Reader Multi-Tasking

A friend recently flailed at me that I should read a book she was reading. “Oh, I have that one,” I told her, and decided that I should see about reading it sooner rather than later, since I already own it. I wanted to tell her that I’d start reading it right away, only the problem is I currently have five books checked out from the library and have a bookmark in two others. Even I will admit, that’s a lot of books on my nightstand.

When I’ve mentioned the number of books I’m currently reading to other people I usually get gasps of horror or confessions that they can only focus on one book at a time. I get it. I’ve been there, but reading multiple books at a time is my usual modus operandi (though, I admit, right now this is a bit ridiculous).

So how can I possibly read this many books at the same time and not get confused? It’s easy to get confused if there are no differences in what you’re reading, but I vary my reading in three different ways: medium, genre (or content), and pacing.


Of those seven books sitting on my nightstand, there are four books I’m actively reading, by which I mean, four books that I’ve read within the last week. Of those four books, one is in audio format, two are physical, and one is a graphic novel. Switching between an audiobook and a physical book helps me keep straight what’s happening in each book. It’s easier for me to remember if I read a fact or if I listened to it. Graphic novels are obviously a very different format from all-text or audio, so that’s easy to keep straight as well. The more variety I have in how I consume the media, the easier it is for me to track what’s happening in each story.

Going through four books at the same time is a little excessive, even for me, but it’s normal for me to listen to an audiobook and read a physical book at the same time. I’ve been doing that for the last year or so, and it’s been a good way to help me get through books when I might not otherwise be able to read, taking advantage of time when I’m on a long car ride, taking a walk, folding clothes, or if I wake up in the middle of the night but don’t want to turn on a light. Having the audio option in addition to the physical book has helped me get through more books in the last year.


If medium is one of the ways I keep stories straight, how is it that I can read two physical books at the same time? This is where genre and content come into play. I find it’s much easier to mentally track which story I’m on if I’m reading things from different genres. For example, if I’m already reading fiction in audiobook and physical formats, and I want to start another book, I usually add something nonfiction. This can also work by reading fiction from very different genres—futuristic science fiction and high fantasy or contemporary realism. The more different the genre or content, the easier it is to keep the stories straight.

In addition to varying books by genre, right now I’m also rereading an old favorite. No matter the genre of the other books, I’m not about to confuse the events of Harry Potter with any other stories, so it’s not difficult for me to keep rereads straight from other stories.


Another way I help differentiate between the books I’m reading is by staggering my pacing. I try to space out the books so I’m starting and finishing them at different times. It’s much more difficult to read multiple books if I’m about at the same progress on each one. Climaxes can get confused, or I might not remember which new character is in what book. Staggering starting and finishing points helps a lot—also it means I never have that lag period between finishing one book and starting the next one. (In fact, it might be nice to read just one book for a few days, but I never get out of the habit of reading.)


Reading multiple books isn’t for everyone, and not everyone has to do something as crazy as reading four books at a time, but for an author who wants to read for research, read to know her genre, and read for fun, I have found these strategies for multi-tasking some of the best for increasing how many books I read per year, and, in general, for making the most of my reading time.


What am I reading now?

Power Outages

A couple weeks ago a transformer blew at my house, sending me out of the house unexpectedly and in a hurry. (In a hurry from the heat, even in December Florida houses can get hot fairly quickly.) It could have happened at a worse time—my laptop was fully charged and I was showered and dressed—but having changes forced upon my plans is never a good time. Except for when those changes force me out of a rut and push me forward.

On this particular day, I was avoiding certain tasks and generally struggling to even start my to-do list. Having the power off at the house meant I couldn’t bury myself in another Netflix binge. It meant that even reading a book would be uncomfortable in the heat. Being forced out of the house actually made me more productive because I couldn’t avoid my work in the same ways I normally would at home.

Not to mention this whole situation gave me an idea for a blog post in which I could talk about the ways we can trick ourselves into motivation and focus. Which is a topic I’m heavily considering these days.

