How often do you find yourself mindlessly swiping, tapping and typing on your mobile phone? While we're all guilty of filling moments with these distractions, they may be killing concentration and thought. Jay Fields explains how a few small tech changes saved his creative brain power.
Photo remixed from Leremy (Shutterstock).
I listen to audio books while I work out. I've been known to leave earworms 'Rapid Italian' on while trying to go to sleep. I read books on trains. I answer emails while eating dinner. I clear out my Google Reader while watching TV with my wife. I wanted to learn Ruby and Blackjack perfect strategy, so I wrote a perfect strategy simulator in Ruby. I'm a multi-tasking machine. I am the worlds most productive man, or so I liked to pretend.
About four years ago at a conference in São Paulo, Chad Fowler told the audience to delete every feed in their blog reader if they wanted to gain an incredible amount of productivity. I was appalled. I already believe that engineers don't spend nearly enough time staying current, and Chad was telling the audience to spend even less time reading about current events. I had (and have) way too much respect for Chad to call bullshit, but I definitely didn't agree. Then again, I'm aggressive about removing noise from my subscription list, so I chalked up the disagreement to him recommending that the audience remove what were likely very noisy subscription lists anyway — probably a net positive act.
A few years later I found myself on a train from New York City to Greenwich, Connecticut, listening to the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance audiobook. The book changed my perspective greatly, and I'll never forget the line: I haven't really had a new idea in years. The following paragraph haunted me as well:
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for it...like the travelling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.
As I said, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance changed my perspective. I began to look back at the last few years of my life, and I felt like my creativity had been stunted. At one point in my life I would stare out the window of a plane for several hours a week pondering whatever technical problem that was troubling me. But for the last several years I've been 'productive' by listening to an audiobook or reading something on my iPad. I've been listening, but I haven't been thinking, not deeply.
If you listen to the people around you, they are saying the same things - whether they know it or not. I'm sure at one time you read an article where a CEO swore they were most productive while they were on a plane, unreachable. Just last week a story made the rounds about a company that moved to Hawaii temporarily. In that story they describe how walks on the beach brought a greater understanding, something that probably couldn't have happened while they were all distracted by the day-to-day activities of living in Silicon Valley. And I now believe that Chad was talking about the same issue — distractions (masked as productive tasks) stealing your creativity.
I'm convinced that my iPhone was the root of my creativity issues. Life is full of 'waiting time' — waiting for the train, waiting to see your doctor, waiting in the lift, waiting in line at airport/supermarket/cafe, and waiting at the bar to meet your friends. Pre-iPhone I would spend this waiting time pondering anything that was troubling me. Now, I open Safari on my iPhone to see who is the latest injury on the FSU, or who's tweeting about what (seems like it's mostly sponsorship requests these days). I don't spend that time thinking about anything, I spend that time reading — reading about things that have very little impact on my life, but seem to always more than fill my waiting time.
At least, that's what I used to do. Now, I've moved anything that can steal my waiting time to the second page on my iPhone. It's no longer taunting me to check Twitter, Facebook, sports scores or anything else. My main page allows me to get things done if I need to do them, but it doesn't offer me anything to fill my 'waiting time'. Those apps are just a page away, but not having them staring at me when I unlock my phone reminds me that I need that time to think, even if it's not deep thinking, I need to 'do' less and 'think' more.
Even this small step has led to better organisation in my mind. Now that I'm not 'productive' 100 per cent of the time, I find myself solving issues with more innovation and greater efficiency. The small step and the noticeable improvement have led me to make larger changes — I still multitask as much as I can, but I also set aside time to stare out the window. No agenda, no priorities, just stare and let my mind go wherever it needs to go. After making these changes, I feel better. I have more mental energy to produce innovative solutions at work, and I find that I'm getting things done in a way that leads to greater long-term productivity. My priorities feel right, if you will.
This isn't the kind of thing I usually write about, but the impact that my changes have made on my life compelled me to share. And, as I already said, if you listen, more and more people are saying the same thing, even if they aren't using the same words. Technology has driven us to greater 'productivity', but often at the cost of deep concentration and thought. Not everyone is OK with that, and more and more people are beginning to push back in their own ways.
Is Productivity Killing Your Creativity? [Jay Fields' Thoughts]
Jay Fields is a software engineer with a passion for discovering and maturing innovative solutions.