Creativity vs. Attention Span

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Monday 17th December 2018

Today I’m writing about the link between creativity and attention span. I offer some tips on strategies I’ve embraced and routines I’ve developed that help me to be creative and get projects out of my head, onto paper, and into reality.

I am not proud to admit it, but for the last ten or twelve years I have begun most of my mornings by looking at a computer or my phone. When I was still a student I’d make a cup of coffee and then head back to bed, turn on my laptop, and lose an hour or so of my day to flicking through different feeds and streams of information. On days where I didn’t have to be anywhere, I’d rarely get going with my day much before midday, and when I did I’d feel anxious and overstimulated. My attention span would be so short I couldn’t focus on much more than reading half a journal article, checking Absolute Punk for music news and interviews, and going for a run. I always felt like I was running against the clock to get my work done, and I never felt like my work was as good as it could be if I was able to focus better.

Over the years I have tried several different approaches to get my compulsive browsing habits under control. I deleted Facebook, stripped my browser of all the exciting bells and whistles, and moved my RSS and email to my phone so that I wouldn’t check them when I was on my computer. I’ve tried the pomodoro technique (didn’t work for me, as I feel anxious sat next to a ticking clock or egg timer watching minutes fade into nothing) and I’ve tried taking myself out of the flat to work in the library or another neutral space (limited success as I drink so much tea and water I’m forever up and down to the bathroom, and then what to do about my laptop).

When I was writing up my PhD thesis in the autumn and winter of 2013/2014, I turned my sleep schedule upside down and became biphasic as a final effort to get the thing written and handed in on time. I’d go to bed at 11pm, sleep until 3am, get straight up and write (leaving the router power cable and my phone under Ed’s pillow), before going back to bed at 11am, sleeping until 3pm, going for a walk and then eating dinner. It wasn’t a happy time in my life, but I was productive. I wrote about 50,000 words of my 70,000 word thesis in 3 or 4 months, submitted it on time in March 2014 and passed my viva with minor corrections. It was a complete turn around in my usual pattern of behaviour, motivated by pure desperation.

I’m not in academia anymore, but I’m self-employed and I still work from home, on my own. My attention span and ability to concentrate is paramount as if I don’t motivate myself to get the work done, nobody else will, and yet it’s still a struggle for me to keep my browsing and time wasting habits under control. I’m human, and no amount of analysis changes that. When my internet use is moderate, I’m calm, organised and productive. When I lose a grip on it, my time slips and slides and days fall away from me very quickly. I feel busy and short on time, which means that I don’t make the time for the things in life I really love and that make me happy, because I feel like I need to make up the lost time by working longer hours.

When I’m wasting hours on the internet, I eat junk, sleep less well, and exercise less. It’s a horrible cycle to be in. I thought I’d write about it and share what I’ve found helpful, because I know that I’m not alone in wasting a lot of time on the internet!

Most of us spend more time looking at screens and browsing the internet than we would like to, yet it sometimes feels like there’s no alternative. Modern life demands that we stay connected, and that we respond to emails and phone calls when they come in. On top of that, there are so many interesting articles to read it’s sometimes really hard to turn away from the internet for long enough to do some clear, deep thinking. Deep thinking is central to creativity, though. Whether I’m writing, programming, video editing or planning some other aspect of my work, I need to be able to think straight and problem solve. It’s really hard to problem solve when your mind is pulled in ten different directions.

Will Power vs the Science of Persuasion

Many people think that spending less time online is a sign of virtue, like being on a diet, taking up running, or giving up alcohol. This is problematic, as coupled with this misplaced sense of virtue is the myth of ‘will power’. Having will power and determination will only ever get you so far. It’s very difficult to maintain will power long-term, in the face of exhaustion and a pervasive, addictive digital environment which is designed to keep you clicking, refreshing and interacting. If you want to understand how apps and websites are designed to keep you using them and why will power alone won’t help you keep your browsing habits under control, this article in the Economist’s 1843 magazine is a very good place to start.