2017 was a tough year. For me personally it saw the death of two friends and life-threatening health issues for three family members. Not to mention the general anxiety and distraction that was 2017. Staying focused on work with these real life issues going on was difficult, if not impossible some days. My normal drive and ability to motivate was challenged time and again. Other creatives talked about this problem throughout the year (John Scalzi’s post on the topic was quite memorable), but the problem really caught up with me in October. I tried to adapt my routines and dig deeper, tried new ways to motivate myself and keep focus, but the problem seemed to get worse, not better. I don’t have any answers yet, but I think rolling with the changes is part of the puzzle of productivity. I think embracing change—purposefully doing something different—can have long-term results. Or it can at least temporarily shift my focus long enough to edit a chapter or draft a new scene.

Finding motivation in the midst of personal chaos is a struggle, and the trashfire that was 2017 only made it more difficult. But I’m glad I ended the year with a literal power outage that forced me to confront some of the ways I was going about pushing myself. Even though I don’t have answers, I feel like I at least have some perspective. I’m looking forward to embracing 2018 and finding new ways to be productive.

Productivity Apps

I’m on a constant mission to find tricks to improve my productivity. The number of productivity apps out there is staggering, and after a long time of searching and testing, I found three apps that helped me move from writing every now and then to writing every day, and even helped me finish and revise my first novel.

Rescue Time

Rescue Time downloads to your computer and tracks how you spend your computer time, including logging which websites you visit and how much time you spend on them (for one browser, for all others it just tells which application you were using).

It takes all of this information and aggregates a productivity score, as well as the number of hours you spent doing different categorized activities.

Below is a snapshot from this last month. I hovered over “Design & Composition” so you can see my top activities under Design & Composition were Scrivener, and Google Documents.

You can use Rescue Time with its default settings, or customize websites and activities for what you would call “productive” or “distracting.” You can also add or edit categories to fit your tasks. For example, while I was in the MFA Program, I added an “MFA” distinction under “Reference & Learning,” so I could get productive credit for things like working on online classes.

Use: After you get it set up, it tracks your productivity passively. You may need to tweak it as you use it, but even the default settings are pretty good for starting to get a grip on your life. Use it to find out where you’ve been spending your time so you can make better choices about how you spend your time.

Ease: I’ll be honest, it took me awhile to really get the hang of Rescue Time to tweak it to my “productive” tasks and then understand the data. The passive tracking makes it easy to collect data, and then I could analyze it at my own pace.

Benefit: Rescue Time emails a weekly summary of activity. Seeing “Design & Composition” as my top activity lets me know when I’m putting my writing first. Rescue Time also helped point out what was most distracting for me and helped me take steps to avoid and mitigate those distractions.

Paid: There is a paid option to Rescue Time that gives you more bang. It has a built-in block out timer, alerts, offline tracking, and—this is the one I like the best—it can track which document you’re working in, not just that you’re in MS Word.

Productivity Challenge Timer

Sometimes the best way to be productive is to set aside productive time. Productivity Challenge Timer is a phone app that allows you to set a timer and get to work! The timer can be for as few as 10 minutes or as many as 120 minutes (you can also add 5 minutes if you need to keep working).

Finishing work sessions earns ranks and achievements, so there’s a little gamification involved with the Challenge Timer, if that’s your thing. Be warned: if you don’t work you’ll lose ranks (I have lost so many). If losing ranks stresses you out, that’s a feature you can turn off.

In the free version you can set up 4 projects and then track the amount of time you spend doing each thing. I set mine to track Writing, Reading, Editing, and Business.

Use: Being able to decide how long I’ll work each time makes this app extremely useful. It also helped me learn that working for 10 minutes is better than not working at all. (And that several 10-minute sessions start to add up!) Use it to help you focus on the activity you’re working on at the moment. The timer means focus!

Ease: Getting started is easy, just create a project and hit the button to start. The stats took a little time to understand, but they can easily be ignored until you’re ready to tackle them.

Benefit: Productivity Challenge Timer is good for focusing when you want to work and rewarding yourself with a break. It’s easier to focus if you know a break is coming up, or if you know you only have 2 more minutes, etc.

