technique

Minimize Boring Tasks with Flow

The Sisyphus Series, Part III

If you have to push a boulder up a hill, when do you want to do it?—And by “when” I mean right after doing what and right before doing what? The modern day Sisyphus might choose to do it after work, before arriving home, exactly when he’s not going to the gym he signed up to be a member of. Or he might want to do it first thing in the morning, to get it out of the way and wake himself up. The principle here is choosing the timing that’s easiest for you.

I choose not to scoop my cats’ litter box in the morning, because I want as little responsibility in the morning as possible; morning isn’t a good time for me. I scoop at night, but not last thing before coming to bed, because I’ve just concluded my ablutions, and ick, gross. I prefer to do it some time (an hour or more) before my pre-bedtime routine, because otherwise getting ready for bed feels tedious enough that I begin to avoid it and stay up too late. So I scoop shortly after dinner, at exactly the same time that my wife feeds the cats. The argument has been made that this is illogical timing, as soon after they eat they will effectively undo my work. But I don’t care. Having poop in the box overnight is tolerable, and doing the chore when I mind it least makes it substantially less avoidance-worthy.

Another example. I coached someone who decided to take a rigorous professional exam that requires months of study. We explored the question of how he wanted to do his studying in terms of when and where it would fit best into the flow of his day. He found that studying while he ate lunch at work gave him natural start and end times, and the study material became more interesting than he had expected because it was now sandwiched between and in comparison with his job duties, which were less than enthralling.

To choose the timing that works well for you, let’s again (as we did in Part II) call on your imagination. Picture yourself ending one activity—leaving the bar where you hang out with friends on Friday nights, for instance—and then picture what you will probably do next—sleep it off at home, for instance—and then try inserting your task in between them—practicing for your driving test, for instance—and see how it feels to imagine that flow of events. If it doesn’t feel good, try out a different opportunity in your day: getting out of class with your friend who has a car, for instance—insert practicing for driving test—going to your retail therapy appointment with Dr. T.J. Maxx. And now check to see how this new flow feels.

Look for flows that score high on both the Easy and Settled Stomach scales, and low on the Concerning and Agitating scales. To do the scoring, consult your gut, your heart, and your intellect. Look for consensus; i.e. if any one part of you—gut, heart, brain—objects, move on and imagine a new flow.

Sometimes an easy flow is all we need to be able to get something done. Grocery shopping is a typical example of this; most people I talk to don’t despise their local supermarket, they just find going there inconvenient much of the time. Well, when—in between what two activities—is food shopping more on your way? That’s what easy flow is about: slotting a dull chore where it is least in your way and getting it out of the way as effortlessly as possible.


Overpower Boring Tasks with Tools

The Sisyphus Series, Part II

OK, you’re Sisyphus. You’ve got this enormous rock to get up the hill. You can push it yourself, or you can drive it up in your Ford F350 truck. Like crows, humans can use tools! Don’t have a truck? Use a scaffold and a jackhammer. If you’re stuck with low-tech, do what English villagers did to break up ancient megaliths to get stones to build their houses: heat the boulder with fire, then throw cold water on it, causing it to shatter. This is what is now known as “chunking” a daunting task.

Sometimes people feel some resistance to employing tools, perhaps out of a sense that I can do it myself. Pride in ability and work is an admirable human quality. It is not mandatory, nor is it advisable in all situations. I want to take pride in abilities I value and in work I care about. A boring chore that I wish were finished before I even start it, though? Who cares?

I mentioned in Part I that scooping the cat box is one of my daily Sisyphean chores. We actually have a cat tub—higher walls, better containment. The litter I use has a nasty tendency to stick to the sides of the tub, and scraping it takes both persistence and strength. Not once after struggling with heavy, wet litter did I feel any impulse to spike the scooper and prance while flexing my muscles. I just wanted the ordeal to be easier. I bought a cheap mallet to knock the litter loose by banging the outer walls.

The effect of good tools is increased power, smart strength, a form of leverage. With the application of technology, even as simple as a rubber mallet, my power increases and my required effort therefore decreases. The job becomes easier. I grow in stature relative to the chore.

Try this. Pick one of your boring tasks. Now in your imagination picture yourself in the act of doing it. What would augment your powers in tackling this job? What would make it easier for you? If you find yourself thinking rationally about this and no ideas are coming, then close your eyes and return to your imaginative picturing.

