This morning, my part of the UK was hit by the worst Atlantic storm in some years. Trees came down, houses flooded, power cables snapped, cars were crushed, trains and planes came to a standstill, and double decker buses were lifted off their wheels. It was not nice. Its over now, blazing across the county in under three hours, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
Which got me thinking, you will not be surprised to hear.
Husband and I spent most of yesterday glued to various forms of news media, trying to gauge the progress and destructive force of Storm St Jude, working out which hatches to batten down, what damage might ensue, and whether, in Husband’s case, it was sensible to cancel his 9am lecture this morning. (He did, and I think it was the right decision). The upshot of all this digital frenzy was that I didn’t get anything much done. Which was an annoying waste of a whole day. And made me think about something I had read a few days earlier:
I came across the work of Linda Stone, and in particular, her term ‘Continuous Partial Attention’, which is when we multitask cognitive functions such as talking with a friend at coffee whilst checking our email on our android under the table, surfing the internet when we are on the phone, and all those other digital things we do these days that we never used to. Linda Stone says:
“Continuous Partial Attention involves an artificial sense of constant crisis, of living in a 24/7, always-on world. It contributes to feeling stressed, overwhelmed, overstimulated and unfulfilled; It compromises our ability to reflect, to make decisions and to think creatively.”
Lindastone.net/qa/continuous-partial-attention quoted in Sharon Salzberg, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Programme for Real Happiness, Hay House 2011.
It compromises our ability … to think creatively.
Just think about that for a minute. I did.
I thought about how long I spend on Facebook every day, how many hours I lose cruising Tumblr and reading fanfics, checking my phone, watching BBC News 24. These are what Jennifer Louden calls Time Monsters, habits you fall into that eat up the spare time you have and leave you feeling rushed and stressed out because you aren’t left with enough time to do the things you really want or need to do. I have been known to lose whole weeks to my Time Monsters. Yesterday, thanks to Storm St Jude, I lost an entire day.
I’m 46! I don’t want to waste any more time!
Increasingly, I am finding that it is a luxury to switch off my phone and not look at my laptop. I don’t want it to feel like a luxury to disconnect. I want it to be the constructive core of my working life as a writer. I don’t want to have to employ some kind of app to shut me out of the internet in order to finish a story, just because I can’t resist looking at yet another iteration of the same picture of Benedict Cumberbatch.
I want the sense of calm that comes with not knowing what is happening in the outside world. The same calm I felt lying in bed this morning, listening to the wind riffling the roof tiles, blissfully ignorant of what speed it was going or when the next pulse of the storm was going to hit, courtesy of the Met Office website.
The question is, can I do this? I caught myself the other day thinking that I couldn’t write down a snatch of dialogue I had going around my head because I didn’t have my laptop open. As if a pen and paper weren’t good enough.
To be creative, in whatever art form you choose, from cookery and sewing singing, tango, writing or painting, you need time and space. You need to reflect. Being connected doesn’t give you that space.
For our own creative self-care, we need to make time to switch off.
I don’t want the stress of Continuous Partial Attention to wreck my creativity through anxiety, perceived comparison or peer pressure, or just from lack of time to create. I want to make space. Space to think more, reflect more, make more.
You can too.
1. How do you use your time? What are your chief Time Monsters? What are the digital munchers in your life?
2. Once you have identified your Time Monsters, you can decide whether you want to continue feeding them, or jettison them to make room to do the things that really make you happy, instead of just keeping boredom and despair at bay. Its nice to keep a few on standby, for days when you really are frazzled and just need to stare at the telly and not think, but that shouldn’t have to be every night. If it is, maybe you need a major rethink.
3. Consciously switch off. Turn off the telly, your phone, your lappy. Sit in an armchair and read a book, bake a cake, go for a walk, paint or garden or see friends. Do something that involves experiencing the world directly, not digitally. Use your time to think and create.
4. Do one thing at a time. Don’t surf on your phone when you are out with your pals, that’s rude. Don’t have the telly on when you are painting (a bit of inspiring music might help, but nothing you have to think about.) When you have a conversation with your mum on the phone, concentrate on her, don’t keep one eye on the news. If something is worth doing, its worth giving your whole attention to.
I’m not advocating digital purdah, believe me. The digital world has its place, but it is down to us to keep it in it. I’m just saying we need to use our time more mindfully. Which is what, from now on, I am going to try and do.