Book Reviews

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.

7 replies »

  1. That’s a great tip- I’ve caught myself doing it now and then, out of desperation figured it out…like a basic instinct. I was very proud of myself. lol.

    You have a really nice site- thanks for sharing- I know I’ll be back

    • Thanks! I love running into related-yet-not-seemingly-related ideas while I’m surfing blogs and journal articles. Glad to hear you have at least one positive report based on experience… there’s got to be something to it! 🙂

  2. Great idea Dr. R. In Roger Rabbit, no cartoon character can resist finished the final “two bits” in the ditty “shave and a haircut.” They always want to complete the tune.

    Unfortunately, the 15 minute interruption productivity killer is alive and well in the office.
    -Jeff

  3. Good luck. I don’t think it will work, based on what I have seen.

    In examples where coders (including me) are forced away from code partially written, they (and I) have the startup time of getting back into flow. My analogy would be the complexity of what has to be “loaded into the coder’s RAM” is not as simple as a tune. In fact I think it is worse: finding rational breakpoints (as pieces are completed is best I think).

    My guess is the half written sentence would make it easier to finish off the sentence but to put the whole context of the entire writing may not be aided by this…

    I have seen it helpful to go away from a programing problem you are having and get back to it later. Some people describe this as having your brain continue to work on it while you consciously do other stuff. I don’t know if that is always true (sometimes it is, when you over the course of 3 days think of and reject 5 options and then think of a 6th and say hey yeah that would work…).

  4. Indeed quite an intersting hypothesis!
    I would try it out even for the problem-solving – leave the process of problem-solving deliberately beofre it reaches the conclusion, even if we have had full soloution in our mind.
    May be when we re-visit the unfinished process, we may have had some more alternative spark!

  5. Got this response on Twitter… apparently there is some anecdotal evidence that it works for programmers: Yiorgos Adamopoulos ‏ @hakmem says
    @nicoleradziwill @ValdisKrebs This tip is also valid for writing software and taking a break. You get quickly back into “the zone”

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