Saturday, January 31, 2015

Getting your creativity back

From the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep, we are surrounded by distractions.  With the invention of smart phones, data plans, mobile apps and social media, it’s hard to be bored.  Think about this statement: when was the last time you felt bored? 

If you have a smart phone and Internet access, my guess would be that you have not experienced boredom in a very long time.  As soon as there is a moment of downtime, I pull out my iPhone and wake it up.  I check my email, I check my Facebook, I check how the stock market is doing, I send off a few text messages, and then read the news (not necessarily in this order). 

I know I’m not alone in looking at my phone to alleviate my boredom.  Seems like nearly everyone around me with a smartphone is addicted. Everyone around me is looking at his or her phone in line at the grocery store.  At a traffic light: the driver in the car next to mine is text messaging.  On the subway or bus: it’s completely quiet and everyone is looking down at the bright screens of their mobile devices.  In any waiting room: same thing.  The first thing I look at when I wake up is my iPhone.  One of the last things I look at before going to sleep is my iPhone. 

Why do we feel the need to look at our mobile devices at the first hit of idleness?  We tell ourselves that we need to stay up to date on the news.  We need to see what’s going on with our friends on Facebook / Instagram / Twitter.  We need to multitask to stay productive.  It would be rude not to respond to an email immediately.  Mobile games and apps keep us always entertained.  Some people can’t even walk in the street without their phone. 

Are we afraid to be bored? 
When were you bored last?  Maybe the last time you felt bored was when you were sitting in traffic, and you couldn’t look at your cell phone.  Or when you arrived early to a restaurant to meet a friend – and your cell phone had no service.  You were probably bored when you were waiting for your plane to take off – and you weren’t allowed to use any mobile electronics in the meanwhile.  I think the last time I felt bored had something to do with me not being able to access my iPhone. 

This addiction has to stop
Over 50 percent of the U.S. population has a smart phone.  Studies find that mobile phone users spend an average of about 3 hours each day on mobile phones.  Three hours each day.  What could you do with an extra 3 hours in your day?  Could you get more work done?  Could you find a way to hustle more money on the side?  Would your productivity and efficiency increase?  Could your happiness increase?

Bored and brilliant
A study finds that having downtime and being bored can actually inspire creativity.  When you have quiet time, your brain actually does a better job planning goals, which can help you achieve more success in life.  Our brains need some quiet time to increase deep contemplation.  I have no doubt that the time I spend goofing off on my iPhone is sapping away my creativity, which could be used towards more reading, writing, and learning.

Over the last few months, I’ve been noticing more and more that I truly have an addiction to my phone.  I have even experienced phantom vibration syndrome, a false sensation that my phone is vibrating in my pocket – when it’s not.  Thinking about all the times I spent looking at my phone, I could easily say that 75% of my mobile phone use was not towards doing anything helpful or productive.  I have definitely been experiencing a lot of eyestrain.  I feel like I lose my concentration easily when I am constantly distracted.  Although I try to multitask on my phone, I feel like I’m not really getting anything done in a timely manner.

Plenty of people want to reduce their dependency on their phone distractions.  The Bored and Brilliant project is designed to help you detach from your phone in order to spend more time creatively thinking.  This project challenges you to put your phone down and rediscover the lost art of spacing out. 

Reducing the distractions around me
Here are some small changes I’ve made in reducing the distraction of my phone.

1. Less news overload
There is really no point in reading up (and worrying) about terrible news stories that I have no control over.  I’m subscribing to the low information diet: I’m reducing my intake of news stories that don’t concern me, reducing the negative news I read, and generally reducing the amount of low quality information that I choose to read.  I get plenty of news on my 12 minute commute to work listening to the local national public radio station, KPCC.  If there are any news articles that I am genuinely interested in, I can read up on it later. 

2. Uninstalling Facebook (and other non useful apps)
While Facebook is great for keeping up with friends both far and near, there really is no benefit to me checking out updates on Facebook once an hour (or more!).  For the last few weeks, I’ve moved the Facebook app away from the home screen on my iPhone.  Since I have the visual cue of the app beckoning me to open it, I didn’t miss using this app at all.  I took this one step further by uninstalling the application from my phone and removing the bookmark from my browser.  I still check out the webpage from time to time, but it’s not a big part of my daily routine anymore.  I’m happy to wait until I get home to log on. 

I’m not hip enough to have an Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter account (or any of those hip new apps all the young people use these days).  But I hear these apps can really suck away lots of time. 

