Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries. — Blaise Pascal
Our day begins with good intentions. Feeling rested and focused, we set our priorities. We resolve that today will be different from yesterday, because today, we we’ll stay on task. But then we turn on our computers and smart-phones, and before we know it, we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.
We’re living in an exciting time as artists—a time when technology is empowering us to bypass gatekeepers and connect directly with our audience. And for those of us who work alone in an office or at home, technology offers some welcome relief. ”That’s my Twitter origin tale,” says writer Colson Whitehead, “it’s nice to have a little company during the long workday.”
But the downside of technological innovation is that our computers, phones, and myriad of screens also offer countless distractions from the creative work that matters most to us. The temptation is especially strong for artists who use technology as an essential tool in their creative work. Composers compose music on their computer, writers write novels, filmmakers edit their films, photographers develop work digitally. Even painters must spend time sharing their work online and connecting with their audience. But there is a critical difference between using our computers in an active way versus passively allowing them to hijack our day.
So how do we make the most of this technology without frittering our lives away? How do we create time and space for deep thinking, creation, and real connection within the chaos of digital life?
After thirteen years of working at The MacDowell Colony, I’ve witnessed the transformative power of retreat. To disconnect, to court solitude, and to seek out a community of supportive peers is the perfect recipe for creating great art.
Recently, I had a conversation with an artist who was suffering a serious bout of depression because she was transitioning from MacDowell to her “real life.” And I remember how devastated I felt when leaving my residencies at the Hambidge Center. It’s not that our “real lives” are so horrible. It’s that colonies and other retreats reduce our choices to a manageable workload. Because we don’t have to answer the phone or keep up with every email, run errands, or think about what to cook for dinner, we feel less overwhelmed and are better able to focus. We feel more like our true selves.
The lesson of such retreats is that simplification and less choice often lead to more contentment (an idea that Barry Schwartz addresses in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.)
But how do we create this kind of “retreat” in our daily lives once a residency is over? And how about those who can’t get away because of work or family?
Here are five things we can do right now to be more creative and productive and bring some sanity to our lives…
1. We need to recognize that technology is a tool. We should control it; it shouldn’t control us.
There will always be naysayers when it comes to innovation. Socrates famously warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” Through the centuries, we’ve been cautioned against everything from the printing press, to the radio, to television, to video tape. The Internet is just the latest in a long line of inventions to be met with suspicion.
As writer Douglas Adams has observed, “anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright.”
It’s not technology that’s the problem. It’s us. We need to take a deep breath, step back, and get a bird’s eye view of our own habits. As Colson Whitehead famously said in his Publisher’s Weekly essay, “The Internet is not to blame for your unfinished novel: you are.” Here’s Colson:
“I say, yes, you can rent out a hostage pit. You can also close your browser. It’s called willpower. If you can’t muster the will to lay off Gawker, how are you going to write a book? I can’t blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I’ve spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds. I did it before the Internet, and I’ll do it after the apocalypse, assuming we still have helium and weak-gripped children.”
Technology is an aid. A tool. We should be mindful of how we use it and realize that the decision to text or email or tweet is just that—a decision. In his new book Program or Be Programmed Douglas Rushkoff writes, “Freedom—even in a digital age—means freedom to choose how and with whom you do your reflection, and not everything needs to be posted for the entire world with ‘comments on’ and ‘copyright off.’” As Rushkoff point out, “we are too busy wading through our overflowing inboxes to consider how they got this way, and whether there’s a better or less frantic way to stay informed and in touch.”
We are faced with competing interests on a daily basis—a choice between our virtual online communities or the face-to-face community that includes our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. Too often our default response is to try to choose both at once. If we need to use Facebook or Twitter to share some news, then by all means we should do it. But no one benefits if we attempt this task while also having a serious conversation with our spouse or a co-worker.
There is a critical difference between using technology as a tool and merely using it to ease boredom or loneliness. Awareness and deliberateness changes everything. In the end, I would argue that it’s the quality of our attention and connections that matter, not the quantity. It’s about empowerment. We need to be proactive and not reactive if we want to use the tools of technology to their fullest.
