On Wednesday, I talked about the hazards of multitasking. But what’s a busy writer to do? We can’t very well shut out the world, can we?
No, but yes.
No, we can’t shut it out forever. Yes, we can shut it out for periods of time.
Some people do this naturally. If I have one talent in life, it’s the ability to focus on things. Sometimes I am embarrassingly good at this, such as when my wife is talking to me and I literally can’t hear her. Sometimes I am conveniently good at this, such as when my wife is asking me to change the kitty litter. (“Dang! Didn’t hear ya! What’s that horrible smell?”)
But even if you’re not good at shutting things out naturally, you can simulate it by being intentional. I learned this trick from a guy named Eben Pagan, an internet entrepreneur who teaches people how to be more productive. Eben says to buy a kitchen timer and set it for a certain length of time. Then give yourself permission to ignore everything until that timer goes off.
Everything. Phone ringing? Ignore it. Email chiming? Worry about it later. Cat meowing? Shove outside into blizzard. Kid bleeding? Yes it’s OK to deal with a bleeding kid. Anything else? Save for later.
You really can do this and it works if you’re weak on focus. The reason is that you’re playing a psychological trick on yourself. You know the timer is going to go off soon. That timer sets the boundaries on your focus time. It’ll make sure you come back to the real world. But until it does, the time you’ve set aside is yours, all yours, for whatever task you’re doing.
A timer gives you boundaries that protect your time. Try it and see. Eben Pagan recommends that you set the timer for 50 minutes and then when it’s done, set it again for a 10-minute break in which you detach completely from whatever you were doing. Then if you still have work to do, set the timer for another 50-minute work jag. You can get an awful lot done in life in 50-minute chunks.
You don’t even have to spend the ten bucks on a kitchen timer. I went to VersionTracker.com and did a quick search and found a Mac program with the sexy name “Timer Utility”. It’s free and it lets you set up an alarm clock, a stopwatch, or a countdown timer. I have one running on each of my computers.
You may be wondering why I use a countdown timer if I have such excellent powers of concentration.
The answer: Because I have excellent powers of concentration. I can easily get lost for three hours straight on a task. That’s not good when I have other duties. A timer helps ensure that I don’t get lost in la-la land for too long.
Furthermore, I can use a timer to set myself a challenge: “I bet I can get this blog post written in 15 minutes.” That ensures that I don’t lollygag in la-la land.
Or if I set the timer before a phone call, then I put limits on how long I’ll be gabbing to Weird Aunt Muriel. (“Sorry, Auntie! The doorbell just rang. Gotta go!”)
As I noted in my e-zine this past week, many people say that “multitasking makes you stupid.”
The converse of that is also true: Singletasking makes you smart.
What do my loyal blog readers think? Do you have tricks to get out of multitasking mode and into singletasking mode? Go ahead and leave a comment to brag about how clever you are.