This is a guest post from visual artist WhiteFeather, who we have previously interviewed here at Thoughtwrestling. In this article, she writes about the creative process, suggesting that defocus and multi-tasking can have a role in the creative process.
In Praise of the Age of Distraction: How Defocus is Enhancing Creativity at the Dawn of the Conceptual Age
I’m in a three‐hour meeting on a sunny afternoon. There are problems to be solved, collaboratively, by the group that I’m part of. This is an opportunity for all kinds of creativity and innovation – brainstorming and other forms of ideation, critique, discussion, diagramming, etc. I’m at a table with seven artists from various fields, all creative thinkers and adult educators. So, what are we doing? Three of us are sketching in the margins of our paper documents, while periodically looking up to show attentiveness to the conversation and add comments. Two of us have laptops open, one of which has six separate tabs open on Firefox to quickly grab whatever relevant info or contact whatever relevant person, and the other is used for making group notes on a projected document on a SMART board. Some of us are snacking, others drinking tea, or periodically running to the kettle for a refill. Excited microconversations break out between two or three people, and they become the focus, while others look down at what they’re drawing, look up at a key statement, or take a bite of sandwich, thinking. I’m multitasking by writing an article about multitasking, while also adding my two cents on curriculum development. There is no single focus here by any one individual. We wander through various tangents and personal anecdotes, in between the more serious discussions. We are all multitasking, pretty much, including chewing on the ends of pens while listening, daydreaming and rapidly swinging our legs over the edges of our chairs. It’s incredibly productive and the ideas are coming at a fast pace, collectively. People interrupt all over the place. It’s a classic schoolteacher’s nightmare.
As a hyperactive kid, I was relocated to enrichment classes in order to be free of the confines of the regular classroom and the assignments I’d finished ahead of my peers. I became a distraction to those who needed to focus, and I couldn’t help myself. I had to be nibbling on sunflower seeds while reading, in order to absorb the information I was receiving – this is a now‐articulated, designated ‘learning style’: kinesthetic. I also needed to be moving some part of my body. Thankfully, I was in an excellent school system that understood that my tendency to leap around from topic to topic and spew ideas uncontrollably and work fast and furious and then get fidgety was not a disability. My adult life has been empowered as a result, and I’m still extremely high strung and exploding with ideas. I do not single focus, and I never have – I’m not made that way, cognitively. Increasingly, neither is much of the technologically revolutionized world – that’s my theory, and I’ve seen despairing articles written about it by various individuals. Why despair?
Productive Procrastination is a phrase I’ve coined to explain how it is that my brain responds to reality, in order to allow me to be hyper‐productive, multifocused and basically engaged in all of the stages of creative thinking simultaneously. I’m certainly not the only one who works this way – increasingly, citizens of various dots on the map of the information highway are having their neural pathways shift to accommodate more ‘creative’ cognitive flexibility. Some of my students have cleverly coined the phrase ‘procrastimaking’ to describe their creative processes. Once seen as the domain of artists alone, creative thinking is taking over the world virally, as a response to the evermore‐weighty load of dilemmas faced by the human rhizome, as we extend ourselves to the point of being root‐bound on the planet. We’ve got to be creative if we’re going to survive, physically, economically, socially, etc. We are all in at least two places at once now. Cognitive ambidexterity is a bonus.
Let’s imagine, for fun, that in thinking, there is no linear, no real logic in that no reasoning follows a direct path from Point A to Point B. Logic assumes that there is a true and a false, and that reasoning is straightforward. I would argue that all thought is abstract if it moves fast enough, in that the path becomes invisible to our immediate awareness; we know where we started and we know where we ended up, but we can’t possibly know at once all the different ways in which we got there simultaneously. There are many truths along the way, sometimes contradicting each other, depending on perspective. Dichotomies abound.
Logic, I would argue, is a slowed‐up thought process, allowing only one way at a time. Logic is certainly fun to entertain, but somewhat out of place in a highly creative mind that bucks limitations. In three‐dimensional thought, we lucidly enter the realm of the subconscious, at the same time as surface thought (consciousness); we jump off a cliff of self‐trust in a swirl of chaotic neural firings that might appear to make no sense to a self‐identified rational mind. Russian painter and art theorist, Kandinsky said, “… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?” Kandinsky was a three‐dimensional thinker. Logic is safe; creativity is a risk.
Now, let’s imagine another image about the brain: there is a network of veins, overlapping and traveling everywhere at once. They sprawl somewhat laterally and organically, like the roots of a tree or the Internet, with information flowing willy-nilly and seemingly random. This is three‐dimensional thought, a series of chance associations. Or is it chance? Logic limits the associations that can be made, and therefore must be abandoned temporarily. Time then becomes irrelevant (because we tend to think of it in linear terms and there is no linear, remember?), space flexible and the brain engaged on increasingly complex levels in order to interpret and utilize such freedoms. What I mean is, we can handle more and more information, faster and faster, on deeper and deeper levels, all the time. We practice it daily by surfing the web. StumbleUpon is a great example of a web brand capitalizing on our tendency to do this, by doing it for us.
Doing becomes increasingly fragmented, yes, but that doesn’t have to be a negative. For me, it’s a positive, as it is for my students. I can have several projects on the go at the same time, and work on one for a while, doing laborious building and constructing, while dreaming about another. I put the first down after about 15 minutes and begin sketching something entirely new and unrelated while continuing to gestate the first. Then I pick up a task that I have no end goal for, and begin working away at it, trusting that I will find a resolved place with it, at some point, and that it has value as a thing to ‘do’, regardless of my lack of an end product in mind. Then, I’ll perhaps get equipment prepped for a fourth idea I want to experiment with, and while leaving the equipment to do its thing, I’ll clean a space to begin a fifth task. And on it goes, back to the first thing I was working on, or not. My brain is whirring at warp speed all this while, and I’m utterly lost in time, like I love to be. The outside world disappears. I don’t even have to meditate (which I find impossible) – I just let my stream of consciousness flow, and I go with it down every branch, trusting. I saw a quote on Twitter from a spiritual guru of some sort that touted ‘distractions’ as deficits in quality of life. I beg to differ. I embrace distraction.
Recently, I had a young artist ask my advice on how to become a great artist. He was having issues about feeling distracted by sources of inspiration and not ‘doing’ enough of one thing. Here is the crux. I told him he had to relax about doing, trust his process, and try working on several things at once so that if he had to procrastinate (ie. take a mental break) on one thing, he could pick up another. He was fighting with himself to focus on finishing one thing, and to stay single‐focused. He said he didn’t know his process. I told him that my process involves a lot of stalling, abandonment, forgetting, remembering, forgetting again, playing, and letting my focus wander around. It involves not worrying about finishing, because things do get done. I told him to believe in his own greatness, which means trusting that he’s doing everything right, without needing to flagellate himself for not hunkering down at his school desk with head bent, unmoving and focused on one thing all day or for even an hour straight. When I see single focus, I see someone designating a limited, specific amount of time on one thing, whereas the multi‐focus approach does not limit the amount of time spent on any one thing – the things you do become your entire life and they become more authentic. This might be life in the Conceptual Age – where passion and inspiration and dreaming and creating are all we do in every spare second. I’ll take it.
We can still run the risk of taking on too much, because when time is running unlimited, sometimes everything looks like it can fit in. It’s a matter of knowing oneself and managing priorities. Really, it is. When you know yourself, you trust yourself, and when you trust yourself, you can relax, and when you relax, you can get really creative and get much done; you become more efficient in a relaxed and autonomous state. This has been the subject of a number of recent studies in the business world, and researchers have found this to be so. This is because the mind opens up, without having to be the self‐disciplined taskmaster or a lackey to an external taskmaster (which has now been shown to shut down the parts of the brain where creative thought originates).
Single focus versus defocus… It’s like that time I tried to pee standing up: I could do it, but it didn’t feel natural and it really wasn’t that effective, for me – I just wasn’t built that way. I’m more of a scattershot.
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