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Single-Task Your Way to More Writing

Do you have a to-do list? Who doesn’t, right?  I usually have several.  It’s the only way I can remember to take a shower half the time. If it’s not on paper, it ain’t gonna happen.

As a rule, I’m a supporter of to-do lists.  In the past (until being hit upside the head recently) I was also a supporter of trying to accomplish as many things on my to-do list as I could simultaneously.

Yes, you read that right.  Shower AND make notes for future blog posts at the same time, check.  (That’s why God created the AquaNotes Waterproof Notepad.)  If I could have found a way to sort laundry at the same time, I would have, believe me.

Sometimes this worked for me. Other times…not so much.

Multitaskers’ Anonymous

In my quest to do as much as possible with every moment of my time, I frequently checked e-mail, Facebook, my Amazon stats, and did Google research for my book…while I was supposed to be doing my day job.  If I had to pause for 30 seconds to a minute while waiting for the next report to load, I’d jump over to e-mail.  Nothing there? How about Facebook?

One minute I’d be in the middle of transcribing a report about someone’s dermatologic condition and the next I’d be googling my way through eczema sites trying to find the magic cure for my son’s stubborn skin problems.   By the time I’d remember that I was seated at the computer to work, 30 minutes would have passed.

Which meant tacking 30 minutes onto the end of my day to make it up.   Multiply this by 3-4 times a day and you get a clear picture why I was constantly bemoaning my lack of writing time.

Like an addict, the first step to recovery is admission that you have a problem. As my friends will attest, I complained about this horrible habit of mine for years.  Recognizing the problem wasn’t fixing the problem.  I had to be willing to do something about it, which clearly I wasn’t.

What made me ready to fix it?  Screwing up my checking account to the tune of $900 by double-entering my husband’s paycheck amount in our checkbook instead of entering mine. Which meant I felt richer than I was, which meant I paid a bunch of medical bills, bought my daughter new glasses, and didn’t hold back at the grocery store.

The result was U.G.L.Y.  My poor savings account took the brunt of it, and I had frankly had enough. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that I’d probably been paying bills at the same time I was downloading music to my MP3 player and cooking dinner.

The only way to fix my money problem, was to earn more money, which I could do by quitting the multitasking cold turkey and focusing on one thing at a time.  Which would also, hopefully, prevent similar mistakes in the future AND give me more writing time.

The Problem with Multitasking

Multitasking is practically a religion these days, but I would posit that it’s ruining your life.  Doing too many things at once leaves you stressed (because you’re simultaneously thinking of all the other things that still need to be done), makes you accomplish less (because switching between tasks tends leads to having to take time to refocus yourself each time you do so), and opens you up to mistakes.

But, to think of it in terms of being a Happy Writer:  you’re working on you latest chapter, answering the phone, frying up a batch of chicken for dinner, refereeing the kids fighting over video games in the living room, and that book is NOT getting the best you can give it.  You may feel like you’re accomplishing a lot, but something is going to suffer.  The dinner will burn, the person on the other end of the phone will feel neglected because you’re asking them to repeat themselves, and the book will be crap.

You’ll be stressed because, subconsciously, you’ll know one of those balls you’ve got up in the air is going to come crashing down any second now. Any bets it will likely be the writing?

There’s another way though.  It’s called single-tasking.

Single-tasking for Dummies

Single-tasking is a kind of Zen thing that is exactly what it says:  Doing one thing at a time.

It means when I’m doing my day job,  I’m doing my day job. I’m not chatting on the phone when my dad calls to shoot the breeze (I can call him back later).  I’m not researching small towns in the Pacific NW for my WIP (the internet will still be available when my shift is done).  I’m not checking Facebook for status updates in between sentences because the doctor took a moment to breathe (because it really doesn’t matter what my friends are doing right this second).

Single-tasking is focusing on one thing at a time until it’s done and then moving on.

That single item become the most important thing for you do to at that moment.

It’s tough to get single-tasking when you are used to doing so much at once. But let me tell you, in my case, motivated by the need to make up for my money deficit, I needed to make single-tasking work.  I needed to make more money without working hours of OT, so that I could still write.

Once I got going, I did better than I ever imagined.  At the end of a 2-week experiment in single-tasking my day job, I had the most productive (read: most $$ made) pay period ever, I worked no more than 1 hour total over my scheduled hours over the entire pay period (instead of 1-2 hours a DAY extra that I had been doing), and I made my first 100% quality score in 6 years of employment with this company.

I accomplished every work goal I had to set for myself over the past few years in one pay period!

Through focusing on a single task at a time.

I accomplished more around my house, in my writing, and in every other area of my life, too, because my work wasn’t taking over my life.

How did I do it?  Here are some tips:

1) Decide on one regular task you need to focus on.  This can be work, your writing, another project with a deadline that’s taking longer than you want it to.  Just pick one.

2) Devote your attention to that project for a chosen period of time.  Don’t do anything else.  Think of it as a kind of meditation.

3)  Turn off distractions.  No phones (that’s what voicemail is for), no television, no laundry. All of this can be done later.

4) Keep a notebook handy.  When you think of something that you need to do or want to do instead of focusing on your task, write it down.  Then it is safe from that sieve-like thing you call a memory. (Oh wait! That might just be me.)  You can research small towns later because it’s on your list.

5)  Find a focal point.  When you feel yourself becoming distracted, find your focal point and take 3 deep breaths.  I used this constantly during my experiment.  When doctors paused in their dictation and I felt like running for my blog feed reader, I pulled myself back to the task and breathed through their pause.  Good for mind and body simultaneously (the only kind of multitasking allowed)!

So, what do you think you might try this on?  It can be anything in your life (because everything affects everything else, right?).

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