Identify your time sinks

The first step in getting your browsing behaviour under control is to know yourself and your habits. Be completely honest with yourself. Where do you waste the most time? Which sites or apps do you go to when you feel stuck on a task, bored, or just in need of a distraction? When you know you should be studying, or working on a project, or filing your tax return but find yourself picking up your phone or opening a browser tab, what are the sites or apps that you find yourself reaching for?

For me it’s the news. My number 1 time sink is online news. The Guardian website has undergone several redesigns in recent years, and each iteration introduces new addictive features. The front page is the biggest problem for me, as it is a constantly refreshing stream of sensational, clickbait thumbnails. I know it’s clickbait, I know it’s designed to get me to interact with it, and yet I still fall for it. Click through to an article, and there’s a comment section at the bottom (another time sink when I’ve thrown myself in at the deep end of time wasting central) and a feature showcasing the ten most read articles in the section, or the site as a whole.

Next up for me is RSS and Reddit. Each of these promises novelty, and so I check back regularly for my ‘reward’ (an interesting article, discussion or picture).

The obvious solution to compulsive browsing habits, is simply to delete the apps or block the sites you spend the most time on. The trouble is that that’s not a sustainable approach. It’s a little bit like going on a crash diet. I want to cut back on how much news I read, but I still care about politics, still enjoy reading book and film reviews, and enjoy the long-read investigative journalism that the Guardian provides. I just need to not lose hours in the comments section or on live blogs. Likewise, I enjoy reading blogs, listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos. I just want to feel like I’m in control of when I do it, and how long I spend interacting with these sources. I don’t want to always end up down a rabbit hole, so to speak.

Taking back control of your attention span

Delete then consolidate

Once you have a list of your most used and abused apps and websites, it’s time to take action. Delete any apps that genuinely don’t make you happy (for me that was Facebook, back in 2012) and consolidate the rest. I don’t just mean delete the app on your phone, I mean delete your account.

I subscribe to a few YouTube channels, some blogs, and a few podcasts. Rather than have three separate apps with three separate algorithms vying to learn my habits and keep me browsing, I have consolidated all of my sources into one RSS stream (I use the free version of Feedly) and deleted YouTube from my phone entirely. If I want to find something on YouTube I can still search on the website from my browser, but it’s slower and therefore less addictive, so I’m less likely to waste time bouncing from video to video like I would in the app. Likewise, if I need to post something on Instagram for work, I sign in to the app, post it, then sign out straight away.

Take a breather by deactivating, disabling or blocking all of the sites and apps you usually browse and that you enjoy using for a minimum of one week. All of the information will still be there waiting when you sign back in or remove the browsing ban from your phone or computer, but this time away is crucial for resetting your brain. The software I use to block apps and websites is called Block Site and it works on both computers (I run a Windows system) and Android phones. I’m sure there’s something similar if you use iOS.

Block Site is very easy to disable though, so if you don’t trust yourself, pick something that requires a password to unlock and get a friend or family member on board to help you out by setting a password you don’t know. For me, Block Site works as all I need is a gentle reminder not to be compulsive. When I come up against the block screen I feel silly, and remember that I’m trying to break a habit. It’s enough to get me back on track. If you think you’d benefit from a little bit of accountability, then tell people that you’re taking a break from x, y, or z and for how long you plan to do so. You won’t want to lose face, so you’re more likely to maintain the self-imposed ban.

You’ll feel uncomfortable at first. You’ll find yourself loading up tabs and typing in the first few letters of your favourite websites. You might even find yourself compulsively checking your email or the weather in order to get your novelty fix, but with time these urges will fade. Allow yourself to be bored, and don’t expect to achieve great things in the first week as your attention span will take a little while to recover. You’re not going to be able to give up a decade of addictive browsing habits, establish an every day gym habit and overhaul your routines in one week. If only!

