Gini Dietrich

Digital Distraction is Causing the Demise of Creativity

By: Gini Dietrich | January 10, 2018 | 
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Digital Distraction is Causing the Demise of CreativityLast spring, I donned my blue and yellow cycling kit, pink arm warmers (let’s be real, spring in Chicago isn’t all that warm), and my purple helmet and set out for the lakefront.

Before school gets out and the tourists arrive, a lunchtime ride along Lake Michigan is the perfect way to re-energize and prepare for your afternoon.

(Not so much when everyone else has the same idea.)

I was looking forward to this ride because I was finally not riding on the trainer in my freezing cold basement and I wanted to see what all the winter training had done to make me stronger against the forces of nature.

Not only that, but this particular day was a bluebird day. The sun hit the lake perfectly and the rays lifted off the water as if the sun were opening its arms to welcome me in.

The horizon was dotted with sailboats making their 2017 maiden voyages into the great blue yonder.

I was to ride 30 miles on a prescribed tempo ride from my coach—a quick 90 minutes.

Get in, get out. No one gets hurt.

(Don’t worry. This isn’t a story about some freak accident I had where I broke my pelvis, my hip, and my femur, combined with a concussion. Though I do speak from experience.)

Keep Your Cadence Consistent

I set the prescribed ride in my Garmin, climbed on my bike, and coasted down our side street for the half a mile to the lakefront.

Once I got there and on the path, I started pedaling in Zone 2 to get warmed up and get past the busiest part so I’d be able to ride fast, uninterrupted.

The wind was blowing pretty hard—26 mph—into my face, but I kept telling myself, “If you can’t ride in the mountains, this is the next best thing.”

Plus, I knew I got to turn around and the ride home would be gloriously fast.

I shifted my gears so I could ride at a high cadence—90+ RPMs—and got to work.

The first few miles passed without incident.

The beaches had a few brave souls lounging in the sand, throwing balls to their dogs, playing some volleyball, or walking barefoot along the shoreline.

For the most part, the path was clear and I was able to focus on the ride.

Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Keep your cadence consistent. Don’t try to go too fast. You’ll be rewarded on the way home.

Though the wind wasn’t blowing any harder, it was gradually getting harder.

It was just me, the wind, my bike, and my thoughts.

Being Alone With Your Thoughts

It’s not easy to work that hard without music or some kind of distraction.

The seconds turn into minutes; the minutes into hours.

Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Keep your cadence consistent. Don’t try to go too fast. You’ll be rewarded on the way home.

But I was alone with my thoughts—and trying to focus on something other than how hard the ride was.

That’s when your mind begins to wander.

Your legs know what to do. There isn’t anyone nonchalantly crossing the path without looking. Just you and your thoughts.

As an introvert, I like to be alone with my thoughts.

Not to say I don’t want to be around people. I care very deeply about what they think—which is both a strength and a weakness.

I crave the respect and attention of you, our dear readers.

I passionately want people to find so much value in the PR Dream Team that they spend their precious and limited time with us.

Not to mention the socializing I get through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and LinkedIn and Medium and Slack.

But I do like to be alone with my thoughts because in that is when actual thinking occurs.

The Internet Doesn’t Allow Us to Be Alone

So much thinking occurs during that time, in fact, that when I float a new idea to my team, they all give each other that knowing look.

She’s been riding her bike again. Alone. With her thoughts.

It used to be that we had time to be alone with our thoughts.

Some of you may not even remember or know that time.

There was a time where email and the internet did not exist.

Where, when it was time to leave work, you actually left work and everything behind.

If you had more work to do, you carved out time and went into the office to do it.

And then you left again.

But email and the internet—and then social media—changed all of that.

Today, we don’t have to ever be alone with our thoughts.

If we have writer’s block, want to procrastinate, or have hit the proverbial wall, all we have to do is open Facebook.

Even the introvert, who is a master at being alone, can still be alone in the room and get online for the social interaction every human being craves, needs, and desires.

The Demise of Creativity and Critical Thinking

And that’s causing the demise of creativity and of thinking.

We’ve become accustomed to reading things in 140 characters—and not delving any deeper.

On the flip side, we’ve learned to write and think the same way.

Critical thinking skills feel like they’ve gone by the wayside.

And where are we without creativity? Without the time to be alone with our thoughts?

I know where I would be—without a single great idea to grow my business or propel us forward.

Once I turned around on my bike ride last spring, the wind was behind me and it felt like I was barely pedaling.

Because the time was going so quickly, I was able to let my mind wander even more.

I solved an HR issue that had been evading me for weeks.

A couple of smaller issues that needed different solutions were suddenly clear.

And our next online course—The Content Secret to Closing More Clients—was created.

