Boredom, creativity and the addiction of distraction

Boredom: bored camel.Boredom may not be as boring as you think

Of the three things you most avoid that may be what you most need — suffering, failure and boredom — the latter seems like the most innocuous. Suffering and failure might feel more like an open wound or severed limb. In comparison, boredom’s more like a hangnail: not pleasant, but more of an annoyance you’d prefer would go away.

And that is exactly the problem.

You and I do all sorts of things to avoid being bored when in fact, embracing boredom may be one of the best things you can do to enhance your creativity and problem-solving abilities.

No, really.

Boredom and creativity

Being bored (and I’m talking about short-term boredom such as standing in line, being stuck in traffic, waiting for an appointment, etc. as opposed to long-term situations like a less-than-stimulating job) provides something rare: mental space for daydreaming. Without white space or a blank mental canvas, we don’t allow ourselves the ability to imagine. And without imagination, it’s hard to be creative.

Those stretches of time when you have nothing else to consider gives you the chance to make seemingly random connections that are at the heart of creativity. So much of our creative life occurs indirectly: we back into ideas or connect dots from different realms. Welcoming boredom or opportunities to not think about anything in particular allows you to ponder things in a different, non-linear way. And that’s when the creative ideas often flow.

But you’ll never get there if don’t open yourself to boredom. And if you’re like me, you can’t do that unless you address a hidden but powerful addiction: distraction.

The addiction of distraction

An addiction? You tell me. How long can you go without checking your phone or email or Facebook or a TV screen? How comfortable are you with silence? How often do you read the ads on the metro or subway just to have something to do? Distraction. It’s an addiction in our society and all the worse for the fact we don’t realize we suffer from it.

Distraction not only robs us of creative thought, it diverts us from deep thought. We’ve become so ingrained at checking our devices and living in a constant state of unfocus that we likely don’t even realize the toll it has taken on our ability to do better, insightful work.

Going deep

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses the impact of distraction and its allies — networking and so-called productivity tools that keep us constantly connected and thus constantly checking rather than concentrating. I love this quote of his:

No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.

Cal Newport

His point is that to do the kind of breakthrough work that makes a significant difference to society, we need focused time and effort. And that’s not easy in a culture addicted to distractions. Newport offers a wealth of solutions in the book, but one of my favorites is this.

Because distraction is so strong, we can’t beat it by trying to contain it. That’s why the approach many promote of carving out say, a day a week, for focused work with no social media rarely succeeds in the long run. That’s like telling an alcoholic to not drink one day a week. You don’t overcome addictions that way.

A better way to do focused work

Instead, Newport suggests a rather radical flipping of that process. Instead of carving out time in your week for focused work, instead, think of your week as being all about focus. Then, create small windows within each day for distraction. For example, as much as you can, arrange your schedule so that you refuse to go online or check your phone except every two hours and then for only 15 minutes. Be ruthless in sticking to this schedule. If you need to look something up online for the focused work you’re doing, wait until your two hours are up. If you absolutely can’t proceed without that information, at least wait five minutes. That way you’re training your brain not to give into the addiction pathology. You’re forcing yourself to at least pause before you automatically go online.

If you don’t do something dramatic like this, distraction will kick in. As an addiction, that means our brains have become trained to default to distraction whenever we’re agitated, bored or semi-engaged in something else. You need to break those habits of distraction and this reorienting your schedule is one way to do that.

Since reading Deep Work, I’ve tried this approach. I haven’t always been successful (addictions die hard), but when I stick to it and orient my day around focused time with distraction breaks rather than the other way round, the results have been dramatic. I get far more done and I haven’t missed out on any emergency emails, Slack messages or tweets that I just couldn’t live without.

What you may be missing most

I realize this last suggestion doesn’t relate directly to boredom. But it is a powerful way of breaking free of the addiction of distraction. So is embracing boredom. I highly recommend giving both a try. For when you do, you begin to realize how much you’ve been missing in your attempt not to miss out on anything.

If you haven’t already, check out the overview of this three-part series on the three things we avoid that we may most need, as well as the specific entries on suffering and failure.

 

The secret to making something great

The secret to making something great: The Great Works

Great work like this doesn’t happen by accident

The secret to making something great isn’t really a secret. It’s just something we tend to forget or chose to ignore.

Until we can’t any longer…

*******

Last month my wife and I helped our youngest son move into his dorm to start life at a new university. He’s in the film program there and for orientation, that department invited the new students and their parents to tour the studio and to hear from various professors.

