The Writer as multi-tasker?


Like David, I have a lot on my plate this year. I have three books to deliver (two novels [one co-authored] and one academic book) and two more new ones (one novel and another academic book) on which I have to make serious progress by the end of the year. All 5 are already under contract so delay is not an option. I also have a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to direct, four issues of the academic journal I edit to prepare, and a student trip to the UK to lead, as well as other classes to teach, committees on which I have to serve etc. It’s going to be a very busy year. Which leads me to this rumination on productivity and multi-tasking.

With is amount on my plate and with deadlines looming, it’s tempting to be paddling in all of it at once. That, after all, seems to be the way we work these days. The world has changed, partly because of technological innovations, but also just because of the postmodern construction of selfhood and culture (a subject perhaps meriting a post all of its own). We’re not good at being silent, being solitary, or being focused. We like to be fiddling with ten different things at once, and you want to know the truth? That means ten things we’re not really giving our attention to.

The short version, is that decent productivity and multitasking don’t go together. No, that’s not just me being a curmudgeon (though I am). That’s science:

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT.

“Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time,” he said.

“You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks,” Miller said. “They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.”
(NPR article)

And I’m not just talking about working on multiple projects simultaneously, here. Writing (and reading) traditional long fiction is an essentially modernist activity and it requires a modernist (not postmodernist) approach.


Turn the music off.

I know lots of people will hate this, and that many like nothing more than to argue about what the best music to listen to is while writing but, sorry, no. Turn it off. Unless you are the kind of person for whom background music really is background and almost completely outside your consciousness (in which case, why have it on at all?) it’s a potential distraction. It may not actually stop you from writing, but it may dictate the kind of writing you do, and that’s worse.

Turn the e-mail alerts off.

Give yourself breaks to check in on such things, of course, but make sure those breaks full when you want them to, when you’ve done with the section you are working on, or have burned out. The e-mail will distract you for far longer than it takes to read what has come in, particularly if some of those messages raise issues connecting to other parts of your (non-writing life) that will require action of some sort.

Do one thing at once.

Maybe you can’t devote weeks at a time to a single project. Maybe not even days. I can’t. I have to break up my days and give different things attention at different times, but when I’m on one thing, everything else goes away. It has to. I can give a few hours a day, several days a week to a single writing assignment, and get it done before moving on to the next. If I try to juggle them all at once I’ll get done no faster and the work will be half baked. Priority one right now is finishing the first draft of the novel which is due in July. That gets as many mornings as I can assign to it. Editing I can do in bits, but drafting needs concerted focus over a lengthy period. I have to get this done first because I know I have edit memos coming. I won’t even consider starting the second academic book till the novel is complete.

Stay on task.

They say 90% of success is showing up. For writers than means butt in chair, undistracted, cranking stuff out. The work won’t always be great, but that’s what editing is for. Just get it down, get it out, get it done. Repeat: get it done. Writing courses put a lot of emphasis on process these days rather than product (more dubious postmodernism) but if you want to be successful, output is all. Only other writers will care how you produced it. So, again, get it DONE. As in sport, so in writing: there’s no points for almost.

I should say, I suppose, that this is just the way I work and everyone is different, but in all honesty I don’t really believe that. You can work with music on? Good for you. Imagine how much more you’ll get done and how much better your work will be when you turn it off 😉  Writing is about you and the words. Everything else is distraction.

So say I.


45 comments to The Writer as multi-tasker?

  • Great post, AJ. I’ve read studies that also talk about how every time you interrupt one task to attend to another, it makes the original task take that much longer. And it’s not just the extra time the interruption took, it’s the additional time on top of that that it takes the person to get their head back fully focused on the original task. I wish I could remember the exact numbers, but it was something like an extra fifteen minutes for a five minute phone call and that sort of thing. Bottom line: you’re 100% correct that multitasking is a fool’s game. Do everything in your power to focus on one ting at a time for as much or as little time as you have available. (I say this as someone who struggles terribly in this area, but still, “knowing better” is a good place to start…)

  • AJ, so many comments in reply to this, and yet, all I hear is your lovely British accent saying *git ‘er done.* 😀 I know. I deserve some form of stringent punishment for that.

