Episode 26


Attention Thieves and Monotasking in Creativity

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Monotasking in Creativity - how can we free up more time in our lives to be creative and stop all the incessant procrastination? Could monotasking be the answer to it all? And what exactly are the biggest attention thieves in our lives right now?

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Attention Thieves and Monotasking in Creativity


I think being organised is overrated in the creative areas of our lives, but obviously we want to have as much time available to us to be creative as possible. Could multitasking be the thing that’s making us procrastinate, and is monotasking the answer? Let’s talk about that today on The Positive Creatives.


Hello and welcome back to The Positive Creatives, wherever in the world you’re listening from! How are you today? Good I hope! I’m feeling good too thanks for asking!

Ok. I want you to imagine you’re sitting on the sofa, staring at a wall of TV’s. Maybe like 3 rows of 3 TV’s. Each TV is tuned to a different channel. The one in the middle is the thing you’ve actually sat down to watch. It’s a movie, so it needs your constant attention or you’ll have no idea what’s going on.

Only one TV has sound, and it’s whichever one your eyes are looking at. Of course most of the time that’s the centre TV with the movie you’re watching, but from time to time one of the other TV’s catches your attention so you look there, and the sound switches to that one.

The TV in the middle that you actually sat down to watch is still on but it’s now muted.

Usually you’ll realise the new TV that caught your attention is boring or irrelevant and you’ll quickly go back to watching your movie. Except now you’ve missed a bit, so you need to rewind it a bit, or you just sit there wondering how that person is now flying a helicopter when a minute ago they were in a swimming pool drinking a cool Pina colada…

This happens over and over because of the distraction of the other 8 TV’s. And the 90 minute movie you sat down to watch takes 4 hours to watch, or 3 days, or a week, or maybe you just never finish it.

This is exactly how I think of the creative brain. It’s certainly how my brain works, and if you’re trying to run a creative business then this might sound very familiar.

Let’s say our creativity is what’s on the middle screen, and the other screens are things that ruthlessly steal our attention – social media, our phones, our email inboxes, that DIY job that needs doing, childcare, socialising… stuff like that.

I know what you might be thinking – this is life, multitasking is a necessary part of modern life. But I bet you also feel like things take you longer than they should, you never get any time to actually be creative, and maybe you never feel like you get anything finished…

I remember years ago seeing that meme for the first time. You know the one, there are a few variations of it… One is two photos one above the other, the top one is you doing whatever you do as your creativity, painting or writing or taking photos or playing the guitar, loving life with a caption of ‘what people think I do’… the photo below is you looking grumpy in front of a computer with a massive to-do list and doing boring admin with a caption of ‘what I actually do’. Another version of this is just a pie chart showing what a small percentage of time you actually spend being a creative compared to all the other stuff life and business throws at you.

I remember seeing this and thinking ‘that’s funny’ but then realising that it was also fairly accurate, and that I didn’t want it to be accurate, so I started working on things to make sure I had as much time as possible available to me to be creative, which meant getting really productive at the boring admin or business stuff I need to do.

I have lots of tips on this side of things that I’ll share with you in future episodes but today I’m going to focus on one, and it’s called monotasking.

I didn’t know it had a name until recently, but yeah, that’s what it’s called and it’s the opposite of multitasking, and I’ve taught myself to do it really well.

It takes time but it’s possible and it’s powerful.

It’s the equivalent of actively and consciously turning off the 8 other TV’s and sitting and watching your 90 minute movie in 90 minutes.

The benefits of that should be obvious compared to the example I talked about earlier where your 90 minute movie took weeks to finish or never got finished.

That example before where you have to rewind the movie a bit each time your attention comes back to it, is exactly how it works in real life. Studies show it can take 15-20 minutes to get back into something after you’ve gone off to do something else.

Let me tell you about some real life examples of how I use monotasking to achieve maximum productivity and free up more of my time to do creative stuff.

Rewinding a good few years now… maybe 7 or 8 years… I was in charge of childcare for my youngest son while my wife was at work during the day. It was daddy day care all day every day. But at this time I was also running my photography business so while doing the daddy day care I also had my computer on and each time it dinged I’d go and check my email and maybe try and reply, or I’d try to edit a few photos from my last wedding, and then he’d demand my attention again, so I’d go back to building a fort for a bit, then I’d check what was going on in my facebook groups because my computer ‘pinged’ me for attention again.

