I listened with great interest to an NPR radio show recently called ‘The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online. I highly recommend the 7-minute program, as the author of The Shallows, Nicholas Carr, warns us of something I think we all need to hear. As much as we’re online–for research, for platform building, for visiting our favorite blogs (koff), for promotion of our work–we need to spend time offline too. A lot of time. Let’s put that on its own line because it’s important.
We need to spend a lot of time offline. Alone with our thoughts. Steeped in life.
Because if we don’t our brains may very well adapt to the zing and zang, the slam and bam world of the Internet, where information is processed quickly, links are readily available, and interruption is king, and forget how to think deeply. Lose the ability to concentrate on one thing and one thing only, to be contemplative. And if we do, won’t that hinder our ability to create thoughtful works?
Said Robert Siegel, host of NPR’s All Things Considered:
(The Internet) is changing the way we read and conditioning us against the very activities we associate with the acquisition of wisdom: deep reading, solitary concentration.
Nicholas Carr expanded on this thesis in the interview, citing his own problems after spending too much time online:
A few years ago I found I was losing my ability to concentrate. I’d sit down with a book or a long article, and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I’m online: check email, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page. That got me looking into what was going on and looking into the science of the brain, and how important it is to be able to pay attention.
It’s an addiction to technology that can change the way our brains process information, literally, at the cellular level, because our brains our malleable, adapting to whatever they’re exposed to. We need them to concentrate only for five minutes at a time? To richochet from email to Internet to Facebook to Twitter and back again? They will deliver. That’s what brains do.
Said Carr of the web habit:
It follows us even after we turn off our computers. So the more time we spend surfing and skimming and scanning online, and multitasking and processing lots of interruptions, the more adept we become at that mode of thinking. But at the same time, we begin to lose the capability to pay attention, to concentrate, to be contemplative and introspective.
Scary, yes, but here’s what hit home with me.
If you look at a lot of recent research on multitasking, it shows that in fact as people optimize their ability to multitask online, they become less creative in their thinking.
Less creative. Ouch.
Does this mean you should turn off the computer, invest in a nice old-fashioned typewriter? No, but it’s probably smart to keep tabs on how much of your time is going to high-speed activities every day compared to how much of your day is dedicated to the slower gears.
Set your limits. How much time can we spend online, interacting with the world of the Internet, without risking our ability to concentrate and be creative? The answer is probably an individual thing, though Carr suggests spending more time in contemplative mode than in online mode.
“If in fact we spend an hour or two online or sending text messages and then shut that off and spent three hours reading Moby Dick, that would be one thing,” he said. “I think the brain is very adept at doing both of those things.”
Know yourself. How do you work best on a daily basis?
I’ve noticed that I set the tone for a good creative day when I begin at my kitchen table, with whatever I last wrote staring up at me, a pencil in hand. I make notes, let the story take up residence in my head. Only after that ritual is over, do I turn on the computer. I can check email then, do my momma duties with WU, approve comments, Tweet a little. And then I can open up my Word document and work. I can toggle back and forth between my work and Twitter throughout the day, check in on the blog, too, but the wip is foremost in my mind. For me, starting the day off on the proverbial right foot is key to keeping technology in its place.
Aim for quality, not just quantity. One of the best posts I’ve read online lately was at Zen Habits, called The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People. “Creativity flourishes in solitude,” wrote blogger Leo Babauta. “With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.”
Seems obvious, right? Be alone with your thoughts in order to create your best story. But how often are you alone, without interruptions? And how often do you use that time for deep, creative contemplation? Consider how your quiet time compares with your offline/not-so-quiet time as well as your online time.
Recognize a problem. If you’ve noticed an upswing in your inattention and think it might be linked to your technology time, try taking a step away from it for a while. Sink into a good book. Write with a notebook and pencil in a park. Meditate if you like. Then, when you’re ready, establish new daily habits for better balance.
That’s the key: balance. Know Yourself. Set limits. Protect your mind. Protect your creative spirit.
What sets you up for your best writing days? How does technology fit into those days? What is balance to you?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Migraine Chick