Keep calm and write on: how to focus in the age of Trump
If you’re a writer like me, then chances are you’re also having trouble concentrating in the midst of the daily assault on decency and justice that is the Trump administration. Does this look familiar?
Trumpian outrages are appearing on multiple fronts at once, fast and furious, deployed with deliberate intent to demoralize and terrorize us all into accepting the unacceptable. Now more than ever, it’s important to remain focused and find your center of calm so that you can do your best writing and effectively resist these injustices that shock the conscience.
Here are some methods that have helped me maintain my focus so far:
1. Get moving 🚶🏽
When I’m out of balance for any reason, Trump-related or no, the most surefire way to reboot my mindset is to simply get out of the house and get moving. I don’t necessarily need to have a destination or objective in mind, though I often take the opportunity to visit the library and pick up some good books that nourish my spirit and keep me in an active state of learning. It’s just as pleasant to visit a local tea or coffee shop and enjoy the simple kindness of exchanging a smile with another person, though. That can be reassuring in and of itself.
Forward motion, in the form of taking a stroll outside, disrupts feelings of paralysis and helplessness. It can also support the creative thinking that is conducive to problem-solving or idea generation, so bring a notebook or your note-taking device of choice with you when you go. I can’t tell you how many of my best ideas have come to me while ostensibly running errands or simply taking a moment to stop and smell the roses (I mean this literally: we have some beautiful roses in my neighborhood🌹). That creative inspiration provides a strong counterpoint to upsetting developments in the news.
2. Change your scenery 🌳
This, of course, goes along with the advice to get moving. A change of scenery can help you reconnect with the truth that there are many good, decent, loving, and honorable people in this world and that we are all in this together. If you’re self-employed like me, then you can pretty much work from anywhere and your options for setting up a mobile office are nearly limitless.
Although cafés are of course popular with the freelance set, some time spent amidst greenery and sunshine in a public park can be especially restorative too. I keep a mobile hotspot, sunblock, and a comfortable mat handy for just such occasions. Too much time logged in the same place can give you a fixed mindset about your world and what is possible within it. When you feel your thoughts trending in that direction, it’s time to relocate your office for the day. It’ll open up your worldview.
3. Take action ✊
One surefire way to calm your resistance rage and get back on task is to reclaim your power and do something about what’s going on. So do it! #WriteOurDemocracy is a great option for writers, but there’s something for everyone out there. Every time I take action, even in a small way, I feel better about my own ability to fight back. I also have an easier time focusing on the projects before me. And chances are, so will you.
We can all do our part to democratically resist Trump. If you’re an introvert like me, you might enjoy Resistbot. It has the benefit of being super convenient to use without disrupting your work flow. The weekly Wall-of-Us digest has a short and sweet list of four concrete action items you can take on, too. For the motherlode of resistance organizing, check out the Resistance Manual. And, of course, there are lots of local groups you can get involved with. Indivisible and Swing Left are good places to start.
4. Put on music that centers you 🎶
When I need to focus, I put on music that calms and centers me. This isn’t just any type of music, of course — it’s music that I have specifically selected for the purpose of helping me ease back into my flow state so I can concentrate on my writing. In my case, that means the opera and hard rock will have to wait until after work because they get me too amped up and distract me from the task at hand.
So, with that in mind, I might tune into New York’s classical station, WQXR, for a soothing classical fix. I’ve also got a pile of playlists ready to go in Spotify (Goldfrapp’s latest album Silver Eye and the soundtrack from The Martian are current favorites). Whatever music puts you in the right place for getting your work done, give it a chance to get you settled and focused. I find that it usually has me back on my way within about ten minutes or so.
If music doesn’t do it for you, ambient sound may be a good option: Coffitivity creates the atmosphere of a coffee shop, while the Relax Melodies app can call up a variety of sounds from nature that are inherently soothing to many people. Think about the environment that gives you the greatest sense of peace and create it for yourself.
5. Get productively lost in client work 💻
Once I’m all set with some good music, I find that digging into client work gives me a valuable point of focus. If you’re also a writer, you probably know how long it typically takes you to get into the zone after sitting down to write. It may take more time on a day when it seems like the world around you is exploding, but give it a college try. Set aside an hour and commit to putting your best effort forth without judgment or self-criticism.
Sit with your work and allow yourself to get wrapped up in it. We writers invariably become engrossed in the subjects we write about. More often than not, I find that simply delving into my writing assignments takes my mind off the specter of our national crisis and allows me to focus on the here and now. It also gives me much needed perspective, helping me regain my center so that I can be aware of what is going on and take appropriate action without letting it overwhelm me. And it feels good to get the work done well. Win-win.
6. Take a step back from social media* 🔕
Social media is a double-edged sword. Although it can be a helpful tool for staying on top of what’s happening, it also tends to calcify negative groupthink and foment rage among those of us who deeply disagree with the current administration’s policies. So if you find that you are out of balance or angry, take a step back from social media for at least a few hours. Trust me, it’ll be there when you get back.