Here’s an example of discovering tool power via imagination, from one of my clients. She dreaded having to clean snow off her car. She complained that snow removal paraphernalia for cars are pathetic, and invariably she ended up covered in snow, with some always falling into one or both of her shoes. I asked her to fantasize how she ideally would want to clear her car of snow. Her first image was a giant hair dryer. Her second was a leaf blower she had seen a neighbor using one day. She didn’t like the noise (or the price) of a leaf blower, but she loved the image of being able to blow the snow away from herself instead of sweeping it downward onto her clothes and shoes. This was a key stage in our exploration: noticing what she liked. We put two things together: the usual sweeping of snow off the car, plus moving the snow away from her. She wondered if a push-broom that she had would serve the purpose. After the next blizzard, she gleefully reported using her push-broom to shove two-foot columns of snow away from her and off her car, and being done faster than ever. Her dread of the chore vanished. She even enjoyed a feeling similar to mastery, like she was showing the snow who was boss.

If you allow yourself to imagine freely, and trust your gut feelings about what you like and dislike, you might be surprised at what you can envision. Dare to diminish drudgery!

The tool power principle extends beyond manual labor. If you have a paper to write, a thorny problem to solve, a political situation at work to navigate… think about what resources are available to you. Who can help or advise? What templates or techniques do others use? Expand your resources, expand your power.

Make Boring Tasks Easy

The Sisyphus Series, Part I

I have the shittiest job in the house. I scoop my cats’ litter box. A couple of years ago I successfully traded the after-dinner clean-up for scooping the cat box plus a second round draft pick. I scoop every day. I don’t like doing it; I find it tedious and uninteresting. This is a challenge for me, an ADDer. My brain’s “reward center”—you know, the part of my brain that hands me a pink dopamine-stuffed walrus every time I shoot water into a clown’s mouth and burst a balloon, providing me the motivation to pick up the water pistol and compete against seven-year-olds—functions less than optimally; which is to say (to follow the absurd metaphor) that my brain is understocked with pink dopamine-stuffed walruses. I therefore have trouble feeling rewarded, and my motivation is apt to drop, unless I experience genuine interest in the activity. Scooping poop does not float my boat. Quickly I felt no sense of the value to me of having gotten out of washing the dishes. My motivation drained, and the chore became Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you may recall, pushed the same boulder up the same hill every day, for at night while he slept the gods caused the boulder to roll back down to the hill’s foot. Perhaps more than most, ADDers recognize Sisyphus’ fate as a divine curse.

The problem with a Sisyphean task is that it feels goalless. What satisfaction is to be had by rolling the boulder up the hill? Is there ice cream at the top? No. Can I brag that I did it? OK, I’ll take that. But then I have to do it again, and again, and again…. It’s difficult to get myself to do a chore I don’t feel is rewarding, unless I force myself. I don’t know about you, but when I force myself to do something I don’t want to do, I, the laborer, end up resenting myself, the boss. I chronically come to my forced task late, making me want to take disciplinary action against myself. Occasionally I’ll go on strike, and hire imaginary thugs to break the strike…. It gets ugly fast, and I look like an immature moron.

Most of the time my solution to this problem is to circumnavigate it. To the extent I can, I steer my life so as to maximize opportunities to do things I want to do, while respectfully declining things I don’t enjoy. I realize, however, that many do not enjoy the privilege of dodging undesirable tasks, and I myself still have to do things I don’t like, like change the cat box every day.

What can help us accomplish tasks that do not reward our effort with any feeling of accomplishment? Consider this. If you had to pick one, which boring task would you choose to take on: (a) one that required significant effort, was out of your way, and demanded constant attention, or (b) one that required a bit of effort, was on your way, and demanded periodic attention? This series is about how to turn boring overwhelming task (a) into boring doable task (b). For litter-box-changers everywhere, I offer the following principles:

  • Tool Power
  • Flow
  • Alienation of the Worker

Tools increase your power, making tasks puny, thereby reducing required effort. Flow lets you dispose of chores when it is most convenient for you. Alienation of the worker (that is, yourself) enables you to get through painfully tedious jobs competently with the equivalent of attentional Novocain, so you experience much less pain and tedium.

Each of these principles will be explored in practical terms in the next three posts.

Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)

Notes

Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.


  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 

Write Off Worries

Overwhelmed by too many things to do, too many situations to keep track of, too many worries about what could go wrong in all those situations? All these concerns can weigh heavily on your mind. Why not unload them? Here’s how.

