An Unorthodox Tip for Improving Productivity and Eliminating Writer’s Block: Listen to the Earworm

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

The other day I read a news article or blog post (or something; I can’t remember) that explained one reason we get irritating songs stuck in our heads. The post was based on a research paper by Williamson et al. (2011) in the journal Psychology of Music. Usually, when we catch one of these “earworms” because we’ve heard a snippet of a catchy and familiar song, we’ll walk away or turn off the song in the beginning or the middle of it.

The tune, however, like a rapid flesh-eating organism invading our very soul, continues without compunction. Because we stopped the song in the middle, our unconscious becomes fixed on the task of finishing it. And so it continues, on and on, all day!

The solution, we’re told, is to listen to the annoying song until it’s over… our unconscious, at that point, will be content that the tune is complete and will be happy to move on to other topics.

I didn’t think too much of this piece of trivia until I was reading an interview with Erik Larson, author of the fantastic 2003 novel The Devil in the White City. His book provides an amazing account of the technology development and social context that went into organizing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago – it’s a totally satisfying read. When asked about his discipline for writing, and for avoiding writer’s block, he described a method that might actually leverage the same hold on the unconscious that earworms grab:

And I try to write a couple of pages. I’m not firm. I don’t have a specific goal. But the one thing I always adhere to is that I stop while I’m ahead. If I’m going to take that break for breakfast, I may stop in the middle of the sentence or the middle of the paragraph. Something I know how to finish. Because as any writer knows, it’s — that’s what kills you is when you just don’t know what to do when you come back. And all the demons accumulate. And then you go out for a cappuccino, that kind of thing.

If you want to avoid writer’s block, leave your unconscious a hook – an easy way back in to your writing productivity!

If you want to avoid ramp-up time (or context switching time) to get your head back into a problem – which has been estimated, for software development at least, to be on average a full 15 minutes for every interruption – leave your unconscious an easy way back in to productivity! A half written module or subroutine… or a half written sentence on your notepad!

These are just hypotheses, but they’re definitely testable. I’m going to try testing this out in my own life immediately.