Know Your Nature, Nurture Your Focus (Multitasking Series, part 5)

8059871167_c0ba0fb4cc_zBack in February, I kicked off a multitasking series here at WU. I had been struggling with focus–even reading novel-length fiction had become a challenge–and I could easily point to multitasking as at least a part of the problem. No small problem, either; focus might be the most valuable asset we have as creative individuals. You know this, I know this, and yet we regularly find ourselves doing too much. Often, we aren’t sure what has happened with our hours, and every day seems the same. Lost time. Lost opportunities. Lost stories. One Groundhog Day after another and an endless winter of creative discontent.

For me, becoming incensed about something often leads to change. Once I read that multitasking had been linked with a reduction of brain matter, I became a little riled up. And from the outpouring of comments on that first post, you did as well.

Over the last several months, we’ve talked about the value of organizing your mind and desk, with hat tips to several valuable resources, including Diigo, Dropbox, and Pocket. We’ve explored Stephen Covey’s quadrant approach for managing time. We’ve discussed different kinds of attention, and the exhaustion of mind that sets in when too many things stake a claim on our time at once (Directed Attention Fatigue). We’ve talked about minimizing unnecessary thought-intruders.

But we haven’t fully explored Attention Restoration Theory–the idea that you can find your way back to a more energized self.

Meditation, which we talked about last month via my interview with Leo Babauta, definitely falls under this category. Today, I’m going to wrap the series with a few additional powerhouse habits you might consider adopting, things that may help you with focus and energy, and counter the worst effects of multitasking.

Reconnect with Nature.

Once upon a time, five neuroscientists went on a canoeing trip in Utah to explore an idea. .What would happen to their hopping minds when they were isolated, without the Internet, in the wilderness?

Turns out, they were antsy. Until the third day.

On the third day, the sense of urgency that had been gnawing at them, demanding that they get back to their phones and desks and waiting email, faded. They slept better, and felt far more relaxed and focused on the now. It’s what NPR reporter Matt Richtel, who joined the scientists, dubbed the three-day effect.

It seems that the part of the mind that is ever on the lookout for the Next Exciting Thing may be happy enough to focus on trees and birds and cattails and sunsets. And temporarily muting that jabbery, thrill-seeking part of the brain may be enough to help reconnect us with our lost energy stores.

While not everyone can take a three-day trip to the wild to reset themselves, or will want to, even a 50-minute walk can improve focus and energy. [Read more…]

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

How to Meditate When You’re Too Busy to Meditate, and Why You Should Care — with Leo Babauta (Multitasking Series, part 4)

If meditation is something you’d like to master but it seems you’ll never find the time–or develop the skill–this post is for you.

photo by Ron Shoshani
photo by Ron Shoshani

One of the cool things about being human is our ability to be self-aware. Because of that ability, we can very thoughtfully direct our behavior. We can recognize patterns leading to low productivity, trace back the days, and map the chaos. We can consciously choose a different path. We can remember how to control our days. We can embrace stillness.

The benefits associated with meditation make for a long list, including improvements in attention and memory, a drop in stress, and–most relevant to this series–less of the switching behavior we so often see with multitasking. A recent study suggests that meditation can even help us retain gray matter as we age.

It may even help nurture creativity.

Hang with me for a second while I present an analogy. I spoke with my eye doc recently about the amount of time I spend in front of a screen. “You’ll need to stretch your eyes at least every few hours, otherwise you may experience a worsening in your distance vision,” he said. It’s called Computer Vision Syndrome. One of the easiest ways to “stretch your eyes” is to look out a window every twenty minutes or so, for at least thirty seconds, at things that are a greater distance away than your computer screen. A treeline. A yeti. Whatever it is that you see out there. This simple break helps you to preserve your long vision.

Excuse the pun, but you see where this is going. Taking a break to meditate–learning how, doing it regularly–is a lot like looking out that window, and it may be the best way to preserve the natural vastness of your mental terrain. After all, you can’t nurture an expansive territory if you spend your days chasing your tail.