    Okay — giggle aside, I totally agree with you. I heard the NPR radio interview about this and I was cheering all the way. People who multitask all the time have such stress on their faces and such adrenaline surges, that they often seem unwell or hyped up on meth. The concept of meditation to them is an unknown. Silence? What is that?!?

    When I focus, I *focus* on my writing, and on nothing else. No music, no distractions. Often even the dogs can’t get my attention to out. I resent everything the comes between the writing and me. I allow no email, no nothing. And if the phone rings, I let it ring. (How old fashioned is that?)

    And yet I have a friend who is ADD and *must* have music on to write. Silence makes her worry that something is wrong. She gets angsty. Which is not productive at all. I don’t understand that, but I do accept it. To each his own.

    And now back to you. O.M.G. Your schedule is horrible! Do remember to sleep. To watch some sports. To enjoy life.

  • I’m going to disagree about the music. It’s probably a personality flaw, but silence drives me nuts. The only time I want silence is when I sleep. If I don’t have music in the background when I write, I’m actually more distracted because I start investigating sounds, pacing, and/or singing (and let’s not even talk about writing in public without music to block out other’s conversations.) Not having music creates a constant feeling of ‘something is missing’ which makes my mind wander, searching. Could I eventually learn to write (or live) without music? I’m sure I could, but why fight with myself?

  • Ed, thanks. Yes, I’ve heard similar studies and meant to reference them. Thanks for makign teh point.

    if ‘git er done’ is how you need to hear it, fine 🙂 (Though the ‘er always bothered me. Is it ‘her’? Why is it gendered? Very worrying). As fo you ADD friend and…

    Sigh. I knew this would meet with some resistance, and Faith is right, thta you have to do what works for you. Just make sure it really is what works for you, that it’s not just habit which actually slows you down. And, predictably, I feel the same about writing in public (and then having to create more distraction to drown out the distraction). Why do it at all? Close the door and sit in silence with your work.

    And since there will be others who want to fight me on this let’s just get it out of the way now. If that’s what you really have to do, fine, but I will never advocate for it and I will remain skeptical that it realy helps anyone. Don’t agree? Fine. Prove me wrong with your productivity and I will cheer for you all the way up the bestsellers’ lists!

  • Thank you, AJ. I came to this conclusion a few weeks ago (focus on one thing at a time), but I thought it was just that I’m a horrible multitasker personally. So far, focusing on one thing at a time, one of my goals, has been productive for me.

    I do agree with Kalayna. I get easily distracted by the exact same things — noises, other sounds in the vicinity, people talking. The landlord’s screaming grandkids. The husband’s video games, which are dialogue-laden. So I’ve trained myself to distract that part of my brain with music, and then my focus tunes it out and I get work done.

    That being said, I can be productive in silence. It just has to be absolute silence. Well, that or it involves earplugs or white noise, like noise-cancelling headphones plus a running fan.

  • Laura,
    yes, I see the value of c reating a kind of white noise to shut out what you can’t control (and I think that’s part of what Kalayna meant to). I’m fortunate enough to have the house to myself when I plan to write, but the moment everyone gets home, forget it. If I had to write in such circumstances, I’m sure I’d need to come up with some drown out strategies too. That’s an important proviso. Tahnks.

  • I for one write better when music is playing in the background. It really gets the words to flow out of me. I think it is becuase it stimulates brain activity and helps to set a certain mood or emotional basis. When there is no music, I usually end up staring at the screen with a blank stare that could last for hours. *yes I am weird like that :)*

  • Mark, OK, but if the “emotional basis” for your writing is coming from the music, and not from your own intent for the writing or the words themselves, isn’t that a problem? Don’t you risk having your scene being subliminally dictated by something which has nothing to do with the book itself, something which could alter that book in ways you haven’t thought through, and which your reader will not have in their minds as they read your work?

