“We’ll have Editor A saying, ‘Please, just send the alert, send the alert!’ And Editor B’s going, ‘No, we can make this better.’ And it’s aggravating for us that we’re sitting there looking at our lock screens,” knowing an alert on the same story from another paper could pop up at any moment.”Eric Bishop, New York Times
Push notifications have become a recurrent feature in our digital landscape. Breaking news. New likes. Like clockwork, I’ll press the home button on my iPhone hoping to find a missed text or some monstrous tweet.
These impulses are wildly unhealthy. But that’s not news, just a statement of fact. And even if I had more self-control, even if I didn’t light up my lock screen in a desperate search for stimulation, I wouldn’t be any less distracted. As it turns out, the mere existence of my phone is a disturbance in and of itself.
Our digital devices are an invasive species, consuming every mindless moment we’d otherwise use to just sit and think. But the key to successful creative work is space—both physical and mental. That’s why every other article about creativity is basically a reminder to close your tabs, go into airplane mode, or throw your phone into the ocean.
But it’s harder than it seems.
That’s why I’ve been enjoying Jocelyn K Glei’s new podcast, Hurry Slowly, which offers more practical, realistic advice on this subject. In a recent episode, she interviewed the journalist Ann Friedman about balancing the competing energies of creative work and news consumption. Among other great nuggets, Ann says:
“I get no notifications on my phone. The only notifications I get are text messages and phone calls. If something is popping up on my phone, it’s a real human being that wants to talk to me… I see some appalling push notification screenshots when I’m doing my Twitter scroll, where I’m like, ‘Thank god I have not allowed you access into my day-to-day.’”
Technology is only as invasive as you allow it to be. But we humans are weak, susceptible to self-sabotage. When you turn your phone upside down or put it in airplane mode, all you’ve done is add an extra barrier between yourself and a hit of dopamine—a barrier you can easily overcome. Instead, try weaponizing technology against yourself; take Ann’s advice and turn off notifications (or go further and delete apps), blinding yourself to potential distractions.
Don’t make promises. Take yourself hostage.
As my attention is increasingly yanked in different directions, I’ve begun to notice serendipitous reminders to slow down and single-task.
Like when my friend Mike (in his fantastic newsletter, Woolgathering) asked readers to take a very practical pledge:
“I (insert your name here) solemnly swear to put in the hard work to make my thinking clear and simple. In an effort to do this, I hereby vow to devote one hour per week to thinking. That is 1 hour per week devoted to thinking broadly and freely about my life, my relationships, my work, and understanding what I know, and what I do not, what I would like to better understand, and what I might like to accomplish.”
Or when my friend Laura encouraged me to meditate for just three minutes a day:
“Just pay attention to what feelings you have (like cool air entering the nostrils, warm air leaving; or the belly expanding, touching against your clothes, etc.) and when you notice you are thinking of something else, come back to your chosen focal point, WITHOUT beating yourself up for being off topic. That point is very important. Always treat yourself lovingly. You could also just do some breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 breath, for your set time. Inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8. Count like 1-one thousand, two-one thousand, three one-thousand etc.”
I ought to integrate these practices into my days and weeks. They make sense. They sound restorative. But in some ways, I already practice my own form of reflection and mediation—improv. It’s a focused period of time where I have no choice to but to put down technology, disconnect from the current moment, and be present.
Watching the news has become a national pastime. I certainly get caught up in scroll–outrage cycle. But where some people wake up to overnight push alerts and the latest Twitter drama, I start my day with the New Yorker (the print edition). Between those pages I find plenty of well-reported stories but not a single alert or app vying for my attention. No distractions.
It’s hard to work when you’re sad, angry, or stressed. And perhaps, it’s inevitable you’ll experience those emotions at some point during the day. But there’s no reason you need to start your morning like that. There’s no reason you can’t start with an act of creation instead. As Austin Kleon says:
“You can be woke without waking up to the news.”
You don’t have to disconnect completely and live the rest of your life in the woods. But nothing is so important that it can’t wait a couple hours. I bet you can do better. I know I can.
Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.