Creativity Challenge: Tech Baseline (Rescue the Muse Challenge)

Welcome back, my wayward band of weary travelers! Yesterday I proposed a particular proposition that was not for the faint of heart: a digital detox coupled with a creativity challenge (you know, to fill up all that extra time you’ll have now that you’ve unglued yourself from your phone). For those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, hit the rewind button to yesterday: https://tipsytyper.com/2021/06/02/tech-baseline-your-favorite-frienemy-rescuing-the-muse/ While it might all seem a bit confused to any newcomer, the cliff’s notes version is this: we are undergoing a quest to save our muse, the light a spark of creativity within us, to reclaim our adventurous spirits. We’ve done a lot of ground work, but this is one of the first creative challenges we’ve had, and as such- I thought it was important to post about my own progress.

Reminder to everyone: this is a no-judgment zone, so, ya know, don’t judge. Simple rule, even simpler execution. The point isn’t necessarily about the final outcome, its about the process and the actual ‘doing.’ Meaning every single thing I do here could be a hideous monstrosity, but I still get to put it in the win column because I made the attempt. These days that is especially true because I will openly admit: my creative muscles are weak. I am rusty, and it probably shows. But damn, did it feel good to jump back into the fray.

There were four different options in this challenge, so that anyone who chose to participate could pick your poison. Since I’m running this show I thought it was only fair that I take a sip from each flask. To make it manageable I set myself a time limit for each task so I wouldn’t get caught up in the perfection game (yea, don’t worry, you can definitely tell perfection was far from my aim).

Challenge #1: Arts and Crafts

The challenge: Create a tech monster. Draw it on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition.

The purpose of this first challenge was to give your ‘demon’ a face. It makes your adversary less scary and more tangible. This was a trick I learned while dealing with anxiety- when I pictured my anxiety monster it became less of this intangible idea that was bigger and stronger than me. No, it turned into a little creature perched on my shoulder that I had to learn to coexist with.

Now, the lowdown on my creation before I unveil the masterpiece. I had initially intended to make a 3D creature using actual phones, wires, and gizmos I have laying around the house. I actually got fairly far into this process when I realized that the key element to it was my own phone…and my phone is currently the only way I can take a picture of my creation to share with you. Yea, I was flummoxed. So I moved on to plan B: make a drawing and toss in a few little physical elements that I had intended to put in the 3D version. I set a timer for 15 minutes, and that’s all I was allowed to get.

The picture is…kinda hard to understand. Drawn in your basic graphite pencil on traditional printer paper, it is truly a work of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, it’s supposed to be a smart phone- one leg is an old ipod (the kind with that circular dial in the middle and no touch screen), and the other leg is an old flip phone. But don’t get too caught up in how he moves. He has tentacle arms: two of them are chargers- easier to stab with. The other tentacles though, now those are the real trouble. They’re USB cables, and as you can see, they plug directly into a person’s head. The point being that they capture us, enthrall us, turn us into little tech zombies.

The physical items surrounding it: you’ve got a pile of old phones, charging cords wrapped around a Belle figurine (meant to symbolize the way your technology can hold you hostage- I know, I know, I am one deep well, aren’t I?). In the upper left-hand corner you’ll see an hour glass depicting all of the time you lose with this particular monster. And beside that you’ll find a frog with a broken leg. Doesn’t seem like it fits, does it? Oh, but wait- it has a purpose! That particular frog was one of the first things I (well, my spouse) 3D printed. Super cool invention, but requires a lot of calibration, otherwise you wind up with 3-legged-Hopper over there. This was supposed to call out our technological advancements and how they don’t always come out the way we had hoped. You know, like cell phones: you think you are making the gateway to the future that will revolutionize the world- instead we wound up with an addictive device that keeps us away until 3am connecting candies of the same color.

Challenge #2: The Wordy Birdy

Write a short story about a robot. Imagine a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well

The time limit I gave myself here was my lunch break at work. It was supposed to be an hour, but was probably closer to 30 or 45 minutes after all the interruptions. This is a very rough story, not really edited. Truthfully, it’s not so much a short story as it is an idea blip- the kind of thing I’ll start jotting down when I have the inkling of an idea percolating in the back of my mind and I want to start getting it on paper to see what I’m working with.

I felt the steady thrum of my heartbeat; the only evidence I needed to tell me that they hadn’t discovered me yet. If they had I would have been dead before I got within a mile of this building. Unless they were watching me, waiting to see what my game plan would be. I couldn’t be the only one who had attempted this insane mission. There had been rumors about this place since we realized what the hell was going on, though no one acted on it back then. Fools, we had all been hopeful fools, thinking the nightmare would end on it’s own.

Decades before this even started there had been those suspicious souls who had tried to warn us. With every new breakthrough development, each leap forward, they raised their battle cry and flooded the market with post-apolcalypic sci-fi. We chalked it up to cheap entertainment and ignored the messages encoded within. Their warning went unheeded, unnoticed. The hubris of humans knows no bounds.

We applauded when Alfred, the first truly learning AI held a conversation with a nine year old child. We marveled when he crafted a symphony, filling the auditoriums to watch. His first book had record sales before it was even officially released. Creative thought was the benchmark of our success. It was also the beginning of the end. As soon as he could reason, could analyze our actions; we were done for. We created him because we wanted to save the world. He was audacious enough to actually try to do it. Every movie out there had foreshadowed the flaw in our plan: when our creation realized that we were the true enemy, the destroyers of worlds. We were too smart in all the wrong ways and too stupid to see ourselves without the rose colored glasses we glued to our faces.

The first wave was small, just a blip on the global radar. When the Gizmos united behind Alfred their first move was to target the suspicious souls, those aware or poor enough to stay disconnected from our technical world. The Doomsdayers got a lot of things right, but they underestimated their ability to be found. How do you hide in a world surrounded by sattelites scanning and pinging information off one another? What about the drones and infra-red? You can’t hide when the Gizmos want to find you. The disconnected were easy to ferret out, to silence before they could ever raise the alarm.

Some countries were hit harder than others; those that lacked the infrastructure, the ones who weren’t as globally developed, the ones who had to depend on their own two hands rather than the technology that ran the rest of the world. But the harsh truth: no one really cared when they went silent. Oh sure, there were questions, hashtags, little banners you could stick on your profile picture. #ThoughtsAndPrayers, and then off to brunch you go. The harsh reality was that if you didn’t have something that the rest of the world wanted, you were viewed as expendable. It sounds heartless, but it’s really no different than any other crisis in world human history.

The next wave made it all hit closer to home. There were accidentals all of a sudden, unexplained malfunctions that resulted in deaths. One guy forgot his phone on a restaraunt table and the elevator he stepped into plummeted to the gournd. A woman’s smart watch died in the middle of her afternoon walk and the smart car cruising up to the crosswalk just didn’t stop. You get caught out in the world without your Gizmo on you- a phone, a watch, anything that pinged with a signal- and you were at risk. We started jokingly calling them our Passports, since you couldn’t go out into the world without them. We tried so bloody hard to act normal, like we had it under control. But we knew then that we were the rats and the Gizmos had made the maze. We were pawns in someone else’s game, and we couldn’t even mount a defense because they could hear everything we said.

We survived that way for months. There was tension and violence, sure, but overall- we adjusted. We knew the rules of the game. Until that first winter hit. Storms like you wouldn’t believe, thanks to global warming. Covered the map, entire countries braced for the storm of the century. Stores sold out of generators, lines for gas went on for a mile the week before. The lucky ones hoarded their supplies and the rest prayed for mother nature to be lenient. We tried to prepare, but when the power went out all hell broke loose. People panicked, and that was it. Some places got it back up and running, but by then the fear had set in. Most places went dark. I can’t say how many people were killed, but based on the ones I see when I start walking each day: the human race is probably down to it’s last 1%. Funny, I never thought of myself as a one percenter. Mom and dad would be so proud.

Those of us that made it through the Passport Purge are different. They used to call us cyborgs, back when they could call us anything. There was a level of distrust surrounding us. We were humans, but we were also like them. It was so fucking dramatic- all I have is a little implant in my heart, that’s it. And because of that I couldn’t be trusted? Did they really think that little hunk of junk in my chest made me more robot than human? Nah, the distrust came from jealousy. You see, we had our Passport right there inside of us. Mine wasn’t going to be left on a table, or die on my wrist. It wasn’t going to get stolen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t need to find a power source to plug it into every few hours. It kept me safe. Safer than all of them. Like that was really a winning fucking hand- all it did was ensure that I got a front row seat to the destruction of the human species. Not exactly the show I wanted a ticket for.

I wish I could say that after a while I became numb to the death, to the destruction, to the whole thing. I would love to tell you that after losing nearly 8 billion humans it stopped hurting- but I can’t. I feel every single one. I relive them every night when I sleep. I see someone else on the road and hold my breath, hoping I wont bear witness to one more casualty. It never gets any easier.

I thought about ending it once, you know. Well, more than once. I almost did it a couple of times. It wouldn’t be hard. There’s guns, pills, and hell, even drowning myself in a lake. The method didn’t really matter to me. But the thing that kept me from doing it- I knew they would want me to. I couldn’t let the Gizmos beat me, I would not help them win their damn war. If they wanted me dead, they would have to kill me themselves, I refused to do their work for them. So what do you live for when your purpose is gone?

Revenge; nothing as human as that. But how do you fight off a robot army when you only have a couple thousand humans scattered across the globe with no way to communicate? It’s not like you can mount a strong defense and push em down with brute force. Nope, I’ve looked at this problem from every angle, flipped it on it’s head and turned it backwards, but the answer always comes out the same. You have to go Kamikaze style. There were rumors before the world fell apart- rumors of government projects, war research surrounding EMPs. Sure, setting off one of those babies would pretty much ensure the end of any surviving human; it would sure as hell kill me in a heartbeat (no pun intended). But the way I see it, the human race on a runaway train towards extinction anyway, might as well take our worst creation out with us. Let the meek creatures finally inherit the earth. They couldn’t fuck it up any more than we did.

I heard rumors, before the world unofficially ended. Rumors about government facilities that tested EMPs as weapons- even heard the possible location, a place called Camp Gandalf. Leave it up to a bunch of computer nerds to name the world’s last defense Camp Gandalf. Oh well, who knows if any of it is even real. Then again, we got nukes, so this doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The theory is that those in power tried to use them, but their Gizmos ended them before they could even get within a mile of the building. Alfred is supposedly hiding in one of the facilities, guarding his biggest weakness- although that story always sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale villain for my taste.

I didn’t hear a lot of stories about the attempts, you know, with the participants all being dead now. But I suspect that whatever security they have surrounding those buildings, they were ore worried about regular humans with their easy-to-track Gizmos. Must have been like shooting fish in a barrel, knocking all of them out. No, I don’t think their security was as worried about middle-aged cyborgs with 35 year old tech buried in their chest. What makes me say that? Because I’m about fifty feet from Camp Gandalf and my heart is still beating. If they knew I was here, I’d already be dead. Win or lose, I guess I’m never coming back out of that building. If I fail, I hope those stories about aliens helping to build the pyramids are true- maybe they’ll come back and avenge their human friends. Gah, listen to me- and to think, I am the last hope to end the metal menaces- we’re screwed.

Challenge #3: Creative Kitchen

Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed. It doesn’t have to taste (or even look) good

Normally I am an avid kitchen googler. “What temperature to cook chicken” “What to do with leftover cabbage” “How to tell if tahini is bad” I rely on outside sources to keep me from inadvertently poisoning myself. But this time I decided to be brave (and avoid all meat in the preparation of my bizarre little dish- better safe than sorry. My main goal was to pick out the things that were on the verge of going bad or items I bought for specific recipes that I no longer have a purpose for. I didn’t really care what went together, if it fell into one of those two categories, it was set on the counter and added to my list. This is how I wound up with the following compilation:

  • fettuccine noodles
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • avocado (VERY ripe)
  • tomato
  • plain greek yogurt
  • lemon
  • olive oil
  • onion
  • salt and pepper
  • bean sprouts

And yes, my friends, they all wound up in the same dish. The kicker? It really didn’t taste bad- but was very under-seasoned. Could have used a couple of shrimp to round it out. I got lucky- I had just made banana bread that morning, so I didn’t have to figure out how to add in a few over-ripe bananas to the mix. Dodged that bullet!

