Mind Segmentation and Task Transitioning: Why I Meditate Between Tasks

Last week I talked about exercise and how starting up a daily workout routine before I started my writing practice doubled my word count in about two weeks. In that post, I mentioned that I meditate every time I start a new task, and briefly touched on the concept of task segmentation.

Most writers have heard of the idea that editing and drafting use different parts of the writer’s brain and require different mindsets. Some famous authors would literally change outfits or physical hats when they were drafting, editing, or marketing/pitching their work to agents. There’s pretty good reasons for why.

The first is personal, but I’m sure many of my fellow writers (and ADHDers in particular) can relate. If I try to edit while I draft, I get so fixated on getting things right that I end up cutting my productivity to shreds. Accepting that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft, or even a good one, that every first draft I’ll ever write is going to be crappy and that’s okay was the first step I took on the way to mind segmentation.

The second is a bit more broad. Breaking down tasks makes them seem more manageable, which means we’re more likely to do them. We’ve all heard the advice that, “write a novel” is a massive, overwhelming task when thought of as a whole, but drafting a specific scene or even outlining that scene before we draft it is far smaller. Taken this way, task segmentation makes sense. “Draft a scene,” is far less overwhelming than “write a scene and edit as I draft it so it’s as close to perfect as possible when I’m done so I don’t have to do a bunch of editing later, even though I know I’m still going to have to edit no matter how much work I do now.”

Whether I think about things in those words or not, that’s the implication of editing while writing. But in my personal practice, I take things a step further.

Covenant of the Hollow converted me from pantsing (E.G. writing by the seat of your pants, or without a written plan) to plotting for a simple reason. If I had to figure out what was happening in a scene as I wrote it, I wrote a lot less. So outlining a scene, or the “generative work” of creating that scene in my mind, became another segmented task.

Whether or not I outline my whole book (which I did for Covenant of the Hollow and my current project, Prisoner of the Hollow but not for Diary of the Hollow) or just one ​scene at a time is less important than the fact that I outline the scene and its important details before I start the drafting process.

Which brings me to meditation and task transitioning.

Now, writing a scene is broken into the following three tasks, each of which present a different mindset. “Visualize and outline the scene, including important sensory details, emotions, point of view, other characters and their motivations, and how it all relates back to the book’s theme,” then, “Write a crappy first draft of the scene and accept the fact that it’s going to need to be cleaned up later,” then, most likely further down the line, “edit the scene with the outline and the book’s outline in mind, making sure the scene accomplishes everything it needs to for its place in the book.” Notice how each of those stages require a different type of thinking?

We’re back to ADHD. People with ADHD often have a hard time transitioning between tasks. Neurotypical people do too, but to a far lesser extent. It’s hard to shift gears when your brain naturally loves to jump all over the place, and the blank space between “Task A is finished,” and “Start Task B” is a vacuum, and as with all things in nature, mind-vacuums are begging to be filled with STUFF.

What kind of stuff? Writer’s block stuff. Surfing Facebook stuff. Chatting with a friend stuff. Watching a YouTube video and getting sucked into a 3-hour long binge stuff. Eating everything in the fridge stuff. Starting a video game for just one round and playing for hours instead stuff. You get the idea.

Not writing stuff.

So what do? What I found helps the most is to quiet my mind with a 3-10 minute meditation when transitioning between any tasks, including transitioning from drafting scene 1 to drafting scene 2. Even though it’s the same mindset, quieting my mind before it can tell me “how much more interesting the buzz from my phone is than drafting scene 2,” and how “scene 2 will be just as hard to draft tomorrow as it is right now,” has made a huge difference.

I adore the Headspace mobile and desktop app for this reason alone. They have a number of mind quieting meditations, some of which come with visualization and reflection on a particular topic built in. At the end, when the narrator tells my mind to “be free,” I set an intention for when I open my eyes, so I’m ready to sink fully into whatever task I transitioned to.

If you don’t feel like paying for an app, a simple breathing meditation can be a simple alternative. Set a timer on your phone for 3-10 minutes, then set it down and close your eyes. Check in with the world around you. Sounds, smells, bodily sensations, the mood of your mind. After a few moments, focus on your breath. The length, the depth, where you feel it. Then, start counting. In breath, 1, out breath, 2. Count up to 10, then start over. Over and over again until the timer goes off. Thoughts are going to show up and distract you. Don’t judge yourself for that. If you catch yourself thinking, let go of the thought and come back to where you were when you were counting. Can’t remember? Start at 1. When the timer goes off, tell yourself (out loud if possible and not too embarrassing) what your intention is next, as though you were doing it. “I’m drafting scene 2.” Then sink into the task.

If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a task, where your brain is telling you you can’t go on or are spent for the day, try the 15 minute exercise burst from last week or the meditation from this week. It can really help, especially if you build a regular practice outside of just task transitioning. Meditation teaches that all of our thoughts are fleeting, including limiting beliefs about our own distractability or the feelings of anxiety that can crop up if we get stumped. It allows us to let these thoughts and feelings pass, rather than fighting them and giving them power, then move on and get whatever it is done.

Next week I’ll touch on my pre-writing habit ritual, and why I write at the same times every day if possible. I’ll also discuss habit triggers, and how to redirect unhelpful ones and deal with the need for consistency even if your day job gives you a random schedule.

What do you think? Have you had trouble transitioning between tasks? What does meditation do for you? I’d love to hear from you.

See you next week.