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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Multitasking Kills Creativity and Causes Writer’s Block

Multitasking kills untold numbers of innocent goldfish

If you think you can carve out time for your writing by multitasking, think again. The cortex cannot truly multitask; you can pay focused, conscious attention to only one thing at a time. When you attempt to multitask, you actually shift your attention from one task to another and back again.

Every time you shift your attention, you lose processing speed and accuracy. Attempting to do multiple tasks actually takes more time – up to 50% more time – than doing those same tasks sequentially. You can make up to 50% more mistakes, some of which can be disastrous (and not only for goldfish!).

Even more significantly for writers and others who need to bring focused, engaged, creative thinking to their work, attempts to multitask fracture your thinking and splinter your ability to pay attention. Not just while you’re multitasking – the negative effects of multitasking can last for hours!

Attentional Frenzy Precludes Creativity

Multitasking causes attentional frenzy. You’re focused here, no there, no over there! Look at this, no process that, no pay attention to this! Your attention is jumping around like a spastic house fly. And in all that mental busy-ness, there’s no time to let your attention simply rest.

The brain needs down time to commit new learning to long-term memory. People who take a nap after memorizing a list of words remember significantly more than people who don’t nap. The brain also needs quiet time to make the new associations and connections that are essential to creative work.

Experiment With Your Own Attention

You can prove it to yourself. Select three or four objects on your desk or in the room. As fast as you can, look at one object, then another, then another. Focus on each object for a second or two, then randomly shift your attention to another selected object. Keep shifting for about a minute. Go ahead and try that; I’ll wait.

Do your eyes hurt? Do you feel a little dizzy or a little jittery?

Now focus your eyes on one object, then blink and let your focus go soft. Don’t worry about focusing on any particular object. In yoga, this is sometimes called “soft eyes.”  If you do this for a minute or two or more, your perspective changes. You start seeing things on the periphery more and distinguishing between foreground and background less. Something that had been unnoticed in the background might take on new significance.

Go ahead and try that; it’ll make your eyes and your brain feel better.

Soft Focus is the Source of Creativity

This soft focus with our inner eye or imagination is what gives us those joyful “a-ha” moments of creative insight. When we allow our mind to be soft but still engaged, our perspective changes. We can see new connections between ideas and make new associations. Everything clicks into place and the solution is suddenly clear. This is the heart of creativity.

We simply can’t get to that heart when our mind is jumping spastically from task to task to task or from thought to thought to thought. We can’t get there even hours after multitasking because our mind is still reeling and our attention is still shattered. We must have quiet time to restore our ability to focus softly.

This is why so many writers find writing easier in the morning – they haven’t splintered their attention yet. And why other writers find writing easier in the evening – they’ve had a chance to quiet their minds and let their inner eye go soft.

What’s your best time to write? When are you able to focus softly on your writing without distractions and interruptions? When is your mind most calm yet engaged?

And most importantly, do you preserve that best time to write for the writing that matters most to you?

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