And for god’s sake, don’t feed the trolls! I know no one who has engaged with Trump supporters online and is happy with the results. Plus, it doesn’t put a dent in the Trump agenda. Want to make a real difference? Ignore those people and take action instead (see #3 above). Don’t cater to those who waste your time with intellectually dishonest dialogue, particularly when there’s work to be done. Own your power and help get this administration out of office.
* There is one caveat to this piece of advice about laying off social media. If you need the solace of community, then it can be constructive to check in with friends or fellow writers you know online.
7. Connect with friends and/or fellow writers 🍻
Feelings of isolation often go hand in hand with the helplessness and rage that many of us are experiencing in this moment. And what could be a better antidote to that than communing with like-minded people who support you? I find it helpful to check in with friends and family and see about getting a beer after work — something my father calls attitude adjustment hour.
On one frustrating day not long ago when I was beating my head against the wall trying to get work done but just couldn’t make any progress, I finally decamped for a happy hour with a fellow writer at one of our local pubs and we ended up serendipitously meeting — you guessed it — another writer! It was helpful to know I wasn’t alone in having trouble focusing, and as we all talked shop I plugged right back into my enthusiasm for the profession that I love.
Adult beverages with friends and colleagues aren’t the only way to adjust your attitude, of course. Experiencing the arts is an especially valuable way to reconnect with the beauty in this world. Here in New York, we’re blessed with magnificent cultural institutions such as museums, theater groups, and orchestras. I’ve made it a point to seek them out even more in the Trump era, usually with friends and family. You may find that a few hours spent appreciating sculpture or a performance of Shakespeare in the company of someone who cares about you gets those neurons firing again and helps you regain your footing.
8. Write about this moment 🖊
Are you still raging or immobilized with despair? Then maybe it’s worth writing about your feelings or observations — whether that’s for publication or for yourself. I’m writing this post, for example, because I spent my entire breakfast swearing nonstop after reading the latest push notification on my smartphone about what this man has gone and done now. My resistance act of choice for today is to write something constructive in response.
Trump is pure chaos, but your mind doesn’t have to be. As a writer, you have a powerful asset in your corner: the ability to think critically and reflect clearly on the world you see around you. Journaling is a very useful way to better understand your feelings and move yourself toward an active posture from which you can take positive steps that benefit us all. It also returns you to the flow state in which you do your most creative and most generative thinking, which will recharge your work and your activism.
9. Pursue your dreams ✨
It may seem counterintuitive given the seriousness of the assault that our democracy is enduring, but now is the time to pursue your dreams, particularly the ones that freak you out the most. In fact, this is precisely the moment when you should seriously consider going after that big goal you’ve been too afraid to reach for.
This is the most important act of focus in which you could engage because it demonstrates not only that you believe there is a better future ahead for all of us, but that you have the right to be who you were called to be and will assert your agency to make that happen. I am in the process of doing this by launching my own writing website and claiming my identity as a writer, and I’ve already found greater joy and fulfillment in doing so than I ever thought possible. Pursuing this path has reminded me that I, as well as those around me, have far greater power to create change at the individual and collective levels than the dominant culture would have us believe.
Just about a week before Trump was inaugurated, I saw Roxane Gay read selections from Difficult Women at my local bookstore. Someone in the audience of mostly women piped up and asked her what she planned to do now that Trump was set to assume the office of the presidency. “Whatever the fuck I want” was her reply. This made immediate sense to me. The least fit person ever in American history is running our country. He doesn’t suffer from impostor syndrome, so why should we? There’s no reason why you cannot and should not take charge of your own destiny, particularly now. That is a powerful form of resistance.
10. Be kind — to yourself and others 💞
Even with the best of intentions, you’re not going to be able to bring your A game every day. This would be true regardless of who was in the White House, and it’s doubly so when you have a rolling national crisis on your hands. A lot of us self-employed folks are driven, and we become agitated when we’re not productive. Self-blame only compounds the problem, however, hardening the feelings of frustration and making it that much more difficult to achieve that state of calm centeredness from which our best work flows.
If you’re having a freelance fail day, that’s ok. Everybody has them. Extend empathy to yourself, find a way to reset your state of mind, and then get back on the horse tomorrow. If you’re hitting the wall and just can’t move your work forward, acknowledge that you might be burned out and take a day off. Once you give yourself the gift of kindness, you’ll find it is that much easier to offer it to others — and that’s a beautiful, radical act at this time when the powers that be view empathy as a sign of weakness.
By caring for yourself and remaining connected with the many positive aspects of this world, you will better be able to focus on what matters most during this extraordinarily stressful time. Have you found any other ways to stay centered that aren’t listed here? Then do let me know. I’d love to hear from other writers and self-employed people on how they are keeping calm and writing on in the age of Trump.