In a world of distraction, here’s how (and why) to find your focus.
The digital information age is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it creates what Bruce Mau calls “distributed possibility.” The free flow of knowledge and the increased capability to connect with others and share ideas can be a boon—it can greatly enhance our abilities to create, design, and solve problems. On the other hand, you can drown in all the distractions and never really get down to doing the kind of focused thinking that leads to big ideas.
It’s an issue I discussed with a number of the designers featured in Glimmer. Several of them told me they think it’s important to “disengage” in some sense when trying to come up with ideas and crack tough problems. Stefan Sagmeister is a believer in making a conscious effort to unplug and disconnect on a regular basis. “If things are coming at you—phone calls, e-mail, co-workers—you’re constantly reacting, and in fact it’s easier to react than to create,” Sagmeister says. “All of us constantly complain about e-mail—but in that complaint is also an excuse, because it’s inherently easier to return e-mails than to actually create something.”
That’s an important point I think, and worth emphasizing: It’s easier to respond than to create. And we tend to go toward what’s easy and away from what’s hard, which may be why we embrace the distractions—the constant stream of phone calls, meetings, emails, tweets—even as we gripe about them.
But as I note in Glimmer, designers must, when trying to solve a problem in a new and creative way, be able to really zero in on that problem, and study it from all angles. This is true not just for designers but also for anyone trying to create or innovate. As David Brooks of The New York Times observed in his op-ed "Lost in the Crowd," people who have the ability to focus their attention on one thing have a great advantage over those who cannot, because it gives them “the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.” And when you begin to see something differently and in a whole new light, that’s often when the “glimmer moment” arrives—that flash of insight that opens up fresh new possibilities.
So how do you increase your ability to focus on one thing? One might figure it’s a matter of just hunkering down at your desk and trying harder. (This is usually when you hear people yelling to themselves, Think, damn it!) But this may not be the best way to go. Recent studies on insights, conducted by Northwestern University professor Mark Jung-Beeman and cited in a New Yorker story, seem to indicate that you’re most likely to come up with big insights when you temporarily step back from a problem and ease up a bit; this is why the glimmer moment may tend to happen when you take yourself off for a quiet walk, for instance. If you try to focus too intensely on a problem, you get stuck in the more logical left hemisphere of the brain. But as you relax, the cortex is freed up to conduct a more far-reaching search through the right hemisphere of the brain. What it’s looking for are remote associations that can help solve the problem in unusual and perhaps illogical ways. According to Jung-Beeman, when a “serendipitous connection” is made, the insight suddenly becomes clear.
Mau understood the value of disengagement before it was documented in these studies. Through the years he has urged designers in the studio to “slow down” and to try to “desynchronize from standard time frames” in order to allow the creative mind to work its magic. He believes creators must step away from the work frequently. He also believes that they should “stay up late”—because, Mau notes, “Strange things happen when you’ve been up too late, and you’re separated from the rest of the world.”
In trying to design an environment that allows for more focus, some people opt for an austere “quiet room,” while others recommend something more playful (designer Brian Collins thinks you should turn a space into your own personal kindergarten classroom, with chalkboards and walls covered with drawings and other scraps of inspiration). The décor may not matter as much as the wiring—or the desired lack thereof. Too many interruptions can disrupt the connections and “smart recombinations” that may be forming in the designer’s mind. One study, by Hewlett-Packard, found that constant interruptions actually sap intelligence (by about ten IQ points, in fact). To truly disconnect and desynchronize, Sagmeister takes periodic and lengthy creative sabbaticals to remote places; on one of his most recent trips, he was reachable only by hand-delivered letter. But whether one journeys to another country or another part of the house, the goal is to end up, in Mau’s words, “lost in the woods” with a creative challenge or a problem that needs solving.
Here’s a link to The New Yorker‘s wonderful 2008 story about the science behind insight, "The Eureka Hunt," by Jonah Lehrer. (Note: this is just the article abstract–you have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing online, unfortunately.)
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.