Not created, created—I’m not that talented. But what we’d been debating internally for weeks was no longer a challenge.

I knew what we had to offer and the outline began to form in my head.

But I Don’t Have Time

Time, of course, is an issue for all of us.

When I meet with my mastermind group every month, nearly every person says they’re struggling with having not enough time.

And perhaps spending 90 minutes at lunchtime on a bike ride doesn’t work for you.

But every, single one of us can take 15 minutes and walk around the block, without our phones.

If you have a challenge you can’t solve, have writer’s block, or need a burst of creativity, use that 15 minutes wisely.

Take the dog for a walk and leave your phone at home.

Tell your team you’ll be back in a few minutes and leave your phone on your desk.

Leave. Your. Phone.

(Or Apple watch.)

Be alone with your thoughts.

Use the time to think or to just let your mind wander.

You’ll be amazed at what will happen when you allow yourself some time to just be.

Carve Out the Time to Think

I long for the days I can be outside on my bike.

Just me, the wind, my bike, and my thoughts.

Being stuck on the trainer in my freezing cold basement means serious Netflix catch up. By the time springtime rolls around, I will have watched everything everyone talks about.

(The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, anyone?)

But my creativity dwindles.

Problems stack up and become bigger than necessary.

I don’t have time to think.

In today’s world of digital distraction, we have to carve out the time to think.

Commit to 15 minutes every day.

If you have to, write down what you want to think about during those 15 minutes.

Then leave your desk, walk, and think.

It may not work the first few times.

You’ll be caught up in everything you have to do, the responsibilities that continue to pile up, as will the things you forgot to do.

You may even spend your 15 minutes trying not to forget what you’ve already forgotten that you need to do.

The next time you’ll take a notebook or a post-it notepad with you.

Do not take your phone.

By the end of week one, you’ll have begun to think.

Actually think.

And then, without willing it yourself, the creativity will return.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Bill Dorman

    I concur. Back in the day when I was doing my blog it seemed like I was always thinking about topics I thought my audience might enjoy and then how to construct and present it. Now, I’m lazy (that’s a shocker, huh?) and way too easily distracted by everything digital; I miss that creative thinking and planning.

    My bike is my drug right now and even though I do thinking on it while riding, most of the time I’m just trying to be aware and ready for the challenges and technical part of it; daydreaming might get you in trouble.

    But your 15 minute suggestion is a way to at least get in ingrained so it can become a habit. I really need to start writing again.

    Thanks for the tip and let’s make it happen. Pedal damn it.

    • You’re not lazy! You’re just focused on other things. And I approve of those other things.

  • Oh, how we like being busy for the sake of it. I think the bigger problem is the fear of being alone with one’s thoughts. “I don’t have time” is the easiest excuse at hand. Yes, we are busy, but most of the time we let ourselves sucked in into the busyness to avoid thinking.

    15 minutes every day is a great way to build the habit. I don’t know if I could leave my phone at home (I take notes on it), but I’m becoming very good at ignoring it when I take breaks.

    • Well, you already know my biggest pet peeve is when people say they don’t have time to do something. If you make it a priority, you have time. Sure, I get up really freaking early to be able to mange a lunchtime ride, but I’ve made time for it.

  • This is one of my big resolutions for 2018. I’m really, really good at this during spring, summer, and fall. But winter when I can’t get out and hike or go for long walks every night with Oliver I lose a lot of this time. And I can feel it — mentally and physically. So I’ve been working on trying to carve out that quiet space for myself without the ability to spend long periods of time outside. But not having that outdoor space to go to makes it very challenging. Thanks for the reminder I have to find a way

    • Yes, please. For the love of all things good and holy, find an outlet!

  • Bill Smith

    That’s why I love hiking in the spring, summer and fall, and skiing in the winter. I also love my annual break north of Toronto in the fall where I’m in a celluar dead zone by and large (I can get some 3G service at the top of the hill at the cottage resort I’m staying at). Even when I go to the gym every day, the smart phone does not come in with me. That’s how I cope with the tidal wave of information I see daily.

    • Do you not listen to music while you’re at the gym? It’s pretty impressive you don’t take your phone with you. I’m not sure even I would go that far.

      • Bill Smith

        I ski with my phone but it stays in the inside pocket of my ski jacket, and I never ran with my phone because I wanted to be aware of my surroundings. While I’m on the GO Train (our version of Metra) to and from Toronto, I’m listening to Spotify and going through email.

  • I ride motorcycles at triple digit speeds. We spend 30 – 40 weekends at our campground (trailer/toilet/wifi/kitchen/ac) Cat (my wife) has a lady Remington chainsaw – we chop firewood and sit around campfires most friday and sat nights – keeps us both centered

    That said returning to reality – Curation is one of the most insidious corruptors of creativity.

