The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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January 3, 2013

Slate: Do you think like Sherlock Holmes?

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

It's not an easy task, that constant cognitive vigilance, the eternal awareness of our own limitations and the resulting strategic allocation of attention. Even Holmes, I'm willing to bet, couldn't reach that level of mindfulness and deliberate thought all at once. It came with years of motivation and practice. To think like Holmes, we have to both want to think like him and practice doing so over and over and over, even when the effort becomes exhausting and seems a pointless waste of energy. Mindfulness takes discipline.

Even after I discovered my propensity for sneaking over to email or Twitter when I wasn't quite sure what to write next, the discovery alone wasn't enough to curb my less-than-ideal work habits. I thought it would be. And I tried, I really did. But somehow, up that browser window popped, seemingly of its own volition. What, me? Attempt to multitask while writing my book? Never.

And so, I took the Odyssean approach: I tied myself to the mast to resist the sirens' call of the Internet. I downloaded Freedom, a program that blocked my access completely for a specified amount of time, and got to writing. The results shocked me. I was woefully bad at maintaining my concentration for large chunks of time. Over and over, my fingers made their way to that habitual key-press combination that would switch the window from my manuscript to my online world — only to discover that that world was off-limits for another . . . how long is left? Has it really been only 20 minutes?

Over time, the impulse became less frequent. And what's more, I found that my writing — and my thinking, it bears note — was improving with every day of Internet-less interludes. I could think more fluidly. My brain worked more conscientiously. In those breaks when, before, there would be a quick check of email or a surreptitious run to my Twitter feed, there would be a self-reflecting concentration that quickly rummaged through my brain attic. (You can't write about Holmes without mentioning his analogy for the human mind at least once.) I came up with multiple ways of moving forward where before I would find myself stuck. Pieces that had taken hours to write suddenly were completed in a fraction of the time.

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