about nothing other than washing the dishes when you are washing the dishes, that is to be fully present in the activity. Then extend that idea to other activities. Essentially, it’s very similar to the speech Yoda gives to a young Luke Skywalker when they first meet, except for the fact that you’re not looking to levitate objects, just lift your mind out of the swamp it’s fallen into.

While I was reading this, I was having breakfast and so I took a moment just to have breakfast, putting my book down to really taste the bitter sweetness of my hot coffee, to savour the crunchiness of my toast and to listen to the birds singing in the trees. While the washing the dishes example was laudable, I was, after all, on holiday. There would be time enough to immerse myself in housework back home! Later I had a glass of wine and really tasted that wine instead of multitasking with a phone and book. It was divine!

Sweat it out

My third rule was to exercise and this one really helped me reinforce rules one and two. At the swimming pool there weren’t any lockers to store valuables in, meaning I was forced to leave my phone behind and fully bring my attention to the book I was reading as I lay down in the shade after. The crawl is also excellent for mindfulness as to do it properly requires you to fully focus on your breath: in for five strokes before lifting your head out briefly to exhale and take another breath.

That absorption was followed by such a euphoric lift that afterwards I almost completely forgot about the pandemic and had to run back to my bags for my mask when I went to buy a soft drink!

The pandemic brain fog lifts

I met up with my friend two days into my holiday. While I was not yet hovering cross legged over the earth in a state of pure enlightenment, I was a lot more relaxed and plugged into the moment. It was a great state of mind to be in for the critique sessions that followed. Both of us are near to completing novels, so we managed to cover a whopping total of nine chapters over the next few days. Between heated discussions and the furious taking of notes, we cooled off in the pool, gossiped and stuffed our faces, because this was, after all, partly a holiday – the first I’d had since Christmas 2019.

Now I’m back I can honestly say that my concentration has improved tenfold. Unfortunately, the pull of the dark side, aka Twitter, Facebook and the 24-hour news cycle, is strong. But every time I feel my finger straying to the mouse, I try to think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s exhortation to be fully absorbed by what I’m doing.

I will be honest, I have already been sucked back in now and again. On one occasion, coming out feeling rather grubby and less than enlightened after being caught up in a Twitter spat about the weather. But concentration is a muscle that needs to be developed and my overall form has gotten awfully flabby over the past year or so. Five nights away does not constitute a fix, but it does signal a beginning.

Stay focused

If I’m ever to fully beat pandemic brain fog, I can’t allow myself to slip back into the bad habits that landed me here in the first place. Sure, it’s important to engage with others online and to keep up with developments in the pandemic, but that doesn’t need to be my constant focus. We are largely powerless to have any effect on this crisis. However, in our own little fictional worlds, we are gods and shouldn’t diminish our creations by not giving them the attention they deserve.

If I’ve come across a little preachy in this post, I apologize, please know that I’m partly writing this article to remind myself of the lessons learned, lessons that can be so easily forgotten. Trying to survive in a difficult situation, it’s ever so easy to get lost in the fog.

You’ve digital detoxed, meditated and exercised and are still stuck in front of a blank screen? Try reading my post on How to Embrace Your Inner Critic for some tips on how to beat writer’s block.


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