I multitask all the time, and I like to think I’m good at it.
But it’s been the fashion lately to decry multitasking as bad for you (see this article from Psychology Today or this more measured article on The Conversation ). The claim is that our brain cannot really multitask: we are constantly switching between one task or the other, and therefore our illusion of multitasking effectively slows us down.
So why is it that I feel like a certain level of distraction is almost necessary for me to get a job done?
I don’t mean checking Facebook, Twitter or email. That hardly ever helps. I mean some sort of noise or stimuli in the background that help with getting one’s brain into focus.
Let me explain.
As a teenager, I wasn’t particularly fond of doing long sets of Math problems. It’s not so much that I found the Math difficult (though that was sometimes the case). I found that I got bored. The only way for me to not start getting distracted from my homework was to have some music playing in the background. Otherwise, I’d be checking my phone or my laptop ten times before the stupid problem set got done. Interestingly, once I got into the flow of things, I would often be completely unaware of the music in the background. It only came into focus in the moments I was semi-distracted: looking up at the ceiling or out of the window.
Nowadays, when I need to get started on a task that I really do not want to be dealing with, I occasionally find that turning on a crap TV show or the radio in the background, actually helps me to force myself to sit down and get to work. Eventually, when I get into the flow of things, the background noise will annoy me and I often turn it off. But in order to get into the flow of things, I need to force myself to actually sit down first. And that’s where the certain level of distraction helps. Maybe the background level of distraction somehow sweetens the annoyance of the task?
Often, when I am working I am trying to force myself to focus in an empty room. The TV, the radio or music, are simply noise replacements for what would be going on if I were working in a library or a café: a reminder that other human beings exist, and I am not the last lonely creature left on planet earth.
I am aware that this background level of distraction often slows me down—and that I would get the task done in half the time if I didn’t feel the need to distract myself. But often Zen-like silence is exactly the moment when my brain decides it’s time to watch that silly YouYube video about baby pandas, which in turn spirals out of control into a three-hour silly video binge. Usually, if the brain is busy with Britney Spears singing in the background, it is far more likely to return to the task at hand.
I’m not saying this is a good thing. Perhaps, my brain is fundamentally broken through years and years of multitasking and is now simply unable to focus on one thing for a long period of time.
But I still have hope.
When I began working on a piece of creative writing, I put on a song. When I next emerged into non-writing consciousness the same song had been on loop for about 45 minutes, and I was not aware of it being annoyed at the time. Now, I’m the sort of person who gets really annoyed when she listens to the same song over and over again. Clearly, when this happened, I was able to block out the music completely out of my conscious brain.
I was in the sweet spot called “Flow” by positive psychologists: “A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (the term was introduced by a man called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi– who is surely about to win the “most unpronounceable surname” contest).
But instead of getting to the state of flow in a quiet secluded silent spot, I was listening to music with lyrics at the same time. I am sure that the anti-multitasking brigade would accept a Mozart concerto as flow background noise, but I doubt they would do the same for pop music or even opera. Anything with lyrics is a no-no. But to me, lyrics are usually the key to a solid blast of necessary distraction.
This leads me to my final theory as to why we might need music, radio or crap TV in order to get work done. The voices in our heads. The ones that go “you’re a shit writer, you’re crap, no one wants to read you, this is pointless, why do you bother”.
I need some distraction to get to work because the lyrics in the background drown out the internal critic in my head. As all my mental process are used up in trying to block the background music from the task at hand, I have no energy to generate the internal critic that typically prevents me from writing a single word. That probably helps.
Let’s drown that inner critic with some silly background noise.
What do you think about multitasking and distraction? Do you have any techniques that help you stay focused when writing?