ERIC MAIERSON | IT'S A PROCESS, IT'S A PROCESS, IT'S A PROCESS
If your creative process is anything like mine, then you know what it’s like to feel stuck. You’re halfway through an edit or an essay and suddenly — nothing. For me, that’s where rumination begins. As the drummer Questlove writes in his book Creative Quest, ideas need an opportunity “to settle in. Take root, flower, bloom, grow, dangle.” The unconscious needs time to tease out the knots. And you have to then pay attention in order to be aware of those new connections as they present themselves. The filmmaker David Lynch compares the process to fishing. You set your line and wait for a bite.
But how can you be ready for the nibble if you’re always preoccupied or distracted?
On most days, you’ll find me working away at the computer, immersed in thought — until I see my phone light up across the desk with a new notification. OK, I think, that’s probably important. I'd better check just to make sure. Well, you know what, I tell myself, while I’m here, I might as well go ahead and also check Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, ad infinitum. I’m a good person after all; I deserve it. The next time I look up, well, 20 minutes has somehow slipped by, and I’m left wondering what it was I’m supposed to be doing.
I don’t think I’m the only one. The statistics, in fact, are staggering.
In 2018, according to a study by eMarketer.com, American adults spent an average of 3 hours and 35 minutes a day using their phones. Forty minutes of that time was on social media, and, just as surprising, another 2018 survey by Deloitte found that people picked up their phones, on average, a whopping 52 times every day.
Of course, when I first read this, I thought: They couldn't possibly be talking about me. So I installed the free app Moment (inthemoment.io) to track my time. Sure enough, when it comes to phone use, I’m pretty darn average.
My attention, I realized, was in tatters. I had a problem. So I did what I always do when confronted with the unknown: I bought a lot of books. I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, Indistractable by Nir Eyal and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
I’d like to share with you some of the tactics I’ve employed in the ongoing battle to win back my attention. Please bear in mind that my strategy is hardly foolproof. Believe me, I’m still a sucker for pictures of old dogs on Reddit, and I can easily spend hours diving into some pretty odd sinkholes on YouTube (chiropractic back cracking, anyone?).
Nevertheless, my overriding strategy is simple: It’s not feasible to live without technology, so the goal, instead, is to find out what you really need and then be conscious of how you’re using it.
First, there’s no greater threat to one’s attention than phone notifications. Be in control of them. Decide what deserves to distract you and what does not. Do you really need to be told every time the president tweets? Spending five minutes to change these settings will pay dividends. (To do this on an iPhone, go to Settings > Notifications and on Android: Settings > Apps & Notifications.)
Next, put your time-wasters like games and social media on the last screen of your phone. Sure, they’re still available. But at least this way it takes a little more effort to get to them. Perhaps just enough to reconsider. Even better, when you feel the urge to indulge, give it 10 minutes. Chances are the impulse will pass if you can just fight it for a few minutes.
That’s where apps like Forest (forestapp.cc) come in handy. With Forest, you set a timer to plant a virtual tree. Then you get back to your work. If you leave the app, your tree dies. The more focused you are, the lusher your forest becomes. It’s silly, but it actually kind of works.
If there are specific troubling sites you’d rather not visit at all, try the subscription service Freedom (freedom.to). Freedom blocks domains on both your desktop and portable devices for a user-defined period of time.
If you’re like me, you probably also have a lot of apps on your phone that you downloaded out of curiosity and now no longer use. Go ahead and delete them. Keep only what’s essential.
Another place to reconsider phone use is in the bedroom. For me, late nights and early mornings are both times when my thoughts seem to percolate. So I bought an old-fashioned alarm clock and instead keep a notebook and pen on my nightstand.
Finally, take phone sabbaticals. If you go out for a meal or take the dogs to the park, leave your phone at home. It’s refreshing to occasionally remember what life was like when we were all untethered. ■
Eric Maierson is a freelance writer and two-time Emmy-winning video editor and producer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ellen, and their two dogs, both rascals.
Illustrations by Julie M. Elman, a professor at the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, where she teaches design.