Dr. Anastasia Trekles
There’s a lot of interest lately in the brain – how it works, how it keeps us thinking and doing stuff and being productive day after day. However, even after research from just about every angle imaginable, there are very few clear-cut answers. The brain, turns out, is pretty darn complicated.
The latest brain research does give us some pointers on how writers (and everyone else) can be more creative and productive. First things first: you can’t multitask. You might have heard someone tell you this already, and you probably ignored them. We have too much going on in our lives, quite frankly, and most of us are unable to turn off all of our distractions, even for a little while. Our phones are our lifelines to our families and our social circle. Our email is our link to the people who need us most, and it tantalizes us with ads and newsletters about various cool stuff. We just can’t turn these things off for an hour – think of what we could miss!
But all of those things wind up keeping us from our real work. Some scientists even think that all this multitasking we do as a society is having a long-term impact on our brain function. When we switch tasks and attention so frequently, it tends to have the effect of reducing our concentration in such a way that it temporarily lowers I.Q. by a few points, requiring about fifteen minutes before you can become deeply engaged in a task again. That means that when you’re writing that next chapter and an email comes in with that familiar “ding,” you just lost at least fifteen minutes of productive work.
Dr. John Medina gives us some concepts to help this all make sense. He calls them the “Brain Rules,” twelve things that neuroscience has taught us about how these valuable and mysterious things on the top of our shoulders really work (probably). In short, these rules include:
· Survival: Our brain is wired to keep us alive, and that means that if something alerts us, it tends to draw our attention away from everything else. That’s great when the alert in question is a man-eating tiger chasing us across the plains, but not so great when it’s your son texting you to ask what’s for dinner.
· Exercise: Take a brisk walk periodically. Do a yoga pose. Hope on the stationary bike. Your body and your brain will thank you.
· Sleep: Yes, we all need to get more rest. Many of us have trouble with that, since those distractions from our daily life often seep into our nightly life, too. A great deal of research has shown that people who get more sleep are more productive. And before you ask, no, you can’t “catch up” on lost sleep.
· Stress: Stressed brains don’t learn very well. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by thirty emails and texts to answer while simultaneously feeling guilty about working on your writing before you answer, you are less likely to be productive. So stop that.
· Wiring: Everyone is different. What works well for me might not work well for you. Be your own judge when someone gives you new strategies to try to “do more, learn more, be better!” To that end, a companion Brain Rule, Gender, reminds us that men and women think differently. They handle stress and emotion differently, too, which can in turn impact attention.
· Attention: As we’ve said already, we need to focus to be productive, but also tend not to pay attention to boring things. So if you’re not that excited about sitting down to work, don’t force yourself. Wait for a better opportunity
· Memory: “Practice makes perfect” is an age-old favorite for a reason. Repetition can be extremely helpful in helping us learn and remember.
· Sensory integration: Stimulating more of your senses tends to make you a better worker and learner. So, when you work, try lighting a scented candle and surrounding yourself with things that comfort you. You might even try another Brain Rule, Music, and play soft music in the background while you’re working. Research says it can increase your attention and productivity, but only if it is not so enjoyable that you find yourself distracted by it.
· Vision: Pictures tend to be very helpful for learning. Writers can benefit by finding pictures based on their characters or settings, to help give those ideas a more concrete form. For example, I use an app called Sutori to create timelines for my stories, and insert concepts of characters from photos I find online. Pinterest is another great option.
· Exploration: If you spend more time than you budgeted looking for pictures that match your hero, that time is not necessarily “wasted.” Sometimes setting daily page or word counts can be counter-productive and limit your creativity. Don’t be afraid to go where the journey takes you.
So what’s a modern writer to do about all this? Balancing your tasks and setting timers can be helpful to keeping yourself in touch with the outside world while staying productive. For example, set a timer for twenty minutes when you start writing, and at the end of your time, get up and exercise. Or go ahead and check that inbox. Then, start another twenty-minute timer and get back to work. Working in these short blocks of time may sound counter to how a lot of people operate, but in the long run, it is much more likely to be productive.
Have a problem with keeping those distractions away while you work? There’s an app for that! Many programs have “distraction free modes,” including popular apps like Scrivener and yes, even Microsoft Word. Or if you’re on the go or looking for something cheap, there’s the free ZenPen. Even WordPress has a distraction free mode for you bloggers out there. In each case, everything of “interest” on the screen is pulled away and you’re left with a full screen of your page, where you can type away without infiltrations from email programs, Facebook, Twitter, and even your writing program itself with all of its shiny tools, buttons, and notifications.
These programs won’t turn off your phone for you, of course, but if you can’t bring yourself to do that, try an app called Forest. You plant a tree and set a timer, and when you’re on task, your tree grows. But if you wander off and start looking at the latest cat video your aunt posted on Facebook, your tree will die. That’s right – multitasking kills trees. Think about that the next time your email dings in the middle of Chapter Three.