Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time in a Battle, Part 3

Sharon Wildwind

Welcome back for the third part in our three-part series about too little time, too much to do. Two weeks ago, I wrote about tracking your time for one week to get an idea of where your time actually goes. Last week was a brief discussion about how our values influences what we rate as worth our precious time.

Today, here are some surprises about neurochemistry and creativity. We really can enhance our creativity by making choices about how we spend our time.

Neuroscientists are now able to hook up a whole alphabet worth of machines to the brain and peek in there to see what happens to brain tissue and chemicals during certain activities. Here are some that have particularly struck my fancy.

To be more creative, get more sleep
Going all the way back to 2004, scientists in Luebeck, Germany provided the first hard evidence that that subjects who got eight hours of sleep a night performed a task three times better than those who were sleep deprived the night before they attempted the task.

The brain chemistry associated with creativity or problem-solving typically happens in the first four hours of each sleep cycle, so if you’re getting eight hours of sleep a night, you’re treating yourself to two fill-ups of creative brain chemistry.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking
Studies done at Stanford University showed that people who multi-tasked consistently did all of the things they were attempting to do worse; they were more susceptible to irrelevant environmental stimuli, and had poorer memories of the tasks performed.

Neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron of the French biomedical research agency INSERM used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the following simple formula about doing one task or multiple tasks:
1 complex task = whole brain devoted to the task; more neuro connections, more parts of the brain stimulated
2 complex tasks = each of the two hemispheres takes on one of the tasks; the sides of the brain work independently, so they are less likely to produce that "spark" or synthesis that is crucial to real creativity
3 complex tasks = forgetting one task and three times the number of errors in doing the other two tasks.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University argue that even two complex tasks create problems. Distractions like e-mail, most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, and television shows, even when played in the background can diminish concentration. So saying, “I only have the TV on in the background; I’m not paying attention to it” isn’t true. Your brain cells are paying attention.

I could not find the source of this study, though I know I read it in the past year. (Maybe I was multi-tasking at the time.) If you know the source, please let me know. Essentially the study said that the brain can not multi-task, but it can sequentially process at a very fast rate. Imagine flicking your kitchen light switch on-off-on-off, etc. all day, every day. That is your brain on multi-tasking.

Eventually that switch is going to break. Eventually your brain on multi-tasking will break, too.

Think those multiple games of Solitaire are enhancing your creativity?
Think again.

Steve Pope, a senior lecturer in psychology (University of Central Landcashire, England) has concluded that spending two hours on a game station is equivalent to taking a line of cocaine in the high it produces. Apparently this addiction extends to things like eBay shopping and computer addiction is the fastest growing addiction in Great Britain.

Read it and weep
Do you like reading about writing? I do. It’s great to pick other writers’ brains so I can learn from them. However, there is a down side.

Reading about a subject stimulates the same part of the brain as doing the activity. It’s the equivalent of empty calories. If you read about a writing technique, your brain gets the same satisfaction as if you’d actually written, but without actually developing your writing skills. The more you read about how to do something, the less you’re inclined to actually do that thing.

So a little reading has to be followed up with a lot of doing. If you get a chance check out Julia Cameron’s ideas about the value of reading deprivation in her book, The Artist’s Way.

What does this all boil down to?
Know where your time goes. Time thieves are sneaky. Shoo them our of your mental house every once in a while.

Values affect the choices you make about how you spend your time. Clean out your values closet once in a while, too.

The neuro-chemical base for creativity is sleep, exercise, healthy food, and stress reduction. Who knows, maybe flossing your teeth regularly will help, too. It’s worth a try.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking. Turn off distractions, even if you have them “in the background” or “just on for company.” If you have more than one task to finish, work on each sequentially for short periods of time, rather than try to do them all at once.

Read less about how to do your favorite activity and do the activity more. Okay, I know that, coming from a writer, recommending less reading heresy, but there it is.

Honor how much time an activity takes. Creativity doesn’t come in an instant version.
Quote for the week:
Employees communicating at breakneck speed make mistakes. They forget, cross boundaries that exist for a reason, make sloppy errors, offend clients, spread rumors and gossip that would never travel through offline channels, work well past the point where their contributions are helpful, burn out and break down and then have trouble shutting down and recuperating.
~John Freeman, Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great blog, Sharon. Sounds like we're all in deep trouble, especially re multi-tasking and reading blogs instead of writing.

Paul said...

So if I get up very early, depriving myself of some sleep, in order to have the solitude to write, it's a wash?

Rosemary Harris said...

But if I didn't stay up late to read this blog I wouldn't have known any of this stuff. So isn't that a good thing? (PS...the Yankees are on in the background.)

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I think we are in deep, deep trouble. Fortunately we are smart people and will find our way out.

Yes, Paul, it's a wash. The best I can suggest is to spend 50% of the days getting adequate sleep and 50% of the days getting up early in order to have solitude to write. Or some combination of percentages that work for you.

Rosemary, this is a real tough one. If It was anyone but the Yankees in the background, I'd say turn them off. But having been a Yankee fan since the golden days of Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, that's almost sacrilege.

This creativity thing is like a musical composition. Sometimes the woodwinds take center stage; sometimes it's time for a drum solo. Balance, balance, balance.

Cheryl Lee said...

Sharon. Time in Battle was a great article with useful info. We all need to watch our time, get plenty of rest, but most importantly reduce stress. When I write, I have to have quiet or my brain cells won't work!

Louise Broadbent said...

Ah, that explains why I spend so much time talking/reading about writing but rarely seem to actually write. Looks like you caught us all in the act. Informative trap, though.

What about writing about writing? Does that develop your skills or is that just another writing-discourager?