Distractions and Creativity

Cats creative
My “coworkers” do their best to distract me.

Last year I wrote about how my increase in productivity and efficiency since getting a second computer monitor. I continue to love my multiple-monitor setup, but I’ve noticed that it–and my computer–are actually quite counterproductive for a specific subset of my job: creativity.

Part of my job involves designing and developing board games, so I spend a fair amount of time brainstorming and conceptualizing games. I do this with pencil and paper.

For a while, I did this in front of my computer, e-mail on one screen, web browser on the other. But I noticed something: I wasn’t able to get into the creative “zone.” You know, that magical place where ideas are flowing and your synapse gaps are firing at full throttle.

It took me a while to realize what was happening. While stooped over a piece of paper, pencil in hand, I might get a few ideas down on paper. But before I could get into a good rhythm, I’d get an e-mail or an alert of some kind, and I’d be pulled out of the creative session. When I returned–even just a few seconds later–it took me a few minutes to get back on track.

It’s like if you’re trying to fall into a deep sleep, but someone pokes you in the eye every time you get close.

I tried moving away from my desk, and that helped, but my curiosity would get the better of me every time I got an e-mail. So eventually I decided that I needed to commit to creative time by putting my computer to sleep.

All of this may seem super obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. The results, however, were incredible. I finally found myself slipping into creative zones. I can’t speak to the quality of work I produced, but it’s more of a feeling–you know when you’re in the zone, and I realize that it was a lot easier to sustain than I had remembered, as long as there wasn’t the distraction of my computer present.

In fact, I found that I didn’t need huge chunks of time to be creative and imaginative. I had convinced myself that I needed 2-3 hours to produce anything remotely interesting, but without distractions, I can churn out a ton of ideas in an hour, sometimes less.

Now, I have the advantage of working from home. I can’t even imagine trying to get creative work done in an office where you’re constantly interrupted or distracted. How do you do it? How do people even go to Starbucks to write? I can’t imagine that being a good environment for creativity, but I guess everyone’s different.

6 thoughts on “Distractions and Creativity”

  1. For me, nothing stimulates creativity like having just been exposed to a massive amount of stimuli and then suddenly having them removed (like coming home from a games meetup, or meeting up with friends). The brain is active and full of new thoughts, and ideas flow freely.

    But (as your blog post suggests), for the ideas to really flow properly, ALL the stimuli have to be removed, or you end up diverting your effort into non-priorities, like posting comments on interesting blogs on the internet or something. 🙂

    • That’s a really interesting observation. I’ve noticed the same thing but haven’t been able to put my finger on it, so I appreciate you putting it into words. Similarly (and as mentioned recently on the blog by another reader), I find that my creative juices can start forming if I’m listening to a podcast about games. I’ll find that I’ve stopped actually listening to the podcast and am off in another world, which is a bit counterintuitive to the whole idea of distractions being bad. I think the difference, as you mention, is when you’re actually ready to put pen to paper, those distractions need to be completely gone.

  2. Creative time in an office can be hard, but I find that headphones can do wonders! Even if I am just listening to instrumental music very faintly, it not only blocks out other noise but signals to others that I am in the zone. But, sometimes, I have to go for a walk or bike ride or work from home to really get there. But yes to non-screen time!

    • Headphones! That’s very clever. I like how they signal to other people that you’re focused on something.

  3. Maybe your dual-monitor experiment is proof that creativity and efficiency are trade-offs, substitutes, as if our minds are wired for one or the other but not both simultaneously.

    Some writer friends have told me that they need a noisy place, like a Starbucks, in order to “get people right”. Writing is essentially an introverted activity, especially when the narration is focused on thoughts and feelings, first-person looking inside as well as outside and being self-referential, so the ability to immerse oneself in something not only external but outside of one’s control is invaluable. Otherwise, the characters seem to just be an extension of themselves instead of having a life of their own. And you’ve probably read books where every character has the same personality – or worse, each character follows their own stereotype. People are nuanced, and that nuance is tough to get when one looks only in the mirror in a controlled environment.

    Let’s turn this around to you, Jamey. Where does your creativity come from? What sets your mind abuzz in a useful way?

    • Jeremy: Absolutely, I think writing about people requires one to interact with and encounter people. Those observations don’t have to happen simultaneously as you write, though.

      My creativity comes from my willingness and eagerness to CREATE. 🙂 My mind is set abuzz by a lot of different things, depending on the topic. Consuming media (books, games, movies, podcasts) often gets me to start thinking.


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