For much of my *professional* life, I’ve been easily swayed by distraction—not just getting down to business, whatever the undertaking may be, but also merely staying on task. I think this is a common struggle in the digital age, as the onslaught of stimuli and noise we’re faced with continues to grow.
For a long time, I viewed distraction as something to be dealt with and phased out. But recently I’ve gained the perspective that often, it can be leveraged to work in our advantage.
Distraction can provide the opportunity to give ourselves a break from the task and allow our subconscious to work through the venture or issue. It can also bring inspiration, as well as fresh eyes and a new perspective for approaching the project.
It really is a matter of context—knowing in which instances to avoid distraction and in which settings to welcome it.
Being Distracted Just Enough to Take Your Head out of It
Humans are over-thinking creatures by nature. As intermediaries in the creative process (the channel), this tendency can quickly get in the way and distort the message between the source and the medium. It can make the work come off as contrived instead of authentic and raw; like adding noise to a clean channel.
For example, we may put too much emphasis on a certain component of the art, like the voice in a piece of music, potentially making it a grandiose performance that seems inorganic, because it is.
In a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Show, legendary record producer Rick Rubin described this very phenomenon happening when working with singer Neil Diamond. Rubin suggested the musician also play guitar while recording the song.
The outcome was that he was distracted just enough by holding down the chord changes that he could let his true voice shine through, delivering a genuine performance instead of an ostentatious one.
In a similar way, I realized that when I freestyle rap, I come up with more authentic bars than if I were to sit down and write rhymes on paper. Instead of thinking things out, the message just flows organically off the tip of the tongue. Both my cadence and lyrical content come out as more genuine.
Maybe my heart opens easier because my brain is just distracted enough by having to keep time with the beat? Who knows.
This is one hack the artist can use to bypass our over-thinking monkey mind. Now let’s consider another process that uses distraction to achieve a similar result.
Seeing the Forest For the Trees
Probably the most palmary benefit of distraction is new outlooks, which often pave the way for a fresh, groundbreaking approach to the particular undertaking.
Distractions often allow us to see the forest for the trees, and sometimes even offer an insight that was right there on the cusp but hadn’t been thought of because of our vantage point.
When you spend hours on end immersed in a project, it is easy to become bogged down and perhaps lose sight of your initial intention or the idea you were trying to convey. Your vantage point shrinks when meticulously engrossed in something—literally and figuratively.
In both senses, taking a step back from the situation (expanding your focus) detaches you from any emotions that may have crept up, and allows you to get a more clear, objective picture of what’s happening. Thus, you can view the world (or project) with fresh eyes, seeing more opportunities or avenues to be approached.
Quitting While You’re Ahead
Much in the same manner, knowing when to call it quits for the time being is advantageous. This way, you prevent the thesis of your creative output from becoming convoluted.
Too many consecutive hours (or minutes) fixated on a project can result in getting caught up in the finer details that in the end may not even make a significant difference in the quality of the work or how it is received.
You can end up tinkering with elements that really encapsulate your thesis – either from a technical or cerebral standpoint – and somewhere along the way may be unable to get them back.
The key is being fully present to and immersed in the work when engaging with it, and then leaving it be when not focusing on it. One benefit of this approach is that it becomes easier to tap into your inner-spirit and channel your creative juices.
Another advantage of entirely disengaging is you allow your mind to keep it on the back burner, potentially providing insights that wouldn’t have come when tightly fixated on the undertaking.
Subconsciously Working Through a Project
I think in general, to stew over a problem is not the way to solve a problem. I think to hold the problems lightly…Record Producer Rick Rubin
For me, I know ah-ha moments often arrive when the issue I had been ruminating over was seemingly the furthest thing from my attention. This suggests that even when you are not actively pursuing a project, it is still an object of your mind, though it may be on a different level—the subconscious.
I often used to ruminate on things I couldn’t remember which I had deemed critical, racking my brain trying to conjure them back. However, the mind knows what is important. If it deserves to be in your awareness, it will bring it back.
This principle parallels the practice of letting your subconscious marinate on your ideas. Often, if the issue is something significant, the mind will find a way to resolve it, so long as you can get out of your own way and stop overanalyzing it.
You can also use distraction subconsciously in a different way—by playing off related subject matter to spark your creative juices.
Gathering Insight and Inspiration Through Distraction
When you switch from create to consume mode, but still focus on closely-related content, you may very well be opening the tap of creativity to let it flow.
Seth Godin, Chuck Close and other esteemed creatives have said things along the lines of “inspiration is for amateurs,” and “there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”
What these authority figures are insinuating is that procrastination or hesitation is simply fear of bad execution. Professionals simply show up and do the work, having faith in the process. In the words of Seth, “Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.”
While inspiration shouldn’t be a prerequisite to create, there is certainly something to be said for using similar material to inspire, refine and tailor your art. The most seminal works by the prominent figures in your chosen discipline can be used as a blueprint for what worked in the past. However, I’m not advising copying them.
Instead, they can be used to determine where you have leverage and in what ways you can bring a fresh approach to the craft, which may help you break through the noise. View these reference points not as something that allows you to think outside the box of the genre, but defines it, and reveals where opportunity exists for original endeavors.
The caveat is just because something worked well in the past – especially someone else’s work – doesn’t mean it will work for you, or work again, even for them. The stories they told that resonated with others were based on their experiences, their view of world—your devoir as an artists it to make art that is true to you.
However, those works broke through for a reason—something about it resonated with people on a personal level. Maybe it spoke to their identity, or was something they wanted to express about themselves but just didn’t know how.
This defining characteristic is what needs to be leveraged. If you really put the whole of your attention into consuming and digesting the piece but don’t have a motive, you should be able to gain insight into what it is about it that speaks to you on a soul level (how it is unique) and use that to your benefit.
And although you don’t want to carbon-copy that, the idea is to try and replicate its essence in a new way that is distinct to you.
The Wrap on Distraction
Escapism has long gotten a bad wrap, especially in a goal-oriented society that values productivity above all else. Though in excess, it often becomes a crutch to prevent dealing with reality, distraction does have its place in the creative process.
Art is not something that should be rushed. Using these techniques to refresh, refine and expand your creative endeavors should not be frowned upon, as they can allow you to better your craft—quality over quantity.