Here we go again, my wordy little birdies. Continuing on our quest (we are almost done with the baseline tests, and then I promise, we will finally be leveled up enough to face the Sea of Distractions on our epic quest to save the muse). The next stepping stone towards our grand adventure: finding that work-life balance. We all have them: those dreaded extra responsibilities that keep us from living in our dream world all the time. Keep in mind- when I talk about work, I don’t just mean your standard 9-5 clock in and get paid kind of thing. I mean ‘work’ in the broadest sense of the term: it can be taking care of a household, wrangling children, assisting loved ones, volunteering; the list is truly endless. What it really boils down to: responsibilities that you give your time and energy to. For me personally, the majority of this time is spent on a career, taking care of a home, and family obligations because I don’t currently have any tiny tots to chase around, so that’s where most of my personal baseline discussion is going to be coming from. That being said: if you choose to participate in this section, I strong encourage you to take a step back and really evaluate all the different types of ‘work’ you have in your life.
I have been clocking in far too many hours at my place of employment lately, and I know it. My work tends to ebb and flow; some weeks you’ll have lots of room to breath, and wind up with the option of taking a few hours off here and there to recharge. Other weeks you will be coming in early, working through lunch, staying late, dream about the place when you’re in bed- and still be behind schedule. There is rarely a happy medium. In the past few months I’ve been doing way too much overtime. My last time card popped up into the triple digits, which isn’t a particularly good sign. I also recently realized that I’ve cancelled so many vacation days this past year that I actually maxed out on the number of hours I’m allowed to have banked up- I ultimately lost about 45 hours of time I should have earned. Which sucked, to say the least. I have been working so hard that when I get home I am mentally fatigued and a bit grumpy to boot.
I have been working far too many hours lately, and I know it. My work tends to go in phases: some weeks you’ll have lots of extra time to use your flex or take a couple of hours off, other weeks you will be coming in early, working through lunch, and staying late- and still be behind schedule. I’ve been doing way too much overtime. My last time card popped up into the triple digits, which isn’t a good sign at all. I also realized that I’ve given back so many vacation days the past year that I actually maxed out on what I’m allowed to accrue, and ultimately lost 45 hours of time I should have been earning. That…sucks, to say the least. I have been working so hard that when I get home I am mentally fatigued and a bit grumpy.
The overworking until I drop mentality has caused havoc for my personal time. Not to mention, it is simply not sustainable. I haven’t had the time to invest in any of the projects I’ve had on my list, and most creative endeavors fall flat before they ever get a chance to start. My balance has been out of whack for a while.
Luckily, the major projects that were forcing the extra overtime have all concluded. The next big one I have on my radar may not rear it’s head until August, which gives me a little bit of time to recoup and prepare. I am fortunate for the fact that I have a boss who is very understanding of what burnout can do to a person and encourages me to leave early whenever there is an opportunity (and even at a few times when all I can do is laugh because I am up to my eyeballs in paperwork). The next big bonus: this week is thankfully very peaceful, and next week I am on vacation. Nothing big or fancy; my partner/basically husband/whatever you call the man you have been with for nearly a dozen years even though you still aren’t married in spite of his mother’s best efforts- he couldn’t get the time off work, so it will be a stay-cation for me. If I’m being honest: I am thrilled about this. I have a laundry list of projects around the house, a closet full of crafts I’ve only partially started, a pile of books, and a dog that will force me out of the house every chance he gets. This is going to be a game changer kind of break.
So, even though I’ve spend way too many extra hours on work than I would like, I’m about to strike a slightly better balance in the next few weeks. It’s going to be a far more manageable routine. I’m working on getting ahead of a few projects so I can be mentally prepared when they take over again, so I can rearrange my creative endeavors and make them a little less intensive during my crazier work weeks.
When it comes to other types of work in my life: my balance is getting a lot better. I am lucky to have a partner who splits the housework with me pretty evenly. After over a decade we’ve learned that some weeks one of us only has 30% to give, so the other can offer up 70%, and when the roles reverse we can flip it. But we usually aim for even stevens. I’m also getting better at doing chores when they are still small (ex: do the laundry when you have one full load of dirties instead of waiting until you are completely out of underwear, or emptying the dish washer as soon as it runs instead of waiting until the sink is overflowing and you have to cook the noodles in a crock pot). If I keep chipping away at the CONSTANT trickle, then I won’t get swept away by the raging floods.
