I hate that word. Multitasking. So very blerky. I prolly feel that way because I’m really crap at it. Really crap.

Like this weekend I’m trying to work on two different essays, the lodger novel, and also on a short story. Not to mention all the admin (correspondence, shopping, cooking, cleaning, organising, blah blah blah).

I’m trying to get as much stuff out of the way before I get The Ultimate Fairy ed letter, which will come in the next week or so. That way I’ll have oodles of time (due date’s the middle of September) for the rewrite. I want to make it shiny shiny shiny!

Most especially I want to have a solid chunk of the new novel so that coming back to it won’t break my brain. I don’t know about other writers but I much prefer to write one complete draft of a novel before beginning the next. I hate leaving things unfinished. Not to mention that it’s really hard to keep two big novel worlds in your head at the same time. It is for me anyways.

Right now I’m nowhere near a complete draft of the Lodger (hmmm, the working title needs work, doesn’t it?) so that when I return it’ll only to take a few days (if I’m lucky) to figure out what I was thinking way back then and who the hell all the characters are. If I’ve barely got a few thousand words then there’s not a lot for me to get back into.

I cannot write more than one novel at the same time.

I’m discovering that I can’t write a short story and a novel at the same time. I can barely work on a short story and figure out what to make for dinner. The best writing multi-tasking I can manage is one essay and one novel. On account of essays are not much like stories or novels thus they require different parts of the brain. (It’s like your dessert stomach being different from the rest of your stomach.) But two essays at once? Too hard.

My other multi-tasking impairments are laziness and being very easily distractable.

Thus this weekend I’ve managed to partly re-write a (very short) essay, write half of a new (and equally short) one, make dinner, re-organise my sock drawer (truly—it was a mess!), blog three times (this will be the third), take a stab at catching up on email (then stopped after a while depressed at the impossibility of ever doing so) and update my website (a tiny bit). I also opened the short story and Lodger documents and perused them. No new words were added to either.

But I’ve read many books, much manga, watched several episodes of The Wire and a fair few articles on and off line. (None of them related to either of the essays I’m writing.)

I feel discombobulated and disjointed and feel that I’ve lost my way.

I am now closing all documents other than the essay due Monday. I am even turning the intramanets off. When I have finished and sent off the essay—and only then—I will turn to the next pressing document. I will then work on nothing but it for a bit before turning to the next one. Otherwise nothing will get done.

So successful multitaskers do you have any tips for me? I have no children, no day job, no excuses for being this crap. I know people with children and day jobs and many other responsibilities who are vastly more productive (to the tune of two or more books a year) than I am. How do they do it? Help!


  1. Dess on #

    ugh me too. so do my parents and people i’m talking to online… at the same time. maybe thats why… i can’t multitask. it’s just not possible for me.

  2. Dess on #

    i would try to help you but… multitasking is not my forte. im also very easily distractable. but i can read multiple books at the same time and not get them mixed up. i’m reading about five right now.

  3. El on #

    I also don’t multitask well, and I’ve lately been studying (and quizzing) people around me to see how they do things. What I’ve learned is that mostly they don’t multitask well either–they do as you describe above and do things in different modalities that call upon different areas of the brain and different kinds of energy. And when they do big projects they ignore similar (competing) projects better than I do.

    When you think about it, most of them also don’t live in two different places and visit 73 more during the course of a year. So I’d say you’re multitasking just fine!

  4. sherwood on #

    Everything I do may well be total crap, but by gum I am an Olympic multi-tasker. Necessity is of course the prime motivator, but the rest is habit: you learn how to get two or three stupid things going at once, and you also learn to gauge how much you can get done of any particular thing in the time you have, so if writing time during the weekdays this week is going to be two minute and five second tiny increments–always interrupted–then you mentally scale down the goal. “I’ll do that transition after I switch the laundry/stir the crockpot/mark ten papers.” And while you’re doing those three grinds, your brain is considering that transition, so when you can steal those two minutes, bam! You get three entire sentences done–the transition is over–before someone is bellowing in your ear that you are late for whatever demand is expected of you next.

    Then you’re in the car, driving to laborious task two, and at every red light you work out a bit more of a conversation, and during the passing bell (a full four minutes, if you are lucky and not interrupted) you slam down that conversation. bam! Another tiny goal met!

    When you go to bed you fall asleep mentally sorting what you got done, and what needs doing, so when you wake up (at two a.m. or at dawn, if you are lucky) instead of tossing and turning, you get up and immediately get that last task mentally lined up started. Bam, another one nailed.

    You discover you have a full half hour! And three pieces due. So ten minutes’ read-through on project A, which is short. The next graph on project B, which you worked out mentally while in the shower and loading the dishwasher. And project C, you beaver away at until someone screams at you “You’re late! Why haven’t you done X…” so while rushing off to X, you mentally continue Project C, getting it firm into the brain, so in case X might crack open and leave you a full three minutes, wham! You can get that next couple of graphs down.