By the end of the day, I’d achieved precisely nothing in the business, and what’s worse is I didn’t feel like I’d been the best dad either.

So I decided after a few weeks of this that during daddy day care hours that’s all I was. No computers switched on, phone notifications silenced, complete focus on one thing. In this case being a dad. And then I’d do my work in the evenings.

It’s an extreme example but also a good one I think because it’s two things completely at odds with each other, vying for your attention, and a toddler is just as selfish as social media – it doesn’t care if it’s taking your attention away from other things! Except social media is evil and toddlers aren’t.

So monotasking is what it says on the tin. Giving all your attention to one task, and ruthlessly turning off everything else while you do that one thing.

But I know what you’re thinking… Adam… if it was that bloody easy I’d do it. I just can’t concentrate on one thing at a time!

I’m here to help you turn off those other 8 TV’s in your head don’t worry! Like I said earlier I wanted to feel like I had more time to be creative, and I want you to feel the same.

As a topical aside, during my research for this episode I discovered this thing called hyper vigilance, and it’s something that apparently afflicts us all after the last two years of you know what that I don’t want to mention because I don’t want my podcast to be flagged for talking about it.

But basically hyper vigilance is something extra that steals your attention because you’re on a state of high alert for bad things happening. So if you’re feeling even less focused since the world imploded then that’s why, and it’s not your fault.

I can’t help with the hyper vigilance problem, it’ll subside as and when the stresses of living through tough times begin to subside or feel more normal or constant. This can also apply on a smaller scale if you’re experiencing general stresses in your life that keep you on a state of high alert. So don’t beat yourself up if that’s stealing your creative focus.

BUT if what’s stealing your focus is trying to do several things at once or feeling like you’re just constantly procrastinating, I reckon I can help you a bit there.

There are lots of books about this by the way, I think it could be the current self help hot topic. And of all the things I’ve read the common theme seems to be that the more you practice monotasking the better you get at it, just like anything. But you need to practice it in all areas of your life to be good at it – it’s no good just doing it when you’re working or being creative, and then trying to multitask 100 things in other areas of your life. A bit like I said earlier about when I stopped trying to work alongside daddy day care. If you’re watching a movie, put your phone out of reach and concentrate on the movie. Same if you’re reading a book. Same if you’re cooking. Same if you’re at lunch with a friend. You get the theme.

So I’ll tell you how I have worked towards monotasking over recent years.

First of all let’s talk about something I really hate. It’s the biggest thief of our attention that’s ever existed. It pretends to be helpful, and friendly, and tricks us into thinking we need it… I’m talking about notifications. That little friendly red dot with a number in it. The ping that means YOU MUST LOOK AT ME RIGHT NOW, SOMETHING HAS LITERALLY JUST HAPPENED. Then it turns out it’s just an email from a greetings card company telling you that this time last year you bought a birthday card for your uncle, but now you’ve picked your phone up and you’re trapped until you’ve made sure you haven’t missed anything in fifteen different apps since the last time you checked 3 minutes ago.

These are called push notifications for a reason. They push themselves on you. They’re pushy! They interrupt trains of thought and conversations, now we even let them buzz our wrists so you aren’t even safe from these attention thieves when your phone isn’t in your hand!

I’ve worked hard to move away from PUSH and into PULL. I have notifications turned off on almost everything. I have to go and check manually if I’ve got any emails, or if anything has happened on facebook or instagram or whatever. I don’t need to know the breaking news as it happens, I don’t even need to know the second a WhatsApp comes through, and I definitely don’t need to know that easyJet are having a sale, or that my friend just finished a 13 minute walk!!

My biggest advice to help get you started with monotasking and unlocking a truly seismic shift in your productivity is turn as many of your notifications off as possible. It’s instantly life changing. Take charge of what is allowed to steal your attention.

It’s not notifications really but another similar thing is instagram stories. For me personally, if something has a red ring around it I feel like I need to watch it, more to clear the red ring than to actually watch the content. And instagram stories is very clever in that it will just keep playing all your unwatched stories once you open the first one.