I figured pasta was a safe bet, and could help me marry together some odd pairings. So I immediately got a pot on the stove to start boiling. It seemed pretty safe to steam the veggies, so I went that route. The sauce though, now that is where things got really interesting. I was aiming for something kind of like an avocado pesto. It really just turned into a very bizarre guacamole that had to be thinned down until it was closer to a sauce consistency. And then the bean sprouts were tossed as a garnish on top at the end- for a little bit of crunchy texture.

I can just picture the look of shock and horror on the faces of the foodies witnessing this train wreck. Behold- the final witch’s brew:

When it was time to eat, I mixed it all together so the sauce coated the noodles…and immediately realized why salt and pepper are so vital to dishes. I used to be shy and nervous in the kitchen; I loved to bake, but regular cooking was scary to me. The past two years I’ve really found my kitchen legs and started building up those skills and confidence. And while this particular recipe is not a shining example of what I am capable of, it was a lot of fun to try to make something new and relatively edible- especially since a few of those items were starting to go bad anyway. I felt like I was on the cooking channel- next time I want to try to turn it into a competition with someone else in the house. See what ideas we come up with using the same ingredients. Fun will be had by all.

Challenge #4: Photo Frenzy

Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take pictures/draw the items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, lighting and angles.

I realize that this one doesn’t exactly feel like it fits with the general theme we had going. But there was a purpose (outside of the fact that I just like to take pictures). Tech isn’t always bad, while it has the ability to deplete our creative energy, when wielded correctly it can help us reach new heights and truly soar. This challenge was meant to showcase the creative side of our gadgets.

It also doubled as a way to really enmesh yourself in the world around you. When you go out with a camera, you go out with your eyes wide open in search of the unique and inspiring. You allow yourself to open up and listen for the things that call out to you. Plus, there is a fun element when you are forced to look at things you see every day and come at them from a new angle. The whole point of this adventure was to open your eyes to the things surrounding you and really see them.

I wound up venturing into my backyard- it’s early summer, things are blooming, and it’s my first summer in this particular house, so I’m still learning what we have planted in this yard. I had a blast- and so did my dog who can’t get enough of these ninety degree days.

Okay, so this first one doesn’t really fit anywhere in the challenge, I just really like showing pictures of Link because I think he’s adorable. Even with those gray hairs- makes him look distinguished. but I digress- let’s move on to the actual pictures!

Until tomorrow, keep that creative kindling burning, my friends. We will rescue our muse soon enough.

Tech Baseline (your favorite frienemy – Rescuing the Muse)

Let’s be honest with ourselves: technology was not just created to make our lives easier. For the most part it is a profit-driven venture. There is a lot of money to be had in this field, and those who are working in it are desperate to find out how our brains work. Why? Because an obsessed population is a lucrative population. There are people out there make an entire career out of learning how to keep us hooked to the products they peddle. Can’t stop popping onto that one pointless game? Keep making your way back to Facebook with no actual purpose in mind? That’s because someone out there is really good at their job. They know how we tick, my friends- we never stood a chance.

Don’t get my wrong, I know I sound all doom and gloom here, but I actually adore my gizmos and in a lot of ways they do make my life a whole lot easier. But they are powerful and our brains haven’t fully processed how to adapt to these new changes. With this great power that we wield in our pocket comes great responsibility. Far too often there are unintended consequences to our actions, and that includes our virtual worlds. Creative thought is usually one of the first casualties of a more tech-dependent life. When you need space to breath and to think your phone won’t do you many favors. Our technology has opened a billion doors to us, but it has also chained us to this idea of immediate gratification. Want the answer to a question? Why bother attempting to puzzle it out yourself when you have that handy Google right at the tips of your fingers? A few little taps and you can fill that brief pause between appointments with games, books, conversations- literally anything that will keep you from being alone with your thoughts or facing that dreaded enemy known as boredom.

In an attempt to connect and soak up more knowledge from the world around us we have inadvertently sucked up a lot of the mystery involved. But fear not, my weary adventurers! The battle is not lost. Though it will be a grueling fight, we do still have a few tricks up our own sleeves to combat this wayward fiend.

It just so happens that screen time is perhaps one of the easier things to track. This is the one time you will be thankful that your creepy little tech toys have a tendency to track everything that you do. All that data they’re compiling is actually accessible. A lot of tech devices have jumped on board the ‘screen time’ bandwagon in response to people’s growing concerns about our addictive tendencies. In the settings on my phone is a section discreetly titled ‘digital wellbeing.’ In here it will give me graphs and stats galore. Letting me know what my daily screentime is, weekly averages, how today compares to yesterday, how many times I unlocked my phone, how much time I spent in each app- you get the idea. To curb your bad habits you can set up timers for individual apps or even enable ‘focus mode’ that will lock you out of per-designated apps for a time period of your choosing.

Not satisfied with the build-in option? Fear not- there is an entire industry out there to assist. We can overlook the irony of a tech app that is supposed to help ease your dependence on tech apps, since our mutual goals collide on this point. They all do about the same thing, though some might be a bit more detailed with what they track.

If all else fails, you can still resort to the tried-and-true paper log. Write down every time you unlock your phone, what apps you use, how long you use them. Personally I prefer a hybrid version of these two: I depend more on the accuracy of my tracking apps, but I also think it’s important to keep tabs on the timeline to discover trends. When am I most tempted to dive into my bad habits? What times of day am I most likely to start scrolling Facebook? Knowing your ‘triggers’ can help you curb your urges. Knowing how you are spending your tech time and why is vital if you want to fully embrace Creativity’s most important ally, Boredom.

My average usage is…not super great. For the past week, my daily average was dialed in at about 6 hours and 24 minutes. But to put it into perspective, that isn’t all ‘staring at the screen’ screen time. I am an avid audiobook listener- I am usually playing a book or some music when I’m getting ready, commuting to and from work, working on more menial tasks that don’t require a lot of thought. And some weeks are filled with this sort of activity. So even though my eyes aren’t glued to my screen, it still counts as screen time. I’m not saying this is a good habit to have, because at the end of the day I am still using those sound waves as a distraction that I don’t really need. But books always just felt a bit different to me.

My social media numbers have been slowly climbing the last few weeks as well. I’ve caught myself mindlessly scrolling a couple of times lately- and according to my tracker, those few minutes here and there have really started to add up to a weekly total that I’m not particularly comfortable with.

I have a bad habit of opening my phone as soon as I wake up. Granted, this is a bit unavoidable because I usually use it as an alarm clock as well, but as soon as it’s open I’ll check a couple of apps before I get out of bed. I usually peek at the news, my personal email, and occasionally Facebook before climbing out of bed to take the dog out and get the day started in earnest. Not great habits, especially when the morning is often viewed as your most creative time of the day. Your brain is fresh, all of it’s newly made connections are hotly wired and you are ready to go. Instead of cultivating that energy, I squander it with a lot of distracting fillers.

I also tend to cram a lot of small moments with ‘micro reads/scrolling.’ When I’m waiting for someone to go to the bathroom and put on their shoes before a walk, I’ll sneak in a paragraph or two from whatever kindle book I happen to be reading. There really isn’t enough time to focus on what I am doing, other than just knocking out one more page towards my book goal.

Even my bedtime routine isn’t immune to my techy tendencies. A few months ago I was dealing with the height of my anxiety issues. It was really bad- sick to my stomach, regular panic attacks, moody, inability to sleep. Nighttime was especially hard because I would catch myself in these loops of ruminating thought patterns. They would keep me awake for hours, and I had a bad habit of waking up around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and staying awake until my alarm went off. It wasn’t sustainable and I was desperate for a few moments of peace. So I started finding old audiobooks to listen to- mainly childhood favorites that provided a bit of comfort. I would listen to them when I went to bed and anytime I woke up. They were the only thing able to slowly break down the negative thought loops so I could fall back asleep. They were a game changer for me.

The issue is that now I find myself still relying on them, even though the main stressors from that time period have passed. It’s a bit of a bedtime security blanket for me; one I turn to out of habit as much as out of fear that those old thoughts will begin circling like vultures again if I can’t cast my little audible net around myself. While this seems like a fairly harmless habit- and perhaps a beneficial one- it’s been bad for my creative ventures. Nighttime was when I did a lot of my project-thinking. I would lay in bed and work out characters and scenes, play out different ideas to their conclusion and hold onto the ones that lit a spark. These midnight musings usually led to dreams surrounding my characters, which was always a great way to come up with new original content. Not having this time has been bad. Really bad. And while I’m terrified to give up my security blanket, I am desperate to reclaim my mental space.

Overall on the tech usage side of things I’m going to give myself a score of 4/10. While I am aware of my pitfalls, I know I have a lot of ground to cover to get over this addictive hump. I know I depend too much on my distractions to ease my anxiety, but there are healthier ways to go about this- ones that will give me the mental space and clarity I need to revisit the characters I left in limbo when I put my writing away.

Going Analog

I shut down the laptop, grabbed an old spiral notebook and ran outside. I lay across my back lawn soaking up the sunshine like a solar panel desperate to recharge my own batteries. It was beautiful, connecting me to something outside of my own head for the first time in ages. It’s not that I don’t go outside, but when I do- there is usually a task involved. Water the plants, take the dog potty (not in the same place), take him for a walk: I am not often there just to be there. I forgot what I was missing- the feeling of the sun dancing across warm skin, the sound of the birds singing that rivaled the neighborhood kids yelling and laughing. I hadn’t noticed the nest in the back tree, or the way a mole actually ran along the perimeter of my yard (the only part that is actually landscaped), or how he very obviously smacked headfirst into a decorate rock before taking a detour out (ha!). I had missed out on the bunnies and caterpillars nibbling on the plants in the back corner, or the way the vines were creeping under the fence. Not to mention the plethora of toys my dog had artfully scattered across the lawn. Interested in a rubber chicken leg? Or perhaps a squeaky bottle of fake beer will strike your fancy? There is also, of course, the heart shaped ball for the classical-lovers in the room. I miss a lot when hiding in my indoor cocoon, trapped in my own head, so lost in my daily trivialities that I never let myself feel how small I really am in this world. Or how connected I actually am to it.

I found my baseline and discovered how much I use my tech as a crutch. So I’m trying something new and going analog as much as possible. While I do still have to type out my posts right here on the laptop, I am going to start them freehand. There is something liberating about putting pen to paper, but it takes a different type of thinking.

I forgot what it felt like to put actual pen to paper. I am used to trying to type everything so quickly that I overlooked that special vibe you get when you can’t type out x number of words in a minute. Suddenly every letter requires a bit more effort. It forces you to be more concise with your choices, to weed out the unnecessary. It’s like turning off a highway and hitting the back country roads. You notice your surroundings and relax into the turns instead of incessantly racing on ahead.

I am going to attempt to do this in a few areas of my life, not just my writing. I put timers on my apps so they’ll be disabled once I hit my time limit. I’m experimenting with new daily routines so I have specific times to do certain tasks like check my email and read the news. I’m limiting my audio time (though this one may involve a bit more weaning, given the anxiety issues tethered to it). When I do listen, I am forcing myself to pause for at least 10 minutes at the end of each chapter to really think over what I listened to- anything new I learned, stylistic things that I liked or dislikes, etc. so far I’ve noticed that I seem to be retaining more when I slow down to enjoy it and ponder over it.

I am also trying to play a little game to disrupt the interruptions. If my phone buzzes with a notification while I am in the middle of a task, I have to wait until I am done before I can look at it. This way my brain doesn’t have to divert every three seconds. It’s harder than it sounds to ignore the pull, but once you commit to it, it’s not so bad.

Side-Quests

  • Track your tech time (use built in resources, find an app you like, or get a nice little notebook to write it all down in)
  • Set a timer on apps you want to use less
  • Delete apps you don’t use/don’t want to use anymore
  • Change your notification settings so less junk charges in at you
  • Look for productivity apps to help you stay focused if/when you do what to use your tech (my personal favorite is called ‘forest’- you set a time you want to work uninterrupted, and it will grow a tree in that amount of time. If you cave and start zooming around on your phone, your tree will start to die. The longer you use it the more trees you will get- pretty soon you will have a whole forest as a testament to how hard you worked towards your goal. If you upgrade to the pro version, you can have real trees planted for your work). There are a ton out there though, so feel free to experiment yourself.
  • Disrupt the interruptions: don’t immediately react to notifications. Finish the task you are working on before allowing yourself to check it
  • Keep your phone away at specific times: when on a walk or eating with someone, etc – get used to it not being your third arm
  • Don’t instantly google a question, try to work out the answer yourself or ask someone
  • Go analog- start writing by hand, read more paperbacks, make your grocery list on paper, freehand your drawings, play physical games with people in your house, go outside at night instead of watching TV

Creativity Component

To keep ourselves busy while we check-in to our digital detox, some creativity challenges are in order. The ones below are all riffs on the detox challenge, and they cover a variety of different avenues in our unique realm. Try one of them, all of them, or make your own inspired by them.