  1. Get paper and pen (handwriting this is better than typing it), and make a list of everything that’s weighing and preying on you. Don’t worry about order or organization; we’ll take care of that in a later step. For now, put on paper each thought, task, nag in your head in whatever order they come in, like dealing cards off the top of a deck. When the stream slows to a trickle, add anything that’s missing. Done? Let’s do some annotating.
  2. In the margin, write “DO” next to anything that is a task you can physically accomplish.
  3. Next to anything you’re worrying about that is not a clear to-do, draw a worry-icon (a frowny-face, or a dark circle—anything simple). If it’s a task you’re worried about, you can alleviate your worry by doing it; not so with worries that have no clear DO that will make them go away. Keep DOs and worries separate.
  4. If there are any situations you want to do something about, but aren’t sure how to deal with, mark those with a “?” (or “Huh?” or “WTF”…). These are things you need more information about, to enable you to do something about them.

If you want, you can now put all the DOs, all the Worried Faces and all the ?s on their own individual sheets.

Separated from all the worries and question marks, DOs feel more doable, ’cause now they’re merely to-dos and nothing else.

Worries, when written down and separated from doable tasks, start to lose their mystery and menace: they’re merely thoughts, and often there’s nothing that need be done other than accept them.

Questions about situations are merely another kind of DO: get information. Knowing that you need to find something out is much less stressful than feeling like you have to do something but don’t know what.

Finally, notice if there are any recurring themes. You might discover that many worries are really about one or two things—work, for example, or money, or relationships.… What appear to be a multitude of worries often boil down to a few manageable categories of concern.
 

Worries are like hungry hyenas: they’re terrifying when we know they’re there but can’t see them; they’re still scary but less monstrous when they’re in front of us and we can keep an eye on them; they’re not so dangerous when separated instead of in a pack; and they’re harmless when they are mere words on a page. When you’re dogged by hungry hyenas, transmute them into ink on paper, and see who’s laughing then!

Heart Chart

Ever wonder where your motivation is? Your heart is an excellent place to look.

Tracking how you spend your time and where your money goes are well known techniques, so why not track your energy and passion? Coach Kris Moauro devised this simple and incredibly fruitful self-observation exercise.

Chart Your Heart

When you wake up, how raring are you to meet and start your day? Throughout the day track three key factors on a scale of one to ten:

  1. What activity are you engaged in? (Note: sleeping, navel contemplation, and standing bovinely in a field all count as activities.)
  2. How does your heart feel?
  3. How energized do you feel?

Kris recommends charting your heart’s course for a month, and I second that: the heart and the moon are old friends and tend to travel together, so best to let them complete a whole cycle.

At the end of the month, review your Heart Chart. What patterns emerge? How do you want to feel? What kind of energy do you want to bring to and have in your life?

So many of us want to follow our heart. Sometimes a map is just what we need.

The Best Revision Tool Ever

I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.

This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.

Peer Response Process

Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.

Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.

There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.

Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.

Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.

The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.

(Notes:

  • Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
  • Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
  • Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)

Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/liked…”

Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.

Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language, not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)

2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”

This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.

The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.

The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.

3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”

(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)

This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:

  1. “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that is already rumbling in the piece and might be given full voice.
  2. “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.

If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.

4. Author’s Questions

Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”

Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
  • What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?

Further Questions to Consider

Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:

  • What kind of response do you want from your reader?
  • What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
  • What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
  • What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
  • Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
  • How will you know when this piece is finished?
  • What was the color of the sky when you…?

As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!

Process Writing

Process writing (A.K.A. process notes, A.K.A. metacognitive writing) is the quintessential self-learning tool.

After doing any freewriting exercises, reflect on the writing and thinking process you were just engaged in. Did anything surprise you? What was your experience while you were writing? (—anxious, liberated, fuming, vulnerable, giddy—whatever it was, elaborate on it). What was interesting about the arc the writing took?

Process notes are especially useful and revealing when they reflect on the composition of an essay or the creation of a work of art. Because essays and art projects are long, involved processes, it is best to pause and do some process writing at various stages throughout the project. For instance, you have an Economics assignment on stock investing that initially you’re not sure how you want to approach; but later, while watching an ice hockey game on T.V. it all suddenly becomes clear to you: Of course! an investment is just like the puck, getting slapped up and down the ice! (value fluctuations)—and the players are investment brokers, checking each other on the boards and trying to score! (Can you tell I’m not an economist?)… Anyway, after you scribble down your brilliant idea (in a focused freewrite, of course), follow up with process notes on just how stumped you were when you first got the assignment, and then how you became inspired.

