Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Finding Calmness in an Age of Distraction

There is a lot to love about the time we live in.

We're more connected to each other than ever. We can be more productive. We can do more with less time. We very often take it for granted.

I remember when my parents had to sit down once a month to "do the bills," which meant spending an entire night writing checks, balancing accounts, licking envelopes, and driving to the post office the next day.

Now, I write precisely one check a month and it's to my landlord, and in fact, it's one of the few times a month I write anything by hand. There are few bills I don't pay automatically, and it's easy to manage things online.

I remember phone chains where people scheduled events and spread the word about changes in meeting times by going down a list and calling people one by one. I remember how precarious it could be to meet someone when they could have an unexpected delay and had no way of letting you know. I remember how I sometimes didn't know baseball scores for two days because the games ended too late to be printed in the next morning's newspaper.

And I'm only 32!

At the same time, as the Arcade Fire memorably put it, We Used to Wait. We used to have to be patient. We didn't have to unplug because the default state was unplugged.

The consequences of this constant bombardment is well-documented, whether it's car accidents caused by texting or an inability to sleep because of blue light from the laptops we tote to bed or chronic short attention spans.

For me personally, I find the consequences most acute when it comes to brainstorming new creative ideas and especially when I try to making decisions.

Creative thinking requires a calmness and a blocking out of distractions in order to let ideas come to you. Decision making requires you to truly be in touch with how you feel and to stop and listen to yourself. They require concentration, which can be in short supply.

It's not at all easy for me to find calm moments when inspiration can strike, so I try to block off one day on the weekend for a trip to the park or a walk through a museum or both. Even then it's hard not to peek at my phone, but the fresh air of the park, the sunshine, the quiet... it's vital. I don't always make it, but I do my best to carve out small spaces for myself when I let myself be still.

As we do more and more sometimes it can be productive do less.

How do you carve out calm moments in a distracted world?

Art: Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher


Bryan Russell said...

Driving is good. Especially if it's a nice road and you can sail along quietly. A coffee and a bookstore ain't too shabby, either.

Elaine Smith said...

My calm comes from music - that and dancing to it. As I love the scrape and whisp of paper, reading would be next my oasis in the age of distraction.

Sevigne said...

I meditate every day. Not for my writing, for my life. For my writing I spend a lot of time thinking, quietly, without music or any other external stimulus to distract me from my contemplation.

abc said...

I take very long showers.

Jaimie said...

You're right; there isn't nearly enough time for thinking. The best ideas come to me when I turn off the radio and drive. I've been toying with the idea of 10-minute morning meditations.

My church, which is extremely artistically oriented, gives me a space to think whenever I attend. Growing up my religion saw art as distracting at best, heretical at worst, so it's a gift to have a place where I'm allowed to experience the divine through Art and Making Art.

As for blue lights that keep you awake, this is the best software EVAR.

Tapper said...

I unplug. Every Sunday our family turns off the television, radio, electronics and goes retro. We talk and read and go to church and talk some more. Sometimes we take walks. Sometimes we take naps. But by taking one day hiatus from the shrill cry of phones, texts, emails, facebook, T.V., shopping, work,and sporting events, we find ourselves less dependent on it during the rest of the week. We are teaching our young children not only how to cope with quiet, but how to appreciate it. Ideas and relationships blossom in the quiet moments. I fight for them whenever possible.

rebecca said...

I turn everything off and play with my dogs so that they are tired and then I sit and begin. I find that if I make it a part of my day I am better prepared mentally and emotionally to write

Therese said...

I go to sleep with my kindergartner at 8:30pm, and try to wake up at 4:30 or 5am to have a few quiet hours to focus on writing before work while the rest of the world is asleep. A lot of times I'll shut down my computer before I go to bed too - since it's an older wheezing and creaking desktop model that takes a long time to boot up, that way I don't have the temptation to waste that time checking e-mail and twitter. I also write by hand in a notebook for the same reason - fewer distractions!

Maya Prasad said...

So true! I absolutely need that return to calmness every once in a while. It's the reason I love to hike on weekends, and it's also the reason I'm trying to do an internet detox day once a week or so. For plotting/brainstorming, I liked going off my laptop altogether. However, with writing/editing, I just flip off the wifi.

Marsha Sigman said...

What is the calmness of which you speak?

It sounds like a fantasy.

Roopa said...

Just finding fifteen minutes every day where I focus on nothingness. It doesnt mean sitting idle or meditating, I could give myself those 15 minutes while on the treadmill with my music or while reading a book. Nothing of normal life and worries should penetrate those 15 minutes.It works!

Elissa M said...

I live on the edge of nowhere. There is no WiFi or cell phone reception.

I keep animals. They have to be fed, watered, cleaned up after, cared for.

The house is heated with wood. It must be cut, and split, and stacked.

