Single Tasking your Creative Work
A sense of overwhelm can happen anywhere and at any time, even when you’re immersed in the creative work that you love and enjoy. And multi-tasking can be just as much of drain in your creative sweet spot as in any other part of your life!
There are some scary stats on the brain drain that comes with multi-tasking. It all seems to come down to how hard it is for your brain to keep switching back and forth from one thing to another.
According to research context switching is more fun and is likely to give us a hit of dopamine – the brain’s reward chemical. But each switch takes a toll with overall productivity dropping around 20%.
20%! That’s massive. Which is why multi-tasking can contribute to a very real sense of fatigue – which completely goes against the idea that doing many things at once is helping us to be more productive!
Saying no to brain drain
In 2022, I found the brain-drain associated with trying to do many things at once to be a very real thing. Because life generally excites me and I see opportunity everywhere, I always have a lot of different projects on the go. Here’s the list of the things I am going between on any given day:
- Leading creative teams
- Writing books
- Designing and running courses and workshops
- Painting and art making
The thing I was finding it that I really only had so many hours in the day that I could dedicate to my own creative work They had to count. And so, there was a discipline in thinking that through.
But then, I also realized that of the hours in the day that could be dedicated to my own creative work, there was an even smaller window of opportunity to be at my creative best. So, the best case scenario is that for two hours first thing in the morning, I could progress things nicely. But what about the two hours after that? It seemed nuts that I couldn’t get more out of my day.
And then I started thinking it through.
My first two hours of creative work are well protected, and for good practical reasons. I get up, and I paint or write. I’m in such habit with it now that it’s mostly easy to do. Plus, because it’s early, there isn’t anyone else around, and I don’t get distracted.
But then, after I get my coffee, I launch into my day. Emails. Internet. Messages, social media, meetings, people. General chaos takes over and it’s pretty much like that for the rest of the day, and by the time I stop, I’m ready to fall over.
It seems a shame not to be able to get to the end of the day in such a state.
I started looking at my behaviour during the day and realized how tired my poor brain was getting simply from switching from one activity to another, to another, all whilst talking, thinking, eating, communicating over multiple channels. Talk about overload. Something had to be done.
I wanted to increase that window of being my best from 2-4 hours. And that meant that I had to get better at doing less, not more, however ironic that sounds. So, my goal was to create more slow, uninterrupted, spacious time in my day – to be thoughtful about my own needs, the needs of the work, and the risks of not changing the way I was working.
Why integrating Mindfulness helps
Mindfulness is often referred to as observation without judgement. So I used this practice to take a good look at my daily working habits. And I noted a lot of things I was doing were really just to soothe my sense of overload. Sound familiar?
Re-engineering the 9-11am ‘challenging’ time slot
When you fully focus on a single task you feel less stressed and your work is more enjoyable. Single-tasking is more likely to get you into a state of flow – the state of deep focus you get when doing meaningful and difficult work. I wanted to experiment with expanding the time I got each day in my creative sweet spot by two hours, making the 9-11am spot my ‘Single-tasking’ zone. Here’s what I did.
- I picked a creative task from my already-refined general ‘to do list’ for the day.
- I set myself 60 minutes, with the freedom to break it up however I wanted. I like to do 20 minutes, break, 20 minutes, then 10 minutes wrap up and close out.
- I also found ways to mix it up, because it really is a discipline that needs practice. You might like to give them a try.
- Try going old-school. Get out a pen and a few pieces of paper. Do a brain dump. Draw or sketch it out. I use pen and paper for the first drafts of everything I do, and I find it hugely helpful to connect with ideas in a very messy, organic way. I feel very connected to my creative source and feel my brain buzz. This is often the time I’m least likely to get distracted – wohoo!
- Go for a walk and take a dictaphone, or record yourself talking with a voice recorder app on your phone. (Tip: if you do this regularly and find it works for you, invest in a lapel mike – makes your recordings far easier to transcribe accurately!) This is another great way to build muscles in developing your authentic voice. It’s great practice for talking about things that are meaningful or important for you – and I often find that it’s a better route out of my head than writing. Talking it out adds authenticity because for me, you activate your heart when you talk and that adds an important timbre to your work.
- Dial down or turn off every single alert you possibly can. Bring in some relaxing, or even white-noise background music (my favourite focus music is jazz – abcjazz.net.au is my default). Wearing headphones is often a short-hand signal to colleagues that you’re doing focus work. If that isn’t clearly understood by the people around you, let them know! At the same time, turn off your email and put your phone in another room.
- Then – just go for it! It’s only short period of time, after which you can safely return to the world. There’s a good chance they won’t have even noticed your absence.
Single tasking really worked for me. So I recommend it from personal experience. It helped me to feel calmer, more in control, and more sane. And it has helped reduce my sense of fatigue. But here are a few of my notes. They helped me put single-tasking into context – I haven’t been able to do it all day every day, but those extra two hours of focused work are really valuable – so I’m keeping them!
Intermissions and Treats
After you’ve completed your time block, put the work away, have a good 15 minute break – walk, chat, change of scenery. This intermission is really important – it allows you to lift your gaze, break away from what you were doing, and mindfully prepare for the next thing. I like to keep a library of treat options that range from moderate value to high value. The later in the day it gets, the higher value reward for focus blocks being completed!
The next best thing to single tasking? Plural-tasking.
When I can’t single task, for whatever reason – time of day, fading concentration levels or simply the demands of the day, I find comfort in the next best thing to single tasking – which is just doing a few things at once. Not multi-tasking as we currently know it – which can be anywhere from 2-10 tasks being attempted at any one time. This is more like happy pairings of tasks or activities that are complimentary and yet still save time.
Let’s call it plural-tasking. These things could include:
- Breath work whilst walking
- Gratitude journaling over coffee
- Listening to a podcast whilst doodling
- Taking nature –photos for inspiration in the studio and walking the dog at the same time
Doing two things at once is still toggling, but I find it far less draining than the usual form of multi-tasking. I feel like with my new mix of early morning creative time blocks of single tasking and plural tasking, the day is feeling much saner – and I don’t need so many glasses of wine at the end of it!
What is Mindful Creativity?
Hello, my name’s Jordan. Mindful Creativity is a great way to relax, unwind and enjoy creativity to enhance our sense of wellness. If you’re looking for a way to connect with your inner voice as you develop your own personal creative practice, it might be just the thing for you.
My Mindful Creativity blog, resources and tools provides ways for you to deepen into a more nourishing creative practice!