Stop, Look, Listen

I am not an expert on meditation. Far from it. But I’ve long admired Zen Habits, home of bestselling author and blogger Leo Babauta. Zen Habits, with its clean appearance and simple-wise posts, is a hugely popular site–a top 25 blog with ~a million readers. I took a chance and reached out to Leo and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few questions about meditation for Writer Unboxed. This is our conversation:

Therese: We writers have hopping minds, and thinking of nothing for even two minutes may seem impossible. Recently I heard a friend say something enlightening, though: Meditation is simply about recognizing your leaping thoughts, then directing them back to center. That seems do-able. How do you define meditation?

Leo: Meditation is a practice for living, but done in a simplified way. In our daily lives, our minds are always active, distracted, worried, fantasizing, making up stories, and so on. And that determines our reality, our happiness, our unhappiness. So meditation is about paying attention to one thing for a little while — let’s say your breath — and then noticing when your mind wanders. With this simple practice, you start to see how your mind works, become more aware of when your mind is acting a certain way, and at the same time get better at staying in the present moment. Those are incredible skills for living.

Therese: We’ve been focusing a lot on the busy-ness of our 21st century online-all-the-time lifestyles at Writer Unboxed, in particular the issue of multitasking. Our worlds are filled with so many things, so much of it online, so much of it demanding our attention, and as a result some of us can’t attend as deeply to things as we may have in the past. This has long-reaching implications for the novelist who has to go down the rabbit hole while researching for a story, and in terms of understanding and relaying characters on the page, among other things. You have written about how our behavior shapes–becomes, truly–who we are. Applying that idea to online behavior is a little frightening; I don’t think any of us wants to become Facebook. Do you see meditation as a remedy, of sorts, for our crazed lifestyles, and if so, how? [Read more…]

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

No Time to Write? Maximize Your Minutes (Multitasking Series, part 3)

If you multitask because you feel you have to in order to stay on top of things; if you’re overwhelmed with too much information and an inability to sort though it all; if you’re losing momentum on your writing projects because there is just too much on your plate… This post is for you.

photo by Jordy Rossell
photo by Jordy Rossell

It may be that you have a 9-5 job and are writing for yourself whenever you can, juggling several projects. You might have a book about to launch and another in the works. Your inbox, your desk, and your mind are in a constant state of chaos. I often have people ask me how I stay on top of things–family, WU, my writing career. Well, sometimes I don’t. But I do use strategies to maximize my time as often as possible.

First Steps

Declutter your mind with a few basic but key steps every day.

  • Keep a to-do list. Keep your to-dos either on a physical piece of paper, a set of index cards (one task per card), or in a digital file. Keep your list in front of you, and add any stray thoughts that try to derail you as you work through your day. “Write down all the chatter, like ‘pick up milk on the way home’ and ‘don’t forget to call back your friend Alan’ and ‘property tax bill is due today,’ ” said Daniel Levitin, PhD, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and bestselling author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “That way, your creative time is pure creative time, not intruded upon by the necessities of life.”
  • Keep your writing and personal lives organized with a digital calendar.  iCal is a favorite among my author friends, while Dr. Levitin names Outlook calendar as his all-time favorite app. “Everything that is time-bound goes in there and it shows up automatically on all my devices,” he said.

Dictation technology has come a long way since even last year. The microphone feature on my iPhone translates my audio notes into actual words that make sense—even to other people! I use it for texts, emails, and digital notes.

  • Apply the two-minute rule to email and other small jobs. That means if you can do something in ~two minutes, go for it; you’ll ultimately save yourself time. Clumping these small tasks can be efficient, too. “If you’ve got a bunch of little things that only take 2 minutes each, do them all in a marathon block of 20 or 40 minutes,” said Dr. Levitin

Mono-Takes & Multiple Mediums

Smartphones, laptops, iPads… Just because they’re separate things doesn’t mean they can’t work together to create a streamlined experience for you via programs that sync across platforms. A few golden notables that work with multiple devices:

  • Meet Diigo: a powerhouse resource every author should try. If you’re anything like me, there’s always an article to read, either on the industry or for book research, but saving your thoughts on a resource can be a pain. Should you print out and highlight every article? Then what? Where will you keep them? With Diigo, you can highlight, tag, and annotate articles online; you can take screen shots or archive single photos; you can even bookmark articles to read later. Diigo stores all of that in a personal online library—a huge time-and-paper saver. And it’s free.
  • Digital note-taking programs like Evernote and OneNote can help you manage and organize your thoughts. Like Diigo, they can also save clippings found on the Internet and store photos.

