Measuring and dealing with brain fog: when to write anyway

We are founts of information about ourselves if we will but bother to think, capture the data, perhaps write it down.

Objective measurement of brain fog is hard.

Using data about myself to manage my writing self

I recently made a commitment to let VentureGalleries serialize Pride’s Children. The idea is, of course, to get more eyes on my writing. They run a bunch of serials, some of finished books, others by writers like me who are working live – there is something for everyone – go take a look.

Instead of a scene a week (as I’m posting here), they put up 1000-1200 word ‘chunks’ of the story three times a week, with a teaser title that gives you a tiny bit of information.

My scenes vary – from less than 1000 words to over 3000. Their chunks are more suitable for someone who has a certain period of time to fill several times a week – and loads up equal-sized episodes on, say, a smart phone or tablet.

New writing goals: up to 3600 words/week

I’m going to have to aim higher than my usual production rate (erratic), and produce 3000-3600 words of new finished fiction EVERY WEEK from now on, so they don’t run out of material. I do have a buffer of a few chapters (for when life intervenes and I can’t write – or take a vacation), but, if I’m not careful, that buffer will vanish if I don’t replace it at at least the same rate that it is being fed out.

So: my new goal is 3000-3600 finished words/week. Week in and week out. Until finished with the whole story, and it goes up for sale.

This requires looking at my writing – and my brain – in a new light.

The thing I needed to do to figure this out was to use my knowledge of writing with my CFS brain fog to see where the increase in output could possibly come from.

My brain states are:

#1 Functional – rarest; about three hours total per day when everything is going well, nonexistent otherwise. This time can be used to think and write in an almost-normal manner.

#2 Fogged – but semi-functional.

#3 Fogged – lowest functioning state; if something positively HAS to be done (taxes, paying the MasterCard, going to the doctor), somehow it GETS done.

#4 Fogged and non-functional – most common brain state; decisions (such as going to bed or focusing on taxes or writing) are almost impossible to execute. Stare at wall. Or surf the web. Or watch TV.

#5 Asleep or resting – as necessary; nighttime sleep has gotten more predictable lately, right around 7 hours. Daytime rests – 35 min by the timer; one to ? depending on luck.

Different states of mind, different amounts of brain fog

What I realized was that I can’t increase the functional state much (search for B1 posts for something that has been helping increase my functionality by about 20% – no more), and writing during the lower fogged states (#3 and #4) isn’t possible.

But I have a middle state (#2), when my brain is fogged but semi-functional, that it was worth exploring to see if I can use some of it for writing, and get my increase in wordage from there.

I never FEEL like writing when my brain is fogged (states #2 – #4), but they are actually DIFFERENT states of mind.

‘Feeling’ functional is not the same as capacity to function

It was an exciting discovery. I have been getting everything ready, and creating the proper environment: up, fed, meds, in the computer chair, computer on. It has become a good habit.

But I’ve been wasting a lot of that time because my brain was foggy and not making the best decisions, waiting around for it to achieve the Nirvana of state #1 for the day – after which I would plunge in and get a bit of writing done.

So I decided my best bet was to take aim at some of that ‘foggy but semi-functional’ time, and, by dint of following my written ‘process’ for writing new text/editing/revising old text, to see if I could overcome the inertia and get some actual writing done ANYWAY. Even if it didn’t FEEL special. Or even particularly good.

The key is MEASURING the DEGREE of brain fog

The problem then became: Well how do I know when it’s worth even trying? I.e., how can I tell the semi-functional state from the lower states?

I hit, completely by accident, on a little system I’d like to share: timing. Specifically, the time it takes to play and finish a Hard Sudoku.

Measuring brain fog degree objectively and quantifiably

The Hard Sudokus are completed by a mental process that requires going through the same set of steps with the digits, and a set of meta-rules that work for me. I have to be able, to solve it, to keep and test sequences of four and five digits IN my mind. I had noticed (data) that when I’m functional (state #1), it takes me WELL under 7 minutes to complete the puzzle. The solution speed correlates with the mental sensation of doing the puzzle with ease.

If it takes me over 7 minutes to complete the puzzle, my rule is that I have to take a nap – I’m in a state where nothing will improve until I do. If I remember, before I start the puzzle, I set a 10 minute timer (to not waste any more time than that).

