Too many competing demands? Twenty four hours not enough? Your solution is easy - Multitask!
What a lovely, seductive word it is, suggesting that if we were just a little more canny, we would be able to juggle our responsibilities in a smooth synergy.
Which is crap.
Whenever I’ve tried to speak to someone watching their fave sport on tv, I’ve had the wonderful experience of being both invisible and inaudible. Whenever I’ve been on the phone to someone and an interesting headline popped up on the screen, I’ve turned deaf for a few seconds and had to ask them to repeat themselves.
Sure, the human brain is a complex machine capable of deep insights and creativity. But it evolved to control only one set of legs, one set of eyes and ears and a pair of hands, which often worked in collaboration.
I don’t know if the research evidence ever supported multi tasking as a worthwhile way to process information, but recent research into productivity and output has been very clear. Multi taking is multi time wasting.
But that’s not really new. Back in the 30s when workplace psychology was still new, the studies into the stress-effectivenss relationship revealed a clear trend – low level stress led to minimal output. Increasing the stress increased output. When stress reached a particular point, effectiveness plateau’d off. When more stress was added, output took a nosedive.
In other words, there is an optimum level of stress that maximises performance. Don’t you love it when research results are perfectly consistent with your intuition? They even gave it an important sounding title – the Yerkes-Dodgson inverted-U shaped curve.
But what is stress, exactly?
Many things can create it, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on one important component - decision making. Making any decision at all is stressful. Anything that makes us stop and evaluate our options, consider the consequences and then choose increases our body’s stress response, even if it’s to a low level and beneath our awareness.
Here’s the bit that might come as a surprise: even making a pleasant decision creates stress. Cheesecake or chocolate mousse? Which do I miss out upon? Do I want to appear to be a glutton and have both? OMG – the pressure – someone choose for me!
Another point about stress is that it cumulates as decisions accumulate. So I might be able to juggle three routine tasks simultaneously – eating my breakfast, with one eye on my kids whilst chatting to the hub is achievable, because there are few decisions in this process, and decisions are routine. That’s the extent of my multi tasking ability - and most people's, too.
But at work I have competing demands. Each of which requires a series of decisions. For example, I might need to write a report, try to catch somebody on the phone, prepare material for an upcoming meeting and deal with a new email that’s pinged into the in-box. Whilst politely telling a colleague that I’d be delighted to answer their questions (just not right now).
Fairly typical demands. My thought processes might go like this: does this sentence in this report sound like I’m blaming somebody? Oh, I really have to speak to x, do I leave another voice mail message or try phoning again in 30 minutes? I’ll phone later, so I’ll need to write a reminder to call again. Now, how much time before the meeting? I need to email everybody a copy of this information at least an hour before it starts. Which folder is that info in? Oh look - a message in the in-box. Should I open it now or later? The subject line is ambiguous. And what is my colleague wanting anyway?
A typical workplace will expect us to be able to glide seamlessly between such activities. The problem is - each time we swap from one to another, we need to re-orient to the task, recall our place, and organise the next step to tackle it. Every time we grapple with these decisions, stress rises, and time is wasted.
Chances are, I’ll forget to phone the person until 5 minutes before leaving, make a fool of myself at the meeting, miss an obvious error in my report, waste my time figuring out the email is totally irrelevant and snap at my colleague.
I guess that’s why the buzz words are shifting from multi tasking to prioritising. Most tasks involve many simultaneous decisions, so doing one at a time is far more efficient than three.
So how does that relate to writing?
Creating is a complex task. Even if the only thing you are doing is writing, it is still an exercise in multitasking. Think about the process: word choice is a constant question. Avoiding passive verbs and clichés. Choosing the most effective punctuation (comma? Semi colon? Break it into two sentences?) Will another set of italics will make the manuscript look amateurish. How much internalisation is needed now? What about pacing? The overarching plot needs to be considered at all times. Every character’s motivation is there, too. Does this passage actually advance the plot or is it an excuse for a very clever joke?
Feeling stressed yet?
Writers live in the real world, too, and have other demands on their time and attention. If I’m stressing about the symptoms my cat was displaying (should I take it to the vet? They might not be able to see her for a few days, she might get worse), while wondering why my friend has not responded to a suggestion to meet on Saturday (did I miss a text response? – better check), keeping an eye on whether the carpet cleaner is actually having an effect on that stain (or will it discolour the fabric?), and that I haven’t spoken to my mother for a few days (she had a slight cough, has it turned into pneumonia?) – then my writing will grind to a snail’s pace.
What I’ve learnt is ... unless I focus totally on my writing, my precious time just runs down the drain. So the kitchen timer is my friend here. I set it for an hour, and in that hour I only write. (Ok, I pause to sip coffee, but I’m not allowed to make another cup). I’ve made a decision to delay all other decisions until the hour is up. If I’m fortunate, I can allocate another hour later in the day.
Roald Dahl apparently had a special writing hut, where he would sit for two blocks of two hours per day. He had five sharpened pencils ready as he began work, knowing that it would take him two hours to wear down the five nibs. This guy didn’t even want a break to sharpen his pencils! Way to go!
Stating the obvious.
Sports Psychology experts train top athletes by stating what sounds pretty obvious. They train on focussing only on the one shot or move they need to achieve at that precise moment. That action, and only that one action, is their entire world at that second. To continually be mindful of the basics – eye on ball – before attempting any fancy stuff. To forget about the score and how the outcome of the game will affect them. To ignore the big picture and think only about what is to be achieved at this precise moment. These techniques are employed at Olympic level.
What I’ve taken from that is to focus only one aspect of writing at a time. At first, just telling the story in my own voice. And when I revise, I will only focus on the word choice and grammar, or the relevance of a section to the overarching structure. One aspect at a time during my alloted time.
That task is my life at that instant.
The least helpful thing to do is to start questioning my decision to write, or asking "who would read anything I write?" What a great way to sabotage the process. Shove these doubts to one side and keep going. The “just do it” philosophy is actually helpful. Save the doubt for when you're thinking of your goals.
Focusing on each step, one word at a time, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, will get the narrative finished.