    The experts tell us “send your target audience engaging content” so we spend 2 hours a day curating links to sites other than ours –

    what is wrong with you people and how can i be alone with my thoughts having so many voices in my head?

    • I laughed out loud at “so many voices in my head”! I also cannot believe you ride a motorcycle at triple digit speeds. I will give you the same lecture a cop gave me when he pulled me over for going 140 mph in a car. “Stop it. You will die.”

  • Jen

    I sooooo agree with you (and hi, fellow introvert!). This is why I have never, ever understood people who leave work, get in the car, and dial the phone and talk the whole way. {shudder}

    Commute time is good down time for your brain. I guard it jealously.

    I am also a big believer in reading fiction (as you know). Stay with me here…that, and baking, require attention and focus for more than a few minutes. Your brain gets used to *slowing down and paying attention.*

    Then, when you do have time to be alone with your thoughts–on a walk, etc.–your mind is okay with it. You don’t have the “what am I missing” unsettling feeling.

    Fear of missing out is a real thing, and social platforms are designed to keep us there on the page, they literally A/B test how to keep us coming back for more, or never leaving. (I read about this…in a book. 🙂 “Everybody Lies” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. It’s an amazing book about…Google search data.)

    • Ohhhhh. I haven’t read it. I’ll add it to my list. I have to finish Fire & Fury first. 🙂

      • Jen

        Just published a review of the book over on The Measurement Standard, and we’re running an interview with the author next month. It really is a good read, and (I think) super-important for communicators to digest.

      • paulakiger

        I’m reading F&F right now.

        • Let’s chat when we’ve finished!

          • paulakiger

            Okay!

          • paulakiger

            This post has been on my mind, BTW. Since I stopped running, I’ve lost that “in my head” time — and I know there is something I can do about that — but the difference is noticeable in many ways.

  • This is why I need to get back to the barn and start riding again. It’s relaxation for me to groom, do barn work, and school (horses respond to subtle aids more than you think). You do need to be aware given the animal but it’s a different kind of awareness compared to a digital focus. It lets the higher level of your mind think. At least my walks (w/o music) work for now.

    • Your walks will work for now. But I know how much you love the barn so I agree…get back there when you can!

  • YES: “In today’s world of digital distraction, we have to carve out the time to think.”

    I wholeheartedly agree – my best thoughts and ideas come from when I step away from the digital realm and into the real world. We can easily scroll away 10-15 minutes as a “break” and feel no better for it. A true break, whether it’s outside or a quick stretch/yoga/movement session, works wonders! I’ve recently started taking quick walking breaks every two-ish hours and feel so much better for it! Sometimes I listen to a podcast, but I find when I walk with silence, I’m much more energized and idea-filled when I get back to my desk.

    • My dumb Apple watch says to me every hour, “It’s time to stand!” It works…I walk 500 steps every hour. 🙂

  • donnapapacosta

    Yes! I crave the times when I can be alone with my thoughts, as much as I love to read and listen to podcasts. For me, it’s walking alone, kayaking, or time on the sailboat when I’m not actively having to DO something (trim sails, etc.).

    • I imagine even trimming sails allows your brain to take a break so you can think when you allow it.

      • donnapapacosta

        For more experienced sailors, yes. For me, I’m trying to do it right while not making a fool of myself. 😉

  • Hi Gini! (long time!)
    I see that @JenZPhillips:disqus recommended you read Everybody Lies. It’s a fantastic book and it’s full of fascinating stats about people and how we use the internet. I’ll concur that it’s a good read you should check out.
    However, I actually wanted to leave a comment to recommend a different book that you might enjoy along the same lines as this post; Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. Manoush hosts one of my favourite podcasts (Note To Self) about how humans and technology intersect and affect each other. A few years ago she tried an experiment with her listeners all around putting your phone down and giving yourself room to think and letting yourself actually get bored, because none of us do that anymore. This book comes off of that challenge and some additional research and shows just how good it can be for us to allow ourselves to get bored. I think you’ll enjoy it.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon

    • Sheldon! This is fantastic. Thank you! I’ll definitely check out both the book and the podcast. Hope things are going well in your neck of the woods. Miss you!

  • I don’t think digital distractions are the thing that’s killing creativity. I think it is the outlet that people now use to not have to be alone with their thoughts or do much thinking at all. A subtle but important difference. There’s a million other ways to distract yourself besides Facebook, Instagram, etc.

    Being alone with your thoughts is wondering into the unknown, and that can be scary and open up deep-seated issues or re-open past wounds. It is much easier and more convenient to always be busy and distracted even if it comes at the expense of thinking critically and being creative.

    • Good points…and make a lot of sense, too, when you in a deep life depression, such as a death or major life-changing event.

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