Why Multitasking Is Bad for Authors

Like the vast majority of authors out there, I also have a day job that pays most of my bills. In my situation, I am also a professor. Add to that freelance work as an editor for the alumni magazine and serving as the university’s webmaster, and you can see that I wear a lot of hats.

I have had the opinion for a long time that I could not commit to working on a book manuscript during the school year. And up until I participated in National Novel Writing Month in November, I held that opinion. In the past five years, I have successfully wrote 50,000 words on book projects during November three times. But as I look back at it, I realize that it was far from my best work.

Now there is scientific evidence to support my belief. Research has shown that multitaskers perform substantially worse on tasks compared with individuals who focus their attention on only one task at a time. In the textbook for my class Interpersonal Communication (Reflect & Relate by Steven McCornack, pp. 150-151) we read:

“Multitasking erodes your capacity for sustaining focused attention. Cognitive scientists have discovered that our brains adapt to the tasks we regularly perform during our waking hours, an effect known as brain plasticity. In simple terms, we ‘train our brains’ to be able to do certain things, through how we live our daily lives. People who spend much of their time, day after day, shifting attention rapidly between multiple forms of technology train their brains to only be able to focus attention in brief bursts. The consequence is that they lose ability to focus attention for long periods of time on just one task.”

For me, multitasking is a way of life, and I know it is an expectation in the lives of most of us. It goes beyond our jobs as well, and our society has fostered and encouraged it. How many of you now take your office with you wherever you go in the form of smart phones that contact you via voice, texting, email or even video at any time, day or night? When we are forced to switch gears constantly, as the quote above says, it becomes the norm, and sticking to a lengthy, deep project like writing a book becomes harder and harder.

So what can we do about it? I can only tell you what I plan to do. Maybe some of you have some ideas that you can share as well. But I plan on doing two things:

1. Simplify. Nature abhors a vacuum, goes the old saying. And we do that. I know I do. If I am not working, I am watching TV, or reading, or playing a computer game. How often do I take the time to simply think? And how much of the stuff that takes us my time is really necessary? When I started doctoral studies, they warned us not to take the program lightly. “It is not just something you do, a task. It is a lifestyle.” I didn’t believe them at first, but found out they were right. The way you survive grad school is to commit to it 110%, to eat, sleep, and drink grad school. When I wasn’t studying, I felt guilty. And my family cut me some slack. They had to. It was my commitment, and they knew that it was important to me. I sacrificed a lot of things–really unnecessary things–in order to finish my degree. Maybe it’s time we take the same approach toward writing books.

2. Compartmentalize. Most of us can’t announce that we will no longer accept phone calls or email. They are a necessary evil in our society. But we can decide to deal with them at certain times of our day, and set aside other times when we live free of those commitments. I recently severed ties with my marketing responsibilities here (it actually stops this summer), and now I am committing to setting aside two hours every day to working on books. Because of my schedule, it will probably be noon to 2, not ideal because I am usually an early morning writer, but it’s what my schedule will allow. When I start this routine, I plan on making that time sacred. That means no phone calls, emails or visits from students allowed. It also means I won’t schedule meetings during that time. If I allow other things to crowd into that two hours–and I know that will be an ongoing issue–I am likely to lose it.

The bottom line, as I tell my students, is committing to putting words on paper, and coming up with a plan that will allow you to do just that. I would like to hear your plans. I also plan on sharing with you–honestly–how my plan goes. Keep in touch.