  • I’ll agree to disagree on the music bit, but everything else is on the money for me.

    I find that when I’m interrupted by other tasks, daughter, phone, internet, it takes me easily 15-20 minutes to get my mind back into the game (though having appropriate music in headphones cuts it down by half… 😉 ). That’s 20 minutes lost that I could have been writing. Some days it seems like my whole day is wasted with constant interruptions.

    Although, you’ve given me something to blog about myself with the music thing. Thanks. 😉

  • As the father of daughters who insist on doing their homework with music on, with Skype open (though we’re constantly telling them to close it) with Facebook open (Ditto) etc., I want to applaud. Thanks for this, A.J. And best of luck with a schedule for 2011 that looks even more insane than mine.

    I do listen to music when I write. Only instrumental — bluegrass and jazz. I used to try to listen to classical, but I found it slowed me down. Something in the improvisational nature of jazz in particular seems to help me work, to energize me. But “seems” is the operative word. I’ve always worked this way, and I have been fairly productive over the years. I’m intrigued now to experiment and see if I’m more productive without the music playing.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay! I’m so happy to hear someone else say that they find music distracting when they’re writing. There ARE times when I need music to energize me, but that’s when I’m doing truly mindless tasks and would otherwise be too restless. If my work requires thinking that’s at all associated with language, then music turns into bad interference in my head. It’s a little frustrating, because I really LIKE music, and now listen to it a lot less than I used to, but I think liking it is one thing that makes it so distracting. My father plays and writes music, but usually doesn’t like it on in the background, even for dinner. I think because he wants to really focus on it and appreciate it when he listens to it.

  • I need quiet to write — no distractions. Multi-tasking? Forget it. Certain death to the creative process. I have found that at times (like this very moment) when my son has been off of school for winter break and my wife is at home, writing is near-impossible. My solution is to pack up the laptop and go to Barnes & Noble, buy myself a hot chocolate and work there. As long as nobody nearby is yammering on the phone or talking to another too loud, I can usual focus and get the work done. But my ideal comes next week when everybody is out of the house and the only distraction comes from one of my cats wanting attention.

  • Daniel (and David and Hep, and, I guess, everybody else) let me add this. I love music. That’s precisely why I can’t have it on. Because, like Hep, I listen to it. I have 50+ CDs in my car at any given time and I know the lyrics to every song on every disk. I’m a Music Head. If I put music on when I’m trying to do something else, I’m going to actually listen to it, and while that’s fine if I’m cooking or cleaning, it’s a nightmare for trying to do anything that requires real focus, particularly writing. So maybe I’m an oddity. I can see David’s use of jazz (for me it would have to be instrumental, because if there are words involved I’m going to fix on them) or classical (interesting point about it shlowing you down) but that’s because those musical forms are always fairly backgroundy for me. But put some XTC on the stereo, some mid period Beatles, some Elvis Costello, White Stripes, Roxy Music, The Clash or anything–ANYTHING–I actually care about, and that’s my writing for the day shot. It’s all about focus. If the music steals focus, it’s stealing from your writing. That’s all I’m saying. So git er done.

  • Thank you Stuart. I was beginning to feel pilloried 🙂

  • Deb S

    I guess I’m half and half. When I’m actually writing, I like uninterrupted silence. But if I’m working through a problem or planning a scene, some white noise helps me block out the real world. I’ll often get on the stair-climber and put the music on — just loud enough to be heard over the machine. I don’t want to hear the lyrics, just sense the music and the beat.

  • I think everyone struggles with distractions from time to time, but for me music isn’t one unless it is too loud. A bit of music playing quietly in the background helps me to set mood and tone. Yes, I carefully select which tunes to play according to what I’m working on at the moment. I can easily see where some would prefer silence though, as when it gets above a certain volume, I end up listening to the lyrics and singing along (off-key usually)! Good discussion point though, thanks for bringing it up.

