I briefly mentioned the “cell” — a longish, mostly uninterrupted block of time in which you focus on one creative objective — in my last post. A couple people have asked me to explain in a bit more detail how I use them to wrangle my day, so here we go.
Before I start, I should say that this idea isn’t mine — I borrowed it from a brilliant dude named Dorian Taylor, who writes interesting things about knowledge work all the time. You could start there, or just read on for how I’ve modified/implemented the tactic.
First, let’s resist the urge to “app”-ify this idea. The cell isn’t a magic pill for transmogrifying your messy wad of competing daily obligations into a zen garden of productive bliss. It’s a tactic, not a tool — it takes practice, and may not be foolproof or appropriate for every circumstance. It’s not even really about time management: it’s about attention-organizing. (The whole “app between your ears” bit again.)
There are only so many hours in the workday, but for me, attention is the real limiting factor. Chop up my attention into a bunch of little scattered bits, and they don’t all add up to much in terms of stuff-gotten-done/made. Attention needs continuity in order to produce meaningful output. How do you give yourself the best shot at maintaining that kind of continuity? You divide your attention into big healthy blobs instead of scattered bits. That’s the essence of the cell.
I didn’t choose that top picture of a biological cell just for laffs. It’s the same principle: all those little organelles inside the cell would be pretty useless if you plucked them all out and scattered them around separately. But wrapped up and working together inside a membrane, they add up to more than the sum of the parts. Metaphors: so neat and tidy!
OK, so how do I actually use all this hoo-hah?
First, I divide my day’s work into the Real Stuff and the b.s. What do I mean by Real? Well, we science writers are not in the widget-making business. Regardless of how artsy-fartsy you consider yourself, our work is fundamentally creative — or, if you prefer a less loaded term, highly synthetic. That is, we take raw information from different sources and synthesize something out of it: a blog post, a reported article, a narrative feature, a video, a podcast. Even the most farted-out rewrite of a EurekAlert release still involves some amount of synthesizing, which is different every time we do it. And that is what makes the work require some level of sustained attention.
So I mitosis-ize my day’s Real Work into cells. My default size is 3 hours. For instance, earlier this week one of my tasks was “storyboard a science video.” This is highly synthetic work in any circumstance, but this time was even more so because I had to do it in 3D. (Don’t ask.) I had to figure out how to do the job as I was doing it. That’s the kind of thing that you don’t accomplish in 10 minute scraps between IMs and Twitter, or even 60-minute chunks between writing blog posts. You need to get all those little discrete “organelles” of your attention gathered up and working in concert, which takes time and concentration. For me, 3 hours is just right: enough space to do the attentional “setup” and maintain a steady mental-metabolic rate, but not so much that everything gets too diffuse and weak. In this particular instance, I ended up in a state of flow that made the time blip by like it was nothing.
That’s an extreme case. What happens more often is I define the cell, attempt to get those attentional mitochondria and Golgi apparatuses all squirting and pumping in concert, but inevitably allow a virus or two of interruption inside. But that’s what’s great about a cell: It’s large and robust enough to not die instantly from that kind of thing. In attentional terms, 3 hours is enough space that I can allow a few things I didn’t count on to enter the mix without bringing all the machinery to a halt. And much like a cell’s membrane is its primary immune barrier, defining those attentional borders in the first place — I am going to focus on this problem now, not that, for this long — keeps the interruptions and drift in check.
What if something doesn’t take 3 hours? True, a lot of stuff doesn’t. I don’t devote a whole cell to every task — but I do try to dedicate it to one problem or objective. Producing those storyboards involved dozens of tasks that I kept unconsciously shuffling as I went. And for highly synthetic projects, I find that breaking them down beyond the cell level doesn’t really have practical benefits anyway, because the tasks involved are so organically (zing!) layered and connected and often dynamically interacting… squishy, you might say. Creative work usually isn’t even coherent on a task-by-task scale; the cell is the organizational unit that makes more sense for me.
I sometimes shrink attentional cells into 90 minutes or 2 hours, but I rarely expand them beyond 4 hours unless I find myself in some kind of flow-trance — which almost never happens. (Maybe that would be an attentional plasmodium?) Anyway, 3ish hours is about as long as I can sustain attention in a productive manner on anything. But two or three cells a day accomplish more, for me, than 20 to-dos. And it seems to work out just fine.