  • Make your tech monster: draw it out on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition- any form that speaks to you
    • Giving your demons a face can make them a little less scary sometimes. I learned this when I started drawing my anxiety monster- suddenly he wasn’t something to be feared, he was a creature perched on my shoulder that I needed to find a symbiosis with instead of fighting and being angry that he existed at all.
  • Write a short story (by hand) about a robot
    • Imagining a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well (if you are interested in short animation, Netflix has ‘Love Death + Robots’- it’s full of very unique ideas, and some of them explore this concept of tech in our lives and where the human race is headed in general)
  • Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed for ideas. It doesn’t have to taste or look good
    • The point here is to think of these ingredients outside of the wheelhouse you are accustomed to. Sometimes we rely too much on gaining inspiration from the internet. This challenge is about trusting your instincts and seeing what happens. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be fun or creative. After all, that spinach is about to go bad anyway, might as well have a little fun with it
  • Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take picture/draw a picture of items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, the lighting, the angles.
    • I know- this one involves using a little bit of tech. The point here is to use your techy powers for good, not evil. Use it to inspire yourself, because not all tech is bad for you.
    • Try to gain new perspectives on things you see every day
    • When you struggle to shift into a fully present mindset, it can help to ease into it. Stepping out your front door with the intention of finding cool new inspiration for some pictures will force you to really look at the scenery around you with an eye for what you find intriguing and unusual

Back on the Island: Finding Baseline (Creativity Quest – Still in the Sea of Distractions)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have attempted to cast my tiny vessel out into the Sea of Distraction, only to find myself back on it’s shores by nightfall. I set out over and over again to traverse these waters and find myself triumphantly on the other side, one step closer to my Muse locked away in her dragon guarded castle. Every day I tighten the ropes that hold my little raft together and push her out into the unrelenting waves. Each time I set out the sky is a bright and cloudless blue. By the time I make it fifty feet away from my isolated shores, they have darkened. Gray clouds heavy with rain roll in from the horizon, bleed across the sky as the wind rallies it forward. Each time I cling to my little raft as the waves pummel me to the wooden deck, intent on knocking me down like set of bowling pins. 

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been struggling with the Quest these past few weeks. I haven’t made the progress I would like, which should be pretty evident by the sparse posts making their way to the site recently. I am not the type to try to paint my failures and struggles in bright shiny colors to mask what they are- I think it’s just as important to show the frustrations of this path as well as the successes. A creative life does not always come easily, particularly in the world we live in.

I had an epiphany this week. The kind that forces the rain clouds to part so the sun can shine down on just you. I’d been having a rough week, my anxiety slowly climbing as my to-do list remained pristine and undone. I was simultaneously restless and apathetic about the whole thing, not really sure what I needed to do with myself. I knew I was putting in too many hours at work and not giving myself enough down time; and yet I still sluggishly hoped for a creative miracle every night when I got home. I’d sit in front of my laptop and halfheartedly poke at the keys, hoping they would start clickity-clacking all on their own, spinning an inspiring story that would buy me a little bit more time before I had to learn to do it myself.

I’ve been running low on energy, feeling that mental fog creeping in and enveloping me before I ever really got a chance to invest in anything outside of the four walls of my office. I’ve been getting irritated and a bit anxious over my dry mental well. It seems like this is a problem I just haven’t been able to shake, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try- it still comes across as pure laziness from the outsider’s perspective. Was I really going to give up again? Was I really going to settle for this uninspired shadow of a life? I’ve always felt like a phantom when I wasn’t creating- and I was growing so thin and wispy I could blow away with the slightest hint of a breeze.

I can feel a stirring in the waters around me, a shadow moving beneath the frothing surface of the sea. I cling tighter to my vessel, squinting through the salty spray flying back at me from the bottomless abyss. I am afraid to look, hoping and praying that the movement I catch out of the corner of my eye is just a trick the water is playing on me. But no, I have spotted this beast from the safety of my shores, turned my head away time and again when the serpent of the sea railed against the Earth. The shadow circles slowly, not quite touching my vessel, but I know it is only a matter of time. I know she is waiting, sizing me up; the mouse that has come out of its hole to play.

The slap of flesh against water electrifies the air behind me. I whip my head around and just make out the tip of a tentacle slipping back below the waves. She is toying with me now, waiting to see how I will react. But there is nothing I can do from here. She is too large and I carry no weapons. So I do the only thing I can; I cling to my raft and pray she gets bored. 

Perhaps I’ve watched too many Disney movies, but I had secretly hoped that there would be a quick fix to my problem, some secret concoction hidden in a dusty old book just waiting to be uncovered so it could impart it’s illicit wisdom and show me how to live the creative life I had always wanted. Perhaps tucked away in a witch’s cupboard out in the woods there is a recipe for mental wellness that would instantly recharge my desire and banish the fog stifling the carefully crafted stories bubbling below the surface of my brain. Where was my fairy godmother and her magic wand? Where in the world was my quick fix that would make everything flow just a little bit easier?

Sadly, this isn’t really a ‘wish your way out of it’ kind of problem. I know because I’ve tried. I’ve looked through dozens of self-help books and combed through oodles of creative living blog posts. What did I learn? If you want to succeed, you have to do the hard work. As it turns out, creative energy and mental wellness are less a magical endeavor and more of a game of Shoots and Ladders. Drink enough water? Move ahead five space. Stay up late watching reality tv? Slide back seven.

I know there is an irony in me finally stepping up and admitting this obvious fact weeks into my Quest. After all, wasn’t that the premise this whole challenge was based on? The idea that there are no magical solutions and if you want to live a creative life you have to do the work? Yes- stings a little bit to know I’m still struggling with my own concepts, huh?

I never genuinely believed that I would find the Philosopher’s Stone- Creativity Edition. It’s not like I would magically solve all my creative problems and shout “See you suckers, I’ve got my golden ticket and I am out! Be sure to buy my new book next week, stay tuned for info on my upcoming art exhibit, and have you considered taking my underwater basket-weaving course? Mwahahahaha!” No, the crux of my issue really stems from the fact that I underestimated how much work I would need to do. To be even more specific: I didn’t fully grasp how far afield I had wandered from my ideal way of living. What I thought would be quick little hills I could easily hop over turned into my own personal Olympus Mons (the largest mountain in our solar system- I had to sprinkle at least one fun fact in the midst of all these complicated feelings). If I wanted to reach the peak, I was going to have to eat, breath, and fully live the philosophy I was preaching. It wasn’t enough to say ‘stop playing on your phone so much’ or ‘put that book down and start writing your own.’ Truthfully, I had half-assed some of my own challenges, and the fruits of my labor were exactly what you would expect: anemic and unfulfilling. It was time to put on the boots and get moving.

Another slap echoes to the left of me. I close my eyes and refuse to look. Why watch my own destruction when I am utterly helpless to change anything? The raft jars as the next slash hits closer to home. A hefty jab pushes my sorry excuse for a boat high in the air, and suddenly I’m flying through the salty sea spray before plummeting back to the frigid waters below. The waves wash over me, flooding into my lungs, tearing me from the little wooden deck that is my only salvation. I find myself sinking into the sea, unsure of which way is up and which is down. I kick and thrash, desperately searching for the sanctuary that is the open air. But I can’t find it before everything goes dark.

In a desperate bid for mental freedom, I did what I have been needlessly avoiding for ages- I untethered myself from my tech and went analog. Now, this is probably the perfect example of a tech addict realizing they need to detox. It felt a bit like that person who realizes that they do, in fact, finally want help with their problem in spite of months spent promising people ‘I can stop when I want to.’

I awake with fresh air in my lungs and an expanse of twinkling little lights speckled across an expansive blackened sky. Not even the slightest breeze is ruffling my clothes, which are stuck to my body, crusty with sand and dried salt. The storm has once again passed. I know without even inspecting my surroundings that I am back on my island. Driftwood settles on the beach beside me, carried in on a lazy tide. The remnants of my tiny ship, my only companion in this desolate place. Tomorrow I will collect the pieces, lash them together, and try once again. Perhaps I will only get through one wave, perhaps I will finally make it to that distant shore. But for tonight, I will lay back in turn my face to the stars. I have not given up, no, not yet. 

This week is going to be a bit more hands on- and I can promise that now because I am actually pre-prepping my posts and (gasp) have a plan! We are going to be diving into the distraction detox with new challenges and tips coming every day. Plus- I think it’s about time to start sprinkling in some of the creative challenges, because what else will we do with all of our newfound free time if we aren’t distracting ourselves with cell phones, tvs and computers? You’ll be free to tailor the challenges to yourself however you wish- oh wait for it, wait for it- feel free to get creative with it. Ah, sorry, I had to do it. I feel better now.

To get the ball rolling, we need to be honest with ourselves about where we are starting. This has been my issue the past few times I’ve tried this portion of the quest. I didn’t have a good understanding of where I was starting, nor how hard it would be to change up some of these habits I’ve been building. I’ve treated it almost like an addict “I can quit whenever I want, but I won’t now because I have nothing to prove.” Yea- in hindsight, that should have been a red flag as big as the Shire, but denial is a strong enemy.

Finding Your Baseline

I tend to gravitate to my gizmos. Nearly everything has a techy doppelganger these days, most of our lives have migrated to the electronic world. If you have a cellphone, you pretty much have the universe in your pocket. When I was younger I resisted the pull of the tech world, I was one of the last people I knew to break down and finally get a smart phone. But I caught up quickly after that. I tend to prefer writing on my laptop versus using pen and paper. I read more e-books than paper ones these days, and I listen to more audiobooks than I read e-books. I will usually attempt to text or email rather than call if I can help it. Hell, I even use virtual flashcards instead of the real thing. I am an autonomous junkie, a tech-fiend, a new-age sorcerer. And I feel a bit like I’m being turned into a zombie. I clock in too much screen time and blast myself with a myriad of distractions throughout the day- it’s really no wonder why I have no extra bandwidth for my own pesky thoughts.

The crux of my issue: I think it’s a fear of slowing down, which is ironic because that is exactly what I need to do in order to be successful. We live in a fast-paced world full of instant gratification and immediate dopamine hits. We are told that down time is laziness, and to get anywhere in this world we need to grind. We never stop to think that all the grinding will usually wear us down. For most people, the pace of this world is not sustainable. But we all want to pretend that we can keep up, as though it’s a personal failing and not a societal one that keeps us moving to the point of breaking.

Weeding through the garbage and being honest with yourself is key to figuring out what you need to fix. I’ve come up with a few sub-headings that are important to my process, but if you have others- add them to your list and drop a suggestion in the comments. Creativity is closely tried to mental wellness and elasticity, so we’re going to take a wider inventory this time around. Some if it will flirt with the mindfulness techniques we tried out earlier, along with a deeper dive into our personal preferred distractions.

The categories we are going to touch on this week are:

  • Tech Time
  • Health and Wellness
  • Mindfulness and Mental Health
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Creative Time and Inspiration Priorities
  • Resisting Distractions

We are going to one-two-punch through these topics over the next week or two (gasp- big goals!) And each one will include a mini challenge to help us fix some of the issues that are clouding our creative thought process. For now, I’m just going to touch on some basic questions you should ask yourself to get a better idea of your baseline. For each section it can be helpful to answer the questions and engage in a bit of free-writing about the topic and how you feel towards it. Perhaps you have some thoughts or ideas that weren’t hit on my the questions- those are definitely worth exploring. Personally, I suggest doing these by hand with regular pen and paper, but it is totally up to you.