    And so on. Becomes habit.

  5. Mary S. on #

    Sounds exhausting.

    Multi-tasking is and isn’t my strong suit. I can get lots of small things done at once–cooking and cleaning and errands and pets and gas in the car and showers and even phone calls.

    But for writing, that I do one thing at a time. I must focus.


  6. Gabrielle on #

    I’m a little multitasking at times. But with small things. Like I have a dozen internet pages open sometimes. Or I read and pee at the same time. Hee. But I absolutely can’t do anything else when I’m writing. I get totally distracting, and the little writing I manage to get done is complete crap. As to writing many projects at the same time… I can’t do that either. Right now I’ve started writing something while I have another project unfinished, but I’m not doing both at the same time, the first project is put on hold for a while. I was stuck on it anyway. And I also have a big bunch of novel outlines that haven’t gotten any attention yet, and most of them probably never will.

  7. maureen on #

    I am so glad you wrote this. I feel like you just described everything I that I was just listing that I had to do. The e-mail alone is a great, bottomless pit.

    I’m sure we’ve talked about all the surprise extra stuff that comes along with being a writer . . . but it IS surprising. There is so much random assorted stuff that goes along with it that no one tells you about. (Possibly because they don’t know?)

    I constantly wonder how people with kids do it. I can barely managed to take care of one small monkey.

  8. Rebecca on #

    “But two essays at once? Too hard.”

    how on earth did you survive college? do you have a secret method that allowed you to avoid being assigned more than one essay at a time? brainwashing the professor, perhaps…. 😉

    i’m decent at multitasking, i guess. like, whilst i am watching basketball, i use the commercial breaks to go online, blog, or read a book. i’m good at tuning things out when i need to (thanks to certain long-winded family members and extremely dumb college professors). as for writing, i used to be firm in the belief that i should only work on one thing at a time. but now i’ve suddenly developed this very short attention span that causes me to jump from story to story. because i get bored, and it’s either that or stop writing.

    dunno if you like to-do lists, but that’s how i get my homework done. so you could make the list, and then just pick one of the things and do it till it’s finished, and then you can check it off. instead of doing a little of one thing and little of another, b/c if you can put a big mark through that check box, it’ll give you visible proof that you’ve gotten something accomplished. or it does me, anyways. 😀

    i thought you hated writing short stories. 😛

    maureen, how do you get the caps code to work? it never works on my comments! and i did follow the directions. *grumble grumble*

  9. haddy on #

    all i can mutitask with is watching tv and anything else(exept reading) thats it sorry cant help:(

  10. Dawn on #

    I like to say that I’m a good multitasker, but I’m really, really not. I’m actually a good PROCRASTINATOR…which is something I’m more proud of anyway. 😉

  11. Justine on #

    Sherwood: My awe of you is endless.

    Mary S.: Yup. For writing I must focus! Without it I can only get the most trivial stuff done.

    Gabrielle: See, I don’t think of that as multitasking though I guess it is. I think of it faffing about, which I’m very good at.

    Maureen: There is so much random assorted stuff that goes along with [being a writer] that no one tells you about.

    I know! Our lives are so hard! Much harder than working down a coal mine or being a social worker or a cop or a teacher. Don’t know what that lot are whingeing about! 😉

    Just kidding! In case anyone misses the smiley.

    It was a shock to me though. I honestly thought the job of writer consisted of just writing. But then what job does consists of only one thing? Every job has all sorts of extraneous stuff to do. No job is without endless reams of admin.

    Rebecca: how on earth did you survive college? do you have a secret method that allowed you to avoid being assigned more than one essay at a time?

    Nah. I just wrote them one at a time. And I was late a lot. I was a genius at getting extensions. One of the biggest shocks of being a pro writer has been dealing with the fact that if I miss deadlines I’m the main one who suffers by it. I had way too many free passes through out my education.

    Dawn: I’m a genius of a procrastinator. That’s what I should really be getting awards for!

  12. simmone on #

    i read an article about one of those multi-millionaire self-starter maniacs and the first thing he’d do of a morning was have a bath and while soaking he would write his to-do list for the day. i don’t know if he was using a whiteboard or what…

    My book deal happened when I was three months pregnant. I had to get organised! I’m hoping my son and my work get to grow up together – but I doubt I could do more than a book a year. Kerry Greenwood reportedly spends 3 months researching, 6 months writing and 3 months polishing which sounds about perfect to me.