I’ve also uninstalled a lot of different news apps that don’t really provide me with much benefit.  I don’t think I will miss those apps at all.

3. Checking my email less frequently
I used to set my email programs to push emails to me instantly.  This would result in my phone buzzing and beeping at me constantly, taking away my attention from performing important tasks.  I’ve now set my phone to manually retrieve email – only when I’m ready.  Take control of your email; don’t let your email control you.  Email is no longer one of the first things I check when I wake up.  It can wait. 

4. Setting the vibration mode on my phone off
This is another simple adjustment I’ve made that has really helped me keep my concentration.  If I need to work on something important, not only do I silence my cell phone, I turn the vibration alerts off.  This way my phone will be available when I need to access an app – on my time only.  Many productivity experts will suggest simply leaving your phone in another room to make sure your focus is uninterrupted.  I don’t know if I’m ready to try that yet.

5. Less multitasking, more getting things actually done
If you haven’t already realized, our brains are not good at multitasking.  This ends up causing us to lose more time when attempting to do multiple things at once.  One study finds that when our brains try to multitask, instead of actually doing different tasks simultaneously, our brains bottleneck information and shifts attention back and forth from one activity to the next.  Studies find that we actually get things at a much slower rate when we are multitasking versus when we do one thing at a time.  We also have a much lower retention rate when we are multitasking while trying to learn something at the same time. 

We may think that we do a great job holding a conversation, emailing, and reading the news at the same time, but we really aren’t.  If I am doing something and someone wants to talk to me, I stop what I am doing to give that person my full attention – anything less would be rude.  When watching a movie at home, the both of us put our phones down and close our laptops – this really helps us get immersed into what we are watching and makes the whole experience much more enjoyable.  Trying to watch a movie and look at stuff on your phone makes both activities half as enjoyable.  If something needs your full attention, eliminate all distractions (like your television, cell phone, and music) and get it done. 

James Clear has a great suggestion about running programs in “full screen mode” only when he is working on his computer.  This way, all distracting programs and icons are completely eliminated and you can actually get productive work done.  It seems counter-intuitive, but doing one thing at a time is considerably faster than doing two or more things at once.    

This will be a hard one for me.  I think most people can’t help but try to multitask when presented with several things to do.

What my favorite bloggers have written about eliminating distractions
James Clear wrote a great article called “Never Check Email Before Noon (And Other Thoughts on Doing Your Best Work),” that you can read here.  A quote from his article:

Imagine that your brain is a computer. At the beginning of the day, your brain powers up and you have 100 percent of your computer memory available to use on your life. The only problem is that every time you add a task to your to-do list, a little bit of your computer memory goes toward that task.
If you open your email in the morning and see three messages that you need to respond to later on, there goes three percent of your computer memory. If you have to remember to take your child to practice after school or pick up the dry cleaning or go to the grocery store, there goes a little bit more memory. The more tasks that are left unfinished, the more memory gets used up remembering, thinking, worrying, and planning for those tasks.
Here’s the punchline: If your brain is constantly filled with all of these secondary tasks, how much memory do you have left over to do meaningful work? 70 percent? 50 percent? Even less?
Mr. Money Mustache wrote an article called “Getting Your Brain Back,” that you can read here. A quote from his article:
The problem is that I’m taking in too much peripheral information and scattering my attention around.  Instead, I should be feeding my mind in rich, controlled meals and giving it plenty of calm resting time between them.
Paradoxically, if you take in less random information, you will find that you can devour more useful stuff, and produce much more as a result.
Not all distraction is bad
There is a time and a place for getting distracted.  Reading status updates from our friends help us keep in touch.  Reading the news can help us stay in touch with current events.  Reading celebrity gossip can help us unwind.  Playing a mobile game can help us relieve stress.  We aren’t machines who can be productive without getting fatigued.  We need to take breaks every now and then, and sometimes distractions can be calming. 

Distractions can also be harmful, especially when they take away from our creativity and energy.  We all lead busy lives full of things to do; there’s nothing productive about spending 3 hours a day distracted on your phone.  Smart phones are great, and spending time with our phone can be fun. 

I want to be in charge of choosing when to interact with my phone - which will be after more important things are taken care of first.  By cutting back on distracted mobile phone usage, I hope to accomplish more productivity in everything that I do, increase my restful sleep, gain a deeper way of thinking, and feel more fulfilled in my daily life.  I am going to enjoy these extra 3 hours in my day. 

You can listen to he podcast “The Case for Boredom” here

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