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.