Posted by: Liz Massey | October 21, 2010

The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus, Part 1: A Little Distraction is a Good Thing

Photo courtesy of SXC.

Today is the opening post in a new series, “The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus,” which will look at the best strategies for engendering creative productivity and success.

Most of us have been exposed to popular time management/organizational programs, such as GTD, Steven Covey’s “First Things First,” etc. Many methods, developed to boost productivity in the world of business, emphasize a laser-like narrowing of attention in order to get more done.

And it really is hard to be productive when you are perpetually distracted, whether by your own tendency toward Attention Deficit Disorder or a tidal wave of technological tools and toys. However, one of the foundations of creative thought is being able to draw from a mind that is fully stocked with images, sounds, perceptions, and metaphors. That pile of random mental goodies is quite often the mulch that feeds the creation of fertile new ideas.

This creativity-needs-distraction thesis was tested recently by Harvard scientists examining the performance of university undergraduates. Researchers found that students who were the most creative — based both on tests of creativity and real-world achievements — were those who exhibited “low latent inhibition,” that is, a relatively poor ability to filter out distractions in their environment. The same inability to ignore the drone of the air conditioner or other people’s conversations at a party also seems to allow a richer mix of thoughts to be held in a person’s working memory.

And it’s really no surprise that a rich thought mix leads to more creative ideas. Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, documented the way in which remarkable ideas emerged during the Renaissance from people interacting at the intersection of different fields, cultures and industries. Closer to the present day, “open” forums such as universities and salons or coffeeshops have offered artists and innovators a space in which to interact and build off of each others’ ideas. The end result has been ideas that are arguably more robust and amazing than if each participant had been slaving away, alone, in his or her studio or garret.

The key to turning the waterfall of internal and external stimuli into the creative equivalent of hydroelectric power is to develop a system for “curating” one’s thoughts and use the fruits of distraction productively. As science blogger Jonah Lerher puts it, in a post on the above-referenced Harvard study,

“The problem isn’t distractibility per se – the problem is distractibility coupled with a failure to curate our thoughts, to monitor the relevancy of whatever is loitering in working memory. … Our goal shouldn’t be to ignore everything beyond earshot – that would inhibit our creativity, and keep us trapped in a very narrow world. Instead, we should keep on searching for those smart voices, so that we can remix the right data inside our head.”

Everyone’s system of curation is different, as our minds, creative disciplines and creative goals are different. I’ve listed several components of my system, which is primarily aimed at creating content for this blog and building my network of connections to creative people everywhere.

  1. My Yahoo. I have built an RSS aggregator full of feeds from blogs I want to follow. The line-up changes regularly, as some sites are shut down and new ones pop up that I want to know more about. An aggregator is a sane way to monitor feeds – all the information comes TO you, so you can take it all in from the same platform. There are a number of free aggregators out there, but I like My Yahoo’s ability to organize feeds into “pages.” I sort mine by topic – coaching, artist blogs, blogs by personal friends, etc.
  2. Delicious. Social bookmarking freed me from having to keep all my great link finds on one computer, in one web browser. I can access my bookmarks from anywhere with an Internet connection. The tagging feature makes it easy for me to find related bookmarks later – good thing, too, since I now have more than 1,500 of them! For added cross-pollination fun, I will sometimes search the bookmarks of other Delicious users to find recommended resources on a given topic – it gives very different results than Google!
  3. Google Docs/ I mention these two programs because I am just beginning to explore their potential as sharing tools for collaborative projects. Both of them have dramatically lessened my e-mail chaos level. Using programs that offer Web-based interfaces free up storage space, and make communication or file-sharing of work-in-progress much easier and less cumbersome.

Related links

Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind –

Reporter John Tierney discusses recent research that affirms that the “incubation effect” of a wandering, unfocused mind can actually foster creativity and help solve problems.

When you Care Enough to Aggregate the Very Best

Guy Kawasaki, in his How to Change the World blog, discusses how to set up an RSS aggregator using the MyAlltop feature of his Alltop site, which he calls “the online magazine rack of the Web.”

More Than Worthy: Create an Online Dashboard for Your Creative Project

An early Creative Liberty post, in which I walk readers through the basic steps of how to set up an RSS aggregator for the purpose of researching one’s creative passions online.



  1. Very interesting post, although it’s added another book to my already too long reading list! I’m glad to have found your blog.

    Over the years, I’ve collected numerous examples of the “remarkable ideas” generated when people from different fields interact.

    You can find one of these examples in my recent post: Innovation – One Key Catalyst

    Thanks again for your interesting post.

    • Thanks so much for your comment Rick! I’ll have to check out your post! –Liz 🙂

  2. Love your thinking here and thanks for synthesizing some great information and sharing such helpful links.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about allowing time for “distraction” (and “curating” the variety of great creative things that appear from that time) AND also allowing time for deep focus. Two recent articles that look at both sides of the argument (both for and against distraction) are great food for thought and have led me to structure my days with time for creative distraction and time for deep focus. The best of both worlds and good for our minds. Here are the articles:

    Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

    “Delinkification” is bunk: Linking is good for you

    • Joan,
      Thanks so much for your feedback and the links. I’m definitely going to take a look!
      I wanted in this post to get across the idea that focus isn’t an either/or proposition — it’s definitely “both/and”!
      –Liz 🙂

  3. […] the first post in this series, we discussed evidence that indicates that a little distraction actually aids […]

  4. […] Photo courtesy of SXC. Today is the opening post in a new series, "The Creative Person's Guide to Focus," which will look at the best strategies for engendering creative productivity and success. Most of us have been exposed to popular time management/organizational programs, such as GTD, Steven Covey's "First Things First," etc. Many methods, developed to boost productivity in the world of business, emphasize a laser-like narrowing of attention … Read More […]

  5. […] relating to maintaining one’s creative focus. Our first three posts (on the positive value of distraction, how to unplug from techno-distraction, and how to accomplish more by single-tasking) have mostly […]

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