About two years ago, I took a week long entertainment Sabbath in order to loosen the evil grip of information overload. I made my declaration of war in this one paragraphed piece and after licking my wounds shared tales of the battle a week later here. Fast forward to the present day, you can tell that this audacious adventure has not successfully spilled over. My week in the mountains did not translate into an inspired overflow of creative output. I have not garnered world-wide acclaim, best seller status or wealth. To the contrary, I am now a prolific status updater whom I would like to believe gives off the vibe of being on the verge of something great, at least.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have done some work I am really proud of especially in what I would like to call ‘moments of glory’. But sadly, these efforts are not enough. In this regard, most of us are aware that when detrimental exceptions become the norm, it is our way of life with the problem. A person with intent on telling stories and helping others share their own must do everything possible to make this happen right? Well, it seems my love for community and sharing is stifled by an even greater fear of actual implementation. ‘But Daniel, just the other month you were talking about not dying and what not’. That is true, I have the right religion (as Gary Vaynerchuck calls it) down packed but I am still battling a few demons here and there. Albeit very stubborn buggers.
I often ask myself, ‘What’s on the other side of a complete book or project?’ Is it more books/projects? Or is it happiness? I obviously wouldn’t know. This is so because I’ve never written one word of a book but I do know what not writing one looks and feels like. It sucks. And this applies to other projects like my podcast and the general usefulness of this blog as well. When I am not doing what I need to in order to fulfill my mission I am attacked by bouts of anxiety. However, instead of doing the thing that I feel must be done, I opt for the following crutches;
- Being a bird on the wire
This year, Prince and Muhammad Ali died. Beyoncé released a collection of songs about infidelity and Taylor Swift can still date who she wants. Apart from that, people are still outraged by Donald Trump. Advocates for an equal society that tolerates all sexual preferences, races and beliefs are even angrier seeing as they don’t tolerate intolerant people. Locally, there is a lot of activity in the political sphere; load shedding, water problems and traffic still retain a permanent fixture in our threads.
Thanks to the nifty gadget in my pocket, I have access to a lot of rarely urgent news. That is, things I can’t do anything about except form an opinion. I get worked up about the things my social media friends get worked up about. Unlike people with type-A personalities, I have a very limited amount of energy to be exerted and when I get sucked into the merits of Boity’s SAMAs outfit I am left drained. Although I justify my constant presence on these screen platforms as a form of research, my tunnel vision when I arrive is blinding.
Therefore, tired and cranky after a hard day of twork I find that I don’t have time for any making of things. The social media isn’t to blame though. The easiest option between creating and consuming is obvious. I recently learnt that the amygdala a prehistoric part of our brain responsible for helping us identify danger or conserve energy still operates like we are apes with bad periphery vision. What this means is that the prospect of sitting for hours with a creative problem is not biologically attractive. That is why the option of talking about how other people solve their creative problems is easier to handle. Further, we still associate failure in an everyday effort with immediate death. In the past, if you don’t identify the predator in your midst you’re dead. These days the predator is in the back of our heads. Go figure.
With increased enhancements to the user experience on social media platforms, the attention engineers at Facebook and twitter find numerous ways to keep me on the loop because it’s their job. Deep work (as Carl Newport calls it) is replaced with the novelty of consuming constant new information. Before you know it, its 3 am and you can’t start work on your magnum opus before you rest. Next day, repeat. In the words of Seth Godin, twitter is not meant to make you a better person, it is meant to make twitter money.
It seems I have discovered ways to abuse social media to my detriment. Instead of using it as a tool for connecting with old friends and interesting people and ideas, it has become a crutch for my avoidance of doing the work I must. With the way human brains are set up and the big bad entrepreneurs MO it seems the world and my lesser self are conspiring to keep me sad ;( boohoo.
- Honoring the nights watch
I recently made a list of my favorite lead characters from some of the most popular television shows ever created. In compiling my list, I highlighted their main attributes and what I think makes them special. It turns out, as being human goes, these starring’s are very similar. Characteristic of most of these protagonists is a dark past, a prominent vice such as alcoholism or infidelity and an inalienable focus on their work.
