Get Offline—Lose Track of Time

In these days of social distancing and less work—for many of us—we ought to have more time than ever to be creative and put energy into our artistic work. However, at the same time and for the same reasons, we are more online connected than ever. We are on our phones all the time and constantly hooked up on internet. Good for keeping some kind of social life when regular social life is almost nonexistent but less so for giving our mind liberty to be creative.

I have had to have a discussion with self. Consciously step down. Despite more time than ever, it’s been hard to concentrate and getting into a good flow of creativity. My prescription has been: Put my phone away when I want to do creative work.

The beeps and boops of our electronic lives keep us unnecessary busy. We live in a world of time management apps, hacks and tips. Anywhere you go, you might hear a cacophony of alerts sounding, tweets twittering, and the frenetic tip-tap of fingers typing off one more email or text in order to check that one last thing off the to-do list. Or being social. We are so busy—our devices tell us so. Best not to let a single step or typed word go uncounted or not answer the social call.

Even in these times of more time available, we are increasingly becoming micromanagers of our days, dividing our time into increasingly tiny chunks all in the name of progress and productivity. The result is less time to be creative, less freedom to settle our mind into the flow of creative work. Flow requires time uninterrupted.

Many of you I bet have heard of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow states as most conducive to deep creative work. He describes flow as a state in which people become so absorbed in their work that “nothing else seems to matter.” It’s in such states that we are most creative, when innovative problem-solving takes place and great ideas are hatched. What we have taken less seriously as a tech-obsessed culture, however, is the degree to which the electronic productivity tools, the frantic pace of work activity, and being constantly social on social media might be eroding our ability to engage in this most productive work. Particularly now when we are more online than ever.

Business school professors Forbes and Domm noted in an article published in 2004 that it can often seem as though creative flow and task-oriented efficiency are at odds: “Curiosity is open and playful, while drive is serious, competitive, and achievement-oriented,” the authors write. The apps in our lives tend to emphasize the latter (achievement) at the expense of the former (creativity). After all, how does a phone know whether an idea is truly original? How can a step counter track whether the stroll was one during which the walker had a brilliant insight?

Now that we are more online—and paradoxically have more time than ever—it might be important to create strategies for protecting those flow states in which we lose track of those seconds and minutes that our apps are so happy to report on. Here are three such small tweaks to decrease tech disruption and recapture flow.

1. Release your inner child
Work one day or afternoon a week with some creative production and away from any time-keeping device. Even better if you can work in nature or solitude. Be childlike and sprawl out on the floor—or on the ground. Give yourself the opportunity to have your work be an immersive sensory experience, with the tactile experience of doing something physically, spreading your ideas out in physical space to look at them. Get into it.

2. Lose time
If giving a whole day over this way seems scary, set out a specific chunk of time you can “lose.” Use a timer and decide that whatever happens within the hour or two you set for your creative task will be fine. Do not look at the timekeeper while working. Stop worrying about tracking your time in the security of knowing that the ding will let you know when you’re done.

3. Box out technology
Put your phone physically away, whether in a drawer or zipped into your purse or backpack. Turn off sound notifications on your computer. Use an internet-limiting tool such as Freedom, Self-Control or Focus. As the names of these apps indicate, these products limit the user’s access to distracting and disruptive sites creative workers so often go to when ideas are hard to push through, rather than staying in the moment of creative problem-solving.

At the end of the day, being in the flow is where we do our best work and are happiest. It might not always look like productivity, but in a world where everyone else is obsessively measuring and counting, maybe losing track of time is just the right kind of different.

58 thoughts on “Get Offline—Lose Track of Time

  1. i have to remind myself of this, too. i’m teaching (trying) pre-kindergarten online, two things that don’t naturally go together, have faculty, team, and all-school meetings online, blog read and write online, have social gatherings online, and do a lot of reading online. each day, i make it a point to step away and do something outside and unconnected or just sit quietly and read a book, write letters, or create art.

  2. So very true. Life online is all about distraction and losing real time in pursuit of connection and fear of missing out. I find when I’m out in the garden absorbed amongst nature time has a tendency to fly. When I’m engrossed in my music or writing a piece (with my phone tucked safely away) I’m far more productive and in the moment. Still, the temptation to be distracted never quite goes away. These are excellent tips for helping to achieve that balance Otto. Thanks!

  3. I think you are absolutely right, Otto! I’m somewhat hard of hearing, worn hearing aids all my life and do a bit of lip reading, and manage OK…I was in a professional occupation, occasionally gave presentations, have an active social life (on FaceTime and Zoom now!), but I have a friend who thinks I need to embrace technology to improve my hearing experience with apps. OK, they may work for some, but I don’t feel I need to be any more connected than I already am, and I’m not sure that there would be much of an improvement to balance out the stress and distraction!

