Multitasking

This has been a busy week at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I’ve been helping with infrared images of supernovae, taking spectra of galaxies to understand their composition, and taking images of some of the earliest known galaxy clusters. In the meantime, my third steampunk novel is due with Sky Warrior Publishing in about six weeks. So I’ve been reviewing the manuscript so far and making edits here and there as I have time. Here you see me on a typical night, operating the telescope.

Operating Telescope

When moving a telescope from one target to another, there are several jobs that must be accomplished quickly. You must make sure you’re moving the telescope to a position it can reach mechanically. You have to make sure that an off-axis camera is set up to keep the telescope on target. You have to make sure the telescope is in good focus. You must check to make sure the dome and the mirror support systems are working properly. You have to pay attention to see if the visiting scientists are having problems or questions. When I learned how to operate the telescope, the woman who trained me used to hover behind me and say, “Multitask! Multitask!”

Research suggests humans are actually pretty poor at multitasking. Now, if you read the article I linked, they define multitasking as focusing on several things at one time. Instead of being able to multitask well, they say that humans are good at focusing on discrete tasks and shifting their focus from one thing to another very quickly. It’s a subtle but real distinction.

Because I work long hours at the telescope—as long as 16 hours a night in the middle of winter—I’m often asked if I write while I work. In fact, I find it difficult to compose stories while I’m at work because so many things vie for my attention and I have to shift attention quickly. To compose a story or a chapter, I need to be at home away from too many distractions. I’m definitely not the kind of person who can sit in a coffee shop and write.

What I can do at the telescope (when the programs allow it) is read and edit. I’m using something more like the analytical parts of my brain than when I’m composing new material. I can shift my focus quickly from editing tasks to a job at the telescope if I need to.

In order to be a successful writer, you need several related skills. You need to be able to compose a story. You need to be able to evaluate and edit what you’ve written. You need to read good works by others critically. This is all before the economic reality of putting on your marketing hat and telling others about your work.

Write everyday is great advice and I’d argue that a true writer can’t help but follow it. That said, writing is composed of several discrete tasks and I don’t necessarily do every task every day. If you find composing something new everyday is difficult, as I do, why not identify the discrete parts of your writing job and do them when you can? Carry your manuscript with you. As you see in the photo above, I have my laptop with me at work. Pull out a work in progress and go back over it. If nothing else, carry a book with you and read for a while. Instead of “write everyday,” I like to say “do the job of a writer everyday.” Multitask! Multitask!

For those who may have missed it, I was featured author this past week at the Lachesis Publishing blog. Here are the posts:

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3 comments on “Multitasking

  1. Reblogged this on The Scarlet Order and commented:

    Today at the Web Journal, I share some strategies for multitasking your writing activities.

  2. dm yates says:

    lol, I think men are bad at multitasking for sure, but women multitask in their minds all day. You have been quite busy, my friend. Congrats on the soon release of your next book.

    • LOL. Of course, the point of the NPR article is that no one truly multitasks (as in does more than one thing at once), but some people are so good at shifting focus from one thing to another so quickly it looks like multitasking. Thanks for the good thoughts!

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