Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Defense of Single-Tasking

By Juliet

Do you all remember this scene, from the famous Zen-inspired film, City Slickers?

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

Mitch: No, what?

Curly: This. [holds up one finger]

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don't mean shit.

Mitch: But what is the "one thing"?

Curly: [smiles] That's what you've got to figure out.

I found it out: I quit multi-tasking.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. I’m working on quitting multi-tasking. But I keep getting distracted.

And I'm not trying to single-task in every aspect of my life – after all, it’s wonderful to chat with friends while cooking, or listen to the news or books on tape while washing dishes. I’m a whiz at combining dreaded household chores and I can get a heck of a lot of paperwork done while watching an old movie.

But the other day I was speaking to a friend on the phone and I caught myself checking email at the same time. I cannot listen to someone while I'm reading. I lost part of what she was saying... and she was saying important things.

When I was a kid phones were plugged into the wall and you had to sit your butt down and really give the person on the other end of the line your full attention. I know that such nostalgic reminiscences are silly, and I’m not saying I never water the plants or hang laundry on the line while speaking on the phone -- but there’s a lesson in there somewhere. What my friend was saying deserved my attention, my focus, my single-mind.

We're all forced to juggle in this modern life, but very once in a while we might want to hold on to a single ball.
And hold that ball with a lot of style, needless to say.

This is certainly true for writing. Do one thing, the most important thing: WRITE.

Don't talk to anybody. Log off of Facebook. Turn off the phone. For the love of all that is holy, do NOT check email. Focus on your writing, be one with your writing. Single-task for some period of time, even if it's only ten minutes. There’s a beauty to single-mindedness: You get shit done, and done well.
At its core, Curly's Law is about choosing. Choosing to do Just One Thing means you won't be doing lots of other things. Making choices is difficult in our lives, and no less so in our writing. In fact, choosing what to focus on -- line-by-line, scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter-- is arguably one of the most difficult skills to hone as a writer.

In fact, a lot of well-known authors suffer from their own success in this regard: they are no longer edited with fervor, and their work suffers because of it. They aren’t forced to make hard choices. (So when I'm wildly successful you'll all remind me that I love to get edited, right?)

Just do one thing, and at the risk of sounding very…Berkeley…be fully present. Be mindful. Full of mind. (See? Very Zen indeed.)


Tom Neely said...

Well said. I couldn't agree more. I can only imagine the songs I could have written if I hadn't been online farting around while strumming distractedly. In fact I'm going to shut off this computer right now and

Gigi Pandian said...

This is WONDERFUL advice! I actually followed it today, which is why I'm not getting around to getting online and leaving a comment here until nearly 7pm. Off to check a few email messages and then drink martinis :)

Rachael Herron said...

This is wonderful advice. I just wrote a thousand words and scurried over here to see what you said yesterday (sorry! late!) and now I'm inspired to turn the internet off again. (If it's on, I get NOTHING done. It has to be all the way off.)

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