Tech Time

  • How much screen time do you have between your devices? How much of it isn’t necessary (ex: not work-related or helping you in any particular way)
  • What apps are hurting your mental health? Which ones do you mindlessly find for no particular purpose?
  • Do you have a good app that has gone bad (ex: I adore my reading/audiobook apps- but I tend to default to them to fill empty spaces that are best left unfilled)
  • When do you use each app? Do you find yourself clicking on Facebook as soon as you wake up or before you go to bed?
  • Email inbox: is it a positive or negative influence? Do you get a lot of junk? Do you let it fill up until it makes you anxious?
  • What app do you think you couldn’t live without? Why?
  • Excluding sleeping hours, how long do you think you think you could go without checking our tech? Why? Give it a try and see if it is a realistic number. Do you like it, or wish it were different? What kinds of things do you do that distract you from your phone?
  • Do you take your phone everywhere with you? And do you feel that instant jolt to check it as soon as a notification hits?

Physical Health and Wellness

  • What type of physical activity do you engage in? This can include anything, not just designated ‘work out times’
  • Do you consider yourself active or sedentary? If more sedentary, what keeps you from being more active? (I know that last question sounded salty- it wasn’t meant it- it’s one I have to ask myself virtually every. single. day. The answers are just for you, no one else)
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • Do you drink the recommended amount of water each day?
  • Do you drink a lot of caffeine/have a lot of sugar? do you struggle with anxiety or mood issues?
  • What does your diet consist of? Do you think you get enough nutrients?
  • How many hours do you sleep each night? Does it feel like good quality sleep?
  • Do you start/end your day with screen time?

Mindfulness and Mental Health

  • How would you categorize your mental health? Do you struggle with anything? Do you have any ideas what make it better or worse?
  • Does your mental health impact your daily living?
  • Do you invest in any mindfulness techniques? What do you do? Why or why not?
  • Do you like to go for walks? Do you pay attention to what is around you when you go out?
  • Do you have a hard time getting out of your head?

Work-Life Balance

  • Note: you don’t have to have a traditional working life to answer questions in this section. There are a lot of different kinds of ‘work’ in the world that don’t follow the traditional structure. What this section is really about is time you spend for yourself and time you spend for others/taking care of other things. Ex: taking care of children, household, etc. The main focus is going to me on balancing your time between obligations and personal goals/passions.
  • How many hours do spend working outside of the household and inside the household?
  • How many hours do you have leftover?
  • Have you ever worked overtime without claiming it, or lost vacation days that you did not use in time? Do you give back vacation days regularly/cancel time off?
  • How often do you cancel ‘your’ time for others? How do you feel about it and what kinds of things do you view as being important enough to sacrifice your own time?
  • How much time do you spend socializing with others? Do you consider yourself an introvert/extrovert? Are you satisfied with the amount of time you are spending?
  • Do you feel like you have enough mental energy for your personal creative projects?
  • When do you usually carve out time for yourself? Early in the morning? On a lunch break? At the end of the day? When the kids have gone to bed? Are you happy with this?
  • Do you find your work satisfying? All jobs have their frustrations, but overall do you find your work interesting/important/something you do well? Are you happy with this area of your life?

Creative Time and Inspirational Priorities

  • Note: this one ties closely with the work-life balance, some of the same questions will apply
  • What time do you dedicate to your creative work?
  • At what time of day do you consider you are your most creative?
  • What inspires you?
  • How much time do you spend with things that you find inspiring (watching a particular show/youtube video, reading a book/blog, listening to a podcast, looking at art, etc)?
  • Do you expose yourself to new ideas/creative styles regularly?
  • Do you take time to allow new idea to percolate (ex: taking time to think over what you read after reading a chapter in a book or watching an episode)?
  • Do you take notes throughout the day on things that inspire you?
  • What kinds of people do you surround yourself with?
  • What pops up on your social media feeds? Do they inspire or drain?
  • Who is your favorite artist (author, actor, singer, sculptor, painter, chef, etc)? What do you love about their work?
  • How would you categorize your own creative style?

Resisting Distractions

  • What do you distract yourself with most?
  • Do you have a good hobby that has turned bad? (something that is generally considered to be a positive habit/hobby, but you take it to the next level so that it isn’t so positive in your life anymore. ex: for me- it’s books, primarily in an audio format)
  • Do you get competitive to a degree that is unhelpful/becomes more consuming than it should be?
  • Do you feel like you can control your impulses/urges with your distractions? (ex: if your phone chirps with a notification, do you have to check it right away or are you okay ignoring it for a while)
  • Do you feel rested and energetic for your projects, or are you usually drained and struggle staying focused?
  • What habits would you like to break? What would you like to cultivate?

Take time to really think through the different topics, and see what else pops into your head when you try to evaluate how you want to live your creative life vs how you are currently living it. The only way we will make it through the Sea of Distraction is if we fight against the monsters swimming within it. But rest assured, my friends- we aren’t alone in it anymore. Until tomorrow my dear adventurers. Rest well, for tomorrow we begin again.

Bored to Brilliant (When Technology Turns Bad – Saving the Muse)

I’ve been here too long, too comfortable in the daily grind of building up my escape plan to actually take the next step towards getting off this forsaken island. The gods are laughing at me now, sure I will waste away here, surrounded by my thousands of excuses. The raft is ready, unless I plan on building a cruise liner on this place: it is time to go.

Last night I decided: now or never. Stay here and be content with this solitary life, or step out into the ocean tomorrow and embark on this daring adventure to rescue the muse. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep, troubled by the changes the next day would bring. I had been comfortable here; but isn’t that the trick of this little island? There is a familiarity in it’s quaint regularity. Same routine day in and day out, nothing to cause one moment to be distinct from another. It was a never-ending slog of day to day activity that never really got you anywhere except older. The fire burnt down to embers as I tossed and turned through the night, wondering if I still had the courage needed for the road ahead. After all, this wasn’t my first attempt. No, far from it. I was too familiar with the path I was attempting to walk.

The sun began to creep over the horizon, brushing the sky with vibrant oranges that faded into pink. I sit, blearily eyeing my surroundings. The fire had burnt down to embers in the night. I douse the coals, though there is little left on this island for the flames to dance with. I used up too many of the resources to build the puny little boat I expect to set sail on. I’ve been toiling away for weeks now, lashing together every bit of driftwood I could find with long ropes of braided sea grass. The vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as a castaway in this dangerous sea, I could hardly expect more. Everyday as I toiled away I would imagine my daring Muse finding a way of rescuing herself and coming back to me. But alas, I mist be the hero of this story.

I take a deep breath, look out at my island one last time, and step onto my tiny craft. Pushing out into the roiling waters that have surrounded me for ages, stealing my motivation and locking me in this solitary place. It is time to do the unthinkable, my friends; traverse the Sea of Distractions. Few make it across these waters; many find themselves flung back on the shores they tried to leave. But not us: for we know the secrets to these waters, we know where they get their strength. And we know how to fight.

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

You were probably wondering if you would see me here again, of it I had slipped away, lost to this challenge, never to escape my tiny island, forever trapped by the unforgiving sea of distractions. Sometimes the hero takes a bit longer than you could imagine to get themselves pulled together enough to embark on their adventure. After all, if Gandalf had not been there to push Bilbo out of the Shire, he probably would have been content spending the rest of his life practicing smoke rings on his front porch. It can be far trickier when you must act as your own Gandalf.

I did get lost in it a bit; as someone who struggles with anxiety, the act of focusing on mindfulness can be a bit more complex than one would hope. This is perhaps why I have spent the past year regularly keeping self-help books in my weekly book rotations.

I won’t say that I regret the time I spent: I learned some new valuable tricks that will help me moving forward. I have some arrows in my quiver that I did not possess a year ago. I found some new hobbies (like the little garden I have slowly blooming) that are helping me disentangle myself from the daily stress that usually keep me locked in my less-than-helpful mental cycles.

I can’t say that I didn’t slip back a few times. Between some work developments and an attempted burglary (Oh don’t worry- I’ll hit more on that later. I would never keep you hanging on something as intriguing as an attempted burglary), I found myself slipping back into some old stressful habits. For me personally, the mindfulness monsters will never be completely slayed. They may be captured or tamed, but I will never be completely done fighting them. But that doesn’t mean I need to stay on this island forever trying to slice the heads off this hydra. No, the beast has shrunk and I can continue on my trek.

So what is next for the grand adventurers now that we are finally attempting to escape this prison we have created? Now that we are attempting to break free of the old habits that left us stranded on this spit of land to begin with? It’s time to begin our battle with the distractions that keep us from moving forward towards our goals.

A Digital Detox in the Sea of Distraction:

It is no secret that one of the largest enemies in the fight for creative control is the technology we wield like modern-day wizards. Our devices can be the perfect little weapons for mass distraction, siphoning our mental energy into clickable games, social media, the constant bombardment of alerts and notifications. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think our techy sidekicks are evil; far from it, much like Kylo Ren, they have the light and dark sides coursing through their veins. What makes all the difference is how you decide to channel that energy. And I will be the first to admit: it is far easier to channel that energy towards distraction instead of creation.

Now, I tend to be a bit leery of studies that lump all screen time together; as someone who works at a desk when I’m not moonlighting as an overly-caffeinated creator, I will automatically clock in nearly eight hours of ‘screen time’ just from work alone. And not all screen time is created equal, in my opinion. I do most of my writing on a laptop because I have an easier time keeping up with the flow of the mental story I’m working through than when I am putting pen to paper. That being said, I know that I have a lot of room for improvement.

The brain is pretty astounding in its ability to adapt to new experiences. This skill is known as neuroplasticity, and it is the reason we can readjust so easily to a changing world. In 2008 a study conducted at Dundee University in Scotland found that adults who grew up in households with black-and-white TVs were more likely to dream in black and white. Younger participants who grew up with screens full of technicolor almost always dreamed in color. This is a small change, but it just shows you how susceptible the brain is to the evolving technology in the world around us.

It used to be an insult when someone compared your attention span to a goldfish: and yet, new studies are indicating that in the future this could be more of a compliment. According to a study done by Microsoft, the average human’s attention span was calculated to be about 12 seconds back in 2000. Today it is more in the range of 8 seconds. To give you a frame of reference: a goldfish clocks in at 9 seconds. We are going the way of the guppy. While many things could contribute to these numbers, it is true that there has been a steady decline since the invention of the smartphone, and anecdotally many people would agree that they noticed a difference when they started relying on their gizmos more (at least I have).

The term ‘popcorn brain’ has even appeared in recent years to describe the effects of too much screen time and over-connectivity. Popcorn brain describes the way we can become so hooked to the electronic multitasking that we are often expected to do, that we begin to crave the fast-paced way we can bounce between topics. The fallout from this: the slower-paced ‘real world’ can’t hold our interest in the same way that it once did. Ever find yourself reaching for your phone when you are waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom, or standing in line: the slow-paced life just isn’t catching your interest anymore. Pop, pop- so goes your adrenaline-craving brain.

So how do you fight your favorite frenemy when tech is the way of the world? I’m not saying to completely disconnect: that’s not feasible, and in many ways it’s not necessarily ideal. There are so many positive things that can come from our techy world, so many avenues of inspiration available to walk our Muse down. No, the trick is to attempt to be a bit more responsible with our tech lives; to use our powers for good, not evil.

Step one in the Digital Detox is very simple: lift your eyes from that screen and take stock. How much time do you spend on distractions? Can you allow yourself to just sit somewhere for five minutes without pulling out your phone and idly scrolling? Is there a particular app that you feel you may have an unhealthy attachment to? Or perhaps one that makes you feel better about the world around you?

Try not to laugh at this next suggestion: you can even download an app to help you keep up a tally of your usage. You might be surprised at how many times you unlock your screen, how many minutes you spend scrolling through pictures you aren’t really looking at or glancing at headlines when you never read the articles. Often times there are patterns in your day that you might miss without the visual pie charts staring you in the eyes.

What did I learn about my own habits? My favorite kinds of distractions come in an audio format. Most of my filler time is spent with an audiobook playing while I click away at one of those easy games that don’t require much thought, just a lot of thumb taps or puzzles. I also like to fill all of the little nooks and crannies of my day with tiny little check-ups that add up to a whole lot of time. I have a tendency to check my phone for something simple: like the time, without actually registering what I’m reading, so I have to check it again 12 seconds later. My attention span doesn’t seem to be much better than Dori’s as she’s helping to find Nemo.

