I recently came back from a Disney Cruise. You may laugh — I know in my intrepid-traveling twenties, I would have snickered at anyone spending a week on a boat with two thousand other people being force-fed manufactured merriment and 24-hour buffet meals. Oh, but let me tell you that as a parent of high-energy little kids, it’s the most glorious thing invented since disposable diapers. We frequented the waterslides and watched Disney movies from the pool and ate Mickey-shaped waffles, and thanks to adults’ only areas and an incredible kids’ club that my children barely wanted to leave, we also had just enough grown-up time to enjoy piña coladas by the quiet pool. Best vacation ever.
The kid time was intensive, and yet I felt more relaxed and more creative than I had in ages. While staring out at the open sea and seemingly doing nothing, I finally figured out the opening to a short story that had me stumped forever. The trip revived my interest in another story I’d all but dropped, and I even had an idea for an exciting new novel!
And then I came home and fell into a serious funk. So did my husband. It took us more than a week to shake it off. (If I’m completely honest, I’m still not 100% back. In a minute I’ll get to how I’m addressing it and ask for your suggestions.) Here’s the weird thing, we were especially thrown by our malaise because we’re both lucky enough to LOVE our work and our home and our neighborhood, and now that we’re back home we aren’t sharing an itty bitty stateroom with two kids. So, why?! Why were we so deeply burned out on our lives mere days after returning from a restorative vacation?
For a second I thought maybe it was just because we’d spent a week being constantly entertained and now we were bored. Then I started responding to emails and reading blogs and reading the news and listening to NPR in the car, and everything back on land seemed so impossibly hectic. I realized it was quite the opposite of boredom. As busy as our bodies had been with cruise activities, our minds weren’t busy — we weren’t constantly multitasking or making thousands of micro decisions each day.
Of course, instead of unplugging, addict that I am, I dove into a little internet research.
No surprise — our relentless efforts to be productive are exhausting our brains and making us far less creative, and ironically less productive. (Not to mention far less fulfilled!) Think of yourself as a computer with too many programs running and too many browser windows open
To boost creativity and end writer’s block, take a break already!
Shifting your attention depletes your brain’s fuel
Seriously, when you get distracted, it literally drains your brain. And as a side effect, it also causes anxiety. Not good for any endeavor, but it’s even worse for creatives because focus facilitates creativity while every little interruption undermines it. With laptops and iPhones — not to mention their alerts and notifications — it’s amazing any of us produce anything worthwhile.
And multitasking? Forgetaboutit! Research shows that multi-tasking workers are less productive than their more focused counterparts. If you do three things in tandem versus one after the other, it will take you longer to complete all of them. Multitasking also increases cortisol and adrenaline, both of which make it hard to think clearly.
Information overload can actually destroy your neural networks.
I sometimes joke that I can’t remember things because my brain is full. Turns out it’s true, and too much info consumption can even lead to dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. Yikes! (We already have enough of that in my family, so I need to take this extremely seriously.) Rather than making us smarter, taking in more and more information reduces our ability to problem solve. Worse, how much of what you’ve ingested is useless infotainment that adds up to nothing!
I love learning. If you paid me, I’d go to school forever and study just about anything. I could read arbitrary articles in The Atlantic until I died. BUT, I’m going to have to stop this.
Decision making physically exhausts our brains.
Choice is great! Who would want to be stuck eating the same thing every day or getting information from only one source? But get this — the average American makes thousands of decisions each day. We decide which link to click on, which article to read, which cereal to buy, which email to answer, which route to take, which meal to cook, which show to watch. We also decide when to call, when to merge, when to work out, when to squeeze in another dose of caffeine.
Now, I’m not sure I’d trade that for a day that was Groundhog-Day predictable, but here’s the problem — it turns out that every one of those tiny decisions taxes our brains just as much as making a big decision. Aside from consuming less media, I don’t know exactly how I’m going to approach this, but it’s clearly a must. I think sticking to a weekly meal plan and only grocery shopping once a week would be a start. Some people also more or less wear a uniform, even when they work from home. Ideas please!
In short, our attempts to be productive are stopping us from entering a state of flow, physically exhausting our brains and drastically inhibiting our creativity.
What I’m doing to restore my creativity and mental health.
I can’t live on a cruise ship, but I can be as careful with how I spend my brain’s energy as I would be with what kind of food I put into my body.
Here are some of the steps I’ve taken:
I’ve taken Facebook and email off my phone. (I already deleted my Twitter account way back, and I’m a horrible photographer, so I haven’t even considered Instagram.)
I disabled Safari on my phone. I talked about this one for weeks before I pulled the trigger, and I was practically twitching as I did it, but it’s done, and the effect has been astounding. At first, I noticed myself reaching for my phone in boredom or curiosity as often as 50 times a day! That’s only a minute or two here and there, but theoretically, that gives my brain up to an hour a day of rest!
Not only does that rest prevent some of the problems listed above, but according Scientific American, downtime also allows my brain to perform necessary processes that can only happen during rest.
I’m also thinking I should start meditating in order to create more mental space, which can boost creativity for another reason — tuning into my heart. As journalist turned meditation and yoga coach Caren Baginski says, “You can’t access your heart if you’re stuck in your head.” (I’m going to interview her about meditation for creativity in a few weeks, so keep a look out for that!)
an important place where I’m not squared away:
How do I avoid being distracted or enraged by the news while still remaining and an informed and responsible citizen. I’m currently experimenting with a thrice weekly check of The Skimm rather than browsing sensational headlines designed to get clicks. I’ll admit the cheeky tone isn’t for me, but the non-partisan no-nonsense background info is brilliant. I can just click the links or search for other more in-depth sources if I see something that warrants more investigation.
Do you have any other suggestions for a healthy media diet?
What else have you tried? What are you willing to try?