Regular Lateral Action readers will know I’m a big believer in the power of focus.
When it’s time to produce, it’s time to eliminate distractions – switch off the phone, e-mail, internet etc – and concentrate on the task in hand. Because focused attention is essential for achieving creative flow, the state in which you do your best creative work.
Over the years I’ve advocated various tools and techniques for minimising distractions and heightening your powers of concentration, including meditation, time management, rituals and software applications.
So what do you think I made of a recent article by Jonah Lehrer in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that people who are easily distracted are more creative and productive than those who find it easy to maintain a laserlike focus?
In support of his argument, Lehrer cites the findings of several research projects:
- People who daydream more are better at generating new ideas.
- Employees are more productive when allowed to engage in ‘internet leisure browsing’.
- A sample of people who were unable to concentrate due to severe brain damage scored above average on problem-solving tasks.
- In a sample of 60 arts and science students, the highest achievers were those who had been diagnosed with ADHD.
- In another group of students, those who found it hardest to ignore distracting stimuli were seven times more likely to be rated as ’eminent creative achievers’ based on their track record.
What’s going on here? Should we forget about firewalling our attention and instead embrace each and every distraction as a creative bonus?
My first thought on seeing Lehrer’s article was that it makes complete sense – but it’s only half the story. Just as my advice about tuning out distractions is only half the story.
It’s too simplistic to talk about ‘creativity’ as if it were a single, easily identifiable thing. Creativity is a multi-faceted process, involving ideas, feedback and execution. Distractions are great for finding new ideas; focus is necessary for execution. Much of the art of creative work is knowing when to concentrate and when to let your mind wander.
Ultimately, this comes down to knowing yourself – your likes and dislikes, your ultradian rhythms, your personality, and your strengths and weaknesses. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Personally, I know I’m better at focusing in the morning. So I welcome distractions in the afternoon (especially as that’s my time for writing e-mails, never my favourite task of the day!). That’s when I enjoy hanging out on Twitter, flicking through my RSS reader and surfing the web in search of serendipitous creative discoveries.
In fact, I came across Lehrer’s article on Twitter, courtesy of @openculture and @cibas_news. If I hadn’t been goofing around that afternoon, I’d never have come across the article, and I’d never have had the idea for this post.
Here are a few questions to help you decide when to focus and when to allow your mind to wander:
- Which tasks require 100% of your attention if you are to perform at your best?
- What time(s) of day do you naturally find it easiest to focus?
- When are distractions most likely to provide you with creative stimulation?
- When are distractions most likely to be a form of Resistance – i.e. an excuse for avoiding a difficult creative challenge?
- When does focusing feel like a creative release?
- When does focusing feel like it’s stifling your creativity?
Thinking about Lehrer’s piece over the weekend, another thought occurred to me: focus is important for creative people, precisely because we are so easily distracted.
I first started investigating productivity systems as an antidote to the daily chaos of my working life. I was struggling, because I had lots of different creative projects on the go at once – and I still kept coming up with new ideas every day.
Most creative people I know have a similar problem: we naturally have plenty of interests and plenty of creative ideas as a result. We’re good at letting our minds wander, and making new connections. So creative thinking techniques based on lateral thinking are pretty redundant for many of us. Where we need a little help is in finding some order in the chaos, and making ideas happen, as Scott Belsky would say.
Another challenge we face as 21st-century creatives comes from the evidence that the internet is changing our brains and making it harder for us to concentrate. Just as sitting at a desk all day makes it important to exercise more, so having endless digital distractions at our fingertips makes it important to practise focusing.
So focus makes you more creative. AND distractions make you more creative. You need to do both – just not both at once!
Over to You
Are you easily distracted? If so, what creative benefits has this brought you?
When is it most important for you to tune out distractions and focus?
Any tips for switching from distractions to focus (and vice versa)?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For more tips on creativity and productivity, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action. And for bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter here.