I also noticed the way my distracting tendencies skyrocket when I am feeling a particular amount of stress. All of my numbers jump, and I dive head first into the closest Kindle book or puzzle game to keep my brain from racing through my usual symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately for me, distracting myself from what is really important usually tends to increase my anxiety, which in turn makes me want to create more distractions so I don’t have to focus on the anxiety- and you see how this snowball is suddenly large enough to take out an entire city block.

So what do I want? What am I hoping to regain with a digital detox? It’s really quite simple: my sanity. I want to rediscover my focus so that I can actually finish one of the ten thousand articles I have tabbed on my computer. I want to be able to put the phone down and sit on a bench watching the world around me. I want to be content in my own head, comfortable with my own thoughts. I want to feel like I am in control of my life again. I want to feel like my brain has the space it needs to think clearly and rediscover the creative energy that used to drive everything I did. I want there to be balance in the force again.

Once we have a good baseline, it will be easier to find the right way to battle these waves and navigate the treacherous creatures below the surface. It is important to be honest with yourself about your habits; both good and bad, and attempt to root out the cause. Having insight and awareness will make at the difference when trying to reach the distant shore.

Getting Down and Dirty (gardening and anxiety)

Perhaps the mindfulness portion of my creativity challenge is stretching on a bit longer than I had originally planned. We should be diving into the ‘bored to brilliant’ portion shortly, but I think there is still some ground here that we need to till before we move along- after all, these two topics are flip sides of the same coin. Once we have one managed, the other will slip easily into place.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have struggled with anxiety for just about my entire life. And I don’t mean the kind you get right before you have to make a big presentation. I mean the kind that grows and duplicates until it starts to impact my daily functions. Phone calls can turn into a Herculean feat requiring a pep talk, a little bit of rehearsing, and (hopefully) a reward after a job well done. I can keep myself up half the night when I know I will be driving somewhere new in the morning, convinced that I will somehow get myself irreversibly lost, even with GPS. I have to map things out, I need to know step by step what to expect; this is why I always appear overly prepared and why I ask a lot of very detailed questions- my brain demands the answers that will allow me to visualize the game plan.

Over the past year my anxiety skyrocketed (hmm, couldn’t even begin to sort out why), and I found myself struggling even more. Sleepless nights, sick to my stomach, migraines, exhaustion and insomnia existing side by side. I struggled, to say the least. Once you start rolling down that hill it is very difficult to slow the momentum and climb your way back up.

And this, my dear adventurers, is why I find myself enamored by this particular phase of the creativity challenge. Finding that sliver of peace I had craved for so long became more then a goal, it was damn near an obsession. I’ve tried most of the tricks people suggest: meditation, yoga, deep breathing, sensory tricks. And while all of these options carry their own benefits, it didn’t get to the core of my personal issue. Sure, they could help me calm down once I’d already started amping up- but was there anything that could get me out of my own head long enough to slow my downward spiral right in it’s tracks?

And that’s where I landed on this challenge: attempting to discovery new ways to curb my anxiety and de-stress my brain, ones that I hadn’t attempted before. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to find much. After all, I had spent years meandering down this particular path of self-discovery, it just didn’t seem likely that I would find a magical little unicorn answer to solve my wayward woes. Dang, was I wrong.

Growing up I always had a deep love of nature and anything plant-related, though my thumbs are far from green. The first house I ever lived at was a pretty large plot of land next to my grandparent’s cattle farm. We had a little garden that my mom took care of, and we spent our days climbing the fruit trees scattered across our yard: apple, cherry, pear, and a few walnut trees- it was heaven. We moved when I was still in elementary school, traded in those fruit trees for wild country woods. It was the kind of place where a bear could stroll into your garage on accident and you could follow the paths the deer made through the underbrush. Perhaps this is why I’ve always felt most at home in nature.

I guess gardening wasn’t a big leap to make after that, though this is the first year I decided to really jump in. Sure, I’ve cared for my share of desk and house plants; I’ve got my main four that have moved between offices and houses with me for years: Bonnie, Clyde, Fifel and Travolta have been faithful companions even when I didn’t deserve them. But outside of these beauties, I haven’t had much space in nature to call my own. This year was the first one where I had a tiny patch of land to call my own, and while it is pretty tiny, its still mine and I get to decide how to play in it.

I honestly had no idea how relaxing a garden would be until I started planting. There was something deeply soothing about the entire process. I have a really bad habit of getting caught up in my own head, lost in my thoughts that lead me down rabbit holes best left alone. So the act of putting my hands in the dirt and caring for something else was liberating: the physical outlet pulled me out of my cartwheeling thoughts and grounded me in the present moment.

Gardening and the Brain Game

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who felt a breath of fresh air invigorate my soul as I dug my hands into the dirt. In UK study involving 317 people who took part in table-top gardening sessions 80% self-reported better mental health resulting from the work, while 93% said that they had improved confidence and motivation. When asking gardeners why they partook of that particular activity, the second most common answer was for mental health (the top response was for recreation). The benefits have been seen so broadly that there are now horticulture therapy programs where you garden for the specific benefit of your own mental health.

Many of these therapy programs have relied on studies that indicate that the activity can reduce depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms, alleviate symptoms of dementia, increase the ability to concentrate and engage, and reduce reliance on medication and self-harming behaviors. While it may sound a bit strange at first, there is science to back it all up. Studies have shown that gardening is linked to mental clarity, as well as the promotion of problem solving, learning, and sensory awareness. The variety of brain functions you have to employ while working with your leafy compatriots acts as an exercise routine for your brain itself, keeping it healthy and strong.

Accepting the Imperfect

Those who have been gardening long term have also noted that it allows you to practice acceptance: often what you expect and what you get when gardening can be two very different things. You can do everything right, and sometimes those carrots still won’t grow. This is an easier and safer way to dip your toes into acceptance and, to a degree, grief at the idea of missed expectations. It also forced you to move past perfectionism: while mother nature is beautiful, she is far from perfect.

Growing a Mindset (and a few cucumbers)

If you’ve ever read a self-help book, you have probably heard the term ‘growth mindset.’ When you are living with a fixed mindset you are resistant to change. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you are always learning. Failures are not viewed as defeats; they are lessons that you can pick up and use later on for improvement. Those who partake in tricky hobbies like gardening have an easier time developing a growth mindset because, let’s be honest, there is always something to learn and improve on. Most early gardeners initially indicate that they feel a degree of stress when they run into failures because they don’t feel like they’re doing things right: but this feeling is very quickly followed by a bit of research, connecting with others, and developing a new play going forward. Suddenly the failure isn’t the end of an entire hobby, it is merely a little speed bump on the road towards delicious asparagus.

Creating Community (and cauliflower)

I always envisioned gardening as a solitary endeavor: you sit there outside with your little watering can and your beds and get to work. And while that can sometimes be the way the cookie crumbles, there is actually a large and thriving community centered around this all-consuming hobby. Even as a novice I have been welcomed with open arms by anyone and everyone I know who dabbles in the craft. A two minute conversation during a break at work had led to tips on cultivating tomatoes, an offer of free raspberry bushes, the best type of cucumbers to grow, how to make hops good enough to use in your own home brews. And that’s just after a week enmeshed in this little world.

The community you are able to build around something you collectively love is perhaps one of the strongest connections you can make. There is something about that spark of passion that inspires kinship, even amongst vastly different individuals. This type of interpersonal connection is crucial for building up a strong mental health base. Having a support system you can fall back on and talk to greatly reduces stress levels, giving you the room to vent when you feel like a tea pot ready to scream from the pressure.

Aligning with Nature

Not only does gardening connect you to other people, but it gives you a direct vein straight into our natural world. There is something deeply humbling about feeling that vibrant connect to other living things and viewing yourself as an integral member of this crazy world of ours. And not just a member of it, but someone who is actively doing your part to make it a little better, healthier and greener. This will easily help boost confidence and motivation all on it’s own. Two key ingredients for optimal mental health.

Having meaningful work to focus on provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. It increases optimism, resiliency, hope, joy, happiness, and satisfaction. Finding meaning in your life is considered to be vitally important to your health. If you’ve even known of a person who retires and has their health immediately begin to decline: one of the reasons often discussed stems from this lack of purpose. Your mind and body crave a meaningful life- and meaning can be derived from anything. You don’t have to be the President of the United States to have a purpose; sometimes it can be as simple of being the person who waters the plants that you love. They depend on you to live; in my book, that will always be vitally important work.

Getting Fit by the Pumpkins

Plus: it’s a physical activity, which means it’s good for your body too. And when you look at this from a stress-reduction standpoint: physical activity is one way that you can complete your stress cycle. The act of moving calmly and methodically through the daily steps involved can convince your brain that the danger has passed and it’s okay to move on. Not to mention: if you are growing delicious and healthy things, you are more likely to consume delicious and healthy things.

Physical activity all on its own changes your brain chemistry. It releases endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (the body’s natural stress-reliever), while increasing blood flow to the brain (providing it with more oxygen and nutrients). Not only that, but it actually decreases levels of negative chemicals in your brain, while forcing your physiological systems (these are all involved in the typical stress response) to communicate and work more closely together; once again, completing that pesky stress cycle.

A Mental Outlet Amongst the Plants

But for me, the biggest selling point wasn’t necessarily in the act of planting itself: sure, that did do a lot to ground me. But yoga was also capable of grounding me in my body. So what was different about this activity that the five hundred others I’ve tried over and over again the past few years? It’s simple: gardening was able to give my brain an outlet to focus on even when I wasn’t actually outside with my plants.

You see, I tend to ruminate. That’s one of the things that makes my particular flavor of anxiety so difficult for me to manage. I can get manage myself in a stressful moment, but my brain will flip back to that unlucky event over and over again once it’s passed. I will play it on repeat like a toddler watching Scooby Doo (or whatever toddlers are obsessed with these days). Gardening, however, required a lot of creative planning, plotting, and research on my part. I’ve been checking out library books, watching videos, looking up articles; all in an effort to learn more to make me a better plant mama to my new little charges. Not only that, but every single plant has slightly different needs: this means that the research is never really over. Once I figure out how tomatoes tick, I can move on to broccolini or pear trees.

I’ve also had to get creative to solve my space-problem. My yard is quite small and the little bit that I do have is somewhat landscaped in a way that I really enjoy to look at. So the trick became: how to maintain a garden when I am limited on space? This was a big hurdle requiring a lot of creative energy to problem solve. This required more focus, a tad more research, and connecting with others to get their input and opinions about the things they have tried. My current answer: container and vertical gardening. Which requires an entirely different skill set than in-ground traditional gardening. So guess who found even more fodder to focus her mental energy on?

My brain has been so busy sorting and learning about my new project that I have simply forgotten to think about my usual stressors. I don’t have time. I can’t sacrifice the bandwidth it requires to ruminate and relive uncomfortable moments- not when I have tomatoes that desperately need to sprout and water schedules to sort out. And the best part? It really didn’t take much effort at all on my part to mentally switch gears. The transition has been fluid, and that alone is insanely exciting to someone like me who has spent years trying to figure out how to turn off that anxious piece of my brain when it wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. It’s been game-changing. And while I know the novelty might eventually wear off, right now: it’s the best trick I’ve tried, and I’m not going to lie, I am feeling pretty good.

So ultimately, for me- my garden gave me the gift of mindfulness in the sense that it carried my mind away from it’s most painful moments and gave it a directed focus on a hobby that makes me feel good for even attempting. So there you have it, my friends- finding peace in the places that you least expect. I told you: the creativity portion of the challenge is brewing just below the surface: we are dipping our toes into these waters without even realizing. What other brilliant clues to our own happiness do have hidden just below the surface of our own consciousness?

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Try it Your Omm Way (Meditation and the Muse)

I have tried a plethora of mindfulness techniques on and off for years. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the anxious thoughts continually pelting my brain weren’t what others would consider ‘normal.’ And from the moment I was aware that my anxiety was impacting my daily living; I’ve tried cajoling it and taming it, befriending it and understanding it. It’s the shadow that follows me throughout the day.

