The words of John Bender (he bends the rules! Get it?) in The Breakfast Club come up when I think of either the word “social” or the word “demented.” I’m not in the general habit of enshrining John Hughes lines, but sometimes they stick like duct tape to butt cheeks.
One thing about the city, you don’t lack for activity. Not all of it is good to participate in, to be sure. But there are things to do. That is, things to do outside one’s home.
Something about artists and never ending projects: either we’re working on them, or we’re talking about working on them. Procrastinating is it’s own art form, and Things To Do™ are sometimes the barrier, rather than the path.
With none of this in mind, I attended two social events this past week, rather than my preferred zero. It’s not that I don’t have a good time while I’m in them, it’s that I know I’ll want to leave to go back home to read or study or create sooner than most of the people in attendance.
The other drawback is I can’t leave things like this blog to the last minute, because I’ll likely be home very late and need to work the day job the next day. So being social takes over the art stuff. It’s a strange paradox, wanting to do the former even though it means pushing aside the latter. More of the fear coming through. The best course is to work the rule of 5 ASAP, and get even a little done. That’s the goal for the next social event, and if I remember, I’ll report how successful (or demented) it was.
Indulging your distractions can be a comfort, especially if anxiety or fear is creeping up on you. But since it can easily turn into an additive substitute for doing difficult things, I’m trying to balance my fears and my determination this year.
I’ll allow myself a bit of distraction, but only if I’ve started something: drawing, writing, class work. Usually, if I’ve started, my fear melts and I tend to keep working for a while.
This goes back to the notion that we need to be making amazing things. No. We just need to make things, and some will have the opportunity to become amazing. We need to give ourselves permission to do some bad work, and let time do the rest. Make some terrible drawings, call on that kid energy, when it didn’t matter a damn you didn’t know what you were doing. Make the work, balance the fear, keep moving.
Sometimes you just get obsessed. Sometimes this is flow, the zen state, in the zone, and your work is going well. But sometimes it might just be fascination and the puzzle of whatever you’re focused on, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a long thread on social media that keeps going in circles. It’s day-to-day coverage of politics.
It’s rarely necessary, but it’s addictive. If it keeps you from working on your thing, it’s probably better to treat it like a momentary thought in meditation practice. Notice, then let it go.
It does sound easier than it seems. The secret to meditation practice, though, is that you aren’t judging the distraction. You’re just noticing it exists. It’s okay that it comes back. We’re patient.
Acknowledge the obsession, then turn back to the thing you make. Repeat as needed.
Sometimes it’s not easy. I feel tired, cranky, wishing I could get back home to keep working on projects, or more likely, reading a ton of articles and playing Minecraft. But these things are indulgent acts of self-comfort which, while soothing, aren’t very fulfilling.
Does that make sense? Acts that punch my dopamine button are addictive, and the feeling is a habit my monkey mind wants to keep getting. They’re easy, like getting drunk But the stuff that uplifts me more deeply, that gives me an abiding sense of satisfaction and accomplishment are hard. At least, they’re hard to start.
Similarly, withdrawing into my thoughts and flying on the autopilot of well-worn routines at work is easy. Engaging and supporting people around me is hard. But the former just leads to despair and ongoing dislike of my job. The latter can sustain me through a difficult shift and beyond.
It’s just like working on your creative thing: distraction is easy and a quick path to fun, but it doesn’t nourish you. It’s often harder to start working on creative work, but it nourishes you deeply.
Sometimes it’s obvious. If you’ve spent some time building ideas and skills, you understand how deeply enjoyable and satisfying it is to exercise your creative muscles. But the barrier between that and getting started on any project or practice is often high and wide. We aren’t helping shrink it by making and consuming ever more targeted ways of distraction and passive entertainment.
Those things are plenty satisfying and enjoyable too. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be so attracted to them. But they’re a different level of satisfaction and reward. They’re rarely deep, and sometimes frustratingly addictive. Creation, making, crafting are fulfilling and supportive in essential ways, but it can be hard to see that from the other side of the work.
It can help to keep that in mind before we start any specific activity that is inherently distracting. What seems hard in the beginning melts into satisfaction and flow as we do it. The things that are easy indulgences up front quickly become draining and even regrettable, sometimes. Try to remember that just starting a project or your daily practice is often enough to get over the hump, up the metaphorical stairs to a fulfilling place beyond. That’s worth upholding as a critical moment in your day.
I read articles to procrastinate more than any other activity. It’s cheap, time-consuming, and allows me to justify it—with no actual verity—by telling myself it’s research of some kind. Just today a few things I read were
Whether the game “Chinese whispers,” as “telephone” is known in the U.K., is racist (people were mostly unsure, but it is)
The Wikipedia page for the Tom Servo character on MST3K
…and several other things.
It’s definitely a problem. But possibly a problem I can get a handle on by being more aware of the habit. Chipping away at procrastination is an ongoing practice of reminding my monkey mind trivia can wait for breaks.
But the sentiment of the rest of his monologue (followed by an extended version of “Brazil”) is valuable. Sometimes you have to distract yourself in order to find your own happy moments. If that’s mambo, well, good. If it’s your work, even better. Let your art take over.
I talked about it on the most recent podcast, but a new study published by Lancaster University seems to show a significant detrimental effect on creativity while listening to music (here’s the link).
This is hard to take, especially since I use music to feel as if I’m focusing on the task, whether painting or writing. I’ll have to make an effort to keep the silence going—provided I don’t need to drown out something more distracting around me.
But in a Pollyannic sense, this is good if it gets me treating music more significantly as a medium, rather than something I use as backdrop for other things. It’s not that music can’t enhance an experience, but creation seems to be a different territory, and better left to explore without soundtrack.
I’ve been trying an experiment to stay less stressed out and anxious—or at least less angsty, which is never too good as an indulgence. Namely, I’ve been shoving news to the end of the week.
Contemporary news has become wrapped up in the immediacy of its fastest delivery systems. Television was pretty fast, but Internet is even faster, and it encourages sensationalism, salacity, and recklessness.
Long form journalism is valuable and worthy of time. Outraged of the Day, breaking news, and gossip aren’t much. These things suck up and waste time. Without a huge audience, there’s not much point in staying constantly informed. A week seems a good amount to catch up with. Usually, the immediate picture has resolved into something else, sharpened or abandoned as the case may be.
Results so far are promising. Let’s see how the addiction feelings go after a few more weeks.
Unless it’s been boring for a good while, then it’s probably time to dump it for something else. But I found I tend to start skimming when I’m not really focused on reading a book.
One thing that helps me fall back into a narrative or idea structure is to consciously slow down, wringing nuance and understanding from each word until I forget everything but what I’m reading. This helps re-focus, and if you’re not getting lost, metaphorically, you’re Somewhere Else.
Now apply the same principle to your work. Slow down. See if that lets you re-focus and lose yourself.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.