Life in the 21st century tempts and enables us to multitask. What with social media and mobile technology, the duties of employment and the call to a creative life, we’re lucky if we can focus fifteen solid minutes of our attention on any one undertaking.
So what do we do? We multitask. We listen to an audiobook while settling into downward-facing dog. We thumb important emails on our phone during board meetings. We read articles about “Three billion ways multitasking will ruin your life, according to science.” And when do we read this? We read it while standing at the stove, spatula in hand, ignoring a skillet full of the finest brussel sprouts anyone’s ever seen.
Then, we turn off the stove and start chomping on sprouts that are burned on one side and raw on the other, vowing to bring order to our lives.
The vow lasts about five seconds, long enough for us to click on another article. This one’s about “The quarter-trillion things you should be doing right now, but aren’t.”
With all of our goals and with all the messages out there that shame us into second-guessing our productivity, how are we supposed to keep our writing lives moving forward, as well as organized? Are we supposed to be multitasking or not? And what does this mean for our writing lives?
How I started multitasking
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a serial multitasker my entire adult life. I can remember the year it started. I was in college. Spring semester, sophomore year, I declared myself an English Major. Up to that point, I had only ever read one book at a time or written one paper at a time. But when I enrolled in three literature classes at once, I found myself speed-reading three or four books every week, because the syllabi demanded that I do so. When I wasn’t doing that, I was writing several papers at once, because my professors probably conspired with one another to set the due dates all on the same day.
By the time I graduated from college and moved onto grad school, I’d grown so accustomed to academic multitasking that I couldn’t imagine operating in any other way.
Fast-forward to three degrees later, I work full-time as a content writer, write my tail off on several novel projects, manage FromNothingToNovel alongside Whitney, and–would you believe it?–I just launched another major endeavor.
At the end of each day, I walk away from my computer, with two main things:
- A longer to-do list than I started with, including main tasks, sub-tasks, and sub-sub-tasks.
- A growing sense of overwhelm and dread that “I haven’t done enough.”
And yet, my methods haven’t changed in over fifteen years.
Now, when it comes to managing the writing life, I want to distinguish, for myself at least, between good and bad methods of multitasking.
By good, I mean functional. As in grouping tasks in such a way that we actually SAVE time and arrive at more interesting ideas than we would by focusing on one task at a time. Here is an obvious example:
Brainstorming new story ideas in one file while wrapping up, in a separate file, revisions to another story.
I find that if I don’t type out story ideas–or any ideas, for that matter–the moment they come to me, I will forget them. And new story ideas almost always come the moment I’m engrossed in an ongoing project. In fact, it’s the ongoing project that gives me new ideas, so it only makes sense, to me anyway, to toggle between these.
And don’t get me started on how writing a novel will eventually itself become a feat in multitasking. Because if you get me started, I will talk your ear off about the fact that 300-plus pages of storytellin’ means we have to manage character development at the same time we manage theme, narrative voice, structure … #AllTheThings!
And then, when I’m finished talking about that, I’ll sit you down and start you on a steady diet of additional high-value task-mastering like:
- How to update your Writing Philosophy while shopping online for new socks. If you haven’t written a Writing Philosophy yet, you can borrow mine. It basically states that “Writing is the best thing there is. You should do it. Often. And connect it to the rest of your life.” And there is many a story you could write about a sensible pair of socks.
- The excitement of keeping five separate journals at once to express your five different ways of being. And no, one all-purpose journal doesn’t get you the same results. Not even if it has dividers.
Multitasking isn’t for everyone, of course. And even for us serial multitaskers who seem to thrive off of the constant simultaneity of everything under the sun, there are probably some bad practices that have wormed their way into our way of being. You know the practices I’m talking about:
- dividing our energy among tasks that don’t relate to one another
- never giving ONE important idea our attention
- leaving 10, 20, 50 ideas in a perpetual half-baked state–little more than goop, basically
And if we want to be really honest with ourselves, we can take a good look at a typical work / writing day and see if it resembles the following scenario, even just a little bit:
Wake up. Make a beeline for your desk, wherever it may be in this world. Turn your eyeballs in the direction of a long to-do list. It jeers at you like a crazed circus clown. You jeer back. Then you jiggle your mouse until the computer screen lights up, revealing at least 50 tabs, spread out invitingly above the tool bar.
You take care of business. That includes job-related tasks. Answering messages from five or more email accounts. Posting on social media, personal and professional. Doodling with up to ten Google docs.
You like to think of the line of tabs as an extended to do list. Anyone who suggests, “How ’bout you copy and paste the URLs on a separate file so that you can close the tabs?” gets to see how intensely you can roll your eyes.
But, let’s say you humor them and minimize the browser. On the desktop are seven Word docs, each with sentences and paragraphs that need your immediate attention. So you’ve got Google docs and Word docs. And yes, you do need both.
You don’t feel overwhelmed, do you? No sir. Your computer probably does, but not you. Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here. You’ll get it all done. You swear it.
You will. You will.
So what does multitasking mean for your novel?
I’m not sure I’ll ever find a straight answer to this question. But I will make two
observations that might help other writers who wonder about the uses of multitasking:
- I revise old projects most productively when I shove everything off my desk and put my eyes on one manuscript and one alone.
- I develop new projects most productively when I multitask to my heart’s content.
Moral of the story: each stage of the writing process requires its own special approach. It’s up to each writer to bring awareness to the task and the discipline to carry it out.
How about you? What is your attitude toward multitasking? Does it help or hinder your writing projects? Tell us in the comments!