  • Deb S

    Oh, AJ, forgot to say that I loove your music choices!

  • Oh, believe me, I can’t listen to music with lyrics at all while writing or trying to focus on anything else. I’m too much of a showboating singer not to sing along, which is incredibly distracting. 😉 So I can relate as far as that goes. However, I’ve found that good, low volume instrumental music through headphones has the same effect on me as a music score in a film does, staying at that subconscious level where it evokes emotion without becoming distracting and that emotion helps to drive the scene forward. Then again, with the way I see what I’m writing it makes a bit of sense that it would work that way. I’m an image thinker and I see the scene unfolding as sort of a full color film with sound and I have to put what I’m seeing into words. And it can’t be crunchy metal or industrial either. It has to be at least pseudo-orchestral. I’ve tried it. I’m reminded of a scene from Fringe a while back where Walter was talking about how listening to certain types of music allowed one to focus, but listening to chaotic music had the opposite effect. Anyhoo, that’s how it works for me. As they say, YMMV.

  • Please don’t feel bad. Or pilloried, either. The study that the NPR show came from was well done and used imaging techniques to *proove* that multitasking is impossible.

    The addiction to adrenaline is doing something new to the brains of our young (which is either scary or wonderful–I vote scary).

    The study also prooved (to the surprise of many) that the normal human bell-curve works best with silence and focusing on task. That said, there will always be those who fall outside of that bell-curve. I am married to a zebra in almost everything. Fortunately he likes silence too.

  • Deb, thanks, I have more, of course… 🙂 Maybe one day I’ll find an excuse to post about music!

    OK, but I stand by my point. If your mood is being dictated or affected by the music you listen to I see how that could become problematic. I need to find the emotional value of my work from the words and what I’m consciously trying to do with them. Having that affected by the music I’m listening to (its tone, duration, tempo etc.) seems to me to be adulterating your product. If it works for you, OK, but I don’t agree with it as an approach.

    Thanks Faith. But fear not. I’m a big boy and knew this post would get a few engines running (at me!). All I can offer is what I think is true, right? If others disagree, that’s their funeral. I mean, er… their business. 🙂

  • Many people in the past haven’t jived with the approaches I’ve had to apply to write an effective piece, but then again, that’s part of everyone being different. Took me a long time to step away from all the discouraging how-to books that claimed that you needed to write a certain way because it was the right way. If I’d taken those to heart I never would have continued trying and finding my own path. And really, it’s not dictating the emotion, it’s helping keep and drive that emotion. Just like a good instrumental score in a film should. The emotion puts me in the frame of mind to pick the appropriate words to use to evoke the same emotion in others through those words. But again, there’s no point in debating the matter because everyone approaches the process in a different way. I’m not going to try to convince you that it’ll work for you and I can’t deny that it did work for me. And who knows, it may have only worked on this novel. The same trick may not work for keeping me focused on the next novel. Can’t say for sure until I try it.

  • And I forgot my happy face to show I’m not irritated, but I’m really not! See? 🙂

  • Unicorn

    I often play music when I write. But when I find myself listening, I stop. If I’m really writing, I go entirely deaf to the music and focus entirely on the writing. As you say, why have music, then? Habit, of course.
    I write in quite a noisy environment, but I’m almost always in that environment, so I’m used to it and don’t get very distracted. Anyway, there’s much cooler music in The World In My Head.
    As for several projects at a time, I have to prioritise – one project will get about five days a week, the others will be split over the other two. Otherwise, I get stuck and everything slips.
    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

  • josephmcbee

    I find it interesting that you mention how the music influences your writing. Speaking from experience, I know it to be true.

    In college I was writing a short-story set in the Civil War for a course on creative writing. I liked writing to music back then (I have since given it up) and so I thought it would be a great idea to write the story while listening to the soundtrack for the movie GLORY. I congratulated myself on my brilliant idea for boosting my creativity, popped the cassette in the boom box (I date myself with that reference I am sure) and sat down and wrote what I thought was one of the best stories I’d ever written.