“Whenever I open a gap between myself and my screens, good things happen,” says William Powers in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. “I have time and space to think about my life in the digital realm and all the people and information I encounter there. I have a chance to take the outward experiences of the screen back inward.”
2. Choose to disconnect.
“Close everything,” advises Leo Babauta at Zen Habits. “This means everything possible on your computer that isn’t absolutely necessary for the task at hand. If you don’t need the Internet to write something, close it. Close email, all notifications and reminders, all programs not needed for your task. If you need your browser open, close all tabs — bookmark them, or save them to a read-later service like Instapaper. You can always open these sites when you’re done.”
Bill Powers recommends that we focus on one idea or person at a time and tune out the rest of the world.
“If I want to shut out distractions and really get some work done on my notebook,” Bill says, “I turn off the wireless, transforming the computer into a disconnected tool…Digital technologies should acknowledge in their design that it’s sometimes good to be disconnected. A small but helpful fix would be to provide a prominent Disconnect button that would allow the user to go back and forth easily between the two zones, connected and not.”
So far, no product designers have taken Bill’s suggestion seriously, but luckily some programmers have. Novelists like Andrew Sean Greer and Nick Hornby use Mac Freedom to help them keep focus while working. This simple program blocks Internet access for up to eight hours. Users must reboot if they want to get online while Freedom is running. The hassle of rebooting means less cheating.
Powers took the idea of digital “freedom” one step further. Tired of the family ending of up alone together immersed in screens, Bill, his wife Martha, and their son made the radical decision to create a “digital Sabbath” by disconnecting from the Internet on weekends. This not only changed their dynamic with each other, but it also changed their dynamic with the outside world. Eventually, their friends and work contacts grew accustomed to not receiving responses to emails on weekends. Bill and his family took control by setting intentional parameters for technology in their household, and (surprise, surprise) in time, the outside world adjusted its expectations.
To do our best work it’s essential to create a buffer between ourselves and the information onslaught. “When I was in college and starting to think about writing” explains novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, “I was driving once from Princeton to D.C., where my parents lived, and there was a sex therapist on the radio. And someone called with whatever problem, and this therapist said, ‘What do you do in the bedroom?’ And the guy was like, ‘Well, watch TV, sleep, have sex, do my taxes; that’s where we change our clothes…’ And the therapist said, ‘Don’t do anything in your bedroom except have sex and sleep. Don’t watch TV, don’t do—because all these things are going to be on your mind, and it’s going to be much harder to separate this thing that needs to be separated out.’ And writing is like that. If you don’t find a way to create a wall between it and the world, the world will always win.”
“To engage with the digital—to connect to the network—can still be a choice rather than a given,” Rushkoff explains. “That’s the very definition of autonomy. We can choose to whom or what we want to be available, and when. And we can even choose people for whom we want to be always on. Being open to a call from a family member 24/7 doesn’t require being open to everyone. The time it takes to program your phone to ring for only certain incoming numbers is trivial compared to the time wasted answering calls from people you don’t want to hear from.”
3. Set a time limit.
Positive rituals are critical to the creative process. To work effectively, we must control our digital workflow, and not let it control us. “We scramble to keep up with the never-ending inflow of demands and commands,” Rushkoff says in Program or Be Programmed, “under the false premise that moving faster will allow us to get out from under the endless stream of pings for our attention. For answering email and responding to texts or tweets only exacerbates the problem by leading to more responses to our responses, and so on.”
Spending our day glued to a screen makes us reactive instead of proactive. To break this cycle, we must make mindful choices. As Powers explains, setting time limits and rewards with the “modest goals of clarity and calm” will help break the “workaholic cycle of email.”
“Pick something important to do, and set a limited time to do it,” suggests Babauta at Zen Habits. “That might be one hour, or 20 minutes, or even just 10 if you’re having a hard time getting into it. The time limit helps sharpen your focus. If you have limited time to do something, you’ll be forced to decide what’s important. It also means you’re not doing some unlimited task that could take hours, but a very specific one that will be over in X minutes. Setting a limit is good too for when you decide to process your email — only 20 minutes to get as many emails processed as you can, for example.”