One of the faculty relayed to the students the secret to making something great. He didn’t build it up as some earth-shattering revelation. He merely noted the following:

Exceptional people, those who produce the best work in their fields, tend to do the work no one else is willing to do and to work even when they don’t feel like it.

Ugh. This secret to making something great hit home. His words made me realize that I do want to make great work. But too often I prefer to do what others do and make my creative efforts mostly when I’m in the mood.

Beyond what he said, however, lies a deeper question, perhaps the underlying secret to making something great:

What do I — what do you — want more: Comfort or our best work?

Great work requires hard work. It’s that simple.

It’s just not easy.

Do the work no one else is willing to do and work even when you don’t feel like it.

Let’s go do some great work.

 

5 ways to improve your curiosity

Improve your curiosity: curious cat

Curiosity may have killed the cat (a curious phrase) but here’s the good news: You’re not a cat.

Why improve your curiosity? The long answer

Want to improve your curiosity? You may wonder why you need to.

The long answer is that curiosity is critical to innovation, improved processes and outcomes, greater discoveries, more creativity and better learning.

I heard a recent interview with an educational expert. She was critiquing our reliance on standardized testing. The interviewer eventually asked what alternatives are there to our current standardized tests. The response? Measure the single factor that contributes most to a person’s success in any job: Measure (and apparently there are ways to do this) their desire to learn.

If a person loves to learn she or he can succeed in any field. Why? Because that person will seek out and acquire the knowledge and skills needed. And guess what is at the root of this love of learning? Curiosity.

I told you it was the long answer.

The short answer

The short answer, at least to me, is this: curiosity makes life more interesting and without it, travel simply isn’t as much fun.

For me, curiosity turns everything into a quest to learn more. An exploration. A search of discovery. I find that when I’m curious, just about anything can be interesting. The world becomes one giant mystery just waiting to be solved.

Improve your curiosity in these five ways

So if curiosity is such a good thing, how might you cultivate or improve your curiosity? Try these five exercises:

  1. Learn to create space for curiosity.I’m starting with this important but often overlooked reality: Curiosity requires margins. When I’m stressed and preoccupied, I have zero interest in exploring anything new. Learn to create time just to wander and then to focus on something that interests you.
  2. Be just a little bit curious. Rather than attempting to go through a whole day in a curious mindset, take just 15 minutes to note what normally goes unnoticed. Pay attention to as many things as you can. Scab widely. But then – and this is the key to keep from being overwhelmed with data – go deep. Let go of those things or ideas that don’t grab you. Your goal isn’t just to be aware, but to use that as an entry point to becoming more curious about those things that interest and delight you.
  3. Be curious about what makes you curious. This is a great way to explore your deeper passions and interests, sometimes ones that you may not even be aware of. Your curiosity type will affect this to some degree, but ask yourself why some items, situations, people and thoughts excite you more than others. Pursue those and see where they lead. This is an important form of mindfulness: being aware of what piques your curiosity is something most of us never consider.
  4. Let your curiosity push you further. Don’t stop with your first question. Instead ask, “What’s the more interesting question behind the initial one? What’s the deeper curiosity behind the surface curiosity?”
  5. Make a choice to choose to learn, to explore, to discover. And then do so in a focused way. Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media can make us curious, but too often in only a wandering, even distracted way. I can waste a lot of time in useless curiosity or invest five minutes exploring a subject that deeply satisfies me. It’s an important choice we don’t always realize we have.

I once told a friend I wasn’t a detail-oriented person. He laughed. “We’re all detail-oriented in areas that matter to us.” He was right. Find those areas. Focus on those areas. Be curious about those areas and soon, you’ll not only be asking better questions. You’ll improve your curiosity.

And even more important, you’ll be discovering better answers and being curious as to what lies beyond those.

 

Design is…

Design is…what, exactly?

The question of what design is may not be one that keeps you up at night. But it is one that matters. As we move more and more into what author Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind as the “Conceptual Age” (which follows the Agricultural, Industrial and Information Ages) we’re all affected by design. And when I say “design” I’m not referring simply to graphic design or aesthetic functions.

To better understand what design is, take a look at the following graphic. It’s from Warren Berger’s excellent (but quirkily titled – I can never remember it when trying to tell others) book on the subject, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People.

Design is from CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People

As the above definitions show, design:

  • is hard to nail down,
  • applies to problem solving and planning, not just art-related work,
  • is something that all of us can do.