I immediately understood why I identified with Don Draper from Mad Men. He is a dark, mysterious man with a fondness for solitude and he works in advertising where ideas on storytelling reign supreme. With my friend Bornwell’s help I got access to over three seasons of the show which I promptly binge watched.
With every episode, I started feeling like Don, more so because that happens to be my dad’s name. Patriarchal fixations, anyone? But something was not right, I am not Don Draper and watching the show does not make me an ad man. However, the rush of living vicariously through the portrayal of a high achieving Renaissance man felt stronger than my drive to reach my own milestones.
I have also seen this happen with many other people I know. My friends love watching Suits and Luther because they see a part of themselves in these characters. They see an interesting, brave version of themselves whom instead of going out to emulate click forward to the next episode. This falls back to the idea of perfect preparers, a concept I learnt from Neil Strauss. Watching shows makes me feel like I’m getting an extra edge on everyone else which could probably help me in my future endeavors.
In essence, I am trying to mitigate the risk of living. By watching shows, reading more than I am doing etc. I am fundamentally hiding behind a cloak of preparation. It’s like I’m Preparing to consume more than I create with the hope of one day making something that matters.
- Freezing to death, and more
By now the drill is clear; my fear is masked by these activities in my life. Like how I readily find time to chill instead of write. Or how I conjure tension with people and get preoccupied with that instead of create more art.
This is not to say that I don’t understand the importance of decompressing. I think one cannot live a life of constant seriousness and be ultimately happy. There must be room for spontaneity and nothingness.
However, because I have mastered the art of relaxation without a doubt, I decided to also find ways to ensure I leave more than a trail of distraction by mastering the art of productivity as well.
These are some of the useful tools and hacks I have found and I am learning to utilize;
- Work space
I was always under the illusion that productive people who can’t work anywhere they are placed are just lazy. But environment matters. Because our minds thrive best on routine, setting up a place specifically meant for work will prime you to experience the full extent of the task at hand. Therefore, writing from bed, the toilet or on the bus might work for some time but you might not experience deep work. Deep work is unlike live tweeting. This is the type of work that requires all your mental faculties and has the highest ability to make a difference in yours and other people’s lives. If you are unable to find a space in your cramped up flat or noisy homestead, you can visit Bongohive, where they rent out spaces for a reasonable monthly fee.
After finding a good space to operate from the temptation is to binge work and make sure the whole day is utilized in productive stupor. This might be retrogressive. We all know that feeling of having new perspectives in the morning with a noticeable deterioration toward the evening right? In Zambia, especially after eating nshima, we kind of shut down and are not as productive as we think we possibly could be. This is very true for me and I was especially delighted to come across Paul Grahams essay on working routines. The founder of Y combinator states that it might be prudent to have your day divided into two parts; the maker and manager schedules. The morning is dedicated to creating new and meaningful work and after lunch the emphasis is admin stuff like meetings, emails and such. Of course, circumstances vary and people might not have the leisure of setting such a pace for their lives but I tried this ever since I quit my government job and it has been great so far.
I personally don’t know anyone who meditates. In fact, I always ask any one I get a chance to, whether they practice mindfulness. I recently started with guided meditation sessions I downloaded off Tara Brachs site. I know this sounds woo woo but it has been considerably helpful. On days that I meditate I feel in control of the day and I am not as reactive as I am most times. There’s a certain level of gratitude I approach the day with which I find particularly useful. I am still exploring this practice; however, I have come to identify prayer has similar benefits. Whatever it is; prayer or meditation, it is important to practice some form of mindfulness. It definitely helps me!
- Screen time
To regulate my screen time I have abandoned attempts to use willpower and maturity. I use Screen time an app meant for children to make sure I stay on track. I allocate a certain amount of time to be online and I can’t go beyond an allotted period. Apps like stay focused help as well and it is also great if you have a third party enter a password that you won’t be able to crack. Mobile devices are the devil, don’t get behind them.
We all want to achieve and it’s important to be more deliberate about this. Life is fleeting we all know but it’s the moments we make count that matter. In the end we all die but for the sake of our culture as humanity, I think it is better to leave beautiful traces of generosity and not a trail of distraction.
How do you avoid distractions?