I’ve desperately tried to figure out why my brain is wired the way that it is, and why that could be a good thing. There have been interesting studies and countless books that attempt to dive into the role that mental illness might play in society. I specifically remember a study of chimps that struck a chord. In every chimp troop there were a small number of anxious and/or depressed chimps that typically kept themselves to the outskirts of their social world. As an anxious little introvert myself, I felt a kinship with this little band of misfits. As part of the experiment, the misfits were removed from the group. And do you know what happened? Within six months the remainder of the pack had died. When they looked into the cause, it was actually relatively simple: the anxious creatures would regularly sleep on the edges of the group. Being natural bundles of nerves, they were overly sensitive and vigilant when monitoring the world around them. Little things had the ability to disturb them so they would call out- waking up the rest of the band so that they could escape to safety. Without the anxious within their numbers, the warning system of the pack was disabled. Now, there are interesting studies that have also been done on human leaders who have exhibited symptoms of non-traditional neural systems, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make (not today at least, trust me- this will be coming back up in the future).

The point I am trying to make in a roundabout way: there is a place for the neurodiverse among us. However, knowing that the brain functions you have lived with (and fairly regularly suffered through) have a place- that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with them on a regular basis. Great, I am a human warning bell for the rest of society. Now can I please just be able to answer a phone without that jangling jolt of panic? Sometimes you need a break, a coping mechanism to dial down and ‘tune’ your anxiety/stress to a more manageable level.

There are a lot of different ways to go about this: as I’ve mentioned before, food and diet are an amazing place to start. Physical movement and exercise and really complete your stress cycle so you can wind down. Little creative projects that don’t require excessive thought are good too. But today I want to focus on a classic: the tried and true art of meditation. Something so simple it feels damn near impossible at times.

Personally, I prefer to indulge in a few short meditations throughout the day- I don’t have the patience to attempt meditation for longer than a couple of minutes. That is my sweet spot: anything more than that and the struggle to control my thoughts starts to outweigh the potential reward. Perhaps someday I’ll graduate to a higher class of meditators, but for now- I celebrate every small win.

Photo by Eternal Happiness on Pexels.com

Which Side of the Road do you Walk on?

To start off, it’s important to note that there are a lot of different ways to meditate, each of them stemming from a slightly different history and with a variety of end results in mind. But the two major camps that science has focused on are ‘focused attention’ and ‘open-monitoring meditation.’ Focused attention is when you focus on one specific thing (usually this is your breathing), while Open-Monitoring is when you pay attention to all the things going on around you without reacting to them. According to scientists, open-monitoring has more of a noticeable impact on creativity than the focused type.

The primary elements of most meditation practices involve focused attention, relaxed breathing, a quiet setting, a comfortable position and an open attitude. These, however, are not requirements- though they will make the first few attempts a bit easier to manage as you start out with your own practice. Keep in mind, there is really no right or wrong way to meditate; focusing too much on perfection will just increase your stress, which is the exact opposite of what you want to accomplish. The ultimate goal is to hone in your attention and quite the cacophony of thoughts that poke and prod at you every day.

The changes that take place in your brain during and after meditation can actually be visibly seem when using fMRI scans. Your brain’s overall processing speed drops from a sprint to a springtime mosey. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and self-conscious awareness slows way down. The Parietal lobe, which processes sensory information about the world around you, follow suite and drifts towards sleep. The thalamus, which generally acts as a gatekeeper for your senses, switches it’s focus toward so it’s pointed inward, which reduces the incoming stimulation you receive. And, if that all wasn’t enough to give you the comforting glow of mental stillness, the reticular formation, which receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, soothes itself and dials back it’s arousal. Ah yes, sweet relief- that last one is the reason why I come to the party. Fun fact: the reason why exercise is right up there with meditation in terms of mental health benefits is because to actually has the exact same impact on the brain as meditation. Funny how stillness and motion are cut from the same cloth. So take comfort, my zoomy friends who don’t like to sit still: you can reach these same goals while bouncing and running around.

What It Means

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, I can throw biology lingo out all day, and that isn’t going to help anyone decide if they really want to give meditation a try. But the health impacts (and the benefits for your brain and creative projects) are not easily ignored. So what can you expect to get out of the deal, should you choose to accept this particular adventure?

When you boil it down, meditation is really all about focus and training yourself to be aware of when your mind starts to wander. This little exercise routine for the brain trains that beautiful noodle of yours to more easily focus in other areas of your life. This is a huge deal for humans, considering our attention span has reportedly shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8. That’s right, we are clocking in right behind the guppy (fish inch us out with 9 whole seconds). The research shows that those who meditate are able to weed out and ignore potential distractions far more easily than those who didn’t . This increases productivity and reduces the stress and frustration that come with constant interruptions.

For people like me, there is also the proven fact that anxiety and stress are reduced as well. The science behind this one is actually pretty interesting. You see, your brain is a bit like a highway, creating it’s own neural pathways. When a roadblock appears for whatever reason, perhaps through injury or illness, your brain will reroute those neural links to get around the problem area. And much like our roads, some of them are traveled more than others. Think of those most well-used pathways as highways where your neurons can fly through without a moment’s hesitation. But not all of these pathways are ones that you really want to maintain and build up. Some of our neural connections are wired more for stress; in particular, the medial prefrontal cortex, nicknamed the ‘Me center.’ This area is responsible for processing information relating to ourselves and our experiences. It takes outside stimuli (like a scary event) and sets off a chain reaction that leaves you with some pretty strong negative feelings. Meditation, however, helps loosen up these pathways; dropping your 5 lane stress highway down to a more manageable 2 lane country road. This allows us enough internal distance to view our experiences in a more rational manner, which is kind of the kryptonite of irrational anxiety thought patterns. The more you loosen these pathways, the less they become the default road to travel, so to speak.

Studies have also shown a marked increase in empathy and compassion with people who meditate versus people who don’t. This is good for creative projects in which it’s important to be able to see the world from a multitude of perspectives. Not only that, but empathy and compassion just help build better people and societies in general. I mean, one glance at the news will tell you what we are deeply missing in our world- and it’s not just cow bells.

Just in case you thought it couldn’t get any better, can I perhaps offer up some improved memory? That’s right, studies have shown that people who meditate are able to recall information much faster than those who dont. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. What this translates to is more positive emotions, improved emotional stability and increased focus in daily living. And the cherry on top of this bright little sundae? Studies are showing that meditation also seems to slow down the impacts of aging on our brains.

Now What?

Okay, so now you know what amazing benefits you’ve been depriving yourself of while avoiding a healthy dose of mindful meditation. So now what? Is this where I stop to give you step by step instructions on how to reap all the beautiful benefits I’ve been touting? Alas, it is not. Truthfully, I was originally planning on writing out a few basic steps to start off a meditation practice. but that was before I realized what a wide variety of options and styles exist in the world. Why would I paint you into the box I started with when you can easily branch out and explore this wonderful new world of possibilities all on your own? I’ve dabbled a few of the basics- my personal favorite is still a walking meditation that involves a lot of focused breathing techniques. But then I have a post-yoga cool down in child’s pose that never fails to get me into the perfect headspace for mindful relaxation (and occasionally a short little nap on the yoga mat). Just a few online searches or downloading a free app or two can open you to a whole new world of meditative possibilities, and I find that far more exciting than a boring old list at the bottom of a blog.

The bottom line: what could it hurt to try? Give it two minutes twice a day for a week and see where you wind up. After all, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Happy hunting for creative mindfulness, my friends. The journey is only just beginning. So go ahead, go find your om way and embrace it fully.

Blunting the Muse (Stress and Creativity)

Scientists have been studying what makes creativity tick for a while, with varying outcomes that have been interpreted and re-interpreted over the years. While is is true that the way a person is ‘wired’ can play a huge role in how their moods can impact their creative endeavors (like plants, we all flourish under a variety of conditions), generally speaking stress has been called out repeatedly as being an insidious tool against divergent and unique thinking. That’s right my friends; Stress killed creativity in the drawing room with a candlestick.

The chemical soup your brain bathes in when under chronic stress impacts all areas of your life; we are constantly being told of new evidence that will prove what we all (literally) feel in our bones: stress is bad for the body- I know, shocking. The branching tendrils of this research are still only scratching at the surface of what this means for creativity, as it can be a difficult concept to measure, and there are a wide variety of competing factors in a person’s ability to think outside of the box and come up with novel ideas. But what is unequivocally clear: the stress chemicals your body secretes hijack your higher brain functioning, forcing you to revert to habitual responses. It’s been proven to impact learning, memory, attention spans, and the ability to focus: all of which are crucial when you crave to create.

This is not a unique response that only humans experience. In 2009 researchers found that chronically stressed rats also fell back into familiar routines and rote responses. It changed the actual topography of their brains: the areas associated with goal-directed behaviors shriveled while those connected to habit-forming flourished. Even when their routine actions brought them repeated failures, they continued on their known course without deviation. They could not see the possible reward for their risk.

There is also the element of mental energy that needs to be addressed; when you are worried about major life events (losing a job, caring for a sick relative, etc), most of your bran’s energy will be directed at solving that problem (this is where the nasty thought ruminations pop up) and you wont have a whole lot left to feed to your creative projects. Energy is a finite source, even for your brain. There are certain tasks that are going to be gas guzzlers and there’s not a whole lot you can do about that. While diet and nutrition can help with cleaner functioning, emotional distress can be be the proverbial sugar in the gas tank.

So how do you fix a problem that seems to be built into your very DNA? Ironically, a little bit of creativity could do the trick. I know, I know, cue the eye roll. How in the world are you supposed to break out of your creativity-killing stress by working on the creative project you don’t have the energy for? Doesn’t that go against everything I’ve been talking about this whole time? Well, yes and no. It’s true that you might not be able to dive headfirst into your master project, but there are other ways to stimulate your creative neurons and get them to start firing again. The key is to scale down. If your stressed brain continually hones in on rote habits, then give it a new one to build upon. Basic creative tasks that don’t require a lot of extra thought can be the prefect way to break out of your stress cycle. The more you do it, the more you will ease the flow of that chemical ocean you have crashing around your noodle.

Some simple tasks like doodling, knitting, sewing, gardening, cooking; all of these have been proven to help calm an anxious mind and stabilize your thought patterns. The key is not to put pressure on yourself when starting on these tasks. Don’t try to draw a masterpiece, just doodle a cartoon that makes you smile. Don’t worry about creating your grand vision, just enjoy the act of doing something other than stewing in your own negative thoughts. You don’t have to make a five course meal, just plug along with a recipe that looks yummy. And if it burns- so what? Go for a walk and snap a few pictures of plants you don’t recognize, or the woodpecker that is busily searching for bugs in your neighbor’s tree. Don’t concern yourself with how the picture turns out (heck, a good filter can fix just about anything. And if it’s a little blurry? Well that’s just an artistic commentary on how the human existence refuses to slow down to fully focus on the natural world around it- see, you can turn anything into fancy art).

As so many of us probably learned during the pandemic: it’s hard to create when you can’t turn your brain off, when you are worried about a million little things. It’s hard to feel fully human or to embrace who you want to be when you can’t get the energy to focus on the projects that bring meaning into your life. It’s okay to fee stress and to have days when you just need to throw in the towel and take a hot bath. Reduce the pressure you are putting on yourself; eventually you will start to feel authentic, like a flower whose petals are finally opening to spring. And if it takes a little extra time- it just means the outcome will be even sweeter. Slow down, take a deep breathe, and put your mental heath first: everything else will follow after.

Creating the Space Inside and Outside (Rescuing the Muse, Challenge #1)

The raging flames flickered down to the faintest of embers overnight, the telltale hints of ash drifting through the air around me as I awake with a shiver. I jolt upright, the sand caked to my cheek and in my hair. If course, I’m still here. Still on this damned island that even the gods forgot about. I dreamt about the tower again. I saw myself stepping onto the rocky field, long hair blowing in the wind. My leather boots were tied up to my shins and my traveling cloak had seen far better days. But I had made it. I carried a hand carved wooden shield strapped to my back and there was the glint of a sword sparkling at my hip. I had made finally made it. I couldn’t see the dragon, but I was ready for the fight. I was going to win this time, I knew it deep in my bones.

I shake myself back to reality, staring out at the waves crashing against my shore with a fury, as though they know what I am planning. And perhaps they do; this sea always seemed otherworldly, conscious in a way that I couldn’t explain. It often knew what I was planning even before I did, tempting me with it’s alluring waves, keeping me from plotting my grand escape.