Let me comment on just three of my favorite definitions and look at how these apply to travel.

Design is “The art of making something better, beautifully.

Joe Duffy’s definition contains two key components: better and beautiful. Great design improves the function or use of something. But it can also improve the overall experience. With travel, we can “design” our trips by making decisions to choose wise risk over playing it safe, to stay present when everything inside us wants to shut down due to too much newness or to seek out what is beautiful even in places that, on the surface, may not seem that way.

Design is “The introduction of intention into human affairs.”

Michael Glaser’s definition reminds us that our best experiences – even the ones that seem accidental – usually involve some form of intentionality. For example, once when traveling on my own in Switzerland, I met a young man on a train who ended up inviting me to stay with his family for several days in the Interlaken region. I could never have planned on meeting him but I was intentional about being open to connecting with everyone I met on that train. And because of that mindset, that led to a conversation that led to an invitation that led to an amazing weekend with a local family.

Design is “Hope made visible.”

Brian Collins’ definition captures well the aspirational nature of good design. Great designers don’t focus only on function or even aesthetics. They seek to make the world better, one product, service or experience at a time. Our travel can do the same when we focus our trips on what we can do for, and bring to, others. “Hope made visible,” however, isn’t limited to just what we do on a trip or even to design.

It’s a great definition for travel itself.

 

Creators, innovators and a meaningful trip – Part 1

The meaning of a trip is not measured by distance or duration. The true significance of a meaningful trip lies in the difference it makes in your life long after you return.

*******

The contest was simple: for any and all creators and innovators, create an object made from recycled materials that could be used to ride a wave. Vissla, the surf apparel company sponsoring the contest, provided a deadline, a vague reference to prizes and some brief guidelines regarding posting your submission on Instagram. That was all they stated.

That was all my son Connor, 17, needed.

So began the journey.

*******

Some trips are discrete entities in themselves. They have a clear beginning and end. You go, you come back. End of story.

Other journeys consist of multiple ventures, a collection of small trips we may not even think of as being part of a larger narrative until later when we look back and realize the inter-connectedness of the adventure.

Connor’s journey began not with a meaningful trip but with a series of short forays into an industrial park a 15-minute drive from our home. His objective: obtain a number of wooden pallets that could be foraged to produce a small surfboard, a paipo to be precise, more like a wooden version of a Boogie Board. He found the appropriate pallets, dissected them, harvested the best parts and created a small wonder.

A meaningful trip: The Octo as a longboardNot content to make a common paipo, Connor spent weeks working out the details for an innovative approach to his board. His vision was a surf and turf affair: A longboard complete with wooden wheels and trucks (the supporting pieces that hold the axels) which converted to a paipo. Ride it to the beach, pop off the wheels, unfold the top, tighten the bolts and out into the waves you go. Brilliant. At least in theory.

The second small trip occurred when Connor needed to test out his creation and video it for the Creators and Innovators competition submission. We live in the Seattle area. And yes, you can surf in the Seattle area. You just need to wait for a large container ship to sail down the Puget Sound so you catch the waves of its wake. Seriously. Some people do that. For the rest of us, we head a few hours south and west to the Pacific Coast.

A meaningful trip: Connor and the Octo in paipo modeOn the morning the day before the contest submission was due, Connor headed out to the beach with me in tow (after all, he needed a cameraman to record his test). We didn’t get far before the math set in: This was a Friday. I had a conference call at 2:00 p.m. Given a later departure than planned, we’d have about 25 minutes once we arrived at the beach for Connor to don his wetsuit, put together the longboard, ride and video that, convert it to the paipo and then video him surfing on it. Not enough time we realized. Enter Plan B.

Instead of the ocean, we headed to a beach on the Puget Sound less than a half hour from home. Connor got his wetsuit on, assembled the board and then – Action! I videoed as he rode the board about 20 feet in the beach parking lot and then…snap. One of his wooden trucks broke. Thankfully, we had enough video for the submission (and Connor later made a design change to improve the truck). I then filmed him walking to the beach, converting the longboard into a paipo and heading out into the water.

The problem was, the Puget Sound makes a great harbor precisely because it rarely gets large waves. No worries. I filmed Connor as he paddled and splashed furiously in the water. It may not work as a scene from Endless Summer but it was enough. We had what we needed.

He edited the footage and made the submission in time. You can see the more detailed version of his video below. “Octo,” by the way, is the name he gave it based on the octopus graphic he created for the board.