My score: 5/10
Make a monster out of household chores you haven’t done (ex: dish monster, laundry monster)
Create a chore/task game (I used to do this as a kid, and loved it- it can be anything. Put 5 things away as fast as you can and then run an impromptu obstacle course. When I was little I would heighten the challenge- the obstacle course was made up of the toys I needed to clean, so it got easier and my time got faster as I went. You can have any sort of mini game or reward, be as creative as you like)
Write a full short story during your break. It could take the entire 10-15 minutes, it could be a hard hitting piece with just two sentences.
Take pictures of your daily tasks as though you were an alien exploring this strange world you found, or an investigator trying to unravel a mystery (but don’t take any pictures of anything that could get you in trouble in the workplace- if it’s a trade secret, confidential, or proprietary- it’s best to let that sleeping dog lie)
Continuing on with our baseline assessment, we’ve worked on our tech addictions and our physical bodies: now it’s time to dive into the mental and emotional realm. Maintaining the right mental headspace is vital- not just for your creativity, but for you as a person. Recognizing your natural rhythms and giving yourself the tools you need to keep that little ship sailing as evenly as possible are crucial. For some this section will be a piece of cake; for others, it is probably a fight you have already spent many years waging.
For me: mental health is always going to be a trickier subject. I am pretty open about the fact that I have spent years struggling with anxiety and intermittent depression, and I have found myself drowning a time or two. My particular brand of anxiety requires me to keep a pretty good pulse on the situation at all times, and as such I’ve developed some steady personal insights and internal warning systems. It used to make me angry, but I’ve reached the point where I can accept that this is just one of those areas I will always have to work a little bit harder on than others. It happens to be the way I’m wired; it’s not something I can really separate myself from because it is so intrinsically ingrained in who I have become as a person- and all things considered, I am actually pretty happy with who I am.
So, as someone who has to constantly keep track of my mental health, lets dive into where I’m sitting with it right now- what is my baseline as we move forward with this creativity challenge?
Let’s begin with the obvious: the pandemic was not all that great for my mental health. I am pretty sure that 99.9% of people are in the same boat on that one. Collectively we went through a lot this past year, and nearly every piece of my mental health took a hit that is going to take some time to recover from. My social skills weren’t all that grand to begin with- and now they are particularly rusty. We went through this interesting thing where my anxiety triggers suddenly became acceptable things to avoid: social situations, shopping in large crowds, doing anything where I didn’t have a very specific game-plan in mind- these were all things I forced myself to do pre-pandemic, and then I got a year long pass. While this seemed like the silver lining to an awful year, all it really did was entrench and reaffirm some bad habits I had spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Suddenly I want to avoid things that were once easy, like going to a grocery story, even though I feel perfectly safe going. I’ve been able to spend an entire year cocooned in a comfort zone of sorts (I mean, as comfortable as you can be during a global pandemic), and now my anxiety spikes any time I have to do something that used to be normal. So I am slowly inching my way towards a bit of exposure therapy. Forcing myself to do uncomfortable (but safe) things until that shot of adrenaline starts to dissipate and I don’t feel so unreasonably anxious. Not a quick or easy task, but I do feel good knowing that I’ve been slowly getting better without pushing myself too hard. Baby steps for the win!
I’ve been working really hard to keep up with some of the mindfulness techniques I’ve experimented with over the years. The main one that stuck: gardening. It’s been fun, and very educational. Honestly, I think the main reason it didn’t fall by the wayside is for the simple fact that I have all of these living things counting on me. Do I have green thumbs? No. Am I learning most things by experimentation? Yes. Do I say “Oops, okay, I won’t do that next year”? Every single day. While some of my plants have struggled, and others have bolted before I ever got to taste the fruits of my labor (RIP spinach, I guess I’ll keep going to the store for you), I do have a few little beauties that are looking pretty awesome. I name them and talk to them when it’s time for them to be watered or pruned. I am particularly fond of my underdogs: like Mojito, Lemony Snickets, Kuzco, and Bluebell (lime tree, lemon tree, coffee bean tree, and blueberry bush, respectively) who all had a rough time in transit, and didn’t look like they would make it when they got here. Two of them are still glorified sticks in the dirt, but I have hope that their leaves will come back with time.
I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve managed to journal this past month, and I unfortunately skipped over some pretty large events. But I’ve been trying to get myself back into the practice. Right now I’m trying to give myself a realistic goal: once a week. Once I start hitting that, I can work up from there. I struggle finding the time and energy; and when I do find some, I would rather be working on my more creative projects. So it’s a balance I’m still trying to strike.
