On a recent episode of Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam talks to Cal Newport about the discoveries he shares in his book Deep Work. They discuss navigating distraction in a world that’s constantly disrupting our ability to focus. From checking email to checking social media, there are limitless ways for us to get stuck in a cycle of distraction. What’s more, we’ve built a culture that accepts if not rewards bouncing from task to task throughout the day.
Cal Newport makes a case for scheduling time to do deep work, the kind of focused, distraction-free sessions that allow us to get into the zone and play with one idea. He also talks about the benefits of working in a private space versus open spaces. As it turns out, while open workspaces allow for greater connection and collaboration to happen, they tank the positive kinds of productivity that we all need to move our work forward.
Of course, while our workspaces and schedules are an important part of our creative process, there’s more to showing up clear and focused than just eliminating physical and technological distractions. More and more I am paying attention to my body’s needs when it comes to doing my best work. From getting enough sleep to eating in a way that feels right for me to regular exercise, the health of my creative practice is directly affected by my physical wellbeing.
In another episode of Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir about the research they share in their book Scarcity. Their findings were not surprising. When people are working with less than they need, they become fixated on the thing they lack. This, in turn, influences their behaviour so they make decisions that will fulfill that need in the short-term instead of in a way that’s beneficial long-term.
From downtime to food to money to interpersonal connection, when these things feel like they’re in short supply, it can trigger a survival response. This makes it difficult to focus on anything that isn’t the shortest, fastest way to get from A to B. Layer that on top of Cal Newport’s practice of deep work, and there can be no immersive creative work sessions when our minds are preoccupied with meeting our basic human needs.
As a long-time creative, I learned this the hard way. At various points in my life, I’ve struggled with feeling like I didn’t have enough downtime, food, money, and interpersonal connection. And every time there was a noticeable lack in my life, my creative work suffered in a big way. I couldn’t focus and do the deep work I needed to do. Which is why I now make taking care of my overall wellbeing a priority. Because when I’m well, my creative work is too.
So, what do you need to keep yourself and your creative work well?