So I’ve muted everyone’s stories. Not in a mean way. I still watch them. But it means I’m not able to see what’s watched or unwatched and it means if I do want to watch stories I can scroll through and selectively just pick the stories from the people I want to watch AND the app doesn’t just show me the next person and the next person and the next person.

As a quick aside, if you’re someone who is able to actively ignore notifications and this sort of stuff, please be my therapist.

This tip alone will instantaneously help you concentrate on tasks for longer without having your attention stolen by a red circle or a ping or a buzz on your wrist.

It’s even easier if you’re working on a Mac or a PC or a laptop. Close your email and messaging apps and they won’t notify you. Even better disconnect from wifi while working. Computers go beautifully silent when they’ve got no internet connection!

The next thing is to re-think your to-do lists.

If you feel disorganised and you’re not making to-do lists then I strongly suggest starting to make them and use them. Get things out of your head and onto paper.

But it’s not as simple as just writing down the 100 things you feel like you currently have to do and putting it up on your wall to stare you in the face with the daunting reality of life.

And don’t just include work stuff on there. For example I want to exercise every day. Actually no, I never want to exercise, but I know that I need to exercise and I find it very very difficult to concentrate on anything creative or work-related until I’ve exercised. So I know even though it’s technically not an urgent thing as far as my business or creativity is concerned, it’s something I need to do early in the day so that it’s out of my mind and so I can concentrate on other stuff. You might have similar things that maybe you think ‘oh I’ll do that later once I’ve done some work’ or whatever, but really you’re just putting it off and letting it sit loudly in the back of your mind. The trick is to make sure you just get these things done and out of the way so they’re out of your head.

There will almost always be THE ONE THING you have to do before your mind is free. There’s a great book about this called Eat that Frog that I recommend you read. It’s by Brian Tracy. It’s well worth a read, based on the principle that if you needed to eat a frog, spending all day thinking about eating the frog or sitting staring at the frog thinking how disgusting it will be to eat is far worse than just eating it and getting on with your day.

If you just follow these two tips alone – get notifications out of your life, and do the things you don’t want to do first, this will cut out 90% of what feels like procrastination.

For the first days and weeks of not having notifications on, you’ll have a low level anxiety that you’re missing something because you’re so used to knowing as soon as an email lands. Commit to it and it won’t take long to start noticing how beautifully silent it is, and how you’re able to concentrate for longer on whatever is on the middle TV, going back to the analogy I opened with, because the other 8 TV’s are now switched off and can’t steal your attention any more.

But even once you’ve solved the problem of having your attention stolen, the next step towards successful mono tasking is to choose and consciously decide not to multitask… To actively focus on one thing at a time, ideally until you’re finished.

Because the longer you work on that one thing, the more efficient you become, which actually makes you faster AND more accurate at whatever it is because you’ve created that tunnel vision in your attention and you’re not constantly having to reset your focus.

For instance, and I’ll finish with this example, the main thing that takes up time in my photography business is editing. Having a lot of weddings to edit for me can be extremely stressful, and can also make it feel like I’m not able to do anything else in life, in business, or creatively. I love editing but for me editing is my next frog. So I sit, I turn everything off, and I focus completely on that one task until it’s done. Some days I don’t even check my emails or open any social media until late evening when I know I’m losing my monotasking focus because I’m tired.

I’m not advocating burning yourself out. Take breaks, but make sure they’re actual restful breaks, instead of going and checking every app on your phone for new activity. Decide on your task, set a break time, have a proper, restful break, then come straight back to that same task and don’t move your attention to any other tasks until that task is done or you’ve made significant progress.

Give it a try. I truly believe that monotasking can transform your productivity, like it did for me, and give you way more time in your life to be and feel like a creative, which is what it’s all about.

Let me know how monotasking goes for you!

Bringing back my listen/read/watch recommendations this week with a recommendation for the Dave Grohl episode of a channel called Hot Ones on Youtube. It’s Dave Grohl at his candid best about where he believes the magic lies in creativity and music. He’s also getting drunk and eating hot wings so it’s pretty funny.

Try out your monotasking on a small scale – put the episode on, mute all the other notifications in your life and see if you can watch the full episode without doing anything else!

I really hope monotasking works for you, and I hope to see you again next time here on The Positive Creatives!

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