We live in a world of constant interruption. These days I work from home, and my environment should be more controllable than it was when I worked in an office, but in truth the flow of people popping their head into my office has been replaced by the ping and pop-up notification of emails, texts and messages, phone calls on my mobile and land-line, doorstep callers, and over the last four months, a team of builders re-decorating the house.
This morning, I’ve been keeping notes. While I’ve been writing this blog post, so far I’ve been interrupted twice by the workman laying tiles in the study, once by his boss (quality control),
twice three times by my husband offering tea and doing laundry, once by a neighbor complaining about my workman using a tile-cutter in the garden, once by the postman and once by the grocery delivery man. I’ve also surfed a stock photo website to download the image you see above left, surfed again to find the two links below, checked my email, replied to a friend’s message about our trip to Wimbledon next week (yay!), read Michaeline’s post here about writing description, scanned the BBC website, changed a light-bulb, and made notes on a couple of great ideas I had for my WIP.
I’ve worked this way for as long as I can remember, so I never thought much about it until I read about multi-tasking and interruptions in Joseph T. Hallinan’s book Why We Make Mistakes. That led me to some interesting articles online, in particular the work of Dr. Gloria Mark, a Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.
If you have five minutes to spare, consider reading this interview with Dr. Mark, titled Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching.
If you have fifty minutes, I recommend this video, in which Dr. Mark talks about Rhythms of Attention, Focus and Mood with Digital Activity.
If you’d rather just read on, here’s my entirely unscientific take-out:
- Most of us are monochromic. We cannot multi-task. We think we can, and today’s world expects it of us, but when we try, we either focus on one job and do the other on auto-pilot, or we switch our attention back and forth.
- Frequent interruptions are the norm. In the work-place, most of us switch task every three minutes or so – which makes sense if you think about how often we stop to answer a question, take a phone call or read an email.
- I hadn’t realized that most people interrupt themselves almost as much as they are interrupted externally, though nobody knows why. Even more interestingly, when people live or work in a pattern of high interruption, they become habituated to it. If the high-frequency external interruption stops, people interrupt themselves to maintain the pattern.
- Not all interruptions are bad. Switching to a new challenge within the same subject can actually be positive. If we engage with something that’s related to the task we’re working on, it can help to spark ideas or solutions.
- Mundane interruptions can also be okay. If we break off for a short time to deal with a subordinate task that can be done automatically, then it doesn’t break our focus on the task in hand, and sometimes we need a little downtime to let our subconscious work through a problem.
- The bad news is that if you switch your cognitive resources to a different challenge, there’s a cost. Even if you deal with it and go straight back to your main project, you don’t pick up where you left off because it takes time to ramp up to a state of focus. You already spent precious minutes getting your head out of your existing challenge and into the new one, and you have to invest more to shake it off and get your head back in the game.
- The other downer is that email is the no.1 cause of interruptions. People who work without email are significantly less stressed, focus for longer and switch tasks less frequently.
We don’t live in a vacuum, so some disruption is inevitable, but it seems as though quite a lot of it could be managed. I’ve decided to take a leaf out of Dr. Mark’s book and try making a few simple changes to my working routine.
- I usually write for 45 minutes and then take a 15-minute break, but I receive email and text notifications during my 45 minutes ‘on’, and I often reply to emails or tackle something that requires my complete attention during the 15 minutes ‘off.’ Not any more. I have located the ‘do not disturb’ setting on my computer, and enabled it. I’m going to try to restrict my email checking to (say) three time a day, though I’m already a little twitchy at the idea.
- My mobile will also be set to silent, though I will check for missed calls during my 15-minute breaks.
- Since it’s a given that I’ll continue to interrupt myself, I’ll try to make a virtue out of a necessity by making sure I have some distractions near to hand that are likely to help me get my head in the story rather than taking me out of it. Elizabeth posted recently that she plays videos of period drama without the sound while she’s writing. She chooses ones she’s familiar with so that she can dip in and out quickly without getting drawn into a new story. I don’t have a TV, but I do have a couple of large scrap-books that I’ve made into look-books for my story world. One for Gilded Lily, one for Mary and Cam. I’m going to keep those nearby so that I can dip in to them if my brain wants a break. I’m also going to create a new screen-saver and wallpaper with a selection of images from my story world, so that I can minimize my WIP, make a cup of tea, and let my mind wander. If that works, maybe I’ll buy a digital photo frame and create a visual playlist as well as an aural one.
- In my 15-minute downtime, I will try doing story research, but if I find that it takes me down unrelated internet rabbit-holes, I’ll have to reschedule it for the end of the day. I’ll also use the breaks for routine tasks like preparing dinner (but not if a new recipe is involved) and other tasks I can do on autopilot. Any problem that requires active engagement will have to wait until later.
Are you convinced? Would you consider making any changes to your routine?