Last time, I talked about the dangers of distraction, and how being constantly busy and distracted can actually alter our brain function. It is good to be aware of the distractions in our lives, and the ways we can unintentionally sabotage our ability to work deeply.
But what can we do about inevitable distractions that life hands us? Like it or not, most of us can’t opt out of our families, jobs, and other commitments (although we can think about limiting those other commitments, learning to say No in order to protect our time to create). Retreats and residencies are an option for a few, but they are temporary time-outs. Unless, like May Sarton, we embrace a life of solitude, and have the wherewithal to make it so, we live in the messy reality of the present, where our schedules are often dictated by external necessity, and plans can be upset in an instant.
Often this is one of the biggest challenges to our plans: life happens. We set a schedule, decide what we want to do – and something comes up. Illness in the family, a child’s emergency, unexpected visits from out-of-town friends, a last-minute work project…. This topic is on my mind a lot since my schedule is often unpredictable due to caretaking my elderly mother: How to keep moving forward when my mind, and my attention, are often pulled in a very different direction from my creativity? When I’m at her place, my schedule is based on hers, and my attention is frequently diverted by the tv, which is quite loud owing to her hearing loss. So, I have to modify my schedule, and be flexible. My 15 minute rule comes in handy here – if you have 15 minutes, you can do something. It’s not ideal, but life rarely hands us the ideal conditions to create. If we tell ourselves, “I can only write with my lucky pen/ if I have at least an hour/am listening to this particular piece of music (or whatever),” you will miss many opportunities to do the work.
There are times, of course, when we need to go deep, and we need time and space and attention to do that. But in those moments in between, we have opportunity. There are times when we have to “experience the distraction and do it anyway.” We have to create, not just in spite of distraction, but to find a way to use it. Some people like listening to music while working because they feel that the sound takes over the top layer of their attention, letting them go deeper. Other people feel they must have absolute silence or they can’t focus.
I’m not here to tell you which is better – we’re all different – but learning to write despite the inevitable distractions (or around them) is a necessary skill if you’re going to get the work done. We can’t be too precious about it, if it becomes just another excuse not to do the work. If it becomes about making excuses, avoiding the work because of resistance, that doesn’t serve us. It can be tough, but keeping the writing going, even in the margins, keeps us engaged in the work, and in our creative lives. Keeping that connection alive, in any way you can, is crucial. If not, it’s easy to spiral into doubt and negativity (Will I ever write again? Maybe I should just give up. It’s not that good anyway…). Living a creative life is not easy, but it’s up to us to persevere, to keep going in whatever way we can. It’s a practice of self-care: we’re better, happier people for indulging in our creative pursuits. So make a commitment to yourself: what is the minimum you can do no matter what?