I’ve been really good with my breathing exercises and walking to help with my anxiety. But to be fair- those are habits I’ve had built into my life for a while now, so they won’t ever really disappear. They’re the first line of defense in my anxiety struggle; the kind of thing I can do casually without drawing attention, something that will get me from one moment to another until I can get away from other people and deal with whatever I have going on in my head. I haven’t been as good keeping up with my meditation, yoga or exercises, which tend to be more on the anxiety-prevention front, as opposed to the defensive response styles (like the breathing and walking).
I’ve been pretty good at food and drinks; believe it or not all those experts are right, the things you put into your body can have a huge impact on your state of mind. I know it sounds cliche, but too much caffeine and sugar are going to amplify some of those anxious bad feelings. I feel like I am particularly seasoned to warn others against these foes, because I was a huge addict. Caffeine is one of my favorite things: I was a coffee in the morning, energy drink in the afternoon, tea in the evening kind of girl. I never stopped. And I have a pretty strong sweet tooth to boot. I knew that stopping (or at least slowing) my consumption would probably help me, but I didn’t have the willpower. It wasn’t until I was contemplating trying to get pregnant again (after a few miscarriages you start to take every suggestion and rule as gospel and don’t cheat on anything), I cut caffeine cold-turkey and worked really hard to improve my diet. Holy cow, the change in my anxiety levels was a night and day difference. While I still have to keep tabs on my internal mood, I don’t feel like a runaway rail car anymore. I switched primarily to decaf because I am not willing to give up the ritual of morning coffee yet, and I do allow myself a little bit of actual caffeine during the day, but it’s pretty closely monitored. Seriously- it was hard, but probably one of the best decisions I’ve made for my mental health.
So: where do we stand on mental health?
My score: 7/10
While I am a lot better at managing my anxiety once the ball starts rolling, I do need to work on more preventative measures. Mainly: exercise, meditation, and journaling. I need to constantly remind myself to give my brain enough room to think. I am no longer locked in that traumatic flood of anxiety where I need to do anything I can to keep my head above water. I am in a better place than that, and my daily habits need to reflect it and build on it.
The Creativity Challenge
Pick a mental health challenge you face (anxiety, depression, anger, etc). Draw it as a living thing (a monster, creature, part of yourself).
Bonus points if you write a story about it or a letter to it
Make a collage of the thoughts going on in your head- it can be words, sentences, pictures, drawings, scribbles, magazine cut-outs.
Bonus points: do this for a couple of days in a row or a few random days in a week. Are there any patterns?
Journal as though you were a character in a book- how does this change the way you view yourself?
Write anything in your head for three minutes. Stream of conscious thought, anything goes. Don’t worry about style, spelling, content, just write. Engage in a mindfulness activity of your choice (meditation, yoga, go for a walk with no distractions/music, garden, create). Get a new sheet of paper and write stream of conscious again for three minutes. Do you see a difference in the trend of your thoughts?
To backtrack a little bit further: I started in on this Quest to Save the Muse some time ago (to be honest, I failed in my endeavors a year ago, and felt like I was finally ready to give it another shot). I’ve always felt like my most authentic self when I was creating, but I had lost my spark. So, like Bilbo and Frodo before me, I deemed it time to go off and find some infamous adventures. In this quest I discovered that the first monster I would need to battle would also be the biggest: a bit unfair, it’s like facing the boss in the first level of your game. Distractions rob us of the time and space we need to have creative and unique thought. So in an effort to cross the Sea of Distraction, I’ve been taking the time to take inventory of my skill set and work on smaller projects that will get me excited to tackle the rest of this journey.
Yesterday we went over the health and wellness (see the link above- I promise, I’ll stop recapping now). And we ended it with a Creativity Challenge. Now what kind of hero would I be if I threw all the challenges to you without completing them myself? So here we are- the fruits of my labor:
The Creativity Challenge #1: Favorite Character Workout
Think of a character from a favorite book or movie (preferably a ‘save the world’ kind- that will really get us the farthest) and create a workout routine inspired by them. Then (and here’s the really fun part) actually attempt it.
