On Multi-tasking

Edith here, having co-shoveled out half a foot of snow on Saturday.shovel-with-snow

People often ask me if I work on more than one book at a time. I answer, “By preference, I don’t.” I’ve read of studies that report multi-tasking yields results like those of elderly people losing focus. While I’m not quite elderly (at least by my definition!), I do have three -well, four – series under contract, and I need focus to keep the protagonists and their settings distinct.

So I try to shovel out one series at a time. I’ll write the first draft for this one. Then put it down and incorporate copyedits on another one. Then write a blog post or work on an invited lecture for a third. Preferably not all on one day. Because the last thing readers need is me switching from first person voice (Country Store Mysteries) to third (Local Foods Mysteries). Or seeing my introverted geek farmer (Local Foods Mysteries) do something only my extroverted FireinCarriagetownCoverQuaker linguistics professor would do (Lauren Rousseau Mysteries). Or, heaven forbid, have my 1888 midwife use a phrase like “it was hard for me to get centered,” a distinctly twentieth-century usage when it pertains to something like meditation or Quaker worship.

JD and Allan making my birthday dinner. And listening to music. And dancing. And being handsome. (And you just missed the yoga stretches…)

On the other hand, I’ve also seen my twenty-something sons listen to music, check fantasy sports results, cook a multi-course gourmet dinner, carry on a conversation, and do yoga stretches almost simultaneously. And nothing seems to be wrong with their brains. On the contrary, they are super productive, well adjusted, caring, and handsome to boot. (Okay, hanging around being handsome isn’t quite multi-tasking, but I’m their mom, so I can throw that in.) They have yet to be authors of multiple series, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened one day.

Back to my own multi-tasking, though: one day last week I finished going through proofs for FARMED AND FARMEDANDDANGEROUSDANGEROUS. I heard that my editor accepted FLIPPED FOR MURDER and I figured out how to implement the changes he wants. I changed the murder weapon for BISCUITS AND SLASHED BROWNS because I learned another author had recently used that exact same unusual method. And I printed out COMPOST MORTEM for final revisions. Four at one blow on one day. And that’s only two of the four series. Whew!

Not long ago when I was a technical writer in the software industry, one guiding principle was, “White space is your friend.” If you load up a page with too much information, readers can’t absorb it, and that was when we actually printed software manuals. Maybe brains are the same way. But, then as now, lists were also my friends. Making a list every morning totally helps me cope with my multiple tasks for the day. Constants are: “Write” and “Exercise.” Everything else follows, and some days the reality is that I have to work on two or three or four books.  But at least I have something to check off!

So how do you deal with multi-tasking? Readers, what do you make lists of? Everyone, how do you cope with multiple commitments? Writers, do you try not to work on more than one project at a time, or can you easily switch between books, posts, series?

23 Thoughts

  1. Now that I’m retired I make lists for groceries, because if I go to the store without one I will not get half of what I need and lots of what I don’t. I also make lists of what were are serving if we are having guests. Sometimes I make lists of what I want to look for at the library – today because we are getting a big storm and I want to be sure to have enough to read.

  2. I’m writing short stories for the next two months, using the same cast of characters but in different places and moving forward in time. It’s helping me see how the characters grow and change for the next book in the series.

  3. I don’t know how you do it, Edith. I solve my task load by devoting specific times to my WIP, my editing work, my other writing obligations. It’s a constant juggling act. When I went away and could devote all my time to ONE story, it was heavenly.

    1. Hey, I’m in the same Juggling Club, Ramona! And I know what you mean about going away and focusing. I love my occasional retreats, where I immerse myself in only one WIP.

  4. I think many people have a misperception that multitasking and serial-tasking are the same thing. Multi-tasking is the simultaneous (or nearly so) process of doing more than one thing at a time. Listening to the radio while writing a blog is an example of multitasking. Writing a blog, hearing a ding that says a new email has arrived, checking and answering the email, going back to blogging is essentially multitasking because there is no separation. That is the kind of multitasking that studies suggest lead to the inability to concentrate.

    What you have described, Edith, strikes me as a highly evolved form of serial-tasking. Your life is filled with projects, but you insert white space between them. While you are doing one, your focus is on that task to the general exclusion of all others. The real marvel is the amount of writing productivity you have given the time you allot to it. Your method of keeping lists helps you get up to speed quickly as you move from one task to another.

    I am, and have always been, a list maker. When I was young the lists were mostly in my head, but they were there. Now they are written down or they are no where (other than causing a vague feeling that there is something I should be doing ….)

    ~ Jim

    1. I think you’re right, Jim. Thanks for clarifying that, and can I just say I love being labeled as “highly evolved?” Maybe I should change the title of this post to Serial Tasking!

  5. When I started writing, I could bounce from one book in progress to another easily. Not so much any more. If I have edits, I have to stop whatever new thing I’m writing and get my head back into where I was with the MS that I’m editing (note: for all my ongoing series, the new book is due at the same time the latest book hits the shelves, so at least my head is in the right place for promotion).

    But I do love lists! It’s like I have to see something on paper to remember it. Something about the wiring in my head, I think.

    1. It’s really getting crazy, Sheila, especially when two books in the same series butt up. I’m reading through book four right after I read proofs for book three, and I’m thinking, “Wait – didn’t she see Ruth on Saturday, not Sunday?” Lucky I can easily go back and check on what happened in each book, and realize Saturday was the book before this one.

  6. Oh, I hear you, Edith! I finally had to sit myself down and make a production schedule so I could give all the projects I need/want to complete in 2015 (some short, some long) the time and energy they deserve–because as I suspect you know, they are all clamoring for space in my brain and they all claim they are more important than every other project! Breaking them all down into a schedule allows me to tell them to wait their turn, and I will get to them eventually, while still respecting the creative process that constantly puts new ideas in my head. I do find it helpful to break up my day by writing new material in the morning, then working on revisions or galleys or other business in the afternoons, with a break in between for exercise or lunch to reset my brain. That doesn’t happen every day (like right now, I’m on a deadline that’s going to be tight), but it’s something I shoot for. Fortunately I’m an early riser, so if I focus I can accomplish a lot before noon.

    1. We have the same schedule, Susannah! I’m usually toast for creative endeavors by midday. And I also have a production schedule up on my wall telling me when my publishers’ deadlines are and when my own deadlines are (months ahead of theirs, at times). But I never leave exercise out of my day or I’d be worthless.

  7. I can watch TV and surf the internet, although if I really want to pay attention to the TV show, I will sometimes pause. And I love to have music playing in the background while I work.

    However, I am much better at focusing on one thing at a time until it is finished. If I have to set aside a project at work half finished, it drives me crazy. I am not a multi-tasked but a single tasker who gets highly focused on that one task and finishes it quickly.

  8. Fine looking sons you have there, Edith…and I know of what I speak, as I, too, have two fine-looking sons!
    I can switch back and forth in writing. I am really good at multi-tasking with almost everything…I need to be, as my fine-looking sons hand me three fine-looking grandchildren very often.

  9. I have been known to make lists of my lists. Although right now, most of my to-dos are mental. Writing, edit, laundry, repeat… I do find that having more than one project really helps me, especially if they’re at different points in the process or use different mental/physical skills. Right now, both my novel and my short story are kind in the same place so I need something to knit.

    As for multi-tasking, I have three kids so I’m always doing at least three things in addition to whatever I thought I was supposed to be doing. 😉

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