    1. Technology has a lot of benefits. I have a friend who is using some amazing hearing aids. They are controlled by an app on the cell phone, can filter out background noise, can turn off all sound if he doesn’t want to hear or connect to his music, if that’s what he wants to do. Just a few of its possibilities. But I agree with you. There is a limit, too much connectivity can increase the stress and distraction level.

  4. I think a very direct way of doing this, which may not be so easy if you have to teach yourself, is to think of observation as a form of movement or a habit of movement. May sound odd, but key is its a relaxed form of movement. To observe the body has to be entirely free of stress. Both to move freely to observe and to make the calculation.

    If you do any form of relaxation exercise, do it before picking up a camera. Get use to the association I observe/ I move without stress.

    It eventually just becomes a habit. Method used and extensively in acting, the amount of observational detail required is high. It can actually itself produce very high degrees of stress as you are ‘social distanced’ from you’re subject.

    1. This sounds very interesting, Jeb. I think relaxation exercises have great benefits, but this is an approach – observation as a form of movement – that I haven’t heard about before.

      1. Its taught rather than written. R.A.D.A and other schools adapted aspects from Alexander technique in the 50’s, hybrid form with laban/ time and motion studies etc, observation/ movment parts from Alexander originally. Its useful with high pressure observation based work in particular but it helps with life in general. Observation/ stress not a good mix, you miss the detail and having to search for detail can be stressful particularly when it is essential you find it.

  5. Oh, I know what you are writing about here. Emails have increased tenfold and it does take concerted effort to turn off the equipment.Luckily I have gone to the valley a few blocks away and made wonderful discoveries. Time does disappear,as do the worries. Great blog!

  6. This week I finally activated a tablet I’ve had for 18 months, untouched, fearing that my faithful old laptop will die in the night, leaving me unable to post on WP. Shock, horror! I’m not at all sure that I will be able to write posts successfully on the tablet, or import photos, Otto, but at the present moment I have 3 of them chirping at me! The phone is permanently on silent mode, the laptop flips a message onto the screen, and now the tablet adds a merry jingle. I ask you- who needs it? I’m never happier than when I’m out walking, just camera and me 🙂 🙂

  7. Most people are so ‘connected’ that it becomes an addiction – one that’s seemingly impossible to escape.

    I read somewhere once that if you want to do something outside your normal routine, you have to consciously do it 14 days in succession and on the fifteenth day, you do it automatically without thinking about it. Could be worth a try for those wanting to ‘escape’ their daily connectedness to modern technology and finding it too hard.

    If you do everything on autopilot, perhaps tape a sticker to your piece of modern technology saying ‘don’t touch’ to switch your life back to ‘manual mode’ LOL 😀

    1. The problem with your suggestion, Vicki, is that if you have become addicted to being connected, you don’t know that you want to train yourself to disconnect. Denial is always strong in any addiction. Otherwise, I do agree with you. Tape has many uses. In my workshops I often suggest participants to tape the screen on their cameras so they don’t check it all the time instead of actually photographing.

  8. Since I have been out of jobs in my photography business, I got more creative than before in my own photography work. I use this as a chance to become more creative. As I have built a kind of softbox, with my translucent white curtains in my living room, shooting close ups, with reflectors, it works just perfect with my passion of floral photography. One has to become creative with the natural light sources, which are right there. That is my relaxation work during this crises and I take much joy out of it, doing what I am really craving for.

    1. I am sorry to hear about the lack of business, which certainly is worrisome. But you seem to have found a way to stay positive. Cool to read about your new creative streak using available light and translucent curtains. Time to show some of the work on your blog?

      1. Thank you Otto for your kind response, indeed I enjoy being creative. In the near future I will post some of my newest productions, yet at the moment I have difficulties to upload LR and PS on my spare Lab top, since my old one has given up.

  9. The rapid advances in communication technology have insidiously changed the lives of many. Instead of being a valuable tool it has become a demanding intrusion, often to a point bordering on addiction. The present circumstances have raised awareness of how we use time and the need for us to use time effectively. This requires a degree of prioritising (not regarding everything as urgent!) and should include, as you suggest, scheduled quiet time that is sacrosanct. Creativity needs breathing space. The notion of self-isolation has much to commend it!

    1. Indeed, breathing space is closely connect to creativity. And ye,s technology has become a demanding intrusion. The question is; is it self-inflicted or something that is impossible to avoid. If one believes in technological determinism, the later might be the right answer…

      1. We may not be able to change the prevailing culture but as individuals we have control over our personal behaviour – including, to a generous extent, how we choose to use our time.

