Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea of ubiquitous distraction — the notion that distractions are everywhere, and that it’s increasingly difficult to exist in a state without distractions.
The trouble is that distractions often don’t seem like distractions, and sometimes we don’t even consider something a distraction, even though it’s preventing us from doing what we should or even want to be doing, which itself seems like a pretty good definition of “distraction” to me.
Take checking Twitter, for instance. I love checking Twitter. There’s so much cool stuff on Twitter. Many days, it’s a gateway to something inspiring, thought-provoking, or just plain interesting. It has value, no question about it.
But at the same time, when you’re checking Twitter, it’s very difficult to do anything else, or at least do anything else well. It’s the case for single-tasking. The reason for this inability, I think, begins with the fact that checking Twitter requires you to receive information.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. We’re receiving information all the time, through all of our senses, and probably even when we’re asleep.
I believe an incompatibility exists between receiving information and, shall we say, creating your own information. That is, there is a tension between absorption and creation.
When you’re receiving information, it’s difficult to put out information. For example, it’s hard to listen when you’re talking. When you’re talking, you’re acting as an output. You’re sending words out into the air. When you’re listening, you’re receiving the words from someone else.
A talker’s output is a listener’s input.
Talking and listening at the same time is very difficult. We think we’re capable of doing both simultaneously, but more likely we are alternating in rapid succession between talking and listening.
Suppose I’m reading a book and therefore taking in external information. To understand what I’m reading, I need to pause and think about it. This process happens almost instantly, probably between sentences. That’s what punctuation is for. Otherwise, we would never have an opportunity to understand a thought.
Beyond mere understanding lies the act of pondering. To think about what I read, I need to stop reading and process it. I might have passing, reactionary thoughts to what I’m reading as I read it, but to truly ponder on it, I’m better off pausing to reflect.
Our inputs are innumerable. Twitter, Facebook, texts, books, radio, television, magazines, etc. Whenever we interact with these things, we are receiving information, and thus we are unable to create new information, whether we realize it or not.
With that in mind, it’s clear that reaching a creative state — that is, a state where creation is possible — is incredibly difficult.
Suppose you’re trying to come up with a creative, original thought, or otherwise do some kind of work wherein you’re making something out of nothing. Writing a blog post, a poem, a short story. Painting a picture. Composing a song. Something that requires you to be creative if you’re going to produce anything significant.
If you’re surrounded by inputs, that state of creation is going to be difficult to reach. How can you create something while you brain is busy taking in and understanding external information?
As long as you are surrounded by inputs, you will find no room for your creative output.
This relationship strikes me as insidious in the sense that we may never realize it’s happening.
Say it’s a Wednesday night, and I just queued Thursday’s blog post for publication. But, now I’m in trouble, because I’ve run out of ideas for potential blog posts. I’m all tapped out. But, I need to publish something on Friday morning. The readers depend on it. No matter, something will come to me over the course of the day.
I wake up Thursday morning and check Twitter and RSS. I catch up on the day’s news. Then, I put some music on while I take a shower. I listen to a podcast as I’m eating lunch. Read the news some more. More music or podcasts in the car on the way to work. Actual working while I’m at work. More music or podcasts on the way home. Read some more news while eating dinner.
And now I’m screwed because the day is over, and still no new ideas have come to me!
Well, how could they?
If you were taking in information all day long — news, music, podcasts, other people, etc. — then how could your brain possibly have had a chance to create something original? There was no space to create.
In his lecture, Cleese advises creating what he calls an “oasis of quiet” when it comes time to do your creative work. He recommends five things as necessary to reaching a creative state, but I’m only going to refer to two of them here. You can (and should) watch the video for the rest.
The first requirement is space, which Cleese says means, “sealing yourself off” from the world. Some place without inputs, without distractions.
The second requirement is time, as in a set period when you wrestle with your problem and only your problem, and after which you go back to your life. He recommends ninety minutes, as it generally takes a while to get used to being alone with your problem and letting the creative juices flow.
Cleese’s “oasis of quiet” is something increasingly rare these days because we are so often surrounded by inputs. In my example of trying to come up with a new blog post idea, I never allowed myself the opportunity to experience an “oasis of quiet”. I was always receiving external information, and thus my brain never had the opportunity to create something of its own, or, to pull knowledge from the air.
To do our best creative work, to really make something great, I believe we first need to build that oasis of quiet. Because there are so many inputs — and therefore so much noise — in our world today, and because we have become so acclimated to them, we do not realize how stifling they are to our creativity.
I’ll end with a quote from Cleese’s lecture:
It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent — like thinking — and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.
Things like Twitter, as wonderful as it is, are trivial when it comes to creation. Sure, you might discover something that inspires within you a new idea, but following that, the actually process of making something with that idea can only be achieved in an oasis of quiet.
It’s up to you to determine what your oasis looks like. Perhaps you’re sitting. Perhaps you’re pacing. Perhaps you’re alone, or in a crowded café. Perhaps you’re on the couch in the dark, or out in the sunshine.
Whatever it looks like, your oasis needs to afford you and your mind the space and time to create. To do that, you must eliminate inputs. And, you must be patient while you wait for your creativity to come out of the woodwork.
Take the time to turn off your inputs, and find the space and opportunity for your creative output to blossom.