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.”
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.