Create first

After some time away, you can choose to start using the apps and websites you’ve been taking a break from again, or to stay away for a little bit longer. Do whatever feels best. After a reset period I like to introduce a rule for myself that means I have to create something each day before I can read, watch or listen to things other people have produced.

It means that rather than reaching for my phone or turning on my computer first thing, I’ll play piano while I drink my morning tea, go for a walk, or get started on some work. The first hours of my day are when my mind is at its clearest, and it’s a shame to waste that time by binging on information. It’s really hard to create and come up with new projects if your mind is swamped with other people’s work and ideas. If you do manage to create something after binging on Instagram, Reddit or Twitter, you’ll probably end up only creating derivative work anyway. Photos that look like everyone else’s photos. Writing that reads like every other 2 minute read article you’ve ever found on Medium, and so on and so forth.

Use your browser, not the app, and set a time limit

Rather than be all or nothing about my browsing habits, I try to maintain a balance by browsing the most addictive apps in my browser rather than the app itself, and setting a time limit on how long I can read or watch for. This also enables me to benefit from the system wide ad block I use on Android, and to redesign particularly troublesome websites to be less addictive using custom CSS which blocks whole sections of the user interface and renders blank space instead (for example the Guardian’s comment section, Instagram’s like count and stories bar). I’ll write more about that another time.

Other tips to support your attention span and creativity:

Turn off all notifications on your phone and computer. If your phone or computer is making a sound, flashing a light or buzzing in your pocket for your attention, it will be very hard to keep yourself focused. My phone lives on silent unless I’m expecting a phone call. I don’t worry about missing an unexpected phone call, as I’ll just call the person back when I get a chance to. Most unexpected phone calls during the daytime are from telemarketers anyway, and I figure I’m doing them a favour by not picking up. They can enjoy a quiet 2 minutes letting my phone ring and ring unanswered whilst looking productive themselves! Text messages come through in real time, but I’ve set up my email app (K-9) to not push through new emails to my notifications. I have to manually check my email app to see new messages, and I try to limit how often I do this.

Embrace full screen browsing. If there’s an option to browse full screen, then do it. In Windows I keep my taskbar at the bottom of my screen minimised unless I hover over it, and I have a similar setup on my Android phone. I have also disabled taskbar notifications on my phone, so that if I’m reading an article I won’t be disturbed by an email coming in. Both my computer desktop and my phone desktop are blank and free of apps. I also make use of the ‘reader view’ option in Firefox which strips pages of social media icons, adverts, and elements which follow you down the page as you scroll.

If you’re on Android, redesign your home screen. I run a rooted custom ROM on my phone, but you don’t need to know how to do that to redesign your phone home screen. For any apps you don’t wish to use but can’t uninstall without root access, disable them in settings and then place them all together in a single folder. This is also an option on iOS where you don’t have as many options for customising the user interface. Many Android phones come with Twitter and Facebook preinstalled, but you should be able to uninstall them unless you’re really unlucky and they’re installed as system apps.

Next, install a custom launcher (I use Nova Launcher) and activate the ‘list view’ of apps in settings. Set up Nova Launcher so that you have a completely blank home screen, and have to pull up from the bottom of your phone to launch the app drawer.

Consider using custom, monochrome app icons. If your apps look less like colourful sweets and toys, you’re less likely to waste time flicking through them.

Finally, be aware of your behaviour and tune in to how you’re feeling. When you’re tired, frustrated, upset or feeling another negative emotion, you’ll be more likely to search for a distraction from your work or from difficult tasks. You may find that you can go several months with good browsing habits and maintain high levels of productivity and creativity, but that you revert to old patterns on holiday. That’s okay, it’s not failure, just pick up where you left off and start again.

From time to time I write about behavioural design, habits and routines. You can find my other articles by browsing the archives on this site, but another source I highly recommend on the theme of digital minimalism, behavioural design and creativity is a blog and pocast called Break the Twitch.

Behavioural Design

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