Well, strictly speaking, none of us can truly multi task. What we actually do is switch between different tasks quickly. Try this and I’ll show you.
Count from 1 to 10 as quickly as you can.
Now say the letters of the alphabet from A to J as quickly as possible.
Now, alternate between letters, and numbers, as quickly as you can. A 1 B 2 C 3 etc...
Hard isn’t it?
And I’ll bet my Taylor Swift 1989 album that it took longer to alternate between the two than it did to say all the numbers and then all the letters.
That’s because your brain has to switch between the two tasks and that takes a lot of thought. It also slows you down. And stresses you out.
I recently typed The End on my current work in progress – the story set in hacienda, called Two Big Ifs. I started writing it on 27 February and finished it (first rough crappy draft) today, 29 May. That’s 93 days of writing. It worked out at 62251 words in total. This is 669 words per day, or a weekly average of 4685, which isn’t, I feel, too bad. It has been a bit of a slog to reach the end, simply because it’s taken me so long to write it. I know I’m going to find some terrible continuity errors when I self edit it. I even think I forgot the names of some secondary characters too. I also found myself losing the ‘voice’ of some of the main characters on occasion because it may have been over a week between writing bits. But I got there in the end. I reached the finish line.
Usually I can write a novel of that length in between 4 weeks (during Nanowrimo you can check out how in these three links: 2013 2014 2015) when I’m really going at it all keyboards a blazing, to 8 weeks if I’m being sociable with other humans and being easy on myself. Ironically writing it in 4 weeks is much easier than over the 13.28 weeks this last novel took because the characters stay in my head. I remember exactly where I am in the story, and I don’t have to re-read any previous scenes when I start to write each time. I simply sit and write.
I also have to remind myself of the other plates I’ve been spinning since I started writing this novel: working full time, being sociable (with author friends and other friends), studying a MA in creative writing at Kingston University ( as well as weekly lecture reading and peer critiques I had two assignment deadlines in April which consisted of 5000 words of prose fiction and a portfolio of writing exercises – 3 poems, 8 pages of a play and 2000 words of life-writing), helping the committee organise the UK Meet, and I’m also ghost writing a memoir for a client using phone interviews with the client as source material.
How have I done this, you may be asking. Do I sleep?
I think it comes back to how I fundamentally prefer to work. I’ve done one thing at a time. I was thinking about this today as I finished the novel in the back garden. They’re hardly ground-breaking tips, but I thought I’d share in case anyone finds them useful.
- Blocking out time for one activity. Block out amounts of time from 20 mins to 3 hours for one specific activity and then during that time, only work on that activity and nothing else. I also found it easier to get into the mental space when I knew I was doing that activity for that amount of time, rather than switching between a few. I also found this meant I often got into the flow of doing something. So when I said I’d only do 45mins to an hour of something, mostly I ended up doing a couple of hours because I was in the zone of that particular activity.
- No internet. Turn your phone to flight mode. Close the web browser when you’re on your computer. Work on a devise that doesn’t connect to the internet, like an Alphasmart Neo. Why I bought one, and why I think it's better than a Freewrite. Or write long hand. The internet is wonderful, but it’s also a wonderful distraction. I read somewhere that it was a sad day when they merged the writing device (typewriter) to the access to everything in the whole world device (the internet) and created the computer. I agree.
- Break things into chunks. Break down big projects into smaller steps so you can see you’re making progress in the blocks of time. For example I had to do my self-assessment tax return which I broke down into the following steps: collect info (ring banks etc for tax deduction certificates etc); photo copy papers; write cover letter (I keep last year’s one so just need to update specifics each year); enter costs and income into spreadsheet (I keep receipts in one folder and file electronically other items, and make notes for items during the year).
- Using all available time. I’ve made use of a lot of dead time – on trains, on the tube, waking early, late at night, in hotel rooms around the country when I’ve been away for whatever reason. Be sensible and schedule harder things for a time of day when you’re not too tired and will think clearer. Don’t try to read a dense academic text after an 8hour work day and a 2hour commute!
How do you spin the plates? Do you like to do more than one thing at a time and think my ideas are rubbish? I'd love to hear from you.
Liam Livings xx