Information opens up new worlds. It helps us make new connections. And it certainly sparks ideas. But too much information also eats up our attention.
In 1971, social scientist Herbert Simon noted: “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
And that’s the opposite of what you want when you’re trying to give your ideas life. The ability to pay attention is a vital asset in helping us produce meaningful work. It gives us a competitive edge in today’s distraction-driven world.
In Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei, a group of authors and thought leaders share their strategies for creating amid a busy, buzzing world. Below are several tips from this valuable book.
Focus Block Method
This tip comes from Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You. He suggests creating focus blocks, or pre-scheduled appointments to focus on your meaningful projects.
In other words, on most days, you block off a substantial amount of time on your calendar to perform creative projects, uninterrupted. Think of focus blocks as a work meeting. It’s non-negotiable time.
So, as Newport writes, if someone tries to make an appointment with you during your focus block, you can say you’re already booked. If someone says you’re not responding to email fast enough, he says, you have a good excuse: “I was booked all morning and am just seeing this now.”
At first working for long periods of time can be tough. Newport suggests starting with small blocks of focused time, such as an hour. Then add 15 minutes to each block every two weeks. During that time, focus solely on your work – no social media or email or other distractions.
If you think online distractions will tempt you, work with pen and paper, Newport says. And try a change in scenery, such as a different room in your home or the library. (Laura Vanderkam thinks of her daily trips to the library as a mini-writing retreat.)
E.B. White has said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” Fortunately, you don’t have to eliminate all distractions. You can combat bad distractions with good ones, according to Erin Rooney Doland, editor-in-chief of the blog Unclutterer.com and author of the book Unclutter Your Life in One Week.
Positive distractions can include setting a timer for a task, or giving yourself an unrelated reward for an accomplishment, she writes. For instance, after finishing a project, you might get something to eat or drink from the break room.
A Break For Your Brain
In their research at the University of California, Drs. Kimberly Elsbach and Andrew Hargadon found individuals’ creativity was enhanced when they switched between mindful and mindless activities. That’s because switching gives your brain a break.
According to Doland, “Shifting from mindful to mindless work gives the brain time to process complex problems in a relaxed state and also restores the energy necessary for the next round of mindful work.”
The researchers identified mindless tasks as activities such as making photocopies, cleaning equipment and unpacking supplies. Mindful tasks, writes Doland, are the “core tasks of problem-solving and invention that relate to one’s job or creative pursuits.”
Inspiration doesn’t just strike. We have to work at it. Ideas might pop into our heads. But we have to work at implementing them. (As Scott Belsky, author and founder of Behance.net, writes, “My mantra has always been, ‘It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen.'”)
So it helps to have strategies on hand to deal with the distractions and noise. This way, you can focus on what’s really important: executing your ideas.