Many of the resources you use to create are online, like reference photos or tutorials. But they’re next to a lot of things that distract you, like news feeds or notifications. This can be difficult, because all the time spent on an upvote, stream, or swipe is time not spent on the things you intentionally care about.
Here are 5 ways to waste less time online and protect your creativity.
It seems like every time I get on Facebook it’s like walking into a room and forgetting what I came in there for. It’s not surprising; apps like Facebook are part of the attention economy and very smart people are trying to get me to spend a lot of time there. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt warned how dangerous this cycle of giving and seeking attention can be in a 2019 TED Talk. It interrupts the creative cycle called “flow.”
“When I’m acting, I get so focused that I’m only paying attention to one thing,” said Levitt. “My attention … narrows. And everything else in the world, anything else that might be bothering me or might grab my attention, it all goes away, and I’m just … there. And that feeling, that is what I love, that, to me, is creativity.”
If you’re like me, opening Facebook, Twitter, or Steam is almost muscle memory at this point. So log out of the site to add an extra few seconds to the process. Those extra few seconds will let you ask yourself whether you actually need to be there, and give you an extra opportunity to stay in the flow.
This may also mean deleting or offloading the apps. Logging out on your computer is no help if you can log on with a few taps of your phone screen.
It’s not just for airplanes any more. Using “Airplane Mode” – turning off WiFi and data – allows you to work in a distraction-free zone for a time at the flip of a switch.
My friend Nat and I recently reminisced about AOL Online CDs and how the number of free hours they offered rose over time. “The early 2000’s were a time when you went to the Internet for a specific thing and then turned it off,” he said. Use the same approach with your creative habitat. Retrieve what you’ll need, and then lock out everything else. For example, if you’re trying to learn to play a song, download it instead of streaming it.
Pro tip: once Youtube videos have buffered, you can play and replay them as long as you don’t refresh the browser page.
Set up playlists
It’s possible that your creative pursuit leaves you free to listen to whatever you’d like. In that case, “manage” that resource as little as possible.
If you choose to listen to music, choose music that helps motivate or focus your time. For me, that’s artists like Andy McKee and Antoine Dufour. Whatever you choose, don’t skip anything. Make it easier by avoiding variety playlists or “stations”.
If you listen to podcasts while working, adjust the download and playback settings so you they’ll play in the best order and quantity without your intervention. For example, set news podcasts to play the one or two most recent episodes, and set narrative podcasts to play oldest first and in order.
Here’s a playlist of music that helps me focus:
Do all of this once. Then stop. The idea here is to spend as little time as possible fixing your music and more time doing the creative work you love.
Turn off your second monitor
If you’re blessed enough to have a second monitor in your workspace, recognize that you’ve made more space for both resources and distractions. If that space isn’t being taken up by a helpful resource like a reference document or a backing track, just turn the monitor off. You might be surprised how long it is before you turn it back on.
An easy thing to cut is streaming video. “A lot of people my age or younger never create without also consuming some form of media,” said Elise Parsons, writer and ceramics artist from central Ohio. “My job is to craft a well-written sentence over and over again, and I don’t know how anyone could do it with someone else talking in their ear.”
I have some hard news, friends – multitasking is mostly a myth. Doing two tasks at once, like watching a show and writing a paper, can reduce your effectiveness at both by as much as 40%, according to a 2001 study by the American Psychological Association. The exceptions to this rule make up about 2% of the population, according to research reported in Forbes magazine. Maybe you can beat those odds, but I’m betting if you turned off that monitor for a time you might find it easier to do more in the time you have.
By the way, that second monitor could just as easily be your cell phone, TV, laptop, or any other device projecting more content into your creative process. Once again, clearing distracting content from your computer is no help if you can get it back with a few taps of your phone screen.
If all of this isn’t enough, you might choose to follow the professionals in their “nuclear approach” to wasting less time online: deliberately use a less powerful device for your creative work.
George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, uses a DOS word processor to do his writing, something not even capable of connecting to the Internet. For personal writing, I’ve switched to a small RCA Viking tablet. While it can connect to the Internet, it doesn’t have the screen space or the processing power to do more than one thing at a time.
If you’re an artist using a tablet, try switching to ink and paper for warm-ups or sketches. Inktober might be a good time to try adding this habit to your creative process; I know it helped me.
This is part of a process
None of these tips is a silver bullet for procrastination – they’re tools to help you build self-discipline, not a solution in and of themselves. Much like anything worth doing, wasting less time online is a learned practice, a process of effort over time.
A creative lifestyle is an ecosystem built to protect your passion and your voice. Once you’ve built a habitat for your creativity and begun to make incremental progress oward your goals, you have to keep out the poachers like online distractions that will eat up your time and attention. It might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it.