    That week in class my fellow students read the story. When the professor asked them for feedback one of my classmates immediately said;

    “This is just like that movie GLORY.”

    Everyone immediately agreed.


    Is there such a thing as subconscious plagiarism? If there is, then I am guilty.

    Stupid soundtrack.

  • AJ – thanks for a great “reminder” post – my new mantra is focus, focus, focus. The number one aid in that quest is turning off my email notices – I am *astonished* by how much more I accomplish with them off.

    As for music (because I want to be one of the cool kids and join in the debate – I used to play instrumental music whenever I wrote, and then I read an efficiency study that suggested that music served as a distraction. I tried writing without it, and I found that my productivity increased by leaps and bounds. Now, I only use music when there are substantial outside distractions (e.g., construction noises in the neighbor’s townhouse), and even then I stick with completely well-known instrumental pieces.

  • Hm. I’ve been thinking about this all morning because, like Mindy, I am interested in keeping my focus and being more mindful. At my work, we often have several windows and programs open at once, sometimes out of necessity (the catalogue, our database, e-mail) and this reminded me how much more work I get done when I reduce the number of windows open. So I’ve been trying to work more mindfully today.

    After reading the comments so far, I realized that one reason why I have regular pop music on in the first place is that I like the fast pace. It keeps me energized. So I think I’ll try white-noise-only (noise canceling headphones + fan) for a little while, to see if I notice a difference. Given that distractions, for me, are unavoidable.

  • Thanks Daniel. Glad the happy face appeared!

    Unicorn. Yes, prioritization is key, esp when you’re looking at competing deadlines!

    thanks. I had a similar epiphany. And you know you’re at least as cool as the cool kids 🙂

  • Laura, glad I gave you something to think about 🙂 My work is done.

  • Great example, Joseph. I suspect something less literal happens a lot when people listen to music while they write. Some writers even swear off reading for the time it takes to draft a new book for fear of something similar.

  • bonesweetbone

    Hi, Dr. Hartley! Followed your facebook link a little while back and have been quietly stalking this blog ever since. Proof you can’t shake me when the semester ends, apparently. Very much looking forward to Midsummer!

    I’m glad you posted about multi-tasking, especially because it’s nice to see some support for doing one thing at a time. I tried multi-tasking, found out I’m dreadful at it, yet I still haven’t converted back and I know my general productivity has suffered.

    As far as music goes, as a self-declared music addict I’m also glad I’m not the only one that can’t focus with it on. However, I do laud its praises when I’m trying to drown out unwanted background noise, and the headphones prove a good family deterrent since I literally don’t have my own space at home. As far as listening to music to get in a particular mood or mindset, I think I might start trying that before writing rather than while writing. And maybe wearing headphones with no music at all just to deter the family…

  • Tom G

    Blessed is the silence. I need silence to write. I love music too much to not listen.

    I’m also one who won’t read while writing that first draft. I’ve been “influenced” by other writer’s style before when reading and writing.

  • Tom,
    yes, when I’m reading and working on my own writing at teh same time I constantly find myself saying “wouldn’t it be great if I added X” only to realize that said X was something from the book I was reading. Sigh. Glad you’re in the silent camp. I need the forces.

    no fair not to actually identify yourself (beyond declaring yourself a fellow uni-tasker!) that is!

  • mudepoz

    I dunno. I can understand that texting and driving is illegal here, a good case for not multi tasking. However, I drive. A lot. Maybe 35K a year. I don’t text, I won’t even use my cell phone, but
    take my music away while I’m driving and I might have to kill you. Take my coffee and my music away while I’m driving and I promise I will kill you. If I could figure out how to pee, drive, listen to the music, and drink my coffee, I would.
    In my car, in my greenhouses, and while I’m writing, the music is on. It’s white noise for me, something to mask all the outside noises that bother me. I don’t want to know my wheel is falling off. The vent motor is about to explode. The bathtub is about to come through the ceiling. Don’t know about my productivity, but as long as the bones get articulated, the plants get watered, the labs are written and I’m not psychotic, it’s all good. Oh, yeah, I do all those things at once.

