Here’s another thoughtful guestpost from regular contributor, Dave Baldwin. Are you one of those writers who multitasks on a regular basis? Dave bets you that’s not how the gold medalists made it to the top of the heap in London. Read on and enjoy!

The Olympics have served as a reminder to me that breakthrough performance gains come as a result of consistent small performance gains. It isn’t about trying to go from a ten-minute mile to a four-minute mile in one week. It’s about asking, “How can I shave off a few more seconds?” Gold medalists are laser-focused. They visualize their next desired outcome, such as crossing the finish line first. World-class athletes think of only one thing: victory.

Part of what it takes to generate income from creativity, I have come to learn, is the ability to stay single-mindedly focused on the next goal. For me, that has never come easily. I am not a very single-minded person by nature. But I have learned that it is possible to gradually recondition my ways of thinking in such a way that has allowed me to stay more fully focused that I would previously have thought possible. One of the books that has helped me to do this is The Myth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw.

In the past month, my work load has nearly doubled, and the experience brought back to the surface some of the lessons I learned from reading this book the first time in 2008. Crenshaw doesn’t merely argue that multitasking is a bad idea; he asserts that it is impossible for a human being to do it at all. Even a microprocessor in a computer, which can execute millions of instructions in a second, can only carry out one operation at a time. Similarly, our brains are only capable of thinking about one thing at a time, according to Crenshaw. He says that it would be more accurate to divide multitasking into two buckets: “switch tasking” and “background tasking.”

Switch tasking, like its name implies, refers to the habit of rapidly switching back and forth between two or more types of tasks. This is what I tend to do when I have an overloaded plate, and it’s a horrible habit. Crenshaw points out that each time our brains stop one process to engage a different process, a tiny little sliver of time is lost. When we do this continually all day long, we can lose hours of productivity. I have had to discipline myself to stop doing this, and this habit dies hard. Right now, I am working three different jobs, and I am busier than I have been in several years. As a result, numerous things attempt to interrupt my work flow during the day. Interruptions may be the single biggest productivity drain for creative professionals.

I would assert that being a creative writer or an artist of any kind is largely about learning to stay in the flow, or get into a rhythm where the creative muse is able to fully express itself. I historically have done my best writing when I have been free from interruptions. Also, though, there’s a second element to the equation: having too much spare time and a lack of focus will lead me to “switch task” as much as an overloaded plate will. I’ve found that a healthy amount of tension will pull me forward and drive me to produce a focused piece of written content. If I leave myself just enough time to finish something, with a little bit of breathing room that will force me to tune out distractions and focus on it wholly.

The other element that Crenshaw talks about is the good kind of multitasking, or “background tasking.” This refers to letting processes run in the background while you do other work, such as letting a pie bake while you take a shower. This is true multitasking, and I believe that masters of productivity and creativity learn to embrace background tasking. Chefs learn how to prepare all of the right ingredients in the right order, so that everything will cook in sync and be ready at the right time. Background tasking requires setting up systems so that the right processes start and finish at the right times.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art (see my review from last year) advocates doing the important things before doing the urgent things. I’ve come to realize the wisdom in this. I have recently set up a spreadsheet with a prioritized list of tasks. It’s far from perfect, but I improve it on a daily basis by observing what works and what doesn’t. What I’ve learned is this: when I prioritize the urgent things first, I always have the experience of being behind and trying to catch up, and my day feels like an exercise in swatting mosquitoes that refuse to die.

When I prioritize the important above the urgent, I feel myself pulled into a creative vortex, where things work out almost magically. That appointment that I wasn’t going to be able to make gets cancelled or moved back by the other person. Traffic cooperates and the lights go green at the perfect times. When I respect my art and place it above the minutia, the muse responds. Also, putting the important first doesn’t compromise my ability to get the urgent things done. To the contrary: I get them done more efficiently and do a better job at it. As a side bonus, the urgent things often get handled without my having to do anything. I strive to operate like this a little bit more often each day. Eventually, I will learn to operate like this all of the time.

We all have the ability to be Olympians in our own arenas, but it’s easier said than done. The Myth of Multitasking describes something profoundly important, and at the same time, it goes against the grain of the way many of us have been conditioned. We live in a fast food society. We want it now, and we feel the pressure when others expect us to do it now. Olympians live in a different world. They learn to see the future into which they are moving, and they discipline themselves to pay attention only to what’s necessary to move them toward that future. I believe that this may be the only factor that separates the gold medalists from everyone else.

Your turn:

How do you stay connected to your creative muse, even when life tries to throw every conceivable interruption at you? Please sound off in the comments section below!

Dave Baldwin is a writer and editor who lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find more of Dave’s writings on his blog about writing, creativity, and business.