Scaling The Rat-Hole

Early last month I had the agonizing good fortune of cracking open a notebook from the mid-1990s.

In one section I’d spent several months following some advice whose source I’ve since forgotten: keeping a log of daily writing progress. One day per line, bonehead-simple entries: date, project(s), page numbers, tally.

Cue reaction, January 2010: Holy hell! Look at those totals!

Comparing then and now, I felt I should’ve scribbled a note to accompany the final entry: “I will diminish, and go into the West.”

It wasn’t that I was no longer making progress on anything. Just not this kind of progress. Not the degree of progress that once constituted normal.

I undertook some serious pondering: What was different about then and now? Lots of things, but most had no relevance. When it’s go time, the basics are the same as they ever were. It still comes down to sitting in a chair, moving fingers, and making words march across a screen.

The factor that counted most, I decided, was my splendid technological isolation at the time.

My first computer was a humble workhorse that hardly gave me a bit of trouble over seven years of heavy use and still fires up today. And check the specs: 2MB of RAM. 40MB hard drive. 8 MHz processor. Internet? None. Even e-mail didn’t darken its ports until its final year of active duty.

Today I pilot an 8-core screamer with four hard drives whose combined capacity is up into terabytes. Yet with all that at my disposal I was working … slower? And Microsoft Word still doesn’t launch any faster than it used to.

Amazing and unpleasant things can transpire when you disengage the autopilot, stop accepting your behavioral status quo, and really start observing yourself. Here’s the self-image that began to form: a 5’10” lab rat pressing an e-mail lever in hopes of a random pellet of reward. You know the cruel effectiveness of the randomized reward, don’t you? That’s the distribution schedule that keeps the rats pressing the lever the longest. Go to a casino and you’ll see precisely the same behavior in the slot machine pit.

We have, legions of us, allowed ourselves to become history’s biggest source pool of stimulus-response conditionees. The chime. The lovely, melodious e-mail chime — it could be announcing anything! The links — ooo, who knows where they’ll lead?

And just where did the last two hours go again…?

I know: You’re making the “Well, duh” face. What, I didn’t realize the effect this was having?

Actually, I did. I was quite aware of it, and not fine with it. But the reward pellets were narcotizing enough to keep me thinking, C’mon, what’s one more quick check of e-mail, this forum, that blog. Then down the rat-hole I’d disappear. Until excavating that vintage notebook, I’d just never been punched in the face with the comparison-and-contrast results quite so starkly.

These were not bad habits that developed overnight. They accrued over years. They certainly weren’t in full bloom when we were still on a dial-up account. But by the time we switched to the always-on immediacy of broadband, I was well trained.

Worse, they didn’t even seem like bad habits. E-mail — in large part it developed out of a rapid response policy I wanted to use for nonfiction magazine editors I work with. The web — if I needed a fact or fact-check in the middle of something, it was out there. These looked like aids to productivity. The work would always be where I left it when I got back to it.

And it was. It had just gone cold.

Damage estimates vary, but the most recent I’ve seen is this: Jolt yourself out of the zone when you’re productively engaged in a demanding project, and it can take up to 45 minutes to bring yourself back up to speed. Keep the interruptions and focus-shifts coming, and you may never get there. It’s one more damning indictment against the myth of multitasking.

The solution was simple and ruthlessly effective. Pull the plug. Literally. It became January’s new, improved habit: Sit down to work and the Ethernet cable comes out of the router. Easy to reverse, but just enough of a fiddly act to force me to think about what I was doing and, thus, stop me from doing it.

And, back in the outside world, nothing bad happened. Astonishing. Nobody got angry. The globe didn’t flip its axis. Frogs never once rained from the sky.

Actual results? As much or more done in less or equal time. Consistently. January became the most productive month I’d had in years, with more time left for additional things that actually mattered. February is on track to be even better.

Now, regardless of what it looks like on the surface, this is not a Luddite rant against the siren song of the Internet. I still love me some Internets. But that may not be your call to the rocky shore at all.

Rather, it’s a case study in distraction, whatever the cause. Of deviating from the critical mission. Of veering off to glean the shiny, sparkly, but ultimately insignificant stuff scattered on top of the ground when the valuable stuff looks grubbier in the raw, and needs some rooting under the surface to get to it.

We all have our distractions, our sweet saboteurs, whether they pull us from the story we’re writing, or the story we’re living.

We also have the power to grind them beneath our heel and use the wreckage to plug the rat-hole.

There’s no greater ally here than awareness. Simple awareness. Stepping back to watch yourself in action, with enough brutal honesty to admit that it’s way past time to change the picture. Then looking for the simplest, most direct roadblock that will keep your feet and fingers on the path.

You have nothing to lose but inertia.

11 comments to Scaling The Rat-Hole

  • your post was so timely, it’s almost scary. I’d just been surfing the Internet, checking out the various local TV station sites for school closings, and noticing how many, many, MANY spots there were to click on to lead me straight down that rabbit hole you speak of. I have ADD, which makes it even more of a temptation to click on any link that looks remotely interesting. I’m kind of like a racoon in that my attention is quickly diverted by bright, shiny objects, and on the Internet, there are oh so many. But I digress…as usual…anyway, after visiting the various local TV station sites, CNN, and retrieving my email from two different places (work and home), I went to SU. Wow,great post. Great wake-up call. Now I just need to answer it. And not via email or the Internet.