Now, I’m going to go a little bit obscure for this one and pick a character from an audiobook I am currently listening to- called ‘Bones of the Past’ by Drew Hayes, book #2 in the Villians’ Code series. It’s a pretty cute anti-hero kind of story full of humor that will not inspire those who prefer ‘high art’ forms of literature. If you are looking for the next classic- this isn’t it. If you are looking for a goofy take on heroes and villains, give it a shot. The main character is Tori/Hephaestus. a fiery tech-loving self-made villain who I absolutely adore. But truthfully, the workout here could fit for just about any Super- so feel free to imagine your own favorite.
Hephaestus Work Out (timed- as many as you can in the allotted time, will take 1 hour)
5 minutes of stretching
5 minutes of push ups
5 minute wall sits
5 minutes punching and kicking (punch, punch, kick; alternate legs)
5 minutes mountain climbers
5 minutes triceps dips
5 minutes donkey kicks
5 minutes plank
5 minutes jumping jacks
5 minutes hip thrusts
5 minutes jump rope
5 minutes – cool down, child’s pose
The Creativity Challenge #2: Sedentary Activity Plan
Pick a favorite book or movie and make a game out of it. For example: for every paragraph you read, walk x number of laps around your room. Every time (insert character name here) appears on the screen, jump up and down until they leave
Part A: Book Nerd Edition
The challenge I came up for with this one will work with literally any book, and can be easily modified. If you are listening to an audiobook, substitute the number of pages for a set number of minutes (if you want to really get technical, go to howlongtoread.com and figure out how long it would take you to read a single page in your story)
Warm up: stretch each body part for one full page.
Walk laps as you read for the remainder of challenge (be sure you are in a place where you can walk safely without bumping into thing, otherwise walk in place)
Every time you hit a new paragraph stop and jump 5 times (those heavy dialog sections will get ya real quick)
At the end of each page stop and do 10 jumping jacks (on even pages) or 10 push-ups (odd pages)
At the end of a chapter: 10 burpees
When a new character is introduced, do 5 lunges
If a character dies: plank for as long as you can to help you grieve (or celebrate?)
When a potential love interest is in the vicinity of the main character (or a character you ship them with) do a wall sit for their entire interaction — if you are reading something overly-saturated with these interactions, do a wall sit for as long as you can. You can be exempt from wall sits for the next five pages
When a page starts off with dialog, do 15 pointed butt lifts (15 per leg)
If two characters argue/fight: skip or do grapevine steps for the duration of the dialog (or go for 30 seconds-1 minutes without reading so you don’t trip yourself)
When the main character meets up with his/her best friend: do 10 squats
Cool down: lay down on your back and hold your book up over your head (so you can read)- hold this pose for as long a spossible
If you are reading something nonfiction that won’t fit with these rules: make a list of all the different exercises you want to do and dedicate each page to one of them. Do as many of the chosen item as you can. At each chapter break take on the tasks you can’t do while actively reading, such as jumping jacks)
Part B: TV Time Edition
For this one, I picked a classic: Friends. Most people have seen it, and for me it’s a solid go-to when I need some background noise or I just want something cheerful on. The format here is simple. ‘Every time…you must do…’
Theme song plays – stretch
Joey says ‘How you doin?’ – 20 sit ups
Chandler makes a joke – 25 jumping jacks
Phoebe sings – plank
You hear Smelly cat – wall sits
Ross talks about dinosaurs – 10 squats
They’re at Central Perk – 10 leg lifts
Chandler and Joey sit in their chairs – 20 bicycles
You see the duck and chick – 10 lunges
Ross and Monica talk about their childhood – 20 calf raises
Monica cleans sometimes – 15 russian twists
Someone calls Rachel ‘Rach’ – 10 push ups
Chandler says ‘be’ – 5 burpees
Someone mentions Ugly Naked Guy – 20 high knees
Gunther shows his love for Rachel – 15 mountain climbers
Someone starts dating – 10 leg lifts
Someone breaks up – 10 tricep dips
Janice says ‘Oh my God’ – 20 pointed butt lifts
Someone goes out on the balcony – 25 punches
Ending credits – cool down, lay in child’s pose
Even if you don’t feel like making a challenge of your own, you can still find a huge selection or pre-made ones (primarily for tv shows and movies) that can get you out of your couch potato rut at any point. The point is to get moving and increase that blood flow to your brain. Trust me, it makes a big difference. Now I’m off to walk the dog and (gulp) try out my creations. Wish me luck.