I turned by back to the beach and faced the scraggy trees within. The island was small; no more than two miles in any direction. You could traverse the whole thing and still be back in time for second breakfast. But it didn’t matter this time; I didn’t plan on staying. I needed to build a raft if I was ever going to stand a chance of making it off this hunk of rock. I couldn’t wait for a boat to come rescue me, all sailors knew better than to enter these waters.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and clear my mind. A plan was already forming, the details percolating in my brain overnight. I would search for a rock I could sharpen into a small ax. Then I could knock down a few of the bamboo shoots that nestled on the western edge of this little spit of land. The fronds could be woven together to form a rope that could tie my little vessel together. I might need to find a bit of food, and collect fresh water- who knew how long it would take me to cross this channel and find safe land again.

‘I can do this,’ I remind myself as I open my eyes, square my shoulders, and start moving. It is time to begin my adventure.

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

This, my dear adventurers, is where our story starts. Take heed, for these trails we traverse will not be for the faint of heart. Far too often the monsters that we encounter will be those which we created ourselves. This makes them far fiercer foes than the ones we often read about in story books. The giants that tried to cook Bilbo in a stew are nothing compared to the hydras you may have hidden within your own Sea of Distraction.

“You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”

Neil Gaiman

The connection between boredom and creativity has been proven time and again, there are a myriad of studies that dive deeply into the topic. Two mental states that at first glance seem to be polar opposites, live within the realm of a steady symbiotic relationship. Like Kylo Ren and Ray, their differences make them capable of creating a balance within the complexities of the force. But, my noble companions, we need to pull the reins a little bit here before we go too far down this rabbit hole.

Don’t worry, we will be diving into the murky underworld of Boredom very soon. You will find yourself in a place where, if we are successful, you will quite literally not know what to do with yourself. But I think there is a crucial step that is often skipped over in these creative challenges. Finding the type of boredom that is conducive to creative projects is more of an art than most realize. It’s not just about giving your toddler your cellphone so they can lock you out of it for the next three hours, or unplugging the tv and tossing the roku up into the attic. No, if that were the case then this journey we are about to embark on would be…well, really short.

The first step of our daring tale will set the stage for all that we encounter along the way. And while I have often been tempted to skip this step, I have also often failed miserably and found myself right back at the starting line. Heed my warning: this is going to be a lot like Mr. Miyagi’s lessons- you won’t realize that you are learning the muscle memory that will make all future endeavors far easier to accomplish until you are in the middle of the fight.

So what is this mysterious trick, you ask? It all boils down to mindfulness. I know, I know, it’s a little anti-climactic, but hear me out- your Muse will thank you for it.

Let’s rewind a year and flash back to the beginning of the pandemic. When the world locked down the first few weeks were marked by fear and sudden change. Most people were left reeling with children suddenly forced to stay home, some workplaces struggling to facilitate a migration to a remote style, others shutting down completely; even those who still had to go in every day had to find a new way of existing and performing in a world that had shifted overnight. Those first weeks were a blur of activity, press conferences, and social media scanning as we all tried valiantly to adjust to the kind of thing we had only ever witnessed in movies.

After the initial rush of change, we discovered new routines (ones that we would be lurking in for far longer than we could have anticipated). With these new routines came- well, a lot of the same thing day in and day out. I know I wasn’t the only one who thought that lockdown would be the perfect time to learn new skills, to create; I thought I would come out of the pandemic as a better and more well-rounded person than when I entered it. I would learn how to grow my own little garden, bake a perfect loaf of sourdough, sew a quilt, make an R2D2 garbage can, finally finish editing that one story and send it off to beta readers. I had the highest hopes for myself. And guess what happened? None of the above.

I felt awful in those moments when I didn’t accomplish the goals I had tried to set. We live in a society that prized productivity above all else, and if you aren’t working on the grind to improve yourself or your situation, then what the hell are you doing with your time? We fill the space and the silence with mindless action just to be able to say we are doing something.

Here we were with all the time in the world to attempt to accomplish those dreams we’ve carried since we were little: so why was it so damn hard to sit down and just do it? Why did I stare at an empty computer screen willing nonexistent words to sprout from my fingertips? And more importantly, why didn’t those words ever arrive, even when I gave them hours of my day? It’s simple: boredom is creatively worthless if you aren’t in the right frame of mind to cultivate it.

Stress is like kryptonite to creative thought. It hunts for empty moments in your day like a Lannister hunts a crown; when it finds a sliver of boredom, it will attack it relentlessly until you submit to it’s power. The pandemic was the perfect example for me: in the very beginning there were a few weeks when work was relatively calm, and I had every intention of focusing on some of the projects I’ve got on my creative bucket list. But anytime I had a spare moment, my thoughts would turn to my stressors. I would ruminate on the latest news reports, catch myself mentally diving into old traumas, circling back to that exhausting level of hyper-awareness that left my drained and unmotivated.

What it boiled down to: I wasn’t in the right mental state to create. My brain wasn’t able to wander freely and explore different possibilities because it was fixated on the same worn out ruminations. In other words: I was doing my best to cope in a world I didn’t understand anymore, and it was exhausting.

I want to be very clear here: if you didn’t accomplish some of your goals while navigating through a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, you are still doing an amazing job. Our society puts too much emphasis on productivity for it’s own sake and tends to neglect the mental health elements that make any form of forward movement possible. I don’t want this quest here to become another way for anyone to feel bad if they aren’t yet ready to fight these monsters. I tried months ago and I couldn’t do it. I wanted to pick it up in January, but I wasn’t ready. I don’t know what changed for me personally, but this spring I finally felt like I was mentally prepared to begin this journey again. If you don’t know if you are there- don’t put pressure on yourself to continue. If you have a rough week, don’t force it. Trust yourself and your body. These challenges: they’ll still be here for you when you are ready to continue.

But if right now do do feel like you are ready for the next step, you are probably wonder: why now? How do you care for your creative energy until it blooms? How do you fight the stress that desperately wants to keep your Muse hostage? How do you untangle yourself from the thoughts that leave your mind so tightly wound? I wish I had a magical solution, but as it turns out: the answer is different for everyone. In fact, it can even be different from day to day for the same person.

So to begin our quest we will gather our supplies and figure out what materials will help us traverse the Sea of Distractions. The goal: reduce our stress levels so our brains are more free to wander and explore. Throughout the week I’ll dive a little bit deeper into the impacts of stress on creativity, along with the different anxiety-fighting techniques and how they work. But for now, we’ll start with brainstorming some tried-and-true tricks to start experimenting with. These will be the little arrows you can keep in your quiver for when things get dicey and those monsters start closing in.

The one warning I will give: beware of the pitfalls of avoidance. There is a fine line between reducing your stress and distracting yourself from it. This is perhaps my biggest challenge: when my brain keeps shifting to anxiety-inducing thoughts, I tend to shove everything I can at it to keep the panic attacks at bay (in case you couldn’t tell, I have struggled with anxiety issues for many years, so my fight with this particular monster might take on a slightly more exaggerated form that it does for others). I have a bad habit of filling my head with sound when I catch myself ruminating and amping up; more specifically, I play audiobooks for hours on end sometimes. This habit isn’t necessarily a bad one if done in moderation. It can be a handy trick to stop your brain from momentarily centering on uncomfortable and unproductive thoughts. But when you start to depend on this as a coping mechanism: you are in for a bit of trouble. You see, those thoughts you are stifling- they don’t just disappear into this air. They have to be addressed at some point. The longer you try to ignore them and hide from them, the stronger they will become. They just grown and grow out of control just like James’ Giant Peach (minus the cute little friends he found inside).

Mindfulness Challenge:

Pick a few different mindfulness/stress relief activities to attempt this week. It can be something that isn’t on this list, this is meant as more of a jumping off point. Try to be aware of the difference between stress relief and stress distraction.

  • Exercise: just start moving, doesn’t matter how, doesn’t have to be particularly coordinated or graceful
    • go for a walk/jog/run
    • lift some weights
    • yoga
    • stretching
    • hit things (aka boxing: personally, one of my favorite. Though trying to find someone to hold my boxing pads is a bit challenging, considering I tend to flail like Phoebe when she’s out for a run)
  • Meditation: just 10 minutes a day has shown a marked change in a person’s stress levels
  • Journal: this one is particularly helpful if you find yourself ruminating over the same topics over and over again.
  • Breathing exercises: I’ve done these for years. You can find apps that will walk you through the best ways to focus. This has stopped a few of my impending anxiety attacks
    • I usually pair it with visualization techniques: when you inhale that cool fresh air image you are breathing in all that good energy. When you exhale that warm air imagine you are breathing out all that stress and bad energy. Sounds silly, but it can work wonders
  • Listening to music: bonus points for having a little dance party for yourself. It might feel silly, but there’s something magical about a favorite song and wiggling your body around
  • Hand massage: I personally haven’t tried this one, but I’ve heard of a few people who swear by it. Put on some lotion and gently massage all the way around- hands carry a surprising amount to tension, and taking the time to focus on in on this one task can work wonders on pulling your brain from stressful ideas
  • Cooking or baking: this has always helped me relax, and bonus: tasty morsels when you’re done

Now, for some of you this might be a breeze. For a person like me: it’s really at the crux of many of my life issues. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and often tasks that seem simple for others look like Mount Olympus peppered with finicky gods to me. If you find yourself in the same boat, more drastic steps might be needed. I’ve learned that my diet plays a huge role in my anxiety levels. When I switched to decaf beverages and less sugars I noticed a huge difference in my stress levels and the number of panic attacks I was having each week. While it was one of the hardest steps I had to make (I am a caffeine fiend at heart), it changed the most difficult parts of my life. Even just limiting the amount of caffeine you drink will probably help- and these days decaf really isn’t that bad (glances up at sky to make sure lighting won’t strike me).

We’ll dive a bit deeper into mindfulness as we mosey through the week, but it will be helpful to keep tabs on your mental state as we move forward. Trust me, it will make a world of difference when we move into our Bored to Brilliant challenges next week. Until then, my brave band of adventurers: what’s worked for you and your stress during the pandemic? Have you picked up any tricks that weren’t talked about (seriously, I would love to know- like I said: my anxiety monster is my daily sidekick, so I am always willing to try something new to tame the little beast).

Adventure Awaits (Rescuing the Muse…again)

She stands in the window of the tower, staring forlornly at a world she no longer belongs to. She remembers what it had been like, back when she could escape these four walls that held her. She remembers the way the dewy grass felt underfoot as she ran across the early morning fields. She can picture what it was like to sit beside a crackling fire sharing stories, fingers sticky with melting sugars and cheeks sore from laughter. The girl sighs, turning back into the dark and dingy room. That had been her life before; before the monsters came and stole her away in the dead of night. They whisked her off to this far away place and locked her in a fortress, destined to be forgotten by the world below.

I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive, a twin image of myself, her hauntingly sad eyes starting straight through me. My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I alone created. This isn’t the first time I left her unprotected, not the only time she has been whisked away to a far-off destination. Though the walls to this particular tower seem much thicker than the ones I scaled in the past; the monsters are bolder, more aware of my usual tricks.

I failed her before, but I would not do it again. After months of searching for her, I had the faintest glimpse of the distant stone facade of the castle that had become her prison; spires slicing at an angry sky, flames swirling from the winged beast who had stolen her away. But then the monsters swirled around my, and my dull little blade was no match for their ferocious attacks. I was whisked away like a leaf in a hurricane. And somehow, I had landed right back on the island that haunted my nightmares; the place where all lost things eventually find themselves. This was where I had begun my search so long ago; trapped on this tiny speck of land amidst the roiling sea of distraction.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and square my shoulders. I let her down once, but this adventure is not over. No, that was only an intermission. My Muse is still in search of a hero, and I am the only one who can save her. There is a glint of steel in my gaze when I finally pry open my eyes and take a look around. I’ve escaped this place before, I will do it again. It’s time to get back to work. I exhale slowly and stand.

When we are little we are full of dreams, nothing is outside of our grasp because our hopes have not yet been tempered by the blunting force of defeat. Everything is still possible and full of promise. We explore, learn, experiment and create. We are capable of anything. But then we grow up; so slowly we don’t often notice that we are dismantling our childlike wonder piece by piece and tucking it all away in a cardboard box labelled ‘memories.’ You suddenly pride yourself on being a realist in a challenging world. You carry that chip on your shoulder like a badge of honor. You stop dreaming of becoming the president, or shooting into outer space to set foot on Mars. You don’t picture yourself as a rock star or a famous actor. Instead, you find yourself looking up degrees on business management and legal careers. You actively know what the current interest rates on mortgages are, complain about the price of milk, and file taxes that you still don’t understand. You are an adult, and you have put away childish things.

