Shifting Gears When Working on Multiple Projects

Whether you’re a freelance writer with multiple customers or a staff writer with multiple projects, you might occasionally feel your mental gears grinding as you shift from one project to another. I have a few suggestions for keeping your brain from wearing out.

As I was contemplating this topic, the first thing that came to my mind was (surprise, surprise) a Star Trek episode. In “A Piece of the Action,” Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and their illustrious crew find themselves on an alien world that his been culturally contaminated by an earlier starship, which left behind a book on the gangs of Chicago in the 1920s. As Kirk and Spock beam down and hijinks ensue, Kirk and Spock get into the spirit of things by making off with an antique automobile. The journey doesn’t go smoothly, as a 23rd-century starship captain and his Vulcan first officer jump and lurch through the streets, grinding gears as they go.

That’s how it can feel trying to shift from one task to a completely different one with little warning or preparation.

Grinding the mental gears

The clutch in any gasoline engine allows you to disengage from your current speed/setting and shift gears to apply the engine’s power at whatever speed (gear) you need it to perform. If you try to shift directly from one speed to another on a manual transmission vehicle without engaging the clutch, you’ll hear a rather unpleasant crunching sound.

While my description of the mechanical process is undoubtedly leaving out some things (I speak rocket propulsion, not automotive), it’s not so different from how your brain can get a bit scrambled shifting between multiple priorities.

Example: you’re hip-deep into writing a conference paper when you’re suddenly pulled away from your desk to attend a meeting to take the minutes; oh, and as part of that meeting, you’re assigned new work developing a piece of outreach collateral and a speech, each due that week. Oh, yes: and the manager wants the minutes from the meeting back to her as soon as possible. You have just gone from doing one thing to four, and your brain is likely to be a bit overwhelmed.

Disengaging the clutch and putting yourself in gear

You return to your desk, where you’ve got that conference paper document still open on your computer, you’ve got the minutes from the meeting you just attended to type up now, and you’ve got two other assignments to think about and prioritize. What do you do first?

  • Disengage the clutch: The first, best thing you can do, to return to our automotive analogy, is to disengage the clutch. By that I mean that you need to pause, take a breath, and run through your list of newly scrambled priorities before you start doing the next thing. This might mean creating a list of your tasks on paper or in your computer, ranking them by priority, and then considering how much effort each of them is going to require. As I’ve written elsewhere, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
  • Remember where you left off: If you find that you need to drop the thing you were doing previously and pick up the other three tasks, go back briefly and look at where you left it. Leave some notes to yourself on where you were in your process so you can get yourself back up to speed when you come back to it later. Maybe finish the sentence or paragraph you were working on before closing and saving the document.
  • Keep your mind on one thing at a time: Once you’ve gotten your priorities straightened out and the last task in shape, you can (again) pause, shift gears, and move your brain to the first priority on your list and work on that. You might be conjuring up ideas for the other items “in the background” while you’re doing the one task–that’s fine, let your subconscious chew on things for a bit–but try to do one thing at a time. I don’t know about you, but I can only do so many things at once before I drop a ball somewhere.

The most important thing you can do for your stress level is to take that pause, disengage the clutch, and give your mental motor a chance to rev up or down for the next task. Like your car, your brain won’t wear out as quickly.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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