  • Mudepoz,
    I’m the same in the car. Completely obsessive music freak. I was the only parent in the car pool whose three year old rocked out to Sargeant Pepper. But even I have to turn the tunes down or off when I hit the kind of traffic places like Atlanta dishes out: 6 lanes in each direction going from 80 to dead stop in 40 feet… 🙂

  • bonesweetbone

    Melissa. But you can call me Henry the Fifth. 😉

  • AJ, great stuff. Hell, I’m a musician and I can not have music on when I’m writing. I tried it too but I simply
    end up getting involved with whatever music it is and forget it; I get next to nothing accomplished.

    Now doing the dishes or any chores around the pad is a different story. Then I can blast it and I get all my stuff
    finished with a smile on my face. Driving too is cool but I don’t have a car so only when i’m renting.

    I just wish it wasn’t so easy to go online when I’m writing with the computer. I have to yell at myself, “Just put up Word and
    no email!!” Yeah well, it’s always something…

  • Bone,

    Good headphones of the noise-cancelling sort (over the head, earpieces like cusy black leather seats) create a barrier.

    Today I did get more done at work wearing the headphones in silence and blasting the fan on low, but today was rife with tasks where I’d already figured out that music is too much for me to focus. I’m going to give this “experiment” straight through into next week, including Monday’s group coffee shop write-in.

  • Bone (Melissa)–I should call you Bony M: that’s a 70s music joke to match the thematic battle of the day 🙂

    No idea you wrote. We should talk!

  • Yes, Tim. Sometimes technology is not the writer’s friend. Still, I’m glad I don’t have to retype every page when I want to make a change! I just have to keep my computer in check and not be tempted to use every feature all the time just because I can.

  • Great post. Multitasking is not really about doing the same type of thing at the same time. It’s more about being able to switch rapidly between tasks and doing complementary tasks together.

    So, having music on while I write keeps my mind active and focused. Particularly when I’m tired, the music will help keep me awake.

    Working on multiple projects really means working intensely on each one at a time.

    I know that for some people they have to turn off the music to concentrate on the task at hand, but it’s not true for all people.


  • Razziecat

    I prefer silence when I write, but it’s very hard to find. I live with my two sisters, in a rather small house, and there’s nowhere to go where I can’t hear them talking (or hear the TV!) Because all three of us write, and can spend hours talking about it, those overheard conversations become very distracting! 🙂 So I sometimes listen to music while I write. If it’s very familiar music, it becomes white noise; I don’t really hear it anymore, but I don’t hear the TV or the talking either.

  • Great post!

    I use instrumental music (no lyrics) to write. There is a vast body of research that shows that the “appropriate” type of music can shift the brain into a focused state and actually increases task productivity. If I have time in the next few days, I will post some references from several papers I wrote on music and its effect on the brain while completing my graduate work in one of my neurobiology courses.

    As for multi-tasking, I agree wholeheartedly with you. I was excited when NPR ran that piece because I was always told that it was important to be able to juggle several tasks simultaneously (which I don’t do well) and I felt somehow vindicated 🙂

  • Julia

    AJ — I really enjoyed this post! I hope you’ll consider blogging about how your juggle your academic writing and your fiction, or what your writing process is like with multiple, very different projects.

    I’m a professor at a large state university, so my day-to-day work is writing intensive and a labor of love. I’m currently finishing an academic book, and I’ve just finished a novel (spurred on by a fantastic post of Faith’s not long ago!) which I’m in the process of revising. I’d love to hear more about the relationship between (or seperation of) your different writing projects, how you shift gears between diverse modes of writing, and any advice or warnings you’d care to share. Thanks!

  • Thanks Julia. Good to hear I’m not the only academic here! Yes, maybe I’ll post on the subject of switching between academic and creative writing soon.

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