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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.

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


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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3 Comments on “Step Away From the Catnip and No One Gets Writer’s Block”

  1. Eden Cross June 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    It sounds just like ADHD! So…how to overcome this syndrome? It seems to build on itself.

    Like

    • rosannebane June 6, 2011 at 11:39 am #

      Thanks for your observations and question Eden. One of the primary differences between multitasking and ADHD is that multitasking is self-inflicted. My hope is that when people understand the true cost of multitasking, they’ll want to stop. Once you start multitasking, it does negatively affect your ability to focus for the rest of the day, but fortunately a good night’s sleep allows us to start the next day with a clean slate.
      I hope you read the rest of the posts in the series, there are solutions offered there. I’ll post more suggestions soon, but until then, consider adding meditation to your daily routine (this significantly increases your ability to focus by increasing activity in certain areas of the brain and decreasing activity in other areas). Also put off multitasking until later in the day, reserving the early part of the day for the activities that require a focused, engaged brain (i.e. writing, creating, planning, etc.).

      Like

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  1. Keeping Your Writer’s Brain at Creative Optimum | The Bane of Your Resistance - March 15, 2013

    […] Step Away From the Catnip (part 1 of 3) […]

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