I could go on, but you get the point. Plain work more than frees the mind to wander and dream.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I can relate to this, especially the part about how we used to have to be patient. Now when my students e-mail me, several of them expect me to respond right away. It's not always possible for me to respond right away, but technology has made people expect instant results.

120Pages said...

1) Tea.
2) Wii's Just Dance (technically not unplugged, I know, but for me dancing and music sometimes help inspire story ideas).
3) There's a cat sanctuary not far from where I live. Working there is definitely as "unplugged" as I get - and it requires such focus that I couldn't possibly think of anything else while I'm there, even if I wanted to.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Even though we had to wait, we were no more patient than we are now.

Just ask anyone who hovered around the phone, waiting for an important call, in the days before cell phones and answering machines. Or watched out the window for the letter carrier.

I'm actually unplugged for a good chunk of every day. Evening is my plugged-in time.

I take a walk every day, and the commuter train is good for reading books or staring vacantly. :-)

Anonymous said...

Running every morning. I get some of my best ideas, too.

Rebecca Taylor said...

I live in Colorado and I love to hike. I was talking to someone last week and was remembering hiking in my early twenties (no cell phones) alone on a trail. Just me and my dog.

It hit me that I would NEVER do that now. What if? What if? What if? I always have that cell strapped to my side now because of What if.

I miss the freedom from my phone.

Lisa Shafer said...

Sometimes I have to resort to silencer ear muffs to block out my neighbors' dogs.

Rachel said...

Being a religious Jew solves this problem for me because I have to unplug completely for 25 hours each week in observance of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is also a time when I can't do any activities that create new things, so no writing either, even by hand, which means my ideas get a chance to percolate. Sitting in synagogue, for me, is often a wonderful time for letting that happen (though I suppose I should be focused on the prayers...)

It also means I have a day where I have to plan out in advance which friends I will hang out with where and when, and patiently wait for guests who are late. When I host my friends for a Sabbath meal, I never know who's running on time or late, how late they'll be, or whether everyone will actually show up. This leads to a leisurely start to the meal, and some on-the-spot guessing as to when and whether those last stragglers will walk in the door.

I also don't get a Saturday newspaper (because I realized I never read it) so if anything important is happening in the world, unless it's going to place my life in immediate danger (like, say, an oncoming hurricane), I generally won't know about it until Saturday night.

One of my favorite things about the Sabbath, by the way, is that I can take an afternoon nap without feeling guilty. It doesn't matter how many chores/errands/projects in my life need to get done. None of them can get done on Saturdays, so I'm free to close my eyes for a while, or curl up with a good book.

j welling said...

Kill your television.

Abandon twitter. Do not text.

The immediacy is not adding value to the content. The high volume of very brief exposure to very insignificant facts is not developing meaningful situation awareness in your surroundings. Your OODA loop is interrupted and incomplete.

Friends are individuals with whom you speak in person or perhaps share a considered dialog in email.

I will concede your age. Limit your facebook involvement to the period following dinner before you read.

If you are in the content creation business, you need to question if your priority is on the non-content consumption business.

Kristi Helvig said...

What made me laugh is that I found this post via checking my email while working on revisions for my editor. I'm just taking a tiny break, I swear. Anyway, this sounds new age-y but I swear by meditation and yoga. I also live in Colorado (waves at Rebecca) and love being outside--for me, being in nature brings out my creative energy. Okay, back to revisions...and more caffeine.

Oh, and huge congrats on your new book adventure, Nathan!

Magdalena Munro said...

I wake up at 4:30. The knowledge that my city is asleep quiets my mind and it's truly the only time of day on a regular basis that my thoughts run deep. And then the blasted sun rises....desiccating those thoughts as I prey on my computer and social feeds. The brevity of that peace totally stinks.

Tess Cox said...

Great Blog. This is a very present issue for me. So far, the only successful way I accomplish this goal to quiet my mind is to leave my house and either go stay in a hotel room or, this weekend, I've rented a cabin in the Rockies for my first writing retreat of the year. peace and quiet, lots of sleep and dreaming and write, write, write.
will let you know how I get on....

Elena Perez said...

I live in NYC so I talk long walks whenever I can. It's not exactly tranquil, but after so many years here the steady flutter of activity around me balances me out.

Of course, I still have my phone with me. I try not to check it that often, but it's practically a reflex at this stage... if arm doesn't slide phone out of bag or pocket every so often, brain sends instructions that 'we are falling behind'...why can't brain send same instruction about the novel I'm working on? :)

Otherwise, I find myself seeking out unplugged moments - the gym, meditation, umm that's all I can think of right now.

Elissa M, I might need to come by and help you chop wood ;)

p.s. Nathan, I've been happily distracted by your blog for awhile now, but this is my first post. Hello to you and all!

