Jilly: Writer, Interrupted

Writer, InterruptedHow much control do you have over your writing, or reading, or work time? Is there anything you can do to make a better environment for yourself?

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than it was when I worked in an office, but in truth the flow of people popping their head into my office has been replaced by the ping and pop-up notification of emails, texts and messages, phone calls on my mobile and land-line, doorstep callers, and over the last four months, a team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?

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Writer, Interrupted

  1. This is an interesting subject, and one that has come up in my “day” work life frequently. Several months ago, as part of an effort to minimize at least *some* interruptions, I started scheduling “no interruption” blocks of time – 4 hours on Friday mornings, when I and my team members have dedicated time to work on projects without meetings popping up, people stopping by to chat, or other interruptions. It doesn’t deal with the problem of people stopping every five minutes to look at email or check the phone, but it has cut down on at least a few of the interruptions.

    When it comes to my own writing, I’ve been using a 15-minute hourglass to try to reduce interruptions. I flip over the hourglass and then can check email, Facebook, or whatever until the sand runs out. Once it runs out, it’s back to writing for the rest of my hour. It has been a challenge to stick to that plan, but I feel like I’m making progress. Last weekend, when I was unexpectedly without my cell phone, I realized just how much time I really spent checking it. Even though it was gone, I was automatically stopping to check for mail/messages repeatedly during the day. I’m working to change that habit, now that the phone is back.

    I love your idea of a screen-saver. That seems like a great way to keep your head in the story, even when taking a break.

    • I think ‘no interruption’ blocks of time in the office are a great idea. I tried it a couple of times, back in the day, but I never managed to make it stick. There was always something that couldn’t wait 😉

      It was only when I decided to try to limit my email time that I realised just how often I do check my in-box. Disabling the pop-ups has helped, but it’s going to take a while to break the habit. We can compare notes when I see you in NY!

  2. I allow way too many interruptions. The best way for me to write uninterrupted is to take my mini-laptop to another room and only have the word processor up – no email/facebook/weather notifications, etc, to distract me.

  3. Jilly, this is so timely for me. Many, many months ago I started working with a timer to keep me honest, then somehow wandered away from that and have never gotten back to it. This past week was terrible for writing (external interruptions), so I’m ready to get back to it, starting today. Thanks for the tips and the little push in the right direction :-).

  4. The worse news is, the thing we do that passes for multi-tasking relies heavily on short-term memory and as we age, our short-term memory decreases signficantly. When writing is going well, I make it a point to shut-down email and put the phone out of sight.

    Which is one of the ways I know writing has not been going so well lately.

  5. I think sometimes you have to multi-task. Sometimes that aimless search through the internet for entertainment turns up Just The Thing for the story — pure serendipity because you weren’t even looking for it.

    But sometimes, you need to shut down.

    My computer’s internet connection is a USB modem through my cell phone. If I don’t stick that thing in the USB port, I have no internet. Sometimes I can be quite strict with myself and say, “NOTHING is going to happen in the next 45 minutes that can’t wait. Just do your writing, then you get your treat.” But if I don’t have a full creative tank, I can get resentful with that kind of bossy, high-handed Ego attitude. Still, every time I shut down the computer, I get a new chance to choose: internet or story.

    There’s an elegant solution that my daughter’s dorm put into effect, too. At the front door was a basket with pockets labeled for each student. The cell phones went there at 9:30 p.m. on the dot. No excuses. If there was an emergency, people could call the matron. The system helped ensure a good sleep (-:. And of course, the kids weren’t allowed to take cell phones to school — I think it meant suspension if they were caught with them.

    I find I get my best work done when I go out — to the library or a community center with desks. My favorite writing session was when I wrote my cherry blossom blog — there was a community center up on the mountain, and after I finished writing my piece, I was able to take a sweet walk around the park.

    In theory, I could toss laundry in the machine, and I’d have 45 minutes of writing time before I had to hang it up. But in practice, working at home means suddenly every neglected bit of housework seems more urgent than my writing. I have more discipline when I’m away from temptation!

    I’m going to take a look at that 50 minute video as soon as I get a chance, though! I KNOW the advantages of working uninterrupted, but I need to be TOLD them again every once in a while (-:.

  6. Just took a look at the article. Fascinating. Why do we self-interrupt?

    For me:
    1) I deserve a treat. (Even if I don’t — I hate this entitled attitude I have, and it causes me a lot of problems. I mean, of course I deserve a treat. I just don’t deserve one every three minutes and five seconds.)

    2) Catch an idea before it evaporates in thin air (I stopped reading the article in the middle to start this message, for example (-:. I bet I didn’t even reach three minutes).

    3) Distraction from the pain of basic chores. (See 1.)

    4) Mid-stream re-prioritization of tasks. Suddenly something else seems more important. (Could fix this by making a list and reminding oneself to stick to it — much like in meditation, one sticks to a mantra and gently reminds oneself to go back when other thoughts intrude.)

    5) It might be a body thing. The body needs to move, and I kinda wonder if even 45 minutes is demanding too much sitdown time. A change in tasks means you must change your posture. Would it be better to work in 20 minute spurts with a five minute total stretch break between? (And of course, 15 minutes for mental relaxation and physical movement at the top of the hour.) I am extremely sedentary.

    Huh. Why do you self-interrupt?

    • Sometimes I can get into a flow, and if there aren’t any external interruptions I can keep going and going. Other times I’m doing fine, and then suddenly my mind just wanders off and I have no idea why. I’m hoping my new Scrapbook & Screen-Saver plan might work a bit like a mantra on those days.

  7. Turning off the internet works really well for me, unless I need to look something up. I’m not one of those who can put off fact checking, because if the fact isn’t right, I can go down a rabbit hole of misinformation. So productivity is best when I can just write along without lookups or email.

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