[Read more…]

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Snakes on a Brain (Multitasking Series, Pt 2)

snakes on the brain
Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s rotating snakes, featured on the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience

 

Last month I began a series on multitasking with a post called Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP. Since then, I’ve continued my study of time and mind management (because that’s really what we’re talking about here) and interviewed multitasking expert Dr. David Meyer, Professor and Chair of Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience, at the University of Michigan. I spoke with Dr. Meyer for over an hour, and we covered a lot of ground, some of which I’ll share with you here today. One of my first questions was simple on the surface but a little knotty in reality:

What, exactly, qualifies as multitasking?

Does multitasking mean complex multitasking? Simple multitasking? What about these words from the world of business: switchtasking and background tasking and continuous partial attention? James Scott Bell referred to present-moment multitasking, then serial monotasking in comments last month. Bob Bois mentioned Monkey Mind.  For our purposes it doesn’t really matter what you call it. If you’re trying to do more than one thing at the same time for much of your day, this is for you. (Serial monotasking is safe, James. That’s actually an ideal way to work.)

When I asked for your feedback last month, for you to reveal your primary reason for multitasking, most of you said you multitask because you can’t seem to shut it down; it is like a compulsion. Only a few of you said you multitask because you’re good at it. Others said they had to multitask to stay on top of things. I’m going to leave that latter group for later, and not just because it’s alliterative. This month let’s talk about what might be behind the compulsion. Right after we talk about Keith.

The Curious Case of Keith Cronin

Our very own Keith wrote in comments last month:

I’ve earned a living for decades as a true multitasker – playing drums professionally. Drumming requires each of your four limbs to do something different – usually directly related, but sometimes not. And many drummers also sing while they play: task number five. It’s essentially like rubbing your belly while patting your head – while riding a unicycle and whistling.

Jealous of this skilland especially of the unicycleI was eager to bring up Keith’s situation with Dr. Meyer. Here’s what he had to say about it.

First of all, [Keith] might just be performing one task—the task of music production. I would suggest that for this drummer, learning came into play, and he essentially learned to perform the overall task of music production through a lot of practice. If you practice enough with certain kinds of tasks you can combine them so you just wind up with one task; these things become integrated. The tasks for which this is possible are the ones that don’t conflict with each other physically or mentally.

Makes sense, no? There are plenty of tasks that you can do concurrently without effecting the outcome because they don’t conflict with each other physically or mentally. Writing while walking on the treadmill. Listening to an audio book while driving or running. Cleaning the kitchen and talking on the telephone. And on and on.

Natalie Hart had something wise to add about Keith’s situation, too:

As a drummer, you may have limbs moving in different ways while often singing, but you are so incredibly in the present, which is the thing that multitasking attacks: the present moment. You’ve got to be locked in with the bass player, listening for cues from the other musicians, keeping that beat steady, but all flowing with that present moment — you lose the present moment and you lose the beat. Ooh, that’d be a good mono-tasking slogan…

Lose the present moment and you lose the beat. I like that, Natalie. Keith’s very much present when he’s making music, or to use one of our oft-used writerly phrases, he’s in the zone. Wouldn’t it be nice if each of our limbs could help us further along in our manuscript, each taking care of a scene or chapter? But alas. Language is tricky territory, becauseas Dr. Meyer stressedthere’s really only one language channel in the brain. This is why we can’t read articles while writing (unless our task is to copy), or type scenes for two novels at once, or draft emails and talk on the phone at the same time–at least not efficiently. And how often have you “lost the moment” in a scene, lost a perfect phrase, lost the direction of the plot, all because you were pulled away by…something.

Snake!!! Or maybe it’s just Twitter. 

I mentioned last month that when I first fell into an obsession over this subject, I collected pages upon pages of research. One of the articles I read highlighted differences between voluntary and involuntary attention. It’s fairly obvious, I’ll grant you. Voluntary attention is intended action along the lines of “I’m going to read the news now/walk the dog/make dinner/write a book.” Involuntary attention is attention we can’t help but give.

