Procrastination—or the wrong brain waves?

How understanding how my brain works makes me feel less guilty about "goofing off"

In this week’s Story Cauldron I ponder why it can be so hard to just sit down and write (or do any sort of creative endeavor). Maybe these insights will help shed some light on your own creative process.

Here’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. Maybe you have too.

Whenever I want to start working on my novel after doing something else (my day job, housework, or even being out with my family), I struggle to shift gears, even when I’m excited about a project. I’ll open up the document and just stare at it until I switch gears and play a video game or something for a while until I finally feel like I can sit down to write.

That’s just procrastination, right? After all, “writing is hard.”

While that’s probably true to a point, I’ve always wondered if there was more to it than that.

Turns out, there might just be more to it. This is just my theory, but I wonder if I’m just trying to boost the right kind of brainwaves to get the writing started. 

Different brainwaves for different things

Before I get started with all of this, a caveat. I’m not a neuroscientist or a biochemist. Hell, I barely passed Algebra II. So if you have expertise in this topic, I’d love to hear from you.

These are the five different types of brainwaves identified by scientists. As a rule, we generate all of these waves in different amounts throughout the day, but some will be more present than others depending on our activity.

  • Gamma – these are the waves produced when you’re concentrating, deeply focused, or ‘in the zone’. According to WebMD, people who produce more gamma waves tend to be happier and are better able to focus on tasks. Lower gamma waves could explain how some people struggle to stay on task or have reduced attention spans. (30 - 80 Hz)

  • Beta – these are the brainwaves when you’re alert and active. Beta waves are the most common during our waking days, and these are the best for making decisions and solving problems. We experience higher levels of beta waves when we’re excited, anxious, or trying to work out a complex problem. (12 - 38 Hz)

  • Alpha – these occur when you are sitting quietly and relaxed, daydreaming, or meditating. Research has demonstrated that boosting alpha activity can reduce stress, help with pain and physical discomfort, and relieve anxiety. This is a good state for learning and memorization. You boost alpha waves when you close your eyes, visualize something, take a deep breath, soak in a hot bath, engage in yoga, or meditate. (8 - 12 Hz)

  • Theta – these are the brainwaves during the lighter parts of sleep, such as when you’re just waking up or just falling asleep. These can also exist during deeply relaxed moments when you’re awake but have low alertness, and are known for being a good time for creativity and intuition. These brainwaves are excellent when making memories and learning new things. (4 - 8 Hz)

  • Delta –  these occur when you are in deep sleep. Some researchers believe that this is when healing occurs. (1 - 4 Hz)

How brainwaves impact our creativity

Creative thinking—what is necessary for writers—is a combination of gamma, theta, but most importantly, alpha waves. Øyvind Ellingsen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology describes alpha wave production as a "spontaneous wandering of the mind,” which is pretty much exactly what being in the creative mindset is all about.  

The connection between creativity and alpha waves explains why you come up with the best ideas when you’re out for a casual walk, taking a shower, or when you first get into bed. You’ve switched off your busy busy beta brain that’s all about getting things done and solving problems, allowing your brain can drift into daydreams and random thoughts. 

In fact, according to an article on Thinkergy, we need to be relaxed and generating alpha and theta wave activity in order to “experience a Eureka moment of superconscious creativity where we receive a breakthrough idea from the collective unconscious.” In other words, it’s that Aha! moment when you figure out how you want your novel to end, or what your main character’s deep dark secret might be.

So alpha waves, with an assist from theta and gamma, are where it’s at for creative writing. That means to get the best work done, you need to be relaxed, with the anxieties dialed down and your problem-solving and analytical brain turned down to low.

So am I procrastinating, or what?

What all of this research suggests is that when I sit down to write but struggle to get “in the mood,” I’m not procrastinating after all.

Maybe I’m just trying to shift out of the beta wave “get it done” mode by playing a video game to boost my alpha waves. In other words, I need to get into the right headspace. And maybe taking time out for some meditation might be better than sitting at the computer trying to force words to flow.

So what do you think? Do you struggle to shift between different kinds of tasks too? If so, what do you do to turn off the “work brain” and turn on the “writing brain”? Do you have an elaborate ritual, or is it something quite simple? I’d love to hear from you.

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NaNoWriMo update

Speaking of writing, last week was the first week of NaNoWriMo. Ideally every day I would be writing about 1700 words to stay on track and above “par.” And usually, Week 1 is my best week because I’m excited about my new project and the enthusiasm leads to a big word dump, putting me ahead for the first few days.

This year, however, it didn’t work out that way. I had a lot of paid work to do and it was a rather stressful week overall, and as a result, my word count suffered. I kept trying to get caught up but I was exhausted and distracted, and to complicate matters, I wasn’t feeling good about what I was writing. (Put simply, what I wrote last week sucks). Not the best start to the project.

Part of the issue was not knowing how to get the story started, so I have thousands of words of my two main characters just… talking. I think they are talking to each other to figure out what it is they’re supposed to do—because I don’t know yet myself!

Fortunately, yesterday I shifted to writing my other point of view character. If you’ve been reading along with my free chapters of The Boy Who Can Taste Color, you will know that Holden has an awful stepbrother named Travis. Except—Travis might not be as awful as you think. I started writing his story and things started shifting into place—yay!

Just today I wrote a bunch of stuff about what the Favor Faeries are actually doing, and it surprised me as much as I hope it surprises you. There apparently is a lot more going on than I ever knew!

What’s fun about this project is that I am taking the standard faerie tropes and legends and twisting and bending them into something familiar but also very different. I hope you will stick around for the ride.