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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Your Baseline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Time

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

Physical Health and Wellness

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

Mindfulness and Mental Health

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

Work-Life Balance

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

Creative Time and Inspirational Priorities

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

Resisting Distractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

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

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

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

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

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

A Digital Detox in the Sea of Distraction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sea of Distraction: Digital Detox, Day 1 (Rescuing the Muse)

The Adventure Continues: Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

The fire burnt down to embers as we tossed and turned through the night, each pretending to be lost in our own dreamland to avoid speaking to the others. Admitting we were afraid of today could have broken our resolve, kept us shivering on this lonely island instead of taking the first steps to find our Muse, locked away in a distant tower. Now that the sun is beginning to creep above the horizon, we sit, staring blearily at one another. The moment of truth has come.

We douse the coals, though there is nothing left on this island for the flames to dance with; we used every last scrap to build that puny little boat we expect to sail on. For the past week we toiled away with the driftwood that washed ashore, lashing it together with bits of rope braided together from the sea grass. Our vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as castaways in this dangerous sea, we could hardly expect more. Every day as we toiled away we kept our eyes on the horizon, half hoping our daring Muse would have found a way to rescue herself and come back to us. But alas, we must be the heroes of this story.

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

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

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 a super hero (or villain?), 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.

Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

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

I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive, hauntingly sad eyes staring straight through me. My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I, myself, created. This isn’t the first time the damsel in distress needed rescuing; though the walls to this tower seem much thicker than they once were, the monsters are bolder, aware of all of my usual tricks.

Nonetheless, I take a deep breath and picture a tiny little hero stepping onto the field, long brown hair blowing in the wind in the striking way that only Hollywood can achieve. Her tall leather boots are tied all the way up her shins. Her traveling clothes are bedraggled and threadbare from the climb to this precarious place. The hilt of a silver sword glints at her hip , and a roughly hewn wooden shield bounces against her back as she steps forward. She takes a moment to tie her hair back into a neat little bun before squaring her shoulders and grasping her weapon in one hand. She glares at the tower, eyes scanning every brick and grasping vine of ivy on its way to the top. She is here to save the damsel, to rescue her Muse from the grasping clutches of the emboldened enemy.

My inner struggle with writer’s block has turning into a raging battle. It has become a ruthless war of creativity; a struggle for the words that will save the Muse from her dragon-guarded keep. In truth, it is no wonder that the inner war has grown so intense; I never slow down long enough to allow myself to create. By the time I am finally able to sit down and spill a few words from my soul, I discover that the well has run dry. I am simply exhausted.

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

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

The Map to the Muse:

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

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

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

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

This first hurdle for me is going to be one of the hardest: detoxing from the distractions in order to open myself up for more creative thought. There will be a lot of trial and error, perhaps some painful insights and diving deeper into the root of why I let my monsters steal my Muse without much of a fight.

Tonight we gather around the fire one last time before climbing into our rickety row boat in the morning. So tell me, my friends, when you face the Sea of Distractions: what kind of monsters are lurking below the surface? And do we dare to face them together?