It is the swerving car in front of us. It is the crying child. It is the snake on a plane.

A vivid illustration of the power of involuntary attention is provided by watching a young child experience his/her first snake in the wild. It is as if everything else in the world has disappeared. For this very reason, the strength of an innately fascinating stimulus constitutes a potential source of severe distraction such that an accident could readily occur. (- Stephen Kaplan and Marc G. Berman)

These distinctions have been around for a long time; they were mentioned in contemplative texts several thousand years ago. “The point of a lot of meditation practices is to get control over your attention and direct it, as opposed to letting it be captured by external forces,” said Dr. Meyer.

The more forces there are trying to pull at our attention the more likely we’ll experience Directed Attention Fatigue–what happens when the system in place to help protect our ability to FOCUS-JUST-FOCUS is worn down and even fails.

We are no longer in control. Game, snakes.

And by now you’ve guessed that I’m not alluding to real snakes. I’m talking about other things that are attention grabbers, in a 21st-century-at-a-writer’s-desk kind of way: [Read more…]

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP

photo by Ryan Ritchie
photo by Ryan Ritchie

This isn’t an easy post to write, because I’ll need to admit to something that’s a little embarrassing. Lately, at times, it’s been difficult for me to read. Yep, read. Not because I’ve forgotten how or because I lack the desire to do so, but because my mind leaps to Else as soon as I begin reading anything lengthier than a Twitter or Facebook post, which, of course, includes novels.

Not good.

Just focus, I tell myself. And I do for a few graphs, and then I’m gone again, chasing a stray thought set off by something I’ve just read or imagined with some un-still part of my mind.

Is it ADD? I suspect not, as I can focus on other things and this seems a relatively new problem for me.

So what’s going on?

A 21st Century Problem

I had an interesting conversation with a friend last week. Let me preface this tale by saying my friend is a brilliant programmer who works at Microsoft. As we chatted with our group over dinner, he admitted that he’s recently had trouble focusing on long texts, including books. There are a few caveats. He can focus on audiobooks. (Same here.) And he focuses best when in an environment that’s somewhat noisy and bustling–like a Starbucks. (Likewise, I focus best while wearing headphones and listening to a background-noise app.)

We talked about how we both felt plagued by this weird new thing, and then it hit me. “We’ve become–had to become–professional multitaskers, and it’s almost as if we’ve retrained our brains,” I said. “Now we can’t focus for any length of time on one thing even when that’s our choice.”

In 1747, Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, wrote this to his son: “There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

I have a feeling Phil wouldn’t have given his son an iPhone.

He agreed. We respond to emails while on the phone. We look over our RSS Feeds while brushing our teeth. We make coffee with one hand while scrolling through our Twitter feed(s) with the other. We have eleven windows open at once online, for two or three or four projects. Often we have not only one screen before us, but two–phone and computer, phone and television, computer and iPad. And even when we are physically doing just one thing, our minds are often on something—or two, then three somethings—completely different. Because brains are adaptable, and this is what they’ve been taught, this is how we’ve programmed them to behave.

Our minds have become fragmented because we are living fragmented lives.

The Truth of the Fallacy

That conversation with my friend inspired me into research mode. What caused this thing that was happening to us? Was it common? And—most importantly—what might be done about it?

I’d heard that multitasking is a fallacy—that when we think we’re doing two things at once, we’re usually only doing one and not as well as we might believe–so I wasn’t surprised by the evidence found in support of that idea. But one study seemed particularly pertinent because, as mentioned, my friend works at Microsoft:

A classic 2007 study of Microsoft workers found that when they responded to email or instant messaging alerts, it took them, on average, nearly 10 minutes to deal with their inboxes or messages, and another 10-15 minutes to really get back into their original tasks. That means that a mere three distractions per hour can preclude you from getting anything else done.

Anyone else think three distractions per hour sounds like an easy hour? Anyone else look back on their day and often feel they have nothing to show for it? Anyone else think this might explain the monumental sense of accomplishment that follows when checking one thing off their to-do list?

Buckle up, because that’s just the first bump in DeludedtoDistractionville. [Read more…]

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.