Friday, May 10, 2013

Multitasking and Writing: Just Say No

How many things can you do at once? When I think of "multitasking," I immediately think of the commercial with the kid showing that he can "wave his hands like this" and "shake his head like this." After a few seconds of doing it, the kid gets dizzy. That's not the point of the commercial, but that's the point that stuck with me.

Expert opinion has varied over the years on the topic of multitasking. First we heard that we have to multitask in order to be effective! Then we heard that multitasking is ineffective! I think both are true. Some things are easy to do while multitasking; doing housework while listening to a book on tape is one. A task that you don't have to think about so much plus a deep thought task equals effective multitasking.

Writing, however, I've found is not done well or effectively while multitasking. Writing seems like such a simple task; it's just putting words down on paper, right? But in order to be done well, writing must be given the proper space, some time where you commit to your writing and block out other tasks.

And that's part of the problem, I think, were we stumble and then fail to follow through on our commitment to the task. Writing needs to be made a habit, an exercise, because your work improves with exercise. Just like with any skill, you need to work at it to be successful. And you need to really carve out a block of time to get it done, time when you commit to writing and not do anything else.

But, to quote the eponymous Sweet Brown: "Ain't nobody got time for that!" Or at least it may seem that way. If I may continue with the exercise metaphor, fitness experts will tell us that an hour of exercise is as effective as three 20-minute sessions of exercise which is as effective as six 10-minute sessions. Don't let the fact that you don't have wide vistas of uninterrupted time be your excuse for not writing. And don't try to fit it in while you're doing a hundred other things--your writing is too important for you to try to squeeze in while you're working on other tasks.

So, how do you avoid the lure of multitasking in order to squeeze in writing and make the most of the time that you have? Last year, I wrote a short story that was published in an anthology, and I squeezed my writing into times when I didn't realize that I had time. At first, I was convinced that there was no way I could do it, but the story kept poking out. So I started carrying a notebook and when I was waiting (in the pick up like at school, at my daughter's art class) or when I had a spare moment (cooking dinner, going to bed, riding in the car--not driving!) I would write about my characters. When I had longer amounts of time, I would write more of the story. I defied the mandate that you should set a time at the same time each day to get the writing in, and I got the writing in.

When I wasn't sure where to go next in the story, I would write about related things--backstory, character sketches, details that maybe wouldn't make it into the story, but gave me insight into the characters and the story and helped to shape the story in ways that I didn't at first anticipate. I learned how to use small bits of time to make a bit impact on my writing. I would also have to carve out longer stretches--an hour here or there--to get down those wide swaths of story, but thankfully, my technique of chunking up time was pretty effective.

As I'm looking at bigger writing tasks, I'm going to try to use the same technique of small bursts of writing supported by longer stretches. I have 5 suggestsions if you want to give this a try:
  1. Don't limit yourself. Don't think you have to be in a certain room, a certain chair, a certain using notebook or a certain computer; give yourself the gift of flexibility.
  2. Be organized. If you keep a notebook in your purse but your main writing is done on your laptop, be sure to transfer your writing from paper to computer so nothing is lost. Or if you have scraps of paper that are making the bulk of your writing, keep them in a zipper bag. And date them! 
  3. Be creative. You're a writer! This is an easy one. If you have 10 minutes and you're not sure what to write about, take your characters off on tangents, write about some back story, write down some of the plot knots that you're struggling to unwind.
  4. Use an outline. Even if you hate outlines like I do. When you work in bursts, outlines are a wonderful tool.
  5. Be prepared for pop-in visits. When you open yourself up to these moments of writing, you may find that your characters or plots will pop up when you least expect them. Be prepared. Keep your notebook handy or keep an app (such as Evernote, which is free and works on both Android and Apple devices) where you can keep notes on one device and it will update on all of your other devices. Seriously brilliant, and I'm not a spokesperson for the app! Just a satisfied user. :)
So, what's your secret? How do you make the most of your time when writing? 


  1. Many secrets the same as yours. Multiple notebooks stashed in multiple places around the house, and I've learned to use concentrated time (as much as possible) even if it's ten minutes.

    1. Yes! We can do anything in 10 minutes! I think that's a mom thing. ;)