The fact that many people in this culture are insanely busy and distracted is not news to anyone. According to this article I recently read, the constant attachment to smartphones and our need to feel productive by doing something at all times leads to a lowered ability for focused, deep-thinking work. It also means less time simply spent daydreaming and ruminating, activities which are central to our ability to be creative in all aspects of our lives.
Think about it: how comfortable are you these days with just sitting there, letting thoughts flow? How likely are you to check your phone at any moment you aren’t occupied with something else? How often do you do a routine activity such as the dishes, or walking, without also listening to music, a podcast, or the tv? Even when you sit down to write, or do other creative work, do you get antsy if you don’t immediately plunge in? If you run out of ideas and have to sit for a few minutes, do you allow yourself that time, or do you jump up and do something (go get a snack, check Facebook, decide the rug is filthy and needs vacuuming NOW)?
I know this happens because I do all these things myself (well, not the vacuuming… although when I hit a blank space on the page or in my mind, even that can seem more appealing). We’ve become wired to think multi-tasking is the best way to spend our time and assure our productivity. We’re addicted to smartphones and social media. If you’re like me, you use SelfControl or another app to block sites you normally turn to every time the muse lags for more than three seconds.
The problem is, our distracted minds are becoming so commonplace that it’s actually rewiring our brains. That’s scary. So if we want to do our best creative work, what can we do?
Meditate – this one makes the top of the list because, duh. The best way to train your monkey mind to be still is to sit and breathe, focusing on the breath, for a specific length of time. Or chant, if that’s your thing. You can start small – try 5 minutes – and build up from there. Just be aware of the experience, without judgment. Your mind wandered? Oh well, just bring it back to the breath. Off it goes again, like a toddler that’s just learned to walk – bring it back again, gently. There are many traditions and teachings to choose from. I use the Insight Meditation Timer, which not only has a general timer so you can choose exactly how long you want to meditate, but has thousands of guided meditations, from teachers across the spectrum of practices.
Yoga – sometimes called “meditation in motion,” this is a practice of becoming full aware of your body and mind while moving into different poses. Tai Chi has a similar meditative, slowing-down quality that helps reconnect your mind, body and spirit to each other.
Walk – a simple walk, without headphones (or your phone) can allow your mind to wander. Running or swimming laps can also do this for some people. There’s no agenda except for the number of laps (or the time/distance you’ve set for yourself) so you can just be in the moment.
Use the Pomodoro Method – In the Pomodoro Method, you set a timer for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5, then repeat, as long as it takes to do whatever task you’ve set for yourself. If you think of something else to do while the timer is running, you make a note of it to do later (on your break or during another “pomodoro”) and keep doing the task at hand.
Use website blockers – SelfControl is my favorite because you plug in the sites you want to block, and the amount of time you want to block them for, and once it’s set you can’t stop it until the time you’ve set is up, even if you reboot your computer. There are other options for PCs and Macs, so you may need to experiment with the one that is right for you.
Practice doing one thing at a time – when doing dishes, just do dishes. When driving, just drive. And so on. This is very simple but can be really hard. Once our brains are used to constant input, the lack can be disorienting. If you’re not used to being alone with your thoughts, boredom and restlessness can set in quickly. Resist!
Play – Do something that allows you to get into a flow state, like coloring, painting, shooting baskets, or some other absorbing activity. There doesn’t have to be a point to it – that is the point. Journaling can fall into this category if you’re just freewriting, not taking your hand from the page.
Do nothing – That’s right. Nothing. Sit in a chair on the porch and stare at your yard. Take a bath. Sit on a park bench and watch the world go by. Sit in a cafe with a cup of tea. Sitting by a body of water – ocean, lake, stream – can be a powerful way of reconnecting with yourself through doing nothing. As with meditation, you may have to work your way up to allowing yourself this “nothing” time. If you have a houseful of people, you may need to get out of the house to allow this to happen. Do what you have to do.
But, you say, I already can barely squeeze my creative time in as it is! How do I have time for one more thing, even nothing? Take 10 minutes, when you can. Get into the habit of these practices, and watch your time, energy, and creativity open up.
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