I’m not allowed to tab away until this post is done

You have no idea how hard it is to obey the title of this post.

I wrote out that title, put the cursor in the WordPress text box, and then realized I hadn’t figured out how to start this post. My fingers itched to tab away while I considered it. Maybe check my e-mail. Refresh a forum discussion I’m following. Poke at a mindless social game. After all, I can think about other things while I do that, so why not multitask and entertain myself a bit?

Sure, I can think about other things at the same time — but not well. My attention isn’t really on the task at hand if I’m doing something else. And letting my attention get split like that means it risks fragmenting further still. I’m listening to some music from a playlist, and I’ve been making a habit of unchecking the songs I’ve already listened to so that the next time I start it up, it will play the ones I haven’t heard yet. But I haven’t unchecked anything for a while — I should do that before I forget — oh, right, I was supposed to send that e-mail — and then it’s half an hour later (or more), and I haven’t started the post yet.

For a normal post, that would be annoying. For this one, it would be ironic to the point of humiliation.

There’s increasing evidence that multitasking, rather than being some great skill we should all strive to develop, is actually detrimental. I mean, sure, some amount of it is necessary: being able to talk while walking, for example. But cooking dinner while taking care of e-mail? Organizing a playlist while writing a blog post? Tabbing away from the novel to play that stupid Facebook game? That, my friends, is not so good. It can lead to stress, anxiety, as we nibble at a dozen things without ever quite knocking one of them off. It makes us slower and less productive in the long term, not more. It erodes our ability to concentrate, to devote ourselves to a single task for any real length of time.

That’s the real killer, right there. At least if you’re a novelist, or involved in some other line of work where “getting into the zone” is useful. You may have heard the term “flow” for that state where you become totally absorbed in your task and lose track of time — well, flow is partly a matter of concentration. I’ve noticed recently that it’s harder for me to get into that zone than it used to be. Some of that’s probably because I’m getting older. Some of it is because I was writing historical fantasy, which prompted me to pause more frequently and look stuff up. But some of it, I think, is simply a consequence of too much multitasking. Pausing to look up words or details breaks flow a little bit, sure, but not entirely; I’m still thinking about the story, and the results of that detour feed back into what I was doing. But if I get up to put the laundry in the dryer, or check a social game, or make a phone call? It’s like hanging a hard left at speed, with all the physics that implies. Inertia is trying to pull my thoughts in the direction they were going before. When I finally get myself headed the right way, it means I’ve lost all of the momentum I had before. Getting it back will require another turn. And after a while, you lose the habit of going forward: any time your thoughts disengage just a tiny bit, they want to disengage completely.

My husband just sent me a chat message. At least, I think it’s him. The notification is blinking yellow at the bottom of my screen, begging me to pay attention to it, because I don’t know who it is or what it has to say, and so it’s tantalizing. But I’m not allowed to tab away until this post is done.

(I cheated, a little. I did open up a new tab to check some stuff about the cognitive effects of multitasking, partway through this post. But again: all distractions are not created equal. Some are more worthy than others.)

I’ve been trying to push back against the habit of multitasking. Some things, it’s fine; if I’m chatting with a friend, and there are delays between messages, that’s a fine time to work on cleaning my office. If I’m folding laundry, it does no harm to listen to a podcast at the same time. But when I’m writing? Or answering e-mails? Or doing anything else of substance? I set myself a minimum. Five e-mails answered, and then I can do something else. Twenty minutes writing before I’m allowed to pause. If something comes up that really needs my attention, I try to take a moment and evaluate it before I decide, rather than just switching out of bored reflex.

It’s easier said than done. But it’s going to be my resolution for 2014: to concentrate more. Let’s see how long I can focus on that . . . .

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  1. 1. Wolf Lahti

    I get a lot more done when the spousal unit isn’t constantly interrupting what I’m doing to tell me I should be doing something.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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