Step Away From the Marshmallow Part 2

June 2, 2011

Don't think about the marshmallow!

In more recent versions of the Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel tells children to pretend the marshmallow is only a picture of a marshmallow or a fluffy cloud. The children who employ their imagination could wait three times longer than kids who didn’t use their imagination.

“Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it,” Mischel observes.

Habits More Powerful than Will Power

In The Social Animal, David Brooks explains that children who could delay eating the marshmallow were able to trigger what he calls “cool ways” of perceiving the marshmallow. He writes “The children who could not [delay eating the marshmallow] triggered hot ways: they could only see it as the delicious temptation it really was. Once those in the latter group engaged these hot networks in their brain, it was all over. There was no way they were not going to pop the marshmallow into their mouths.”

Brooks explains “The implication of the marshmallow experiment is that self-control is not really about iron willpower mastering hidden passions. The conscious mind simply lacks the strength and awareness to directly control unconscious processes. Instead, it’s about triggering…People with self-control and self-discipline develop habits and strategies that trigger the unconscious processes that enable them to perceive the world in productive and far-seeing ways.”

A commitment to show up for 15 Magic Minutes of Product Time five times a week is one of those habits that trigger unconscious assumptions and associations. People who write regularly are far more likely to perceive themselves as writers and to perceive writing time as a necessity, not a luxury. They are more likely to focus on their writing, not on their resistance.

You Can Choose Your Thoughts – Unless You Multitask Too Much

Research at University of Michigan with adults who faced the marshmallow challenge as children shows that “high delayers” (adults who could delay gratification when they were children) are better at focusing their attention on two words they are asked to remember and away from two words they are asked to forget. “High delayers” choose what to focus their attention on.

Frequent multitaskers, on the other hand, are terrible at choosing what to pay attention to. They are easily distracted and attend to whatever is new, whether that is something they planned to notice and respond to or not.

As Stanford professor Clifford Nash says, “They are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

Researchers are careful to point out that without longitudinal studies, we can’t assign causality. That is, we can’t say for certain whether multitasking causes the decreased capacity to control attention. But I think it’s a safe bet that it does. Research has shown again and again that the brain is plastic and changes in response to what we experience.

When you multitask, you’re looking for the dopamine hit that something new will give you. You are essentially training your brain to constantly shift focus and to pay attention to everything. You lose your ability to sort relevant from irrelevant, meaningful from meaningless. You lose the ability to focus your attention for any length of time, which is essential to analyzing information and making the new connections and associations that are at the heart of creativity.

It's your brain. What do you want to teach it?

Create Your Perception Triggers aka Habits

The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to create habits that support you in regular writing sessions where you focus only on your writing. Turn everything else off when you write. Stop trying to slip writing in when you get “extra time” or as you’re doing something else. Give your writing the focused, scheduled time it and you deserve.

Develop the habits, strategies and practice that will, as Brooks says, “trigger unconscious processes that enable you to perceive the world in productive ways.”

Process, Self-Care and Product Time are those kinds of habits. You can learn more about these habits by exploring other past posts (just click on Recommended Practices in the Categories box on the right) and subscribing to this blog. If you want more one-on-one encouragement, support and accountability, I invite you to my Writing Habit and Around the Writer’s Block classes. Or check out creativity coaching with me or another coach.

Find your ways to step away from the marshmallow.


Step Away From the Catnip and No One Gets Writer’s Block

May 27, 2011

My intuition tells me there is something more significant about multitasking than just “don’t do it.” It’s about focus; it’s about the ability and freedom to choose what to pay attention to. Without that ability to focus, our struggles with writing resistance will be futile. My next couple of posts will explore this connection between multitasking, attention and writing.

Question: Why do we multitask?  Answer: Why do cats roll in catnip?

Most people started multitasking because we believed it would save time. We hoped that if we could do three or four things at once, we could keep up with the stuff we have to do and maybe have a little time left for the stuff we’d like to do.

But the research is clear: multitasking wastes time. If we want more time to write, we have to stop multitasking.

Despite the evidence, however, some people still believe that they can get more done faster by multitasking. They think that somehow they’re exempt from the negative consequences of multitasking. The truth is, “frequent multitaskers” (i.e. people who frequently try to multitask) are the most deluded about their ability to multitask.

Dangerously Deluded

In its “Digital Nation” episode, Frontline followed experiments with undergrads at MIT, arguably some of the smartest young people in the country. These students are serious multitaskers; they text messages on their smart phones while carrying on conversations via Skype and in the presence of four or five friends who are all on their phones and laptops with multiple apps open on all devices. They honestly believe they can process all this simultaneously because they are faster, smarter or just wired differently, especially compared to “older people.”

But the research on these self-declared “expert multitaskers” show that they are in fact worse on every measure. Compared to people who prefer to do one thing at a time and who rarely multitask, frequent multitaskers:

  • Take more time to shift attention from task to task
  • Make more mistakes
  • Have poorer, less organized memories of what they’ve done (and since they multitask nearly all day, they have poorer memories overall, a phenomena I call MMID, Multimedia- Multitasking-Induced Dementia)
  • Are unable to filter relevant from irrelevant information
  • Struggle to focus their attention

Everyone loses processing speed and accuracy when they try to multitask, but the more often you multitask, the slower, less accurate and more distractable you become.

The Dopamine Hit

But even when they see the results of this research, the MIT students persist in multitasking. Most people keep multitasking even after they realize it’s not working very well and even after they learn about the research that demonstrates multitasking can’t work. (Just think about the people who persist in driving while texting or using their phone.)

Why? In a word: dopamine.

When it perceives a new stimulus, the brain gives itself a hit of dopamine, the feel-good, pay-attention-to-this neurotransmitter. Every shift of attention caused by multitasking can give you a dopamine boost.

You can easily and quickly become accustomed to a squirt of dopamine every couple of minutes. You’ll feel anxious or bored when you don’t get your hit. So you seek it out. You check your email, your text messages, your Facebook page, your blog stats, etc.

You do this even though you know you should be focusing on some other task, so you tell yourself you’ll multitask “just for a minute.”

According to Clifford Nash, Communications Professor at Stanford, “We have a large and growing population of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

Or, as we’ll see in the next post, like a marshmallow to a four-year-old. (Want a sneak preview?)


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