Posted by: Liz Massey | November 6, 2010

The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus, Part 2: Getting Unplugged

Photo courtesy SXC.

In the first post in this series, we discussed evidence that indicates that a little distraction actually aids creative output. However, creativity is one area where “more” distraction is definitely not “better.” A small amount can cross-pollinate the imagination; a lot of distraction is simply chaos.

One of the biggest focus-busting culprits for creative people over the past generation has been the amazing new technology that’s become available for personal use. Think of all the gizmos that were either weren’t widely available or didn’t exist in 1985 that we now act as if we can’t live without – mobile phones, laptop computers, iPads, iPods, etc., etc. I was doing freelance writing as a teenager in 1985, and my approach to researching and delivering the work is dramatically different than 25 years ago. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t catch someone on their landline because they didn’t have an answering machine, or I had to visit the library to dig up a statistic. (I still go to libraries, though, because reference librarians rock, and because I satisfy my book-lust there rather than at the bookstore). And I haven’t mailed in a finished manuscript since Clinton was president.

There are a lot of advantages to the new technology if you’re an artist or innovator. You can collaborate with people all over the world, basically 24/7/365. I’ve argued elsewhere that “smart” mobile phones can actually help nonfiction writers do a better job. But all these new tools carry a mental price tag.

Research is revealing that our 21st century brains are adapting to the tsunami of tech-enabled information coming our way, but often they are adjusting in directions that diminish creative thought:

  • Studies done at the University of California-San Francisco and the University of Michigan indicate that constantly attending to electronic devices robs the brain of the downtime it needs to process new experiences and encode them into permanent memory.
  • Constant multitasking places a serious drain on attention and working memory, according to research published by Stanford University’s Professor Clifford Nass.
  • Many people have replaced long, relaxing breaks from work activities with what Sebastien de Halleux, co-founder of Electronic Arts’ subsidiary PlayFish, calls “micro-moments” of distraction. Video game creators are now creating mobile apps that users play for an average of two minutes at a time. Non-gamers may use their “micro-moments” to compulsively check e-mail or text. If you have a seemingly impossible-to-resist urge to check your mobile phone in line at the post office, you’re not alone.
  • The Internet’s increasing availability and always-on nature have created enormous competition for peoples’ alone time – crowding out a capacity for developing comfort with solitude and contemplation, both of which are recognized as hallmarks of highly creative people.

What Happens When You Unplug

Almost everyone experiences a little withdrawal when they put down their digital devices. However, two advantages to becoming distraction-free are apparent almost immediately: mental space opens up in which ideas can take root, and one’s relationship to the concept of urgency begins to change.

Jean Aw, organizer of the designer network, wrote that when she cut off her instant messaging, e-mail and social media use, she felt lonely and disconnected at first. But she was able to stay with the feeling long enough to reap results from being unplugged and share them with the online networks she has worked so hard to develop.

As she tells it:

“I’d find an amazing link, get excited, really want to share it …I wanted to tell someone! I’d find myself looking for that buddy list instantly. Then I’d try and fight the urge to tweet it. The strangest thing I did was look around the room, even though I was home by myself.

“(But) beyond the moment of loneliness, I found ME. I’d stop and think about what it was that excited me, perhaps delve a bit deeper into the subject, find even cooler details, and end up formulating a bigger feature post to share more thoroughly on NOTCOT.”

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel covered the urgency angle when he accompanied five neuroscientists on a river rafting trip down the remote San Juan River in southern Utah. The group of scientists, invited by David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, to experience first-hand what would happen if they spent an entire week away from digital connections, had among them several true believers in the advantages of technology. One of them, a professor waiting to hear about a $25 million grant, instructed his staff to alert him if the grant came through via the emergency satellite phone the rafting group was carrying.

But by the third day away from civilization, even this tech-savvy man was thinking differently about things:

“Time is slowing down,” (Art Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois) says. He has been moving quickly his whole life, since he left home at 15, and has elevated himself to a position of great influence. It’s the second day on the river, and he has finished packing his tent. He’s the first of the morning to do so, but he feels no urgency.

He has not read any of the research papers he brought. And the $25 million e-mail? “I was never worried about it. I haven’t thought about it,” he says, as if the very idea were silly.

Tips for Unplugging

Getting unplugged is not an all-or-nothing affair. Most of us depend on mobile or online tools to perform our work or enhance it. Author Leo Babauta, writing in his book The Power of Less, suggests experimenting with finding the absolute minimum number of times you can connect electronically in a given time period (day/week/month). The point isn’t to disappear from the online world, he says, but rather to find the best way to meet one’s goals in a manner that aligns with our deepest values and leaves plenty of time for real-world activities.

Here are some great ways to get started with the unplugging process:

  1. Behance founder Scott Belsky suggests building “windows of non-stimulation” into one’s daily schedule. During these windows, engaging in creative activity, absorbing new information and completing important (rather than simply urgent) tasks take priority over everything else.
  2. Assess how you’re using your “micro-moments.” Could you replace compulsive Facebooking or texting with thoughts of envisioning your next creative project, or making a list of art supplies to pick up for your studio?
  3. Find ways, as Aw did, to let your offline time deepen and enhance your online time. Is it possible to take an idea you found online, explore it away from your technological tools and take it to the next level, then share on your blog or your social media accounts later?
  4. If you’re over 40, or work with people who are, you might consider going out for coffee or a beer – a face to face encounter, other words – and discuss how technology has changed your creative process. Could you still innovate using tools from the 1980s?

More Resources and Links on Unplugging

Internet time tracking apps: In The Power of Less, Babauta recommends Toggl, yaTimer and Tick as helpful tools for tracking what you do online in order to determine what qualifies as effective use of the Internet for you.

Get the most out of a retreat

Alyson Stanfield, of ArtBizBlog, provides wonderful tips for getting the most out of an artist retreat in this short post.

A Magical Block of Time: Lessons Learned from my Digital Sabbatical

Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens blog recently spent a week away from her usual digital habits and this post recaps the insights she gained from it.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liz Massey and Dr John Ortner, Amanda Hirsch. Amanda Hirsch said: Excellent advice: RT @lizmassey68 Second post in my creative focus series offers tips for getting digitally "unplugged" […]

  2. […] great, doesn’t it? However, as we saw in our previous post on focus, the temptations of encroaching personal technology, not to mention the design of the […]

  3. […] 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 addressed “outside-in” techniques […]

  4. […] posts in this series that advocate the achievement of greater creative focus by developing plans to unplug, single-task, cultivate flow, and collaborate to suggest you can increase focus by eschewing plans […]

  5. […] blog series I posted last winter. This meditation is based upon the post I did on the importance of unplugging from digital tools and toys in order to aid […]

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