  13. Simon Sherlock on #

    I find this totally fascinating. As a non-writer (or wannabe at least) I have asked writers at book signings how they work. Terry Pratchett has about 3 novels on the go at a time, plus re-writes and second drafts etc, yet Bernard Cornwell can only work on one book at a time. Both authors churn out fantastic work so I guess you just have to go with what works for you…

  14. Penni on #

    I dunno, I find now I have kids I am heaps more productive. I use the time i have very efficiently. Before I had them I was bone idle.
    Since my four year old was born I’ve had three books published, another is at the printers, one is being edited and I have two more contracted. Plus I had another baby. Only when i write it down like that I feel a bit giddy and I have to lie down. It cuts into your social life though, which is probably conducive to more writing time. You always seem to be swanning to me. Less swanning more writing, that’s my strict diet. :p
    But seriously, I think it sounds like your novel needs more baking time, so maybe do the other stuff first. (that’s my secret recipe…don’t actually multitask, do one thing at a time).

  15. tricia sullivan on #

    i am great at multitasking. so great at it that i find it very hard to finish anything!! i wish i could devote all my efforts to one thing, you know, have a laser-beam mind. i have a mexican jumping bean mind, and always too many kettles on the boil. not to mention the old mixed metaphors problem. so, yanno, grass always greener…

    seriously though, i would suggest reading some stuff on time management; there’s buckets of it about and not all of it is just for corporate types.

    there are all kinds of tricks you can do with egg timers and diaries, but you probably know about those.

  16. Ariel Cooke on #

    i’ve struggled with organization my whole life and i am now a mother and in library school as well as still being a writer. i rely very heavily on lists. i have running lists for things like the house, deskwork, my daughter, stuff to discuss with my husband. i especially have to have a separate list for myself because I always come last otherwise. (You know, everything from dentist to booking a ticket to the opera because i love it.)

    Every morning I look over the lists and I pick the most urgent things and the things I can do at the same time and also what I can sort of force myself to do. then I get to check off items on my list with “a little moo of satisfaction” as Louise Fitzhugh said of Ole Golly the governess in Harriet the Spy.

    Anyway, when you make out your list, you figure out what you can manage that day and try not to answer the phone. I usually fail but I still whittle away at the lists. Obviously if I ever finished them all, I would be dead. In fact, i would probably die of shock.

    And getting back to you, Justine, I think it is amazing that you can write a book in such a short time and it is so beautifully written and even meaningful.

  17. Patrick Shepherd on #

    I’m not totally great at this multi-tasking thing, but I do manage to do things like read/watch TV/consider my next chess move/hold a conversation with my wife all at once…

    At work (I’m an electronics engineer) I’m constantly hit by whatever the latest fire-drill is, yanking me from one project to the next. The way I’ve found to handle this involves two crucial items:

    1. I manage to estimate fairly closely how long any particular task will take (this is sometimes very difficult when it involves troubleshooting system problems, but for those cases I allow a large fudge-factor and an increment in priority, which normally allows me to get things completed on time).

    2. I set priorities. Just what is really important right now? This is what gets worked on.

    One other piece that helps: when I’m truly stumped by a problem, I find that I need to back off, not think about it for awhile, and sleep on it. Very often I find that, come morning, my under-brain has figured out the solution (or at least another approach). In these cases, having something else to work on that I can get totally buried in is a definite plus.

  18. Gwenda on #

    First things first: I hate the term multi-tasking. It sounds like something someone whose necktie was on too tight came up with. It reminds me of WORK.

    I know I’m good at juggling lots of stuff, but I think maybe it’s because I don’t think of it that way. And also because I build in break times? I’ve always worked pretty quickly, and if I know I have a big deadline, I plan to have a couple hours of brain off at night No Matter What. Go to dinner, watch a movie, take a walk, walk the dogs, and not feel guilty about it. Otherwise, I go crazy.

    Really, for me, it’s about focus and prioritizing and pretending to be a spy and not thinking of everything at once that must be done. If I have to, say, write a feature piece that requires ten interviews, I set little steps of getting each interview done, leaving myself a big enough window to write the piece. I don’t even think about actually starting to write the piece until the interviews are done. I build in time for revision. I have to be pretty hardcore about scheduling now, because of the day job and the MFA program and the freelance work and having a life.

    It was not always thus. I used to be a procrastination queen. But at some point I figured I could actually change that, and I liked not feeling overwhelmed and behind on stuff all the time. If I worked on things regularly or on a schedule and figured out how to juggle it all and still have time for non-work, then I’d be a much happier girl. But this was all sort of automatic, once I started thinking about it as something I wanted to do. So, anyway, there’s a supremely unhelpful answer.

    I’m amazed I get anything at all done, actually, what with the Internet.

    (Also, that time I spent in the writer’s assistant coal mines, even mostly as an observer, probably taught me to overestimate the amount of admin being a writer takes — so I feel you there. Once a writer gets any measure of success At All it is very hard to find the time to write. Not least because most every writer I know is really excellent at writing avoidance.)

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