When it comes to creativity, distractions “are a mixed blessing,” according to Christina Rosalie, a writer, mixed-media artist and author of A Field Guide to Now: Notes on Mindfulness and Life in Present Tense.
“Sometimes they lead to innovation. Sometimes they lead to hours of time dwindled away without purpose.”
In other words, distractions are not created equal. But more often than not the same distractions deplete us and steer us away from creating.
Whether creativity is your livelihood or an integral part of your self-care, here are 15 ways to deal with distractions.
1. Work less.
“I have begun to really believe that the less time you work, the less you waste,” Rosalie said. Distractions seem to strike when we’ve reached our limit. People tend to be productive for 4.5 hours a day, she said, but many of us have to stretch it to 8 or 9. “As a result, our minds invent distractions as a way out, and also as a way to seem productive even when we’re not.” That’s when you start browsing the Web, emailing, texting, tweeting and seeing what everyone is up to on Facebook.
2. Use a kitchen timer.
Artist Jolie Guillebeau gets distracted by everything from social media sites to Hulu to her own ideas. “Basically, anything that isn’t me putting the paint on the canvas can be a distraction.” Her most valuable distraction-taming tool is a kitchen timer.
When I’m ready to paint, I light a candle, set out my paints, clean my brushes, and set a little kitchen timer that sits next to my easel for 20 minutes. As long as the timer is ticking, then I stay in front of the painting. It’s easy when I run into a problem to allow distractions to take over, but with the timer, I keep my focus until the bell rings.
3. Wear earplugs.
Many times it’s not just the noise on our computers that distracts us; it’s also the noise outside the office. For illustrator and painter Carla Sonheim, earplugs help to dim everything from her husband’s music to the traffic.
4. Have a daily quota.
“I work from home and have five children, so I have a cornucopia of distractions for the choosing,” said Miranda Hersey, a writer and editor, creativity coach, and host of the blog Studio Mothers. She also does social media work. “I haven’t yet figured out how to update my clients’ Facebook accounts without reading my personal notifications.”
And she focuses her energy on client work, which leaves little time for her own projects. “I tell myself that I can’t do my own creative projects until all of my other work—particularly the work where other people are depending on me—is done.”
That’s where her quota comes in. Hersey commits to writing at least 500 words of fiction every day. “I use a spreadsheet to log my daily word count: In the past six months, I’ve written nearly 90,00 words. A lot of those words won’t ever see the light of day, but that doesn’t matter. My novel is emerging through this daily practice.”
5. “Front-load” your creative practice.
Hersey works on her creative projects before 6 a.m. This gives her mind the entire day to percolate as she performs other tasks. “Then you’re ready to hit the ground running the next morning.”
Overall, for Hersey, dealing with distractions isn’t about eliminating them. It’s about accomplishing the creative work first. “I’m just making sure that my creative work can’t get eaten up by Facebook and client work and triaging e-mail.”
6. Multitask deliberately.
“It might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes it helps to embrace my scattered brain and do two things at once,” said Sonheim, also a workshop instructor and author of The Art of Silliness: A Creativity Book for Everyone. One morning she flipped back and forth from a sewing project to a writing piece. “I’d sew, think of something I wanted to add to my writing project, and when I finished that, I would go back to sewing until another idea popped into my head. It was kind of free flowing and nice, to just let the ideas come slowly this way.”
7. Curb clutter.
For creativity coach Gail McMeekin a clear space — both “physical and psychic” — is vital. “I find clutter very distracting so I took everything out of my office a few months ago and only put back in the things that inspire me or that I need,” said McMeekin, author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women. She donated her books to the library and trashed old projects and duplicate handouts. (Of course the key is not letting cleaning become another distraction.)
8. Work in sprints.
Rosalie has found that working in two-hour stretches works best. “I’m productive for about two hours at a go, and then my focus dwindles and I’m more inclined to flit away from whatever it is I’m working on, called by the lure of something new, something different, some mental variation and novelty as my productivity wanes.”
9. Surround yourself with people.
Coffeehouses drown out distractions for Sonheim. “The din of conversation seems to ground me.” Plus, leaving her office, which is filled with distractions, also helps.
10. Remove your distractions.
When distractions reach a boiling point, Sonheim takes a cue from her son and takes drastic measures. “Sometimes he’ll ask a friend to babysit his easy Internet access – laptop computer – for a weekend so he can get his homework done… I’ve created similar scenarios to physically remove certain temptations [and] distractions.”
11. Keep yourself publicly accountable.
For several years now Guillebeau has created one painting every day. She also emails a photo of the painting along with a story to her subscribers. “Knowing that a few hundred people are expecting a painting from me every morning really keeps me focused.”
It also helps her be more efficient with other tasks like email. “I’ll do some of the other things that I tend to put off first [before finishing the painting]. This keeps the distractions at bay, because I start to feel a time crunch.”
“Sometimes I find that if I’m easily distracted it’s because I’m tired,” Sonheim said. She works from home, and has a couch in her office. Depending on her day, she might take a short nap. “When I wake up, I’m often much better able to stay on task.” (It’s not surprising; research has shown that a brief nap is very beneficial.)
13. Make distractions intentional.
According to Rosalie, “Distractions invite the mind to wander and the body to move, and invited on purpose, rather than pursued at random and without intention, distractions can spark new thought patterns and creative collisions.” For instance, when her dog wants to take a walk, she takes a break, and savors walking down the road.
Leaning into distractions can actually enhance productivity. “When I really do give in to distraction and let it capture me fully, I always return to my work with renewed clarity and focus.”
14. Remember distractions are what you make of them.
Distractions “are what you allow them to be,” Hersey said. Take the following example: Hersey worked with a woman who wanted to find time for her creative projects. Her husband has a high-paying job, so she doesn’t work. They also have no children. And she has a space dedicated to creating. But she still couldn’t create. “She was too distracted—by her pets. Her cats and her dog were too demanding. They needed to go out; they needed to come in; they needed to be fed; they came to sit on her lap.”
15. Start now.
“If we fall into the trap of ‘I’ll start painting again when the kids are all in school’ or ‘I’ll work on that short story collection during vacation,’ we won’t ever do the work,” Hersey said. When all your kids are in school, you’ll find 50 other things you need to do. When you go on vacation, you’ll find that it’s not the right environment for creating. And when you prolong your creative process, it morphs from something exciting and energizing into a chore or, as Hersey said, “as appealing as a root canal.”
She suggested paying attention to your words. Any time you say, “when/then,” “catch yourself.” And start now. Carve out just 10 minutes. If your work requires extensive set-up and clean-up, she said, jot down what you can do every day, such as “sketching, collaging or studying the work of masters.”
Distractions will always be aplenty. “As a creative person, challenge yourself to find a solution every time you hear yourself saying ‘No, that won’t work,’” Hersey said. Let a little creativity help you tame those irrelevant things that vie for your attention.