Creativity Challenge: Tech Baseline (Rescue the Muse Challenge)

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

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

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

Challenge #1: Arts and Crafts

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #2: The Wordy Birdy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #3: Creative Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #4: Photo Frenzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Baseline (your favorite frienemy – Rescuing the Muse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Analog

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

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

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

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

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

Side-Quests

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

Creativity Component

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

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

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

Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness Challenge:

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

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

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

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