I am still basking in the afterglow of a three-week trip to France this summer that rejuvenated my creativity and taught me something very important about my sources of inspiration: I’ve been starting in the wrong place.
Being a digital nomad is challenging, but particularly so when you need to work in a place that offers little to no Internet access. How was I going to generate ideas for my stories without Google? Initially, I sat down at the little kitchen table of our old farmhouse with my cup of tea and stared blankly out the window, feeling about as imaginative as the chickens I was watching pecking for food in the neighbor’s field.
Then my mind slowly began to wander. I thought back to the day before when I had visited the studio of one of my favorite artists, Pascal Magis, in a little village that hosts a scarecrow festival every year. I pictured the emotive brushstrokes of his abstract masterpieces and thought about how easily you could spend hours getting lost in them. Then my body began to wander too, into the living room where I began scanning the spines of our odd collection of books, remembering all the nooks I used to curl up in to read as a child, including the big stone sink in the window sill—how did I ever fit into that, and why? In no time, I was back at my laptop at the kitchen table, frantically typing out a string of story ideas. It dawned upon me that for too long now I’ve been starting my creative process behind a screen.
I know all too well that a stale routine is the death of creative inspiration, but I hadn’t recognized that I was doing it every time I sat down to work on a new project. My default source of ideas was Google every time. Without realizing it I’d severely narrowed my imaginative funnel right off the bat.
Just think for a minute how much time in a day you spend staring at a screen. You’re obviously doing it right now. Take a moment to notice a few things. How is your posture? Are you sitting upright with a straight back, shoulders back, both feet flat on the ground . . . or are you a little slumped over, cross-legged, and stiff? When was the last time you got up from your chair to stretch or take a walk? What’s the lighting like in your office? Are you straining your eyes to see the screen? How many times have you checked your email or Facebook in the last hour?
Screens can be an addictive thing, and sometimes we don’t even notice when we’ve twisted ourselves into a horrendously uncomfortable shape as we’ve slumped further each hour we’ve been glued to them. Just . . . one more . . . meme . . .
One of the worst digital-driven habits for our overall health and well-being is staring at a screen right before bed (guilty). The problem is that our screens emit a lot of blue light, which—unlike natural light—suppresses our sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Aside from feeling tired and irritable, science has shown that poor sleep can lead to a whole host of negative health consequences, such as increased risk of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, depression, stroke, and heart attack.
Google is a brilliant tool for finding what you’re looking for (ditto Facebook for wallowing in your own social media echo chamber), but what if you don’t know what you’re looking for?
The beauty of getting away from our screens is encountering the unexpected. This is exactly what leads to a creative spark. A psychological study from the Creativity Research Journal shows that this kind of novelty has a beneficial impact on creative task performance when the task requires divergent thinking. When it comes to idea generation—a task that requires us to broaden our imagination and draw inspiration from a wide net—novelty is critical for success. When we’re sitting at the same desk in front of the same screen, going to the same website every time we hope to generate new ideas, we’re dampening our creative potential with this stale routine, all before we even think we’ve started working.
One of the biggest problems with turning to a screen for inspiration first is this immediate limitation of sources of inspiration. What happened to the days of being inspired by curious architecture, errors on cereal boxes, