A number of years ago, I stayed in a quaint cabin in Strawberry, Arizona. I remember it because when I arrived at the cabin and settled in, I was taken aback by the quiet that filled the room. I walked over to the window to let in fresh air and some noise, and to my surprise, the window was already wide open.
The silence was so profound, it actually made me uncomfortable.
After a short time, however, I came to love the silence as a reprieve from living in a bustling city. Moreover, as someone who enjoys journaling, the absence of radio, phones and every decibel of background noise helped me reconnect with myself and my thoughts and provided a huge boost to my ability to free write.
Today, we rarely—if ever—get extended moments of uninterrupted silence. Even when we are not engaged in a phone call or reading material, the miniature computer we carry in our pockets keeps us tethered to a steady stream of never-ending personal and news updates.
Admit it, we all know firsthand how a quick glance at your smartphone can turn into a 30-minute session of reacting to app icon notifications.
And once we have completed reviewing our social-media notifications, Flipboard updates, Twitter moments and Apple News, we then have any number of listening options, from hourly updates from NPR to any one of thousands of amazing podcasts.
For entrepreneurs, all of this has fueled the urge to stay ahead rather than simply staying current, a phenomenon known as FOMO, or "fear of missing out." After all, we like to be the first to "be in the know.”
Unfortunately, while we may think that this multitasking effort and constant content consumption is making us smarter and faster, the truth is that it might be doing just the opposite. Why? Because our brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with practice. And like any muscle, you need to balance your workouts with a combination of exercises—you need pull exercises as well as push exercises.
So, like any muscle, if we are always focused on information input, it becomes even more difficult to force your brain to produce any output.
One psychologist, Jonathan Smallwood, has actually measured this imbalance through research that seems to find a troubling link between distraction and creativity. Smallwood pointed out that our capacity to think creatively and consider long-term decisions are two of the important traits that have allowed us to advance and continues to "allow us to generate novel solutions to problems" and “stick to these plans for long enough to ensure that we achieve our goals.”
Smallwood’s research goes on to demonstrate that "both of these skills are related to our ability to de-couple attention from external information and focus on self-generated thoughts and feelings when the environment is not demanding. Rather than being an absent-minded lapse or a moment of idle fancy, it seems that the capacity to disengage from the outside world when the external environment is sufficiently benign reflects a skill set that is important to almost every human endeavor."
In other words, it turns out that an idle and wandering mind, once thought to be a detrimental characteristic of the unfocused, is actually one of the traits we need to encourage of one another.
Science continues to find benefits for people who devote themselves to periodic silence. The challenge these days, however, is re-teaching ourselves how to disconnect completely.
Here are a few tips to try.
1. Devote just five minutes.
Spending five minutes, in complete silence, will be more awkward than most of us think, especially if you have not done so in a while. Your instinct will be to fight and insist you are wasting time, but consider that five minutes is the same amount of time you spent watching the new Rogue One trailer twice—because you know you could not watch it just once.
2. Abandon the phone.
Even if you will not admit it, you are probably addicted to your phone. The average American spends 12 hours per day consuming media, so even if you are slightly below average, you are still on your phone most of the time. For this exercise, put your phone in your car, outside or in the mailbox—anywhere where the urge to check it is overcome by the fact that you have to put on shoes to go get it. Just get it out of your space for five minutes.
3. Invest in a good pair of headphones.
If you have never experienced the wonders of sound-reducing headphones, you are missing out.
4. Turn off everything.
Even I am guilty of disliking complete silence. As I work on this, I have the Esbjorn Svensson Trio station playing on Pandora softly in the background. The genesis, however, did come in a moment as I sat in complete silence and brainstormed ideas in my journal.
5. Forget your to-do list.
Easier said than done, I understand, but do your best not to use this time to remember all of the things you need to do. If you are diligent, you have them on a checklist someplace already. Instead, allow yourself this time to think of problems that need solving or questions that need answering.
6. Keep your journal near.
Once you find that Zen mode, when ideas rather than tasks start streaming from your consciousness, you will be inclined to write them down immediately. I encourage you to avoid this, as reaching for that journal will disrupt the flow of your ideas and more than likely lead to yet another distraction. Just allow yourself a solid five minutes of concentration, and at the conclusion, you can write down any epiphanies you had.
This all might sound like meditation, and to a some extent it is. I have, however, tried and failed at a number of different meditation methods and apps. Instead, what I have found is that just five minutes of silence and uninterrupted thoughts tend to be the only ingredients needed to stir creativity.
So, for just five minutes (more as you become more proficient), if you can resist the temptation of the beautiful, jolly, candy-like notifications on your phone and give your mind the balanced workout it needs, you just may find that you are capable of far more creativity than you ever imagined.
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