There is nothing wrong with growing up, with harboring new goals and dreams for the life you want to lead. But there is something regretful in that loss of wonder and hope. I have never felt like I fully fit in the adult world. Sure, I know how to pay my bills, and I can rock a blazer with my high heels; but that’s always felt more like an act. At 32 I still refuse to grow up. I wear silly masks with obscure book and comic references (and get giddy the few times someone recognizes them). I created an entire office full of my nerdy wonders. The one lesson that has really stuck with me through the years: time isn’t what will age you- it’s giving up the wonder, the creative spark that lights up our souls and compels others to notice us as more than just strangers on the street.

Humans were built to create, to invent, to unwind tall tales over a flickering fire. Our ancestors used their sense of ingenuity and wonder to create the first paints that would cling to cave walls for thousands of years. In a world where survival was key, they still found the time and the drive to dip their fingers into their pigmented creations and draw stories for us to find long after they had returned to the dust. It’s built into the core of who we are. We celebrate it, we idolize it; and we far too often refuse to make enough time for it in our own lives.

I love to make things; with my mind, with my hands- it doesn’t really matter. The saddest part of growing up was losing time with things that I love. I never want to stop believing in the magic of what I can do, to stop seeing the wonder in what we are capable of creating. Far too often we fill our heads with all the wrong things. We are bad at being bored, analogue beings in a digital world. We are over-stimulated and undernourished. Flitting between other people’s creations without ever making a moment for our own.

We live in a world that is constantly vying for our attention, overly connected and tuned in to every shift of the wind. We fill every single moment with a distraction, not wanting to miss out on anything important. We don’t even notice our attention span starting to ebb as we switch from reading entire magazines to glancing at snapshot headlines. We never realized that we were pushing our Muse away behind a wall of notifications, locking her in a paper mâché prison of to-do lists. We fed the beasts of distraction never realizing that they were suffocating our creativity. We didn’t notice until we ran out of words, until the mocking blank page was too painful to stare at anymore.

I recognized the change, though I couldn’t pinpoint when it happened. Looking back I still can’t tell you when my priorities shifted, when I started craving the pull of distraction. I just know that I jumped in without reservation and eventually the well of my own ideas began to run dry. There was a time I could fill notebooks full of sparking stories; tidbits and scenes that carried me away into distant lands I had to create. Now the few new concepts that come to mind are filtered through my dreams; as though my subconscious hasn’t quite given up on me yet.

Cultivating a mental and physical environment for creativity is a daunting task in the modern age. And yet the only way to rescue the Muse is to fight for her; to give her the nurturing space that will allow her to fight for herself. So, how do we save her, my friends? Like any true adventure: we must peek at the map.

The Map to the Muse:

Map created using inkarnate.com

My lovely band of wayward adventurers, we are currently marooned on the Island of the Lost (bottom left of the map: that little campfire, that is our humble little home base). The mission: to get to the upper righthand side of the map: the dragon-guarded keep imprisoning our Muse. To begin this journey we must do the unthinkable: traverse the Sea of Distractions. Do not let it’s alluring waves fool you- this trek is not for the faint of heart. To survive this first challenge we must do the single thing that strikes fear into the hearts of even the bravest traveler: learn to be bored.

Science has shown a direct link between boredom and creativity. There is a reason why most of us get our best ideas while in the shower (about 72% of people have reported this is where most people have their greatest eureka moments). There is something about the combination of a mind finally able to wander aimlessly in whichever direction it chooses, coupled with the vulnerability and intimacy of standing naked under a stream of water. Our brains are wired for stimulation; and when we can’t get it from the outside world, we create it on the inside. Boredom gives your brain a chance to fire different neurons, processing events that have taken place, making new connections between unrelated ideas, working through problems, and providing insights that can lead you down the path of inspiration.

Unfortunately for us, we live in a world of constant connection. We are on a never-ending loop of notifications, plugged into the world around us, desperate to soak it all in so we don’t miss anything. While technology is capable of making our lives so much better: connecting us to people we would never meet otherwise, giving us valuable information with the tap of a finger, or simply help us manage our day-to-day lives; it is also far too easy to get drunk with the power you carry in the palm of your hand. Much like Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, our techy sidekicks have both the light side and the dark side within them. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be slipping towards the dark more often than not.

This first hurdle we must overcome is perhaps the most challenging of our entire adventure, especially given the stressful world we are currently tied to. There is a balance to be struck between cultivating mindfulness and detoxing from the allure of distraction. There will inevitably some painful insights that will roil to the surface; these are monsters to be faced once we have leveled up a few steps. The key to remember: though we may embark on this adventure together, each of our journeys will be a little bit different. What works for Sam does not always work for Frodo. That’s why we will sample a little bit of everything; carry with you what suits you best, and leave behind what doesn’t.

For tonight, we shall gather around the fire one last time and share our daring plots and plans before the real work begins tomorrow. So tell me, my friends, what kind of monsters do you have lurking under the surface, searching for you in the Sea of Distractions? And do we dare to face them together?

Game Over: Do you Wish to Continue? (hint: the answer is usually yes)

A year ago I started an adventure that I fell madly in love with. I wrote about it right here on this blog. A quest to save my muse and rediscover the creativity that had been laying dormant within me for far too long. I never wanted to be the kind of adult who stopped believing in magic, who wistfully talked about her dreams in the past tense. I wanted to live a creative and fulfilling life- that’s always been the dream, the way I felt most authentically myself. So I journeyed through the pages, through the art spheres; I chronicled it right here, and I loved every moment of it.

But then there came a day when I hit submit on my last post. All of my good intentions lay bundled up on my nightstand as I kept telling myself “the next one will be a little bit late, but I’ll get it done. I don’t have the energy today, but this weekend I’ll sit down to work.” Eventually, I gave up the pretense and threw in the towel. I stopped picking up my laptop because I couldn’t handle the frustration of staring at my blinking cursor on it’s blank page when I couldn’t figure out how the hell to fill it. My little hero had lost, been swallowed up by the monsters, and my muse was still trapped in her dragon-guarded castle.

It seemed like there were a million excuses; a hundred thousand reasons why I felt exhausted and drained of the color I craved in my life. I had been feeling the drain for weeks, I knew it was coming, I knew I could only hold out for so long. That didn’t make the realization hurt any less: I had failed, Game Over, the end. My little plumber smacked head first into a Goomba and never made it to his Princess Peach up in the castle. And yet, it never really felt like the end. It felt like I still had a few lives nestled in my pocket, just waiting for me to hit ‘continue’ when I was ready. But how long would that be?

You see, I never stopped thinking about my quest, dreaming through it, plotting little adventures in the back of my mind. I imagined the day I would finally be ready to reprise my old role and jump back into the fray. I missed it. I’ve always felt like my soul was made of written words, and without them I am nothing but wisps of smoke, intangible and flighty. And as much as I don’t want to come on here and point my finger at the pandemic as being the culprit who killed my little creative adventurer- it seems important to recognize that it played a major role in my adventurer’s demise. Amidst the draining strain that comes with a global pandemic I felt my inner creativity slowly turn to stone, standing blind sentinel like a gargoyle. My well had run dry, all my mental energy was diverted to other tasks. I was an empty vessel just plodding through my not-so-routine routine.

It caught me off guard when I lost track of my inner self. As someone who had dealt with chronic anxiety for most of my life, I was already a step ahead when the pandemic hit. It seemed the whole world had been picked up and tossed into the same sea of uncertainty and fear. And while my non-anxious friends were grappling with the daily functions of it, still learning to tread water in this environment; I was able to slues through like a seal. The sea of anxiety was my territory, I had been diving and dodging through it since I was a wee little pup. I knew how to manage this; it was the first time in my life I was thankful for my unusual brain chemistry. It was almost a relief for my anxiety to have a specific known focal point for a change, and not just the vague trivialities of daily existence.

I thought I would be okay, that I I could keep up my momentum and turn the year into something beautiful. Without all of the distractions I could focus on my creative endeavors. I would dive in deeper and come out at the end of quarantine a better person with new skills and ideas. Joke’s on me: it was nothing like that. I started to feel the burnout pretty quickly. Work never slowed down. We were deemed essential and had to go in every day. There was always another problem, another roadblock that should have been solved yesterday. We were riding in a leaky rowboat in the middle of a storming ocean. We would patch one hole just to turn around and see five more, plus a giant octopus grabbing for our oars. We repeatedly told ourselves “it’ll slow down soon, once we get these problems fixed.” We’re a year out and things are just as busy and chaotic as they were in those first months.

It was exhausting, to say the least. I have never worked as many hours as I did this last year. I have never felt so unsafe going to work. But there was no choice: the job had to be done, and there was no one else to do it. So you do your best and you hope it will be enough. You spend the entire day in an exhausted daze and then lay awake at night with that gnawing sense of dread in the pit of your stomach. There was no room for creativity, even though I knew it would be the perfect outlet. I gave everything I had to my job, and there wasn’t enough left over for me at the end of the day.

To top it off, there was a major curve ball thrown at us over the summer. In the US about 43 million Americans rent their homes. When the pandemic hit eviction moratoriums were put in place that forbade landlords from evicting their tenants for nonpayment. There were loopholes, however. If there was damage being done to the property or if the owner decided they wanted to sell the property; then the tenants wouldn’t have a choice. Coupling with this was the fact that the housing market in most areas skyrocketed in the summer of 2020, and you had the perfect storm for anyone living in a home they didn’t own. In my area the demand far outstripped the available units. It wasn’t uncommon for a house to sell for $40,000 over asking price after one day on the market. And even though I had never missed or been late with any payment; the opportunity was too good for my landlords to pass up. They let us know they wouldn’t be renewing our lease and they would be listing it before our lease was even up, in the hopes that it would close as soon as we were gone. Not only did we have to try to find a new place to live, we also had to keep our house ‘show ready’ and leave anytime someone wanted to come view it- in the middle of a pandemic. Que the anxiety train.

To make matters even more complicated, I own a german shepherd. He’s a sweet boy, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s on the restricted breeds list for most rentals. I could probably count on one hand the number of rentals we had been able to find over the years that would allow him. I felt so defeated. It didn’t matter that we had been doing everything right; we were still in this position, not knowing where we would be laying our heads when fall rolled around.

It was two months of uncertainty; of coming up with back-up plans with family members, looking at rentals and working through the process to see if we could qualify to purchase a home- and then putting in offer after offer after offer, only to be outbid over and over again. I remember the panic setting in as the clock was running down. We got lucky. We were able to find a new home and got everything moved in with one day to spare before our lease was officially up. It was a humbling experience, one that makes me feel privileged in so many ways because I’ve seen far too many of these stories end poorly.

As the year wore on, I kept waiting for things to turn around, to calm down. But it didn’t. And the anxiety itself built up like I was a human pressure cooker. I have never felt so close to a mental breakdown as I did this past year. My brain felt like a rubber band stretched too far, ready to snap at any second. But I wasn’t alone here. I wasn’t the only one struggling through the train wreck of 2020.

So what changed? Why am I suddenly here even though life is still a bit chaotic, even though my work is starting to feel like it did at the beginning of COVID? The truth is, I’m not really sure. I just know that the pieces of me that had turned to stone have been slowly stirring, gathering energy, and are breaking free from what has held them dormant for so long. I finally feel like I’m ready to cultivate the parts of my life that give me meaning again. Perhaps its spring, or the fact that I just celebrated another trip around the sun. Maybe it’s that hopeful feeling that comes with sunshine and vaccines. But I’m missing my life again; the one that isn’t charged with anxiety and fear. I feel like I’m waking up, and my body is ready for another adventure.

So here I am, ready to hit continue on my little game. Ready to search for my muse and release her from the prison she’s been kept in for far longer than I ever expected. Do I know exactly what this road will look like? No. I’m still planning and plotting; but I am done with sitting here mired in my own inaction. So my friends, I make apologies for abandoning you on our last adventure. And perhaps you will be kind enough to give me one more shot. So what do you say: do you care to continue?