RSS feeds, Twitter, email alerts, IM, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Naymz, Plaxo, Mint, apps, phone, satellite radio, podcasts, audiobooks, Google, Google Analytics, WordPress, etc., etc. ….
Too many distractions… or tools to help focus? Both.
I’m more certain it’s both after taking focused energy to read Sam Anderson’s well thought out piece in the New York Magazine about today’s distraction-filled digital world. The article came out a few weeks ago, but I just happened upon it today.
Anderson’s main point seems to be technology today can deliver extremes in both distraction and focus. Both can be bad. Both can be good. But, balanced and channeled, distraction feeds focus, while focus enables distraction. Together they can lead to a sharp and creative mind.
The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction.
It’s possible that we’re all evolving toward a new techno-cognitive nomadism, a rapidly shifting environment in which restlessness will be an advantage again.
My disappearing act from keeping up with the “distractions” of Twitter and the blogosphere over the past few weeks was both due to extreme distractions that are a reality in life (sickness, new biz launch, huge project deliveries, end of school year with four kids and a zillion end of year concert thingys, first season with our pool and joy of busted lines, etc., etc.) combined with periods of paralyzing focus (working through the to-do list to the point that there’s no time to do anything!).
So what is better? When life hits and you do your best to push through it all–build better focused attention to get things done OR follow distractions as they come up?
Obviously, both have their benefits and drawbacks. The solution seems to be building enough mental cues to sharpen focus enough to allow distractions to take your thoughts and abilities to a totally different level, and to capture new meaning.
Again, back to Anderson:
I keep returning to the parable of Einstein and Lennon—the great historical geniuses hypothetically ruined by modern distraction. What made both men’s achievements so groundbreaking, though, was that they did something modern technology is getting increasingly better at allowing us to do: They very powerfully linked and synthesized things that had previously been unlinked—Newtonian gravity and particle physics, rock and blues and folk and doo-wop and bubblegum pop and psychedelia. If Einstein and Lennon were growing up today, their natural genius might be so pumped up on the possibilities of the new technology they’d be doing even more dazzling things. Surely Lennon would find a way to manipulate his BlackBerry to his own ends, just like he did with all the new technology of the sixties—he’d harvest spam and text messages and web snippets and build them into a new kind of absurd poetry.
I love this. It tells us we need to be comfortable in chaos, thrive in diversity, and work our way through adversity. It means we have to train our mind to be able to focus, but with the goal of being able to play “choose your own adventure” with the distractions that come along the journey.
Ben Malbon (@malbonnington) and Heidi Hackemer (@uberblond) share their own dilemma with distraction in reading Anderson’s article in their recent BBH Labs Post entitled Getting comfortable with chaos. The behavior both expressed, however, resulted in linking together multiple ideas around the topics raised by Anderson–a product of digging down different trains of thought, but always returning to the central idea.
There’s another dimension to this I found interesting from another music example that Malbon found in David Allen’s article on the same topic recently in Wired. Allen talks of Evan Taubenfield, a guitarist, song-writer and leader of a 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.
Allen argues Taubenfeld’s experience shows the benefit of capturing meaning in the moment of distraction for later connection and use to create something new.
The trick may be to harness what happens when you’re there. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my quasi-scientific approach to sustained laziness is the value of storing thoughts in appropriate places, as soon as I have them. That means parking them where I will later evaluate their merit (or lack thereof) and dispose of them accordingly. Having a thought once is what the mind is for; having the same thought twice, in the same way, for the same reason, is a waste of time and energy. I also found out that having a place for good ideas produced more of them, and more often. The new skill the next generation may bring forward is how to deal with meaning, tactically. Not “meaning” in the philosophical or spiritual sense, but rather in the harvesting of it in our ordinary lives, day to day.
If we focus too much, we can push out the ability to capture meaning from random distractions. If we allow distractions to meander too far we miss the original destination entirely.
Instead, we need to define priorities for what is most important, build in cues to help us see where we’re headed, and enjoy finding meaning in the moments of distraction that come along the way.
This balance of focused distraction yields productive creativity.
The next question I have is how do we apply this reality of life to the way we engage with people through brands, products, and marketing?
UPDATE: A few other interesting commentary and ideas on this topic in NY Times and Louis Gray (back in 8/08 but good ideas) and Dan York’s Disruptive Conversations blog and Patricia-Anne Rutledge’s The Web-Savvy Writer, among others. Just some good reading and ideas I’ve found recently.