Switching Brains

In last week’s post about the key lessons I’ve learned from years of project-based work, one raised questions in several readers’ minds:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.

People were curious about the concept of rituals to prepare the mind for a new task. There are two ideas from educational theory and psychology embedded here, so let’s look at them one at a time.

In a 2017 article, Alison Wood Brooks, the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, studied the effect of a series of planned behaviours (a ritual) on the performance of people facing a stressful task. Her findings indicated ‘performing a ritual before entering a stressful situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve performance.’ Add to that the idea of giving your mind a bit of time to move from one area of focus to another, plus the benefits of movement on creativity (for more detail, read this paper by Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz), and you have some of the science behind the idea of the planned transition from one task to the other. (If you think back to your high school days, this is pretty much what the break between classes was for: move a bit, go to you locker, switch textbooks/notebooks – telling your brain that chemistry is done, now it’s time for history.)

The second part of this is ‘activating prior knowledge’. There are a lot of ways for a writer to use this concept of building on what you already know, but in this specific example, it’s again part of the transition. Once the transition activities (the ritual) are done, you bring yourself back into the work by reading the last 500 words you wrote, or your notes, or your outline. This is pretty much the writing equivalent of the recap scenes at the beginning of some television series. (Those of us who don’t binge watch are very appreciative of these. After a week away from a show, I need those reminders!)  

In my house, we use the shorthand ‘switching brains’. Time to write the weekly grocery list just after I’ve finished an editing session? ‘Wait till I switch brains’, I’ll say to my husband. Then I walk around a bit, stretch, water plants, pick up the cat – that sort of thing – before I look at the menu board, and the whiteboard that has all the things we’ve scrawled down that we need during the week (activating prior knowledge again), find paper and pen, and begin the list with a mind ready to focus on it, and not wondering if that last paragraph still needs refining.

These are some of the things that keep my ADHD brain, which is easily overwhelmed by cognitive load, productive. They won’t work for everyone, and like all habits, they take time and commitment to develop. What techniques do you use to help with balance and focus when juggling a multitude of tasks?

Coffee Cup image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Featured image:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Time & Project Management: #authortoolboxbloghop

I used to work in a job so multi-faceted and complex that when I left, I was replaced by two people. I had dozens of projects on the go, several teams of people to oversee, and a huge budget to manage. There is no doubt I worked too hard and too long, and I left burnt out, but I also learned some very valuable lessons in managing time and projects that I still use today in my third career as a writer, editor and the coordinator of a small indie collective press.

I’ll throw in my usual caveats here: I’m in my 60s; no children, and this is what I do full time. I’m not balancing another job, children, elderly parents, house renovations, commuting…life. (I did, though, minus the children, and that’s why my first book took 12 years to write.)

I recognized my lack of organizational skills somewhere in grad school. I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards, the ability to hyperfocus for long periods of time on certain things being the most obvious positive feature (for me). But I needed processes to replace my poor executive function, because without them, it was and is all too easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of me. And if I get overwhelmed, I simply do nothing.

I won’t bore you with a list of the books I read and the methods I tried. Most didn’t work; they required too much time and focus. But I took bits from most of them, and now I have a system that works fairly well. It’s quick and it’s visual, both requirements for me.

As you can see, I use a series of checklists, and a forward-projection of the dates on which each project needs to be completed. This allows me to then subdivide the project into chunks, and schedule those, as well, working backwards from the completion date.

Then I use a daily planner. I know I’m most productive in the mornings, so between 8:30 and 11:30 is my intensive work time. That’s my time to work on my own book, when I have one in progress – and when I am actively writing, it’s nearly every day. I don’t wait for creativity to strike: most of the time, once I start, the words will flow. Perhaps not as well as I’d like, but as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.  

When I’m not actively writing, this is the time I use to learn something new or do in-depth research: whatever the big tasks are that the board shows me I need to complete.  I take a couple of breaks, for movement and coffee, usually sneaking in a load of laundry or some other household chore.

After lunch I’ll generally check emails & social media, deal with anything important (or amusing) and then work on non-writing projects (that includes editing other people’s work or doing video meetings with other writers) for an hour or two. Exercise next, a walk or cycling for at least an hour and then another hour or so on ‘little’ things, tasks that don’t take a lot of creativity, such as updating websites, checking analytics, filling out forms, sending information out. But even most of those – barring an urgent response – have been scheduled, again to prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Then I settle down with a cup of tea and read – books for review and/or pleasure – for 15 minutes to half an hour.

A few nights a week I work between about 10 and midnight: that’s a different sort of creative time for me, the time I write scenes that never make it into the book, but teach me about my characters and their responses; the time I do mindmaps of the major themes and conflicts of the story, the free-flowing ‘right brain’ associations and lateral thinking taking over. I’m about half-way between the poles of pantser and plotter, and this time is completely necessary to my writing process, and very different from the task-oriented approach I use the rest of the time. I’ll likely have music on, songs that relate to my work-in-progress in some manner. I might read poetry, looking for epigraphs or just for the expression of emotion I too am looking to convey.

Of course, life gets in the way of any schedule. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was to not overschedule your day, so that there is room for the interruptions and minor ‘emergencies’. Friday afternoons are unscheduled, for catch-up, and my weekends look different from Monday to Friday: I may work for myself, but I still get weekends! Groceries and cleaning and movie matinees and dinners with friends (well, not the two last ones just now, in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing) are all part of the week too.

Does it work perfectly? Of course not. I have days when I’m just too scattered, and that’s likely a day I choose to do something that I know I will hyperfocus on – designing ads, doing layout, or very detailed editing on my own work  –  and sometimes I just need to walk away from everything. But when I come back, the structure is there to guide me as to priorities: I don’t have to reinvent them. It keeps my mind calmer, and when my mind is calm, I’m productive.

Oh, and I have one other necessary ingredient in all this: coffee!