  • I’m with Jeanie on the scary! I kept track of my writing the beginning of last year and, looking back, I too was way more productive. After getting involved with a contest and trying to social network my brains out to help me win, I got stuck in a rut. I’m still having trouble getting my quota of words written daily, so I’m going to take your advice and unplug the damn router. Thanks!!

  • Lemme see if I got this right. You turned on the juice by pulling the plug? Goodby Kansas. This is why the damn Internet is so distracting. No, it’s…narcotizing. Lawsy, but there’s a word for the ages! That one alone should bank a couple of zero line days for you. I mean, it’s all about quality not quantity, isn’t it? And you nail quality before the rest of us have finished sharpening our nibs. Who was the monsignor from Chicago who used to write something like a million words a week? Can’t remember his name. And that’s the point. He is lost in the byte bucket of quantification. Sooer or later life comes down to quality.

    But I do get your point, my friend (albeit expressed so beautifully that I’m narcotized). Carpe diem! Pull the plug. Some problems are so simple that we just ignore the solutions. I just want to know one thing. Is that really a picture of you heading up the article? Maybe you should write a mouse tale…

  • Thanks for the feedback.

    Jeanie: I like the raccoon comparison. That works too. Maybe ravens, as well. They go for shiny things. Then again, on 2nd thought, I got this statue of Odin for Christmas (there’s an oxymoron buried in there somewhere, I’m sure), complete with ravens on the shoulder, and he might take offense at the mere hint of any frivolous comparison, so forget I said anything.

    W.J: >I kept track of my writing the beginning of last year and, looking back, I too was way more productive.

    Finding that was the real leverage point for me. Purely on a head level, I knew I was not being served well by these habits. It’s a low-grade addiction, really. Back in November’s installment I touched on neuroplasticity, and I imagine it applies here, too. I suspect I’d worn a groove into my brain to habitually go for these distractions. It wasn’t until I had that concrete leverage point that I got disgusted enough to override its reluctance to change.

    Anyway! Good luck with your own recovery!

    Sully: You always make me blush, mate. (Which initially came out ‘bluch,’ and I find I really, really like that word too.)

    >Is that really a picture of you heading up the article?

    The very same. I had my ears freshly done for the photo and everything.

    >Pull the plug. Some problems are so simple that we just ignore the solutions.

    Sidebar: For anyone whose plug is too inconveniently out of reach, or works on a wi-fi enabled laptop (wi-fi can be turned off, but is too easy to turn back on again), there are software solutions that do the same thing: block network access for a set time to keep you in your corral by ensuring you can’t jump the fence.

  • Good topic. Maybe this is why the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates writes four books a year by longhand.

  • You may be onto something there, Janet.

    In January I also started trying out the morning pages routine: 3 pages, as fast as you can move your hand. Mostly junk, not remotely for public viewing, but a couple mornings I tried using it to first-draft these past 2 S.U. essays. It really surprised me how much I was able to get done in just 30, 35 minutes at the dining table with a pen and a cup of coffee.

    Extend that to a full day’s worth of effort and I can easily see it translating into multiple books per year.

  • You hit a nerve with a lot of people, obviously. Scientific American, I believe it was, had a frightening article on the debilitating effects of multi-tasking. Basically, we’re deluding ourselves in even thinking that we are able to perform multiple tasks at once. The brain can only give full attention to one thing at a time. Not only are we accomplishing less than we think, but we’re also training our brains to need that extra stimuli, thus shortening our attention spans. Like I need that. And what about those poor slobs out there growing up right now with phones, games, and Instant Messaging tangling through their lives every moment their awake? Geez, I better stop commenting and get back to whatever it was I was doing. Don’t ask me what that was.

  • Nice article, Brian. I’ll type my short fiction but I’ll write in my commonplace book when it comes to longer projects. I have had more than one person ask me why I am writing in front of the computer without it being on. That is, they get that I scribble a lot, but they don’t get how I can do this without somehow needing to look up and see Eva Mendes on my screensaver.

  • Continued gracias for the feedback.

    Carole: Thanks for the tip. I’ll have to see if I can track down the article. On the hopeful flipside, it really does seem as if there’s a growing backlash against the full court press to see how many gadgets, conversations, data portals, and vehicles a person can juggle at any given time. Of course, it may take another generation or two to work through the system. Or, to grossly paraphrase Max Planck, “A new paradigm does not triumph by convincing its opponents that it’s right, but by waiting until the hyperstressed buggers all die off of heart attacks.”

    Wayne: Is there any reason you can’t have it both ways? Write in longhand when that’s appropriate, but still keep the Eva Mendes screensaver running? I mean, don’t deprive yourself!

  • […] Social Networking, Twitter, writer This week I’m inspired by Brian Hodge’s post, Scaling the Rat Hole over at the Storytellers Unplugged blog. Go read it if you like, but please come […]

  • […] in February I did a piece about the immediate productivity boost I got just by yanking the cable that connects my desktop computer to my Wi-Fi […]

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