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This Centuries-Old Trick Will Unlock Your Productivity

One thing I knew as an aspiring writer was that I was supposed to sit in front of a page for more than 10 minutes. I could not. I had grown up in Colombia during a violent time in the country’s history; my family and I had fled, but I suffered from PTSD. Fear had worked its way under my skin. I wrote a sentence, then questioned whether my surroundings were safe. I got up to check the locks, turn every available light on. The writing came a sentence at a time, but I could hardly finish anything. Even so, I loved writing and longed to do it in spite of personal distress.

First, I tried imagining myself as a cranky office manager. I monitored data. I clocked in and out with timecards. I created pie charts to track my time and the time it took to track my time. I drew elaborate graphs where Y measured the rise and fall of quality pages and X stood for possible culprits — starches, desk locations, prying eyes, news consumption, anxiety.

The data did not bring me closer to the state of mind I had identified as the most conducive for writing: a floating between presence and absence, a sense of stillness, awareness and listening.

Reflecting on that ideal mental state, I thought of mesmerism, the precursor to hypnosis, conceived in the 1770s by the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer. One school of his followers favored the somnambulistic trance, instigated by a choreography of visuals and touch. I began to wonder whether such trances could be of use to me, whether they would induce that floating sensation I needed in order to quiet the disturbances of trauma and dedicate myself to writing. And so I began to develop a ritual — a way of hypnotizing myself.

This love of ritual has metastasized into a way of life. There is an order to the cups I pull from the kitchen cupboard, a sameness to how I daily prepare what I ingest, five steps to my morning skin-care routine, four steps at night. Once, upon finishing the work of knitting a six-foot blanket, I immediately unspooled it, then reknit the thing.

It began with a color, a muted ultramarine blue that is warmer than navy and bright like royal blue. I found it while scanning the racks for a slip in a hue I did not much wear, one I intended to wear exclusively for writing. Each day, in preparation for my work, I put on the slip and actively imagined for 10 minutes that the color was a place in which intrusive thoughts might not enter. Then I forced myself to sit and write. When I wore the slip, I felt overtaken on a cellular level by a serene form of concentration. Under the spell of chromatic conditioning, I began to accumulate pages and finish my projects.

It began with a color, a muted ultramarine blue that is warmer than navy and bright like royal blue.

Over the 13 years I’ve dedicated myself to the somnambulistic trance, I’ve collected a number of outfits — silk slips, slinky tops, linen shorts, acrylic sweaters — all in muted ultramarine. At this point, I can no more resist wearing the color and sitting down to write than I can keep myself from taking a breath after an exhale. This mesmerism quiets my mind via an onslaught of repetition. The longer the repetition goes on, the stronger its mesmeric force.

My ritual for self-mesmerism has grown more elaborate over the years. On my designated writing days, I plod to the closet and pick out something in that muted ultramarine, after which I pick a song to play on repeat. It will loop for the next hour (or sometimes the rest of the day). There is always an initial moment of claustrophobia, but the looping music encourages a trance. The operational chatter of my mind grows quiet before it grinds to a halt. I transition into the territory of concentration. I don’t have to think about what I will do next: After doing it thousands of times, I’ve turned writing into muscle memory.

The best music for self-mesmerism is the kind that embraces repeating and minimally evolving phrases — Kali Malone, Caterina Barbieri, Ben Vida and William Basinski are artists I turn to with frequency. They are demanding, beautiful, blisteringly austere. Past the initial weariness of sonic repetition, I experience self-dissolution. I stop hearing the song. It becomes a series of staticky sonic impressions.

At a glance, repetition may look like invariability. But repeated listenings of a song are never identical: Differences emerge out of the drone of a routinized task. A glass may slip, the water I splash myself with may be colder or hotter than I expect. I knit the stitches of my blanket tightly, then loose. The sameness of repetition is never the point. It is a daily door I step through, on the other side of which I am emptied and am filled with something better. I leave the familiar behind to embrace what is unfamiliar and mysterious. No matter what is happening in my life, choosing repetition lets me deliver myself to the moment at hand.

Before self-mesmerism, trauma was something that exiled me from the present, causing me to revisit horrific events. It eroded my perception, until I came to believe that long-gone dangers were extant in the middle of my peaceful everyday. Repetition is how I shed skins of anxiety. The highest abundance I know comes from stripping myself to the minimum. There, I am boundless, timeless and surprising, a magnificent condensation of life.


Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the author of ‘‘Fruit of the Drunken Tree’’ (Doubleday, 2018). ‘‘The Man Who Could Move Clouds,’’ a family memoir, is forthcoming from Doubleday.

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