By the end of last year, my attention span no longer qualified as a span. Two years of very bad news and a correlated TikTok addiction had left my focus fragmented, near-atomized. I was in perpetual dopamine withdrawal. At work, I would bounce between Slack notifications and tabs grouped by the dozens, frequently pausing to ask myself what I was doing in the first place. Everything took twice as long, pushed painfully forward by half of the usual motivation. My waking life: a Sisyphean nightmare.
Maybe it was the fact that I had tried meditation a handful of times and failed just as many. Maybe it was the realization that the mental health walks I forced myself to take every morning might have successfully deterred full-blown depression, but not this sense of high-functioning malaise. Whatever it was, something compelled me to seek out a ritual for fostering attention that would stick—a helpful routine that I could put into practice without feeling like I was moving through the motions of someone else’s life. In other words, a routine that would be meaningful to me.
That meaning I eventually found in scent—more specifically, in keeping a scent diary as a ritual. I have been interested in fragrance and olfaction since I acquired my first scented product as a tween—Calgon’s Take Me Away body mist in “Hawaiian Ginger,” which I sprayed with reckless abandon. And yet, re-discovering scent in this way felt revelatory. Existential dread, this state of hanging on by a thread, has an obfuscating effect. It renders all of your unrealistic expectations about what life should be crystal clear, but makes it difficult to see the most fundamental parts of yourself. But if you were to flip through the pages of my life, there it would be, scent on every page: filed under Earliest Memories, Strongest Feelings, Most Prized Possessions. You know what they say—sometimes what you’re looking for was within you all along. Or something like that.
"Like a retractable extension cord, I feel myself reeled back to the present moment, that tiny space between my nose and my wrist."
A scent diary can be as uncomplicated as it sounds: something to smell (an input) and something to take notes in (an output). Since working from home, I’ve kept a tray of scent vials near my desk and a composition notebook dedicated to the exercise. Sometimes I’ll choose a bright and ebullient perfume to set the tone for the day; on other occasions, I’ll take ten minutes between meetings to give my eyes—and spirit—a break. Because repetition breeds habit and I’m deeply committed to keeping this ritual, the steps are always the same: Close laptop. Open vial. Dab scent on left wrist. Write down what comes to mind as the perfume and the warmth of my pulse point do their thing. The goal is to reduce friction as much as possible and make the routine near-effortless. No fancy notebook I’m afraid of ruining with my half-baked thoughts and sloppy handwriting. No specialized gadgets or expensive subscriptions. Just me, my nose, and my thoughts.
There’s an alchemical reaction that occurs in my brain when I sit down to smell. As though in reverence, the buzzing bees that inhabit my skull quiet themselves for just long enough for cogent thoughts to break through. I am focused, mindful, all of my inner mechanisms redirected towards a single task: translating what it is that I’m smelling into words. Is it powdery, or is it creamy? Is that orange, or is that lemon?
You’ve seen this alchemy at work if you’ve ever watched someone try to describe a perfume. It’s not a laborious task, but it does take effort. More importantly, it’s grounding. You can’t be distracted when you introduce a scent into an otherwise neutral environment: we’ve evolved to give novel smells our focus, lest it be a sign of danger. Like a retractable extension cord, I feel myself reeled back to the present moment, that tiny space between my nose and my wrist. As a person who lives in my head all the time, it’s nice to be called back to my body occasionally. The physical requirements of breathing deeply and regulating my breath are just a side benefit.
The stimulus itself doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s a random sample that came with a makeup purchase. Other times, it’s a beloved fragrance I’ve worn for years. Lately, I’ve started adding raw materials to the mix—the essential oils and aroma chemicals that make up a perfumer’s set of tools. But the process stays the same. Spend enough time with a smell and there’s inevitably something in it that will reward your attention, whether it’s the excavation of a childhood memory or the spark of an unexpected association. My notebook is filled with joy and wonder, but also nostalgia, confusion, disgust. That such strong emotions can emerge from the simple act of smelling my wrist will never cease to astound me.
That in itself might just be the point of the whole exercise. When ritualized and examined the ordinary can become extraordinary. In the intimacy of a solitary practice, another dimension of sensory awareness reveals itself to you.
Attention has a magnifying effect that way. It dilates time and holds a loupe up to the nuances of being alive. A walk can be a way to get from point A to B, or it can be a chance to see yourself as a part of a greater whole. A shower can be a functional means to an end, or it can be a moment to get reacquainted with your own body. That’s the difference between a habit and a ritual. One you do to get done, and the other requires a deliberate intentionality, a sense of knowing not-just-the-what-but-the-why: something you do for the richness of the experience itself.
Keeping a scent diary profoundly altered the cadence of my work days. When I have writer’s block, it tempers calamitous thoughts and stimulates creative thinking. When I feel burnt out, it slows down my anxiety and quickens my sense of aliveness. In the absence of chatting up co-workers in the office, or walking down to get a coffee, it also provides a pocket of time in which my brain can reset and shift into a more relaxed mode. Nevertheless, I know it won’t work for everyone, just like meditation didn’t work for me. But setting aside a few minutes every day to do something you love with slowness and deliberation? I’d recommend it, dear reader—wholeheartedly, forcefully. It might just change your life.