Process writing is done as a narrative, not as an outline. (In that respect, the term itself, “process notes,” is a little misleading, because they’re not the kind of notes you can jot down on Post-Its.) One way of thinking of process writing is to tell the story of what happened in your thinking process and in your writing process;—a story more like a personal essay, less like a report;—a story about how your intimations arose from the primordial goo of your brain, and were fruitful and multiplied, and how and by what/whom they were influenced, and how you nurtured them into ideas, and lo, how you brought them forth and arranged them just so onto sheets of paper, and they were good.

The reflective aspect of process notes is key. Imagine you were going to write about an experience you had with your family: you’d write it reflectively, thinking about what happened and why, just as much as (if not more than) merely recounting the bare events. In this very same way, your process notes should talk about the conception and writing/making of your essay or art project as your experience, not merely as an assigned activity. Why do process notes take this tack? Because an assigned activity ultimately belongs to the class that assigns it, whereas a writing or artistic experience belongs to the writer/artist: you. Process notes are a way of taking full ownership of what you’ve created.

It is true that students and even many faculty have found the exact purpose of process notes elusive. You might feel that this metacognitive exercise is arbitrary and redundant: “I already wrote the paper! You want me to explain it again?” Like response journals, process writing is a method of inquiry and learning, except whereas in response journals you’re writing about the assigned reading, in process notes the subject you’re writing about is yourself—you as learner and author. Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination” makes the distinction between “writing what I know” and “writing to find out what I know.” The benefits of process notes come more into focus if we augment Hampl’s statement to: writing to find out how and what I’ve learned, how and what I think, how and what I write. This kind of reflection is usually not manifest in the essay itself.

In process notes the writer becomes the object of examination and analysis. Some people have found this image helpful: To write the essay, I read, take notes, compose, edit. To write process notes, I step outside of myself and observe myself reading, taking notes, composing, editing… in order to gain insight into the evolution of my thinking. The question remains, though, to what end?

One of my mentors and a former colleague, Jamie Hutchinson, offered this as one of process writing’s many useful purposes: “[To learn] how to make a case for what one has written, both its form and content.” The ability to articulate a case for something you yourself have written implies a capacity to see yourself in a broader context of other learners and authors; to be able to think of yourself on the same plane as and in relation to, for example, Patricia Hampl, or the author of the text you’ve just been assigned to read, instead of being content to sit back and shout praise or criticism at books from the grandstand. In a more immediate sense, articulating a case for your writing enables you to see and think of yourself in relation to fellow learners and writers (including faculty) in your class at your school.

Perhaps more than any other type of writing assignment, process notes build intellectual community. Certainly metacognitive writing directly fosters the conscious (as opposed to impulsive) development of authorial voice.

Despite all these Utopian pedagogical sentiments, many people nevertheless find process notes difficult either to do or to explain how to do, or both. Really the only known remedy for this predicament is to practice process writing until their benefits become self-evident, as when the obscured image suddenly emerges out of a “Magic Eye” pattern. Once you’ve beheld their effects, process notes might very well become a learning tool you never want to do without.

How to Proofread

Proofreading appears far from foolproof. Even if we can proofread other people’s writing just fine, we tend to miss the simplest mistakes when proofreading our own work.

Well, here is a tried and true, foolproof proofreading1 technique:

  1. Proofread your paper backward. Not like this: “.drawkcab repap ruoy daerfoorP” (silly!)—but sentence by sentence, from the end of the conclusion back to the beginning of the introduction. Proofread the last sentence, then the penultimate (second-to-last) sentence, then the antepenultimate (third-to-last) sentence, and so on.
  2. Read each sentence twice, both times out loud:
    • The first time, read and listen to the whole sentence. Actually use your vocal chords when you move your lips. Read it the way you mean it; read it expressively. Does the sentence say what you want it to say? Does it sound good to you, or does something sound not quite right? Does the punctuation structure the rhythm and meaning the way you want them? (you know, commas for pauses, question marks for questions, etc.). If something sounds off, look away from the page and say, out loud to the air, what you mean. If you need to, rewrite the sentence completely on a separate piece of paper until you get it the way you want it, and only then revise it in your essay.
    • The second time, read the sentence out loud slowly, and point to every single word as you speak it. Many people find this incredibly hard to do. They read at a normal or impatient pace and glide their pencil across the words like a seagull, maybe hovering for a split second over every third or fifth word. That won’t work. At all. Read. every. word. as. if. it. were. its. own. complete. sentence,. and. point. rudely. at. each. word. If you do, you’ll discover all kinds of things you missed on the first pass, like words that you thought were there but aren’t, mismatching pronouns, misspellings, typos (sometimes mind of funny ones [kind of]), and more.