Carrying on with our Bored to Brilliant Baseline Analysis, we hit on the Health and Wellness section. It is particularly poignant for me, considering I’ve spent the past week and a half recovering from some complications after oral surgery. A week and a half of chronic pain that made it nearly impossible to talk or eat (two thing I really enjoy doing) left me in tears a few nights. So instead of writing, I opted for rest. Frustrating from a goal perspective, but I’m on the upswing now and I feel ready to charge ahead once more.
So, this particular category is one I tended to neglect. I’ve never included it before in my personal self-reflections, but the more research I’ve done on creativity and how the brain works, the more I realize how closely it is tied to our overall health- both mental and physical. Our brains don’t survive in a vacuum, it is not separated from out physical bodies; which means when you work on one, you really should be working on the other as well if you want to reach your full potential.
Physical activity boosts your brains productivity, giving it all the good chemicals to marinade in. Water and proper nutrition give it the nutrients it needs to perform optimally. They keep your energy regulated so that dreaded brain fog has less of an opportunity to encroach on your precious time. Sleep and rest are vital to your mental activity: allowing your brain to process the events of the day and new information you have acquired. It helps you map new mental connections and inspires new ideas by assisting you in putting a variety of ideas together. Not to mention, dreams can be a pretty awesome source of inspiration. Even if they are a bit awkward and nonsensical once you rejoin the conscious world, the snippets that they provide can be invaluable to creative projects. I have several stories and pictures I’ve created off of my unconscious self’s work that I am still very proud of. Don’t underestimate the value of rest for your work.
Physical activity: truthfully, I don’t do a whole lot. I have a fitness tracker that logs my steps and activity. Based on it’s data, the past few weeks I’ve averaged about 75 active minutes a day. Most of my activity is walking, but not much else. I haven’t been doing my stretching or any type of active fitness plan. I walk when I get anxious, and apparently I get anxious enough to hit at least an hour. Now that the weather is nice, I am finding myself outside more, particularly because my dog thinks he is a sun god and must lay out there from the moment it rises until well after it has set in the evening, otherwise he will transform into a hell-hound send my Hades himself.
Score: 3/10 – lots of room for improvement with intentional activity.
Sleep: Once again, I have an app that roughly tracks this- very roughly. Based on it’s data, I average about 6.4 hours per night. Lately it’s been more restful sleep than it used to be, though I know I need to start weaning myself off the audiobooks. I am somewhat consistent on my bedtime and wake time, though I do still wake up in the middle of the night a lot. And I spend too much time looking at my screen before I try to sleep.
Score: 7/10 Of course, sleep is the one thing I do better than anything else. I could fine-tune my routine a bit here, but overall- I don’t feel too bad about this one.
Water and Nutrition: The past few weeks I’ve been a lot better. I (mostly) cut caffiene from my diet, which has helped my anxiety tremendously. My partner and I are both trying to prioritize more whole foods and natural eating, incorporating more meat-free days. While we have room to improve, we are getting the right intentions down and working towards building up the habits. We even managed some meal prep: tofu and veggie stir fry for lunch this week. Incidentally- it was my first time attempting to cook with tofu…let’s just say there was a learning curve involved there.
It’s a pretty simple one: healthier living equals a healthier body, which translates into a healthier mind. A healthier mind is more productive, flexible and creative. So if we want to rescue that muse, we’ve got to act like the heroes of our tale- and that includes some physical training and personal care. Think about just about any Dystopian story and channel that energy. Turn it into a game if you have to, or find someone to compete with if that’s what gets you excited. The point is to treat your body the way it deserves to be treated.
The Creative Challenge
Think of a character from a favorite book or move (preferably a ‘save the world’ kind- that will really get us the farthest) and create a workout routine inspired by them. Then (and here’s the really fun part) actually attempt it.
Come up with a ‘sedentary activity plan’: pick a book or favorite movie, and make a game out of it. A few examples:
Book Nerd Edition: Every paragraph you read in your book, you have to walk 5 laps around the room. Every page, ten jumping jacks. Every chapter: stretch while reading the first two pages. Every time x character’s name appears- skip down the hallway once
Pick a favorite movie or show: every time character x appears, do 5 jumping jacks. For any fight sequences (or love scene, dramatic scene, etc) do wall sits until it’s over. Whenever a particular phrase is uttered, do 5 lunges.
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:
avocado (VERY ripe)
plain greek yogurt
salt and pepper
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
Health and Wellness
Mindfulness and Mental Health
Creative Time and Inspiration Priorities
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.