Posted by Ben Malbon & Heidi Hackemer
I’ve just finished an awesome article in ‘New York’ magazine by Sam Anderson called ‘In Defense of Distraction‘. I say finished. I mean barely finished. I’ve been reading it for four days.
Illustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF (Photo: John Day/Getty Images)
The truth is, it took me waaaaay too long to read the piece. Not because it’s not a really top quality dissection of the attention crash, its causes, and ramifications – it is – but because almost every sentence I read contained a phrase, name, concept or idea that I wanted to get more information about. I barely finished a single sentence in one go. I spent more time on Google than on the New York magazine site.
My colleague Heidi (@uberblond) also took a crack at it. In her desperate attempt to not meander off into conceptual undergrowth, she opened a new tab with a Google search every time a thought hit her. At the end of the article, she had racked up almost twenty tabs of where her mind wanted to go. It turned out we both struggled to finish what is a really excellent, highly readable article on a subject we’re both really into. Not good. Some would say pathetic.
In Anderson’s piece, David Meyer, one of the world’s leading experts on multitasking & cognition describes this phenomenon in bald, almost harrowing terms. He sees our distraction “as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”
This struck a chord with us, although we were both barely paying enough attention to the piece first time around to register the thought. Only when we compared notes did we recall skim-reading that quote as our bit-addled brains struggled to process thousands of concurrent potential search terms at once. Our mutually pathetic attempt at pointed concentration got both of us thinking: if two averagely-smart people can barely concentrate on something that *really* interests us, what does that mean about our ability to think creatively? Hmmmm . . .
Image by Kevin Dooley, Flickr (CC)
Well we haven’t got any smart answers to that one, but fortunately, as we both took so long to finish the piece, in the meantime something on this theme snuck in and offered an interesting counter-argument. A recent piece in Wired magazine by David Allen, ‘How to be creative amid chaos‘, proposes using the disordered reality of over-stimulation, continuous partial attention and multi-tasking as a liberating force that can feed, not stifle, creativity. Allen muses on how, perhaps, the skill of the next generation might lie on mastering how to extract meaning from this cacophony. He cites the example of Evan Taubenfeld, a guitarist and producer in a rock band.
He was telling me how he’s learned to produce an album most effectively. Some of the best ideas for his songs happen while he and his band are working on another one. Now he has a whiteboard in the studio. They’ll be in the middle of one thing, suddenly get inspired about something else, and stop to capture it. Evan said it’s chaotic, but once the band got used to it and trusted the process, they were way more productive and more creative than ever. Before he realised the power of capturing thoughts as they occur, and building in just the kind of structures that he needed to foster and support the process, he experienced lots of wasted and frustrated energy, with much less output. Trying to exert the “discipline” of staying focused on one song at a time stifled his creativity. The coolest thing about the new process, he said, was that making music was fun again.
We thought this was cool, and inspiring. And we’re now less worried about not finishing pieces we start. Far from trying to install some form of order around the cacophony, maybe we should jump into it? Maybe we resist order and accept that it’s from within that craziness that we might craft and find creativity?
You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. (Nietzsche)