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?

 

The Serpentine Gallery in London and Edge.org collaborated on the Serpentine Map Marathon, which included non-stop live presentations by over 50 artists, poets, writers, philosophers, scholars, musicians, architects, designers and scientists. This drawing by Douglas Rushkoff was part of the event. (Photo courtesy Edge.org. Click to Enlarge)

 

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.”

 

“The Internet is not to blame for your unfinished novel: you are,” says writer Colson Whitehead. “It’s called willpower. If you can’t muster the will to lay off Gawker, how are you going to write a book?” (Photo by Erin Patrice O’Brien)

 
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.

 

Writer William 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.

 
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.”

 

“Solo Scenes” (1997-98) by Dieter Roth, which is currently on view at MoMA in New York City, is comprised of 128 television monitors that present continuous footage of the Swiss artist alone sleeping, working, eating, and recovering from alcoholism during the last year of his life. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

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.”

 

“Close everything,” advises Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. “This means everything possible on your computer that isn’t absolutely necessary for the task at hand.” (Photo courtesy thepowerofless.com)

 

4. To do our best work, we must be mindful as we move from one task to the next.

“Pause before switching,” advises Babauta.

“So you’ve closed everything else, you’ve set a time limit for your task at hand, and you’re getting started … but then you get the urge to check email or Facebook or Twitter. You want to see what’s happening on Instagram or Pinterest or Youtube. Stop. Make yourself pause for 5-10 seconds. This is the key habit that makes the other two work. Take a deep breath. Think about whether you really want to fritter your life away doing those things all day, every day, or if you want to do something great. Choose great, most of the time.”

Again, practice the habit of being proactive instead of reactive. As Rushkoff explains, “the slower we respond—the more we do the net on our own schedule instead of the one we think it is imposing on us—the more respect we command from the people on the other side of the screen.”

Powers also cautions us to think before acting: “Don’t assume that the newest tools are the best choice for a given task.” Some times pen and paper are the right tools for the job.

 

 

5. As we become more deliberate in how we use technology and create more space for ourselves, we can find more time for real-world experiences.

This might include dinner with family, a walk, a live concert, or a long conversation with a friend over coffee (or gasp!, over the telephone).

As Rushkoff explains, the bias of media has always been toward distance.

“As the promoters of distance over the local, media have also promoted the agendas of long-distance interests over those of people in localities…Meanwhile, what is happening just outside our window is devalued. As we come to depend on the net for our sense of connection to each other and the world, we end up fetishizing the tools through which all this happens. We associate our computer screens and email accounts with our most profound experiences of community and connection, and mistake blog comments sections for our most significant conversations.”

Are face-to-face interactions more complex and less predictable than virtual ones? Of course. And this is the very reason we should seek them out. Raw experience is valuable, as is meeting people who think differently than we do. It’s important for us to leave our virtual bubble on a regular basis. In her recent New York Times piece, author Sherry Turkle eloquently describes this difference:

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference…

Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, eve on the most important matters…

And we use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves. So our flight from conversation can mean diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection.”

She describes young people “who have grown up fearing conversation” who show up on the job wearing earphones as a form of self-protection. “In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people—carefully kept at bay.

“We think our sips of online connection add up to a gulp,” observes Turkle in her book Alone Together. “They don’t.”

 

“Human relationships are rich,” observes MIT professor Sherry Turkle. “They’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves.”

 
It’s easy for us to target “young people” and label them as technology addicts. But such criticisms are reductive and only fuel the generation gap.

I recently participated in a discussion on technology and community at The Dublin School. As Brad Bates, the head of the school, pointed out, the younger generation’s skill and ease with technology will lead to new and exciting innovations. While not every student has the attention span for Moby Dick, many students do have the needed focus for science, programming, and engineering. Could it be that the younger generation’s habits and attention spans aren’t better or worse, but simply different?

Rushkoff urges us to revamp our school curriculums to include the essential language of programming. This is already happening in China and Iran, where students don’t waste time on commercial software, but instead, actually learn how computers work. “We teach kids how to use software to write, but not how to write software,” says Rushkoff. “This means they have access to the capabilities given to them by others.” We must accept “our roles as our programs’ true users,” Rushkoff states, “rather than subordinating ourselves to them and becoming the used. ” In other words, we can program or be programmed.

 

Rushkoff urges us to revamp our school curriculums to include the essential language of programming. This is already happening in China and Iran, where students don’t waste time on commercial software, but instead, actually learn how computers work. “We teach kids how to use software to write, but not how to write software.”

 
The solution isn’t blaming the younger generation or trying to tightly control their access to technology (a pointless venture anyway). The solution is education about the very issues we’re discussing here. We’re at a critical juncture, creating a blueprint for the future. It’s time to step back and make some deliberate choices about technology and education.

Not only do we need to teach programming as a skill and an art form, but we need to teach children to recognize that technology is a tool and that they have choices about how they use this tool. One of the best ways to counter technology and information addiction is to discuss the subject openly in both our homes and classrooms and to provide a model. If we’re unable to tear ourselves away from our laptops or smart-phones, then how can we expect our children to behave any differently?

Also, we must encourage real conversation and solitude among the younger generation. Here’s Turkle:

“In our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves. Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don’t experience them as they are. It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves.”

“We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.”

 

The solution isn’t blaming the younger generation or trying to tightly control their access to technology. The solution is education about the very issues we’re discussing here. We’re at a critical juncture, creating a blueprint for the future. It’s time to step back and make some deliberate choices about technology and education.

 

What are your own thoughts about technology and creativity? What methods do you use to maintain focus? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.

 

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