Barbara said...

Walk. Walk beaches if you can. Read. Read layered books. Read poetry. Poetry always slows me down.Sleep is also wonderful. Enjoy sleep, Nap.

River Byrnes said...

I go for long walks on the moors, and love geocaching. I am also a table tennis coach and player, and play 4 to 5 times a week - totally no tech involved in that!
I also find long showers are a great place for inspiration for my writing.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Excellent always.
I believe it or not try and take advantage of commuting--sitting on a train for 40 minutes from my quiet, bucolic suburb in New Jersey to midtown, Manhattan.

I take a very early train, as I have to be to work by 7 a.m., so it isn't that difficult as most of my fellow commuters are reading, or thinking, or sleeping.

When things seem particularly tense at work, I take a walk--outside, if there is time--to just breathe different air and remind myself there is an entire world of people and activity outside my office.

And at home, I relish time by myself, whether it's an hour after my son goes to bed and before I fall asleep, or a day like today when he's at school, my wife is off teaching, and I'm taking a "vacation" day to just be home, alone, with the cat.

Because I just got back from a 2-day ski vacation, where we were outdoors enjoying sunshine and clear and well-groomed slopes, and fresh, cool mountain air, where I got a LOT of thinking done.

Vacations are important. I'm finding it true the older I get. And yes, I'm older than you so I remember EVEN having to get up out of my chair to change, physically, the channel on the television set.

And taking pen to paper, or at least pounding on a typewriter, letters to friends.

Which leads me to another one of those odd thoughts that comes to people who actually spend some time or have or find or carve out some time to think, randomly, as opposed to concentrating on any particular task or goal: is all the correspondence between creative people, you know, the "papers" biographers and historians etc rely on for research and insight, going to be lost, soon, as correspondence no longer is on physical matter (paper), and what/how will anyone know or be able to know who or what or how anything came before them, if "reality" becomes electromagnetic "bytes" of energy stored on servers?


Maybe Jacob Wonderbar can either warn us about it, or save us from it?


rebeccam said...

My favorite time of day is first thing in the morning, stretching while the water boils, then reading for 10 minutes with a cup of tea. Meditation is good, whatever your definition of that is.

Walks, yes, but leave the phone at home.

Rebekkah Niles said...

Carry a book in my purse (or my Nook). I always try to take lunch. And I make time to read.

And I think I'd cry if ever I had to abandon my lazy Saturday mornings sipping tea in the sunshine.

Kiersi said...

I'm reading now about how a lot of insomnia is caused by over-stimulation. One of the recommendations I read was to unplug one hour before going to bed, and to do something quiet like read a book or write in a journal.

Since I started doing that, I have time and focus to sort out ideas and give then shape and structure.

I'll never forget what it felt like to be stood up, and have no recourse. Now you can fire up a text,

"Where the hell are you, man?"

Kiersi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Regina Richards said...

I meditate every morning and brain-dump into my Morning Pages book. If that isn't enough, and it sometimes isn't, I take a long bath or sit on the front porch with a hot or cold drink. If even those don;t work for creating some quiet space in my world I set a timer, shut my eyes, focus on relaxing every muscle in my body and when I am fully relaxed I concentrate on counting deep even breaths. This stills me and allows the muse to cuddle back up with me.

Anne Mackin said...

Amen to all that--and some of the good ideas in the comments like listening to music and meditating!

Spending time outdoors in some quiet part of the natural world helps me (a city-fringe dweller over 32!). Also, spending a day without looking at my email or any social media sites helps a lot--especially if I can spend the time reading a good book instead!

thewriteedge said...

Drinking a cup of tea and just letting my mind wander often helps. Also, with two young kids on two different school schedules, I spend a lot of time driving from one place to another. Sometimes I turn off the music and just think. I might be mentally working on a new story idea or I just let myself roam the imagination universe. But I try to take those moments in my day every and open myself to what's possible if I just find that moment of calmness.

Sometimes I wonder if I do it often enough, though, so this post was a great reminder of the necessity of this part of the writing process. Thanks, Nathan!

Fi said...

School runs. When I'm walking back from having dropped my kids off at school, or walking to collect them later, I think.

Then there's bedtime. I write my diary, I read, and I think then too.

Thanks for this great post.

Gretchen said...

Running. Mountain trails, mellow pace, lots of miles. Nature provides the calm, movement allows for the best inspiration to strike.

Other Lisa said...

Walks. Beach walks in particular. Someone already mentioned showers. Lately I've been doing weekly workouts with a trainer and learning old-school dead-lifts and bench presses. Love those.

Chuck H. said...

Hey Nathan, Long time no comment. The answer for me is and has been for some time, a sweet runnin' m'cycle and a long and twisty road. Happy Trails!!!

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