If you like stats, this also can help you determine when your most productive hours are. The app tracks when you work along with how long you work, so you can discover, for example, that you work more often in the evening. For some of you that might be obvious, but you’ll now have the evidence to show your family and friends when they try to encroach on your writing time. 😉

Paid: There is a paid option for Productivity Challenge Timer that gives you an “unlimited” number of Projects (99), access to Continuous Work Mode, and some additional achievements.

Habit Hub

Habit Hub is a habit tracker that works off the same strategy as “Don’t Break the Chain.” Each day you perform the task is another day in your streak. You can set a target for a streak and Habit Hub will track you each day.

Not only do you determine the habits you want to track, you can also decide how often you want to perform the habit. For example, you can set Habit Hub to track you for Monday through Friday or Tuesdays and Thursdays or any other combination of days. You can also choose to perform the habit on a set number of days per week (instead of on specific days).

Best yet, Habit Hub allows you to set reminders. Mine reminds me at 1:30pm every day to write. The app also sends a reminder at the end of the day (9:00pm for me) to remind me to check in for all of my habits. Having these two automated reminders is a surefire way to get my butt in the chair for writing at least once per day.

Use: Use Habit Hub as a reminder to build habits and as motivation to continue the plan you make for yourself.

Ease: Clicking one button to log your completed habit is as easy as it gets (we’ll gloss over logging that you didn’t complete a habit). In addition to logging in that you accomplished your goal, you can decide if you need to skip it for the day. Skipping is a great feature because it allows you to say that you had extenuating circumstances that prevented you from performing the task, but it doesn’t break the chain.

Benefit: In addition to tracking the number of days you have in a streak, Habit Hub creates graphs to show your “Habit Strength” (the percentage of times you’ve completed the habit), your progress, your ratio of completed habits, and it even helps you see on which days of the week you’ve completed the task most often. Being able to see these things can help you determine patterns such as, “I never write on Sundays,” and then you can adjust your expectations to allow for a writing break every Sunday. It’s not always about working harder, it’s about working smarter.


Paid: The paid version allows you to track unlimited habits (the free version only tracks 5), and you can add rewards and have more specific tracking (such as a habit you complete x-number of times a day). You can also have additional targets, setting yourself up for streaks of 10 days, 30 days, 60 days, 100 days, so that you can build up to a full 365-day streak! (The free version gives you 3 targets, which you can edit and delete if you need to make additional targets.)

Habit Hub is the only app I’m recommending that is currently Android only. You can find similar habit trackers in the Apple App Store. Search for “habit tracker” or “don’t break the chain.”

Using These Apps In Conjunction

Here’s how I used these apps to deliver a shot of productivity to my writing life.

Rescue Time helped me identify which websites and tasks were my time suckers. Rescue Time also made me accountable to how I used my time because it was logging everything I was doing (and judging me). That knowledge encouraged me to work more and play less.

Once I added Habit Hub, I had a daily reminder to write. Even if I was too busy to respond to the 1:30pm reminder, the 9:00pm reminder usually got me to the computer. On a few occasions I had been too busy during the day, but would check my phone before bed, and there it was, a reminder that I hadn’t written. At this point your reminder has to marry your stubbornness. Do you let yourself off the hook because you’re tired? Or do you haul yourself to the computer, blink at the glowing screen, and write something?

Personally, I hauled myself to the computer, aimed for 50–100 words and then clicked to say I wrote for the day. Because putting in 50 words is something.

Productivity Challenge Timer was the last app I added. Even with Rescue Time judging me, I still had a habit of drifting off during the middle of a “writing session” to check Tumblr or Twitter, or window shop on Etsy. After all, Rescue Time would keep track of how much I was actually writing, so it didn’t matter if I broke my stride.

Nope! Productivity Challenge Timer was the perfect bum glue. Once I set the timer for 15 minutes of Writing that meant I couldn’t do any activity that wasn’t related to Writing. I found my focus was strongest for 15- or 20-minute work sessions, but I usually needed at least a short break at 20 minutes. The gamification of Productivity Challenge Timer also helped encourage me to plan more writing sessions, and thus write more words.

Obviously you may have different results, and you may find a different combination of productivity tools more useful. The important thing is to find something that works for you. Don’t be afraid of trying a new app and experimenting to find out what works best for you.