Thursday, December 31, 2015

Chunking Away

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Give me four uninterrupted hours and I'll do something worthwhile. Six is better. Eight is still beyond my powers of concentration but I see its possibilities.

This makes me a chunker, in cognitive-speak. I used to be more of a grace-under-pressure girl, inspired in the midst of chaos at work, able to write psych reports on a pile of laundry in the living room. Not that I didn't prefer quiet to think, and writing went faster when I squirrelled away, but I could adequately divide my attention and did so almost constantly.

Books on tape for my commute. Doing homework with one child on the soccer sidelines of another. Answering emails during conference calls. Writing psych reports at home in front of Red Sox games. Listening to six or eight kids babble at once and getting enough gist to prioritize.

"Multitasking" is in practice rapid
task switching, and exhausting.
But competent multitasking may be a myth, more a sign of your potential if you really focused and less a badge of mental toughness. Clearly some people have remarkable skill in this arena, but the cost to them is high, as described in Psychology Today ("The true cost of multitasking") and in this APA research summary.

Why? There's lots of reasons but a big one is because every time you switch tasks there is residual attention left behind, and mental effort involved in getting back to the task at hand. That's why the pull of "distractions" is doubly difficult; you have to refocus, now minus whatever part of your brain is still hooked into what just happened. Do this enough and you've got no mental gas left in your tank; the switching itself leave you depleted without getting anything done.

From Rainbow Rowell on tumblr
I remember awhile back reading about Rainbow Rowell saying she made progress in her books when she had three or four days straight of going to a coffee shop for 4-6 hours each time. This didn't happen often since she was married, worked and had sons to raise but every so often long weekends happened and in those days her husband took over at home she made magic headway.

She says the 4-6 hour thing in this UK Glamour interview too, and in her NaNoWriMo pep talk. When I was searching for those bits I also found a Mental Floss article that describes why she likes Kanye but that's mostly irrelevant, unless you're a Rainbow lover like me.

Imagine how much Rainbow--or me, or you--could get done with an uninterrupted week. No phone to answer. No meals to cook (unless you want to). Some writers hole up in cabins or hotels to block out the world. One told me she was headed to Las Vegas on her way home from a conference near Boston; their hotel rates are cheap, she said, and no one but her husband could find her. But there are lots of practical problems with this for most folks, not the least including regular jobs.

There's a book coming out this week that describes how you could do this in your regular work office, for whatever project you needed to complete. I read an excerpt of  Deep Work  by Cal Newport that brings three of the "Multitasking" article's tenets to life:

  • Implement "batch processing"
  • Use concentrated time
  • Go "off-grid" to recalibrate
And if you read the author's blog post from today you'll see another one in action:
  • Less task switching = more happiness
May you all keep chunking merrily along in the new year.

Love, Lisa





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