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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Multi-Tasking: Just Say No

How good are you at multi-tasking? Most women are extraordinarily good at it. We can make a mental grocery list, return three phone calls, check our email, throw the laundry in the dryer, buy the bacon and fry it up in a pan. That's, uh, an old 70s ad for Enjolie perfume for you young'uns. Well, the bacon part is.

I am a great multi-tasker. I have to be. But sometimes when I multi-task an unsavory side effect of that is that I do a million things all day but don't really feel like I got anything done. I do get stuff done but often I don't really put my entire focus on any one thing. It's all a big jumble. I am a big list-maker; I love to cross things off my list. Why, I've crossed four things off my list so far today and it's only 9:15 in the morning.

But when it comes to your writing, you really need to block off focused quiet time. I'm always amazed at what I can actually accomplish when I step away from the chiming emails and ringing phones. There is nothing like uninterrupted time to focus on one task only. Not only is this good for the soul in general terms - slowing down and just doing the dishes, folding the laundry or answering each email thoughtfully, but NOT multi-tasking is a great thing for your writing. Yes, I know, the time flies when you write. If you have one hour for your writing, of totally uninterrupted time, it feels like that hour passes and you haven't done much and you need three more hours. For those lucky enough to be able to keep feeding the meter, that's wonderful. But for many, that one hour, late at night, is a lucky get.

Whether you feel like you got much done in a limited amount of time or not, I promise you this - you really are spending quality time with yourself and your writing if you let nothing else enter into the picture. I used to be very superstitious about my writing time. It had to be a certain time of day, I had to have other things done before I could focus, I had to be sitting in a particular room. But now, as life seems to have sped up to 78rpms on a given day, I no longer have that luxury. Most of us don't. We write when we get to write and we get the time we have.

But one focused hour is better than three sporadically interrupted ones. Even if you spend that hour thinking or writing and then deleting a scene or a page. Just set the time aside. Make it happen. Because nobody is going to do it for you. And it's okay not to answer the phone or your emails for awhile. The world will not end. My phones (I have three different lines) ring all day long. And when I hear that ringing sound, my instinct is to jump up, no matter what I'm doing, and answer it. But more and more lately, I just don't. Imagine that. Sometimes people complain that they couldn't get ahold of me. I might have been writing, or reading or god forbid, just watching TV in my pajamas. And that's okay. Because time is the most precious commodity we have. Full stop.

We are not Pavlovian dogs, people, who have to react every single time a bell chimes. Take your power back. Chunk your time in a healthier, more effective way. And yes that means if you're doing the dishes or preparing a meal, to really be in that experience and do just that. Or if a friend calls, wait for a time when you can truly curl up on the couch and enjoy that conversation rather than having a hurried, half-heard conversation as you're answering emails. You can take the power back and get off the hamster wheel. Just because life seems to be speeding up doesn't mean you can't opt out for your own well being.

Writing takes a particular kind of focus. Turn the sound off your computer so you don't hear the chime of an incoming email. Turn the ringer on your phone off. Turn off the radio, turn off the TV - create a quiet time and space, even if it's for 60 precious minutes and see how much you get done and how much more peaceful and satisfied you feel about your accomplishments.

Multi-tasking is a useful skillset but it can be abused. Some things need our full attention and your writing is one of them. If you're like me and some things recharge your batteries, like exercise, watching TV or reading quietly - schedule that time for yourself. And if people can't get ahold of you during that time, that's too bad. Every day, I take care of the most pressing things first then I make sure that as the day wanes, so do my obligations. Because I reserve the right to just be in my pajamas and not work on a damn thing.

Prioritize each day, making your writing time a high priority. Write when you're most awake and focused. For many of us, that's late at night. For many, family obligations make that tough. But if you want to be a writer for real - not a hobbyist - you need to prioritize your writing in the same way you prioritize paying your bills or taking care of any kind of business. This is a business, this writing thing. And it takes time and it takes focus. You'll get more done in one quiet hour than several hours in which you go fold laundry or answer the phone while trying to write. It takes several moments to refocus. Don't do that to yourself.

Set writing goals for the next several months - the holidays are generally a very quiet time in Hollywood. But it won't be long til spring is here again and it is again competition season and spec season. Take the quiet holiday times to work out a schedule for you and for your writing. The other side benefit is that when you aren't writing, you are fully present for your family and other obligations. This IS your life. Right now. Each day. And we all have a limit to the number of hours in our lives. How do you want to use them - spread thin and multi-tasking, barely remembering conversations or tasting your food? Or would you rather use your time fully focused on whatever you are doing? Life is a gift and so is your writing talent.

Now get back to work. And go vote.

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kahapeterson said...

Richard Flanagan, one of the writers of "Australia", cant even drive a car when he is deep into a writing project.

His family bans him from driving because his mind is elsewhere.

Luzid said...

No serious writer really ever stops multitasking - after all, no matter what you're doing during the day, you're working on story in the back of your mind. Well, I am, and I assume I'm not unique.

But when it comes to ass-in-chair (AIC) time, I agree with setting aside a regular block of time every day. I write at least two hours every night (but not silently - I listen to music without vocals, usually ambient trance, while I crank out the work).

I've been gratified to learn that, by just putting in the time without fail, the work that must be done takes care of itself.

Focused AIC dedication really does work!

E.C. Henry said...

I second Luzid! (Today when I was voting if you'd been on my ballet I would have voted for ya) Yes, writers are always multi-tasking. AIC time is critital, though UNLIKE Luzid I can't write while music is playing. Writing is just too consuming.

I think women are more apt then men to be better multi-taskers. I remember a few years back a pastor at a church I attended said the same thing.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Judith said...

hey Julie,
You're like my 'good' angel.The one who sits on my shoulder and whispers all the right thigs when I need to hear them.That's why I love to read your posts.I was supposed to be writing while the election coverage was on and it was impossible.I knew I just had to watch and wait for Obama's speech, an historic event.I have now turned off the televison and will focus on my 'AIC' writing as Luzid says.

Julie Gray said...

Hey Judith. First of all, thank you for your kind words. What I did yesterday was do all of my work so that I was done by 4pm and I could sit back, relax and watch the election returns with nary any guilt. Time chunking. It works :)

@kahapeterson - wow that's scary!

@Luzid - AIC - you said it!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Julie,

If I don't multi-task, my scripts will take a turn into the world of cliches and become a boring, boring piece of writing.

Multi-tasking creates multi-layered scripts. It's like pacing but more stressful. And stress is good writing.

Some of the best screenwriters in Hollywood love how the book and script LA CONFIDENTIAL was written.

When you multitask you create a multilayered script that has tons of characters and makes for an exciting read.

Yah, the amateur readers will hate it but producers will love you.

I bet you a million dollars that some of best screenwriters and directors in Hollywood are expert multitaskers.

Either you can do it or your can't do it.

I love adds spice and layers to my scripts.


Julie Gray said...

Hi K - I am referring largely to multi-tasking during writing time such as answering the phone, emails and dealing with other distractions. Screenwriting has a multi-tasking component within the process itself; I am referring to focused time and turning off the distractions so that one makes the most of one's writing time.

2nd2Nun said...

I'm always having to remind myself this! Too obsessed with knocking off things on the to-do list and the quality of work goes into the crapper.