I’ve been seeing a lot of graduate students and early career researchers and new writers bemoaning their inability to focus, concentrate, or get much or any work done right now.
You know who else I am seeing these comments from? Extremely established and well-known scholars and authors. People who seem to be perpetually publishing, always able to sit down, open their computer, and bang out a thousand words daily towards the next product.
There are those who find solace in their work, who are productive right now because that’s their means of coping with things. They are producing, in some cases, even more than usual. But that’s how they are managing their stress, anxiety, concern, worry, whatever-it-is. Not everyone handles it that way. Not everyone can get lost in work. I’d argue, in fact, that statistically far fewer of us manage to be more productive than usual in the middle of global events like this pandemic and the uptick in violence and cruelty. (I have no idea if that’s true, but I elect to believe it’s true because it seems very realistic.)
I don’t know who needs to read this, but: If you are not able to be productive right now, that’s okay. If you are sitting in front of the computer beating yourself up because you are supposed to be working but all you can do right now is doomscroll, that’s where you are at (maybe consider just knocking off for the day and doing something else; the doomscrolling can be really hard on a person. Don’t ask me how I know that.) If you just cannot read, or write, or research, or revise, right now, that’s okay. It’s not a permanent state of being. It will pass. Thoughts will come. Words will come. You will want to work again. You will find your concentration again.
And furthermore: If you are fine and manage to get a couple hundred to a couple thousand words down one day, and then are unable to follow through the next day, that’s okay. If you start out fine during a writing session but then trail off into I-just-can’t after twenty minutes, that’s okay. If you wake up planning to write like the wind but then lose steam waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, that’s okay. If you write hardly anything and then need a two-hour nap to recover, that’s okay. If you don’t do anything related to writing for a week and then wake up and write three things in a day, that’s okay. And if you are having absolutely no trouble at all writing, thank you very much, and are hitting all of your targets without struggle, that is also okay (and I am very, very jealous of you.)
Throw the “should be” and “could be” and “ought to be” inner dialogue out for the time being. We all know we “should be” able to do our work. But “should be” and “are” are not the same thing and there isn’t any use beating yourself up because that’s true and inconvenient.
We are in an unprecedented global moment, or at least it feels that way. The way you are reacting is how you need to be reacting. You’ll eventually sort it out and find the ways to handle it that work best for you, find a way of entering back into your working-self that makes sense and is sustainable. You cannot rush that process. You need to give yourself permission to be a real, living, breathing, feeling, human being-being. It’s messy and complicated and emotional and stressful stuff. It’s also real, and you cannot magic it away by trying to install some sort of perverse militaristic order into things (“I can have my nervous breakdown after I’ve written 500 words.”) Well, you might make it work for a day or two, or even a week–but the body and mind have funny ways of always, always thwarting those kinds of efforts in the long run. You’ll be much better off if you just let yourself have the responses you are having, and are patient with it all.
Go easy on yourself. There is nothing wrong with you. You’ll get your research done. You’ll get your reading done. You’ll get your writing done. The process will be absolutely nothing like you expect it to be, and will be unique to you. And that’s okay. You’re okay.