I sit down in front of my computer, open Scrivener, and start to write.
There's an illustration I want to use in my article, but I'm not quite sure it'll work. I type in "How does an octopus kill a shark?" Google directs me to this National Geographic clip and I get to see exactly how an octopus kills a shark. But, then I see "Cobra vs. Mongoose" in the sidebar of related videos. How can any self-respecting man not click that link? After watching a few more animals put UFC fighting to shame, I post the Octopus vs. Shark video to my Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest (still self-respecting, mostly) accounts. A few minutes later, my phone buzzes with the approval of our digital generation: comments, likes, retweets, reposts, and repins.
Then I get a text message from a friend:
Are you watching the game that's on right now?
No. I'm working.
I don't remember.
While parts of this story are wholly fabricated, it could go on. For me, it usually does and it often results in finding memes that make me laugh before they make me cry at my own inability to get things done. In other words, I'm the shark. Technology is the octopus.
For all of its wondrous benefits to humanity, technology wreaks havoc on our lives in deceptively simple ways. It interrupts our workflow. It conditions us in subtle, negative ways. Most detrimentally to artists, it steals our time.
But we can't pull the plug. Staying connected via social media is imperative, especially for a writer, artist, or musician who wants people to actually read, see, hear, or interact with their work. The Internet allows us to conduct research with the collected wisdom of the world at our fingertips. We can connect with friends and family to help keep us grounded and sane.
So, how can we stay online and yet still produce good work? How can we interact with our audience via social media without losing hours to frivolous pursuits?
Fast from Technology for a Week
Maybe this means no social networking, or no TV or radio. Pick the issue you may have the most attachment. Keep track of what you're able to accomplish in the time you would have otherwise been playing video games, watching movies, or mindlessly browsing the Internet. Take note of the emotions you feel by having to give up a certain technological aspect of your life. Was it ever really necessary in the first place? If it was, can you stilluse it meaningfully, but maybe not as much?
For instance, a co-worker and I recently attended a preview screening of The Hunger Games. Prior to entrance into the theater, we purposefully left our phones in the car since they were going to be confiscated if we took them in. Much to our chagrin, we arrived thirty minutes early. Bereft of our constant connections to the Internet, we actually had to talk to each other. While I make light of this situation, I noticed how much I wanted to check my phone during lengthy pauses in the conversation, a sure sign I would benefit greatly from a much-elongated technological fast. Like all self-help groups will tell you, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward finding the solution. While I missed out on the instant gratification of the #jerk and #jealous replies of my Twitter followers who'd seen my last update on attending that screening, I actually got to know my co-worker better.
Establish a No-Distraction Time
Turn off your notifications. Don't open your email. Mute your phone. If others may be impacted by your digital darkness, let them know ahead of time you'll be unavailable at a certain hour on certain days. Focus on one project during this time.
Alternatively, you may want to try the Pomodoro Technique if you have multiple, long projects or get distracted too easily. Simply put, the Pomodoro Technique asks you to commit a mere 25 minutes to working on any single task. When a timer rings signaling the end of the 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break. This method can be especially useful for troublesome projects or when you arrive at an impasse in your work. Have you ever experienced a mental breakthrough in a strange place, like your shower or while in casual conversation? The Pomodoro Technique encourages making space for these liminal moments.
While I don't often have difficulty in focusing on one task, it's a challenge for me to take a break from engrossing work. When I'm writing and feel as if an article is flowing well, I want to keep writing until I know the article is finished, even if that means I've spent 1-2 additional hours on a piece instead of attending to more pressing matters. Establishing a strict no-distraction time would greatly help my struggling discipline as a writer as well as let my words breathe longer instead of lacerating them with a quick editorial strike while I'm still working on a first draft. Recently, I've taken to writing a first draft, waiting a few days without thinking about the article (allowing for that liminal space), then coming back to the article to edit it. This may be common practice for you already, but it has helped me tremendously, even if my modified Pomodoro Technique may take the form of working for three hours, waiting 72 hours, then coming back to the same project.
Find Software That Helps
I use Wordpress as my blogging platform and the afore-mentioned Scrivener as my all-purpose desktop writing app of choice because both have full-screen edit modes that allow a writer to be left with only a blank screen, a blinking cursor, and their own thoughts. Other apps also exist that can help eliminate distraction while working on your computer. If you're an obsessive Twitter user, consider software like Buffer or Hootsuite that allows you to queue your tweets.
Additionally, I use Evernote to capture article ideas when they come to me. Some people may even use . . . a pen and paper. Either way, getting the idea into writing as soon as possible helps get the thought out of my head so that I'm not percolating on it to the detriment of any work that's required of me in the present moment. By using such a multi-platform, cloud-synced, easily-searchable, notes-capturing application, I can rest assured that a brilliant article idea on LOLcats vs. ROFLdogs is patiently waiting for my late-night additions, revisions, or, likely, deletions.
Regardless of the software that you use, find a system that works to cut down on every tentacle threatening to strangle the creative life out of you.
Kill the Octopus
Unless you suffer from severe technology addiction, you don't look at your phone every two minutes while on a date (at least with someone you like). Your date demands your focus and you should gladly give it to them. Maybe one of the reasons we allow ourselves to become so easily distracted from creating is that we're not as invested in our art as we thought. Consumption is easy; creation is work.
And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony in writing a blog post about taking a step back from technology while simultaneously referencing YouTube videos, internet memes, and social networks. As is often the case with writers, this is a letter to myself.
What do you do to keep the tantalizing tentacles of technology at bay? Feel free to post your ideas and/or approach in the comment section below.
Blake Atwood is the Church Leadership Editor at Faith Village. He has never fought a shark, but battles octopi daily.