I believe that splitting your concentration and even – gasp – multitasking means you end up with lots of things not finished. Probably not as good as they could be, either, but chiefly unfinished. Writer James Clear argues that there’s more to this one-thing-only approach, though, and he starts with trying to prove its value:
If you want to master multiple habits and stick to them for good, then you need to figure out how to be consistent. How can you do that?
Well, here is one of the most robust findings from psychology research on how to actually follow through on your goals:
Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick with your habits if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”
Researchers found that people who filled out this sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise compared to a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they state when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior.
Last week, at the Aspen Ideas festival, there came an interesting little moment between Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist, and Jim Steyer, a lawyer and entrepreneur. Both declared that they’d banned laptops and other electronic devices in their lecture halls.
“Many of the students actually appreciate that,” said Toyama, who teaches at the University of Michigan, “because it encourages real discussion, and they know that as soon as there’s a laptop in front of them, they’re going to start Facebooking each other, and that means that they’re not present for the class.”
Steyer jumped right in. “You should know that in my Stanford classes five years ago, I started banning laptops,” he said. “There was no way they were paying attention. They all whined about it constantly for the first three weeks.” He added that his colleague, with whom he co-taught the course, was terrified they’d made the wrong choice. “She was like, They’re gonna just kill us on the reviews!” he said. But by the end, their students, too, expressed gratitude.
And the unexpected benefits of what seemed like a thing I’d never use.
So, previously: my gorgeous 27in iMac is away off with the faeries – i.e. being seen to by Apple – and while it’s gone, I’m working on my old and I had thought underpowered MacBook Pro. It’s not underpowered. For the most part it’s doing its job well, I am doing my job fine. It’s got a broken keyboard but I’ve plugged in my iMac’s one and that’s all tickety-boo fine.
What’s really changed is that I’ve started using the Mac’s Full Screen jobbie. In pretty much any software you use on a Mac, you can tap a button or press a key to make that app fill the screen – and hide everything else. I have never used it before. I don’t want 27 inches of white blazing out at me when I’m writing.
Plus, it’s a slightly clunky idea because of the way you get back from this full screen lark to regular larking. You mouse up a bit until the menu bar reappears, then you find the button. Somehow a bit ugly.
Yet with a much smaller screen, I tried using this in one app and I’ve liked it so much that I’m using it in every app. I find I can swap between these full screen applications like moving from Word to Safari without closing the full screen, moving to the other app and reopening the full screen. Just the usual Command-Tab takes me through full screens.
Not always very smoothly. I seem to end up paused, hovering over the desktop for a time while it all figures itself out. But usually, I’m in Safari now, I’m in Mail next, it’s a quick thing and not anywhere near as disruptive to concentration as I thought.
But here’s the thing. Concentration. What I didn’t appreciate was that full screen apps hide their menu bar and that means they hide the clock. Hiding the clock turns out to be excellent: I could focus on the thing I was doing and spend whatever time it took. Of course, I have to leave for a meeting in a while so I couldn’t ignore time altogether but for about 90 minutes, I could.
Time passed but I was entirely focused on the job and if I sometimes longed for a tea break, I didn’t once stop to think about whether I had enough time to carry on.
If you’re not on a Mac, thank you for reading this far, and go find a way to switch off that damn clock. It’ll help you.
I take a lot of these tea breaks and I’ve been spending those three-minute aeons while the kettle boils by reading RSS news. But then isn’t a good tea break more than three minutes plus fifteen seconds hunting for biscuits? I’m trying a new thing now where I do come back to my desk and I do drink the tea as usual, but hey, I kick back for a spell while I’m doing it.
And I check out my OmniFocus list for short, quick things I can do before I have to concentrate on the next big job.
That’s it. Take your full tea break, get your mind fully away from the current job, but use the time to meander through your list and seeing what you can bat out of the way quickly.
This isn’t for me. I work to music a lot. A lot. If I’m writing something with pace I might use iTunes Radio’s Eighties Hits station. But usually I have various playlists and selections and albums and artists and I play them on whims. Also on headphones. Whims can be loud.
Actually, that’s the thing: usually if I need pace and energy then I’ll turn the volume up. Once or twice recently I’ve found I have to turn it down instead or occasionally stop it completely. (You cannot listen to Kate Bush in the background. Cannot. You listen to her properly. No choice.)
I think I’m lucky in that I hear lyrics, I hear the human singing voice, as just another instrument. Only when I’m working, that is. If I’m listening properly, lyrics are crucial. I wouldn’t enjoy Dar Williams so much if her lyrics weren’t so gorgeous. But when I’m working, I can have Meredith Brooks blasting out and it invigorates me, it doesn’t distract me.
Apparently it’s more normal for people need instrumentals. Normal enough that I just found this 45-minute video for you. Presumably you don’t watch the video, you just listen to the sound – like you do when the only YouTube copy of a rare track is one set to fan-made photography and badly transcribed lyrics. See if it does any good for you.
Here’s the thing. If you want it to be an aid to your writing, there are reasons to be cheerful. If you want to think that it’s dangerous in any way, here you go.
There are a lot of people who don’t drink coffee, and it is easy to assume that there are plenty of writers who are very creative without resorting to caffeine intake at all. Coffee may stimulate creativity for some, while for others it may result in the mind’s being too alert for creativity to freely flow. Coffee may have health benefits, but there may also be negative effects if one drinks too much of the beverage.
As for me? I started writing this article while drinking a hot cup of coffee, but now my cup is empty. The buzz of caffeine alertness is gone, and I’m considering having a second cup. Or, perhaps to encourage creativity, I should just let my mind wander instead.
I do this all the time: unless I work enough to earn these things, I constantly deny myself gardening, vegetables, milk chocolate, football, all sorts of things. I may help me cope with the loss of these with periodic dark chocolate, tea and good books but that’s private, that’s my business.
We do often hear that we can reward ourselves when we do something and I’ve done that. But there is an argument that the masochists amongst us are right to punish themselves into action. Plus, we’re writers, that’s practically a synonym for masochists.
Fast Company suggests what I think is a halfway house between punishment and reward. Risk. Specifically, do something to trigger our loss aversion, which is a technical term to describe our aversion to losing things.
Self-motivation comes in a numbers of forms but masochism, on its face, seems like a dubious strategy. But what if various boundaries aren’t enough?
In those cases, when something absolutely has to get done, we have another, albeit extreme suggestion: Waste large sums of money.
“The science of loss aversion says that we hate losing $100 about twice as much as we like winning $100,” said Nick Crocker, behavior change expert and founder of the fitness app Sessions, which MyFitnessPal acquired in 2013.
Greenfield’s full piece makes this case but uses a New York Times article about loss aversion and that article is more akin to the sunk cost theory I’ve covered before. This is off the point of punishing yourself to get results but I think it does tie in to how we hang on to things we should ditch but just can’t because we fear losing anything.
New York Times:
The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that even something as simple as a coin toss demonstrates our aversion to loss. In a recent interviews, Mr. Kahneman shared the usual response he gets to his offer of a coin toss:
“In my classes, I say: ‘I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would you have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?’
“People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now I’ve been doing the same thing with executives or very rich people, asking about tossing a coin and losing $10,000 if it’s tails. And they want $20,000 before they’ll take the gamble.”
In other words, we’re willing to leave a lot of money on the table to avoid the possibility of losing.