Most of us creatives struggle with at least three kinds of distracting insects—life's fleas, society's gnats, and the mind's mosquitoes.
Life's Fleas: More than the Holocaust or Hiroshima, what plagued writers after World War II were the "fleas of life"—the daily distractions of broken toes, aching backs, and family demands. That, at least, according to William Styron in his Paris Review interview from the 1950s.
Society's Gnats: Being a creative also attracts social gnats. Poet Stephn Dobyns sums up the matter this way:
The world becomes a tremendous distraction. It's hard not to pay attention to it, to be caught up in ideas of success, ideas of publication, ideas that people are patting one's head. "People like my poems, they don't like my poems," or bullshit like that. Ideally I should just have the poems themselves... I'm not saying that would result in better poems—there clearly have been poets, painters, and musicians who have worked with that same steadiness of purpose whose work never amounted to anything at all. What I admire is that ability to work without interruption.
Mind's Mosquitoes: The mind is given to distraction because of one of its primary functions: to think. Almost every sensory input—each drop of rain, each traffic light, each ray of sunlight— makes an impression on the mind and can send thoughts into action.
You sit down to write. Your back starts to hurt. The phone rings. A thought arises. A dozen thoughts arise: Soak my back. Answer the phone. Check emails. Forget this writing project. It sucks. I suck. Being a writer sucks. I'm going to become a house painter.
Thinking is not bad, per se; after all, no thinking, no creating. But thinking without a monitor, a vigilant and compassionate witness, often goes awry.
When the world's knocking at our door every morning?
When our mind buzzes every which way except where we need it to?
There's really no easy answer. Sorry. You can stop reading now if you wish. It's taken me years to retrain a once highly distracted mind. Years. I've immersed myself in studying the nature of concentration and tools that actually work for myself and others. Not just Zen zazen, mindfulness, yoga. But also daily tricks and tools I've made myself.
Distraction and concentration are part of a larger puzzle of your brilliant self.
Distraction stems not simply from an inability to focus (circular, that). Getting off-track in a big way—and losing our creative momentum—also stems from
- feeling as if our work doesn't matter
- feeling as if we have no control over the decisions we make
- feeling as if we need to prove ourselves
- feeling as if circumstances such as time and obligations direct us instead of us, them
- feeling as if we're at the whim of a capricious muse and a cranky body
Stoking creative momentum is less about "correcting" yourself. Stoking creative momentum is more about appreciating who you are as you are. And then it's about finding ways to coax your best self to show up on a regular basis without badgering it to death or slapping its palms with a ruler when it doesn't show up. Who's motivated by that?
Here are six resources you might add to your Creative Momentum Library to help you deal with your own insects:
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock. Foreword by Daniel J. Siegel. Consultant David Rock elegantly describes how we can deal with decision, drama, and other people while still staying focused on what matters.
Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012 - Consultants Gretchen Spretizer and Christine Porath's article "Creating Sustainable Performance" reviews their research on what factors allow employees to "thrive"—that is, consistently show up, make contributions, and stay in projects for the long haul. If you are your own boss, you can learn a lot about motivating your chief employee—your best self.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink. Pink tells an engaging story about how 50 years of research has shown that three factors motivate most of us —autonomy, purpose, and mastery. Not heavy-handed supervision. Not profit. Not "freedom from knowledge." You can learn a lot about what factors can keep you on-track.
The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice by Todd Henry. Consultant Todd Henry lays out smart ways to maintain your energy, keep your focus, and watch your clock so that creativity can in fact happen.
Creative Momentum in Good Times & Bad Webinar Series. I'd be remiss not to mention the series that has me pumped about this subject. Purpose. Time-Sculpting. Vitality. Focus. Deep Ideation. Here are the details for this month's mini-course. Would love to have you.
Insects in Dreams: Going Bugs by James Hillman. Okay, this talk by a remarkable thinker has nothing to do with creative momentum and everything to do with the deep creative psyche. For the record, insects fascinate me. And Hillman's take on insects influenced my imagination years ago.
What "insects of distraction" have you learned to contend with? What resources—books, videos, coaches—have you found useful in stoking your creative momentum?
See you in the woods,
Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant, speaker, and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies & Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish 2008; Penguin Putnam 2004).