If I don’t remember (making bad decisions due to brain fog here), it can take longer than I’m willing to admit in public to solve the puzzle, or to find out I have NOT solved it. And I’ll try to use that fact to get myself down for that restorative 35 minute nap. Or I’ll postpone it endlessly, wasting hours, until something finally clicks and I get myself to bed feeling like a total idiot for getting stuck in the same old loop.

BUT I was missing that slot where I had the mental capacity to solve the puzzle in under 7 minutes, but I was wasting it by using it to do more puzzles. Or surf. Or whatever. Just because I didn’t FEEL ready to work.

New system to identify when the brain fog isn’t too bad

So I have a new rule: if it takes UNDER 7 minutes, then I’m CAPABLE of writing, even IF I don’t FEEL like writing. And I block the Internet with Freedom, go to Scrivener, bring up the scene I’m working on and the file where I keep the notes on it (Scrivener’s split screen works perfectly for this), and get going.

This is the focus of my efforts in November 2013, to work when the brain is ‘good’ but not ‘prime’ because it seems I get a lot more of good, and prime is a rare gift.

It has the advantage of getting things done by slow and steady progress – even in brainstorming. It doesn’t feel as if I’m making any progress – but I check my notes, and I’ve moved a few more steps toward the finished scene.

It isn’t magic, it is the professional attitude: if I’m going to write for a career, emotions must be managed in its service, not used to decide when I feel like working.

Potential hurdles

As long as the basics are taken care of – food, sleep, physical comfort – and I haven’t reached the end of my tether (something that has always been remedied by taking a rest, even if I don’t sleep), I CAN write.

Slow and plodding, without the ecstasy of the day when prime mind is married to time to write, but likely to be most of my writing time.

There is no downside: If my preparation and measurement method helps me get into the functional state, and get a bunch of inspired writing done, so much the better.

Why didn’t I figure this out sooner?

I have spent far too many days straining to achieve the state of mind where writing flows, and not taking advantage of the rivulets and the dribbles. I feel dense about it. Maybe I needed to feel dense about it before I’d realize what was going on.

Before this past year, it was usually possible to blame something external, because external crises were common, and tended to bring writing to a dead halt. I couldn’t see the data trends because the background noise level was so high. External crises also led to the use of adrenaline – a dangerous road for someone with limited ability to metabolize adrenaline; the aftermath of crisis + adrenaline could and did take several days. It’s impossible to see underlying trends under those conditions, even if they are there, which I doubt.

It’s not that external crises don’t do the same thing now; it’s that I have been fortunate not to have as many.

In conclusion

I kind of like it this way: I know better what I can do now. I know writing won’t necessarily feel great on a daily basis. But I also know that if a prime mind day comes along, it’s going to find me here, butt-in-chair ready, and already working. It should be an interesting – and far less dramatic and bumpy ride. It should also result in far more progress.

Making the commitment to produce a steady output, coupled to data and data analysis that found a way to do it, means I now have realistic hopes of getting this done in the reasonable future.

Maybe I can even make my goal of publishing Pride’s Children when I’m finally able to publish, in September 2014.

Thoughts? Comments on your process? How do you write with brain fog?


2 thoughts on “Measuring and dealing with brain fog: when to write anyway

  1. Dead Men Don't Snore

    Having the discipline to make use of those functional windows when you don’t feel like writing can be so difficult but I generally find that even a half hearted attempt at writing that gives me a starting point to work from next time is so much better than starting entirely from scratch on a foggier day. I hope your new system helps you make best use of your writing time.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Yes – when the last thing I want to do with a little bit of time when I feel well is to apply self-discipline and get to work. I like to revel a bit in actually feeling human.

      But the ‘good time’ disappears too quickly if I don’t grab it – and writing is the true passion.

      I won’t complain – I get some time, and I love writing when I settle down and do it – and complaining doesn’t help.

      You are so right: anything on the A1 is better than completing a less important task – because the A1 always has plenty of bits and pieces on the side, as well. I actually made use of a chunk of time last night, late, on a trip. The motel didn’t have wifi – so no internet – and I skipped the TV and did some writing.



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