And then he waited.

Until the day he received an email.

To be continued…

 

 

10 reasons why paying attention matters

The value of paying attention

Not far from my house sits a field. A small trail runs through it. I rarely see anyone on it because the trail, like the field, is both ordinary and out of the way. The other day, as my wife and I walked our dog through this field, I was struck by the beauty there, suddenly aware of the stunning flowers that I rarely notice. It made me wonder.

Why do I let the world around me fade into a blur of familiarity and under-appreciation? Usually it is because I’m too busy, preoccupied  or simply apathetic. I let the cares of life blind me to the joys of it. But on this day I decided not to miss out on the little details that add so much to life.

What follows are 10 reasons why paying attention matters. Not in some abstract, philosophical way, but to you and me personally. I’m accompanying each reason with a photo I made in that field, a reminder to all of us of the beauty that lies around us if we but take time to notice.

Paying attention - Foxglove

 1. Paying attention adds value to others.

It used to be that money was our most valuable commodity. Then it became time. Now? It’s our attention. We give it so rarely to others. But when we pay attention to people, it shows we value them. Not for their words or the cleverness of their comments, but for who they are.

 

Paying attention - Oregon Grape

 2. Paying attention adds value to you.

A client told me that he reminds his sales people all the time to, “Be more interested than you are interesting.” In other words, pay attention and listen to your customer rather than showing how fascinating you are. For when you do, they notice and appreciate it. Best of all, you learn so much more when you listen than when you talk. And that makes you wiser.

 

Paying attention

3. Paying attention enhances your creativity.

Last time we looked at how creativity is this combination of collecting, connecting and sharing. Simply put, the more you notice, the more you collect. You gather a greater amount of raw material for creative ideas. And the more you collect, the more you’re able to make connections that others don’t. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings compares collecting and connecting to working with LEGOs: “The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.” Read her insightful piece on this here.

 

Paying attention - Red Hot Poker

4. Paying attention provides focus.

Rather than filling your mind with needless worries, pay attention to your surroundings. Concentrate on useful matters and sharpen your observation skills. Even if your looking around produces no aha discoveries this time, you’ve built your capacity to focus and observe for the next time.

 

Why paying attention matters: California Poppy

 5. Paying attention gives you purpose.

When you go out into the world noticing, every trip becomes an adventure. Even a neighborhood walk can become a treasure hunt for what is new, interesting or useful. You’re never bored when you’re open and looking.

 

Paying attention: Dandelion

6. Paying attention fosters gratitude.

Probably the most important aspect of paying attention is that we value what we notice. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to virtually all the important things in life that we simply cease to appreciate. I guarantee that if you begin to give your full attention to even the most common object or familiar person and seek to see it or them as for the first time, you can’t help but appreciate them more.

 

Paying attention to wonder: Poppy stem7. Paying attention reveals wonder.

We plan expensive trips to pursue novelty and wonder without realizing that wonder is all around us. Paying attention makes us aware of the mysteries of people, places and things that, if displayed in a museum would likely awe us. But familiarity reduces wonder to the level of “so what?” The photo above may not be wonder to you, but I’d never realized before that poppies leave this little ring or cup on the stem after the petals have fallen. It may not rival the aurora borealis, but wonder comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

Paying attention - coreopsis

8. Paying attention encourages curiosity.

I didn’t care about any of these flowers’ names until I made photos of them. Now, I want to know more about them. I also want to understand why the flower above has water drops on its petals whereas no other flowers around it are wet. The more curious you are, the more you will likely see and the more you see, the more connections you will make.

 

Paying attention - Primrose

9. Paying attention expands your perspective.

When you pay attention, you see a different side of things. You make unlikely connections you didn’t before. For example, in the photo above, I never before realized how the petals look exactly like crumpled paper or fabric. It makes me want to try out some new art projects based on this in materials I’ve barely worked with before. In short, paying attention broadens your possibilities.

 

Paying attention - Daisy with bugs

10. Paying attention reminds us that little things matter.

I used to think that with all the big issues going on in the world, why bother paying attention to the small things? But if I can pull away from the distractions that hammer me, I come to realize that the small things ARE the big things. The taste of a favorite food. The smell of fresh coffee. The touch of a loved one’s hand or the sound of their voice. Another sunrise. Another breath. Paying attention helps us value the small moments and realize that they matter far more than we normally realize.