Saying it bluntly, our brains never multitask. They hop between tasks, and with each hop, they do each task worse. Nearly every validated study on the subject confirms this.
I am also a single parent with a full time job pursuing a writing career. As a general rule, I don’t give a damn about validated studies. I may do a slightly worse job on each task as I make dinner, quiz my daughter on her spelling words, switch the laundry, and assemble the next day’s lunches, but if I didn’t multitask she’d be hungry and naked while flunking a spelling test the next day.
Love it or hate it, creative writing is a unique beast when it comes to multitasking. It’s no accident that praise for good writing centers on “depth” and criticism will often be couched in terms of “shallowness.” Only so much depth can be achieved when your brain is only focused on a project for moments at a time. That ten second email response costs far more than ten seconds. Cognitively, you went from the center of your fictional town to the bus station and bought a ticket to the next town. Even if you change your mind and hop off the bus ten seconds after it crosses the town line, you’re still miles from where you started. You may be writing again ten seconds later, but you’re back to where you started in terms of immersing yourself in that world. If you buy another bus ticket five minutes later, that immersion is unlikely to ever occur.
You are probably already aware of the complications of multitasking in creative writing. Multitasking impacts the creative process more severely than analytic processes. Writing fiction also involves an element of multitasking in itself. There is the event in your mind, then as seen through the POV character, and maybe some questions you have about the way you can convey what another character knows or feels without breaking POV. Add considerations that may change your outline or the direction the story is going, and you’re doing it even more. It’s doable, because at least all of these tasks are focused on the same output, but make no mistake, you’re already multitasking. The last thing you want to do is leave writing altogether to do something else – even if only for ten seconds.
To begin with, I work when I’m alone (or at least the only one awake), with the phone off and email shut down. Even when intrusions occur – the dog needing out or in, a thirsty child, whatever – they tend not to pull me as far out of the world as I go if I choose to break from it to answer a research question or scan email.
JMC – Just Maintain Concentration is my primary concern, to the point it’s a mantra. My goal has little to do with avoiding “multitasks” and everything to do with striving to remain as deeply in the story as I can.
In other words, my personal goal is to hold the story as tightly as I can with both hands. I focus less on the nature of the outside distraction or task vying for my attention and more on the end goal – total investment in the story itself.
Code for “getting distracted by shiny objects,” multitasking is an exit ramp on the writing highway, even when the tasks aren’t technically multitasking. Answering a spelling or research question on the internet is directly related to the output (task) at hand. But the bottom line is: if I can’t stay in the world I’m building, I can hardly ask my reader to.
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