Block Writing

Most people in their job need to write. Even if it is not in our official job description we often will be required at some point to string together consecutive sentences to communicate in written format. In my role as a resident (doctor in training) and research trainee I find myself constantly writing. I write notes on patients, emails communicating with supervisors and managers, as well as research papers. Writing is not listed anywhere in my official job description, but I find myself spending much of my day doing exactly that!

Given that writing is a huge part of my job I’ve spent a fair bit of time figuring out how to maximize my writing productivity. It often feels like there is never enough time to get all my tasks done, and since writing is a big part of my job I’ve spent a lot of my time figuring out how to maximize my writing efficiency. There are a number of different approaches, but the one I’ve found most effective (so far) is based on the concept of deep work developed by computer science professor Cal Newport. Deep work essentially is about setting aside time without distractions in order to allow you to fully dedicate yourself to the task at hand – which has some important implications for how to write.

I have found that the most effective way to improve my writing efficiency has been to set aside discrete periods (1 hour or longer) of time without interruptions and focus 100% on writing. I call this “block writing“. For me, this means that I close my office door, put on music, shut my web browser, shut my email and hide every clock available. I even will hide the task bar on my Windows computer because it has a clock that I find distracting. During this time period I do not allow myself to do anything else – no email, no phone calls, nothing! It’s just me and the word processor.

The importance of minimizing distractions has been shown in many studies which have found that the “cost” of switching between tasks is higher than we think. A simple switch to a different task can take your mind up to 15 minutes to recover. Given that most of us can only dedicate a few hours per week of writing, each time we check email or aimlessly wander the Internet results in lost productivity. The cost to our focus is not just the time for which the distraction lasts, but it includes the time it takes for our brain to shift between different tasks – which is where the majority of that 15 minutes comes from.

The other reason why you should use block writing is because writing is hard. Most people when given the choice between something immediately pleasurable and easy (like watching another YouTube video) with something mentally difficult (like writing) will often default to the former. Our minds will, often unconsciously, choose the path of least resistance. In order to counteract this we need to create an environment with conscious barriers to prevent us from taking the path of least resistance.

The final reason you should engage in block writing is because writing without interruptions is the best way to achieve ‘flow’. This is a concept developed by an the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi who wrote a book with this very same title. ‘Flow’ is essentially a period of time where the difficulty of the task you are working on your skills are evenly matched and time begins to lose meaning. If you’ve ever been engaged in some sort of work and 2 hours pass by but it only feels like it has been a few minutes, then this is an example of flow. For me, achieving flow is one of the most rewarding experiences in writing. However, the only way in which I have been able to achieve this is by blocking my writing and minimizing distractions.

I am currently writing this post in the middle of one of my block writing periods because I am a firm believer in this concept. I have found that block writing significantly increases my productivity, and on the flip side fragment writing significantly decreases it. With the various competing priorities in our busy lives, it is easy for writing to fall by the wayside. By using block writing in order to minimize the cost of task switching, prevent your mind from taking the easy way out, and for achieving a state of flow you can make writing a priority and significantly increase your productivity.

If you have never tried block writing before, I challenge you to try and set aside 1-2 hours with no interruptions and spend that time writing.

If you have tried block writing before, what was your experience? What were some of the challenges you faced?

-Tyler

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