Wax On, Wax Off: The Truth About Multi-Tasking In Research + Learning

research multi-tasking mindmap

There are so many theories and claims out there about the human ability to multi-task or not, and I thought I’d put my thoughts out there. I’ve been a multi-tasker for at least 20 years, if not longer. Though there’s a right way to go about it, and it requires both organization and discipline. I have loads of the former but I struggle with the latter.

Instead of babbling theoretically, let me give you a concrete example. (My posts tend to be long and detailed, but I’ll try to be brief this time.) As of this month, if I can manage the workload, I know have enough writing/ blogging contracts to consider myself a full-time professional freelance writer and blogger. My own sites’ revenue is tiny, but that’s another story. Here’s the breakdown of my workload, in general terms:

  • 13 blog posts daily for 5 blogs (shrunk from 7), on weekdays. [Though I I actually post them any day of the week that's suitable.]

  • 1-3 large articles weekly. Fixed deadlines, research- intensive, potentially-stressful work because there’s a lot at stake. Retainer work for the foreseeable future.

My work is anonymous, so I’m not giving example links. If you know me, you already know where to find me. But let’s start with the blog posts. I’m now focusing on two topics, shrunk down last month from three. I needed to revise my daily writing focus because for every topic I wrote about, I had to do a minimum amount of reading/ scanning everyday, including weekends, just to keep up. Now, with two topics only, my aim is laser-focused.

The fact is, I can spend, say, 2 hours each day reading one topic and 1 hr for the other one. It usually ends up being an average of 4 hrs/day total because I cross- pollinate my interests by reading other blogs that are related to my topics but not focused.

Regardless, for the amount of reading I do, I can write one post or I can write ten for that reading session. I try to read the night before, write a bit of possible, then continue reading in the morning. Post ideas have usually brewed in my head overnight. While some people might call that “sleeping on it”, it’s actually a form of multi-tasking that takes very little effort. When I don’t do any reading the night before, the next day’s writing usually is very functional and technical, not as entertaining. [Though that's not to say every post has to be entertaining.]

And then there are the weekly articles I write. While they don’t pay as much as a print article might for the same amount of output, they still pay well. What’s more, I’m on retainer with them. For the foreseeable future, I have at least 2 every week. That means guaranteed income and some peace of mind as a freelancer. (Despite the stress of the actual work.)

The problem is that they are research-intensive, with topics that are sometimes new to me. If I don’t plan well, I sometimes end up working for $6/hr or less. On the other hand, if I apply multi-tasking at its best, I could make $30/hr on some (not all) of these articles.

So what do I need to do to maximize my hourly earnings potential? Answer: multi-task properly. What does this entail? Here is a short task list of my methodology:

  • Day 1:
  • Scope out the problem. Understand what the client needs.
  • Write up my genral task list for a given article. I apply project management principles here, which I was partly trained in back in the corporate world in the late 1990s.
  • Build a mindmap of all the elements of the project that I’ll need to address, including each section to be written and references I need to read and link to.
  • Take a short break, maybe work on something else.
  • Spend one hour scanning (not reading) some of the references I’ve been given, as well as building up a list of additional references.

  • Day 2:
    • My mind has had at least an overnight period to absorb what needs to be done, in general. I may not yet have an “angle” for the article. However, I go the metaphysical route with this, due to long experience in writing, and let the angle present itself to me. I never force it. But if I don’t do Day 1’s scoping immediately, I cannot meet my tight deadlines of 7 days or less for each weekly article. If I have details 3 weeks beforehand, then I start scoping then.
    • Spend an hour or two browsing and/or reading a few references from my list, just to be sure to prep my mind for acquiring knowledge about the topic.
    • Cull the reference list, if possible.
  • Days R1-n: Days 1-n of actual research and writing.
    • Depending on when I had details of an assignment, it may be weeks or up to two months before I actually start on a particular article. I have some articles that I’ve set researchers to working on for me three months ahead of time.
    • In the meantime, multi-tasking has kicked in. While I’ve been working on other articles and on the blogs, the “background processes” in my mind have been quietly flagging any information I come upon in relation to the project at hand.
    • So when I actually reading and making notes, I often find that each section of the article “writes itself” in my head, and I merely have to type it out, then add hyperlinks to supporting references.
    • This is what I mean by multi-tasking. Let the background processes in your head work for you by feeding them info early. Now move on to other work in the meantime.
    • However, if the article has not yet formed in my head by Day R1, I start reading indepth, taking notes, etc.
    • I then write up a draft and let it “sit” overnight.
    • This is followed up by an edit to both tighten the writing, add any unlinked references, and get the word count right.
  • D-Day: Deadline day. Package and turn in the work.
  • Now, I’ve given “blogging” as an application of this form of multi-tasking. However, you can apply similar methods for any discipline where you have to juggle a lot of tasks that require a great deal of thought and/or research. I use a combination of mindmapping, learning methods, and project management (PM) because it works for me. Without the PM, I’d be a basket case, due to my workload.

    The success of my version of multi-tasking for writing is faith- based. I stumbled upon this technique over the years, and it never fails me. Provided I actually trust it and have the discipline to use it. And that’s the hardest part for me.

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