  10. True. Outdoors and no phone – I work in my garden and walk in the forest. And these days I have taken to dabble with software more extensively. Unfortunately I have tired some of photography, but found inspiration to change my images in new ways. Stay safe and well.

  11. Otto, when you experience flow than the value of its presence is (usually) apparent. I agree with your observations. We’re living in a world where being busy has been the norm. Now that time’s illusion is even more untouchable, I hope that people find the joy in those quiet moments where silence and solitude are partners in the flow of inner forces. One’s creative energies can be unveiled and embraced, regardless of how they are used.

  12. This blog does ring close to home. Seems like since the home confinement requirements began, the social media has gone on steroids. Just in the field of Photography and Photoshop, everyone is sending out more E-mails on their videos, webinars, classes – lots for a small fee (which I understand in these tough times) – it is very overwhelming to me. Much of it is not of real value but it seems like so much more to go through. My husband and I figured out several years ago (when the kids were little) that you have to have balance in your life. If one thing gets to be too much (which was usually our jobs back then), you felt bad. Things like your exercise routine, visiting friends, doing favorite activities with the family and even spending time together, had gotten lost in the moment. Usually slowing down and bringing those things back into balance fixes this. Since social media has increased while stuck at home, it is easy to let it take over. And we wonder why we are unhappy??? Got to find some balance.

    1. Balance is important. Being more online sure doesn’t make anyone more happy – not for real. You point to some of the values that are important parts to the balance. Thank you, Syd.

  13. Sad but true, personally rarely use the phone as a communication tool, my PC is my tool, do I spend more time online because the crisis?
    I don’t think so, usually I spend the same amount of time everyday, but in my view, is already too much time, but there’s also periods when you feel responsible to answer to all those who seek you, out of a sense of duty, politeness, and reciprocity, after all we humans are social beings.
    The key question here it’s personal, do you feel you are using your time wisely, or just wasting it?
    And we all should act accordingly, and do what is proper to each of us.
    Best wishes Otto. 🙂

  14. I have a friend, a physician, who likes to remind his patients of an old axiom: just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. I’ve always believed the same applies to technology. Just because various social media platforms want me to become an obsessive consumer of their offerings, I don’t have to participate — and I’ve always chosen not to.

    Because of those choices, my life has remained much the same during these weeks. Of course my work makes a difference. If I were part of a corporate team, for example, I’d probably be Zooming with the best of them. But I’m not, thanks to the nature of my work. In the same way, I’ve limited my consumption of so-called ‘news,’ and avoid sources that substitute loud, obnoxious opinion for news. Partly because of that, I’m far less fearful than many people I know.
    I’m a little frustrated by limitations on travel, but even in that instance, I’ve been free to make day trips to interesting places. I may be an outlier, but I’m a happy one!

    1. Happy is good. In these times as any time. And I think you physician friend has adapted a thoughtful axiom for most things in life. Maybe particularly everything technology that is new. Saying so, I also recognize the value of new technology. But everything in moderation.

  15. Great advice, and well said. Since retiring my time has been my own, and I’ve found that first thing in the morning (after I wake up!) when it’s still quiet, can be the best time for processing photos. I don’t have problems with being interrupted but the internet can drag me down into the wormhole, so that’s the only thing I sometimes have a problem with. How wonderful it is to not worry about tracking time any more!! 🙂

  16. Those cell phone addictions are one of my pet peeves. I’ve even seen folks watching tv shows/movies while scanning their phones simultaneously. Fortunately– and in my favor… and my being retired– almost always both the date and time of day are of little importance. So my activities can be as random as I like. Have a good one, Otto.

  17. oh gosh, i have to stay online, coz of my biz… but i did get into the creativity of it today, made a few designs.. it was fun! i agree that we should be innocent and playful like a child sometimes… it’s good for the soul
    i really like the picture you put with this post, they are all on their phones, six feet apart.. so weird

  18. Leaving my phone in a different room has become pretty normal for me. Most of the time I am not even aware that I am doing it. Then I think, oh, maybe I should check it and I deal with anything that is there. As far as the computer goes I have found that early morning I can get things done that have to be done. Then I catch up on the world situation. At a certain point I can’t stomach any more and I walk away. I don’t go back the rest of the day or evening. I can tell you that I never thought I would see the day that I was always on the computer. I am pretty much a 24/7 kind of gal for my clients and they have come to expect it. I think I will be setting new perimeters when our new normal arrives.

  19. It’s maybe the fear to not being able to disconnect that has prevented me from getting a smart phone, Otto. I do own a simple cell phone,and that’s enough. I think it’s absolutely tragic that people are addicted to their electronic devices.

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