The above method of proofreading works, and it works for good reasons.

Proofreading is checking to make sure that the writing came out correctly on the page. Not surprisingly it only works when you see the words that actually are on the page. And, surprisingly, this is exactly what we do poorly when proofreading our own work. We—all of us.

When we read our own writing, we’re not entirely reading what’s on the page; we are involuntarily replaying in our minds what we were thinking when we wrote it. And we thought the page correctly (as far as we could tell, anyway). So when we read—or rather replay the thoughts of—our writing, the words seem just as correct as when we first thought them.

This is why we usually are able to proofread other people’s writing quite well. The writing came out of somebody else’s head, not ours, and so we actually see the words on the page in front of us.

One key to proofreading your own writing and actually finding and correcting errors is to separate what you wrote from your original thinking. That’s why you proofread from the last sentence to the first: reading backward completely disrupts that original thought process.

Another key to proofreading effectively is to compare the words on the page to what they ought to be. We can do this by using not only one but two of our senses, seeing and hearing. Proofread out loud and you can compare what you are seeing on the page to what you are hearing in your head. So speak up!—at least enough to hear yourself clearly.

Finally, we need to proofread on two levels, the macro and the micro, the forest and the trees. Each sentence is a complete thought. Reading the sentence aloud for sense, you can hear whether the thought is complete or incomplete, whether it is syntactically and structurally sound, whether its tenses and references are consistent, whether it communicates exactly what you mean. But while concentrating on meaning (i.e. grammar), it is easy to miss small mishaps on the level of individual words and even individual letters (i.e. mechanics). Pointing to each word focuses your attention on the small stuff. Pointing and reading aloud enables you to focus on small stuff and compare what you’re seeing with what you’re hearing. This is why you have to go slowly and point at each word, one at a time. Reading at a normal pace and gliding the pencil across the words has no effect; all you’re doing is creating a blurry comparison, and distracting yourself by waving your pencil, to boot.

This all might sound like an awful lot of trouble. It does take a long time to proofread thoroughly, and after you’ve spent hours writing, it can be excruciating to read the damn thing again—out loud—backward—twice. It’s one thing if you’ve been getting D’s or F’s on papers because of grammatical and mechanical errors; then you’ll want to beef up your proofreading efforts as much as you can. But what if you’re not losing grade points, or only losing what you can live with losing? What if your writing is clear enough for the professor to be able to work out what you meant to say by mentally correcting your grammar for you while reading your paper? Why put in the extra time doing something that—as far as I know—no one enjoys?

Self respect, and the respect of your reader, in that order. That’s why.

Your writing, all writing, has content and form. Broadly speaking (for the purposes of this argument), the information and ideas are the content, and the grammar and mechanics constitute the form that expresses that content. Presenting writing that has errors because you didn’t take the time to find and correct them is analogous to showing up at a party with your butt crack showing and a booger dangling from your nose like a lost participle. Does presenting yourself this way make you a bad person? No, but the presentation is slovenly. An unproofread paper shouts: “I don’t care enough about my own thoughts to care for them, to make them clean and presentable to others in the public sphere.” If you don’t think that professors really feel this way about papers that aren’t proofread—and often, at least while reading them, about their authors—then enjoy your stay in Fantasy Land. And I will go out on a limb and claim that many writers, especially students, feel similarly when they present sloppy writing. I know I do. When I dash something off and present it as a final draft to someone without taking the time to clean it up, I feel a kind of shame. Honestly. (God, I hope after saying all this I’ve found and corrected all the errors in this post. It’s the good-faith effort that counts.)

It may be easiest to discern your own feelings about your writing after you’ve presented a final draft that you truly tried your hardest to make pristine; writing that articulates information and expresses ideas precisely as you meant it to do, writing that speaks what you had in mind, felt in your heart, and intended to communicate. Expect feelings like satisfaction, pride, and authority.

 


  1. This assumes you have already revised and read the paper through for sense. All you’re doing here is catching and fixing errors. 

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