“It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well.”—Julia Cameron
Even though I always knew it on an intuitive level, I’ll never forget the relief I felt when I read the NPR story that “disproved” mult-tasking to be effective at getting multiple things done at once.
“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.
I’ve spent most of my adult life attempting to do multiple things at the same time, and prided myself on being able to pile my plate higher and higher. And yes, I made deadlines and turned out material, created, maintained and spun off more projects. I became addicted to stress endorphins. I didn’t realize what those were for a very, very long time. All I knew was that I’d say yes to some nearly impossible task: create, maintain and record a twice monthly radio show with authors with no experience? Why sure! And then I’d get a hit of adrenaline, followed by a buzzing sensation that started in my arms and moved all the way up to my head. My ears would ring a little and my head would feel cottony and drifty, as though it had separated from my shoulders and was floating above the atmosphere. I’d go blank for a minute and settle into a sweet numbness. It felt like being given a drug. And then my creative mind would spin into action to figure out how to make this impossible scenario come to pass; crunching and rearranging time and ideas until, like some sci-fi machine, I’d spit out a method to add this into my life.
The method really wasn’t unique. Simply put it was: use up every molecule of energy and time, pack them tight with activities and events, sleep as little as possible, use caffeine and sugar to get me through.
I think you get the gist. Eventually this became unsustainable. I’ve been working on changing these over-doing habits for several years now, culminating most recently in taking up a meditation practice. It also works to sit down and journal, to take a break from my desk, to not look at my phone 600 times a day. People get a little squirrelly when you talk about meditating or stillness, taking a technology break or giving up TV. And hey, I get it: the things that distract us from ourselves often give us great pleasure, or, in my version: a rush of endorphins. And who wants to sit around feeling everything all the time? Even I don’t want that.
But I do want to be able to enjoy the moments in my life. Taste my coffee, not just toss it to the back of my throat as fuel. I want to feel the smooth glide of ink from a fountain pen on paper, not just hurtle words at the screen via my keyboard. I want to feel creatively fulfilled so that when I sit down to play with my son I’m not off somewhere else, preoccupied.
As writers, most of us need a whole lot more of the emptiness than we may realize. I didn’t realize how much I needed, as the old adage (or Joni Mitchell song, take your pick) goes, until it was gone. But time is so much easier to fill now–there are more methods than ever for distraction, which only increases the amount of downtime we end up needing. We can enter a state beyond empty, it’s like creative malnourishment, and it’s dangerous.
Try to find ways to fill that well even if it’s in the wee hours or those after everyone has gone to bed. If you give yourself what you need creatively you might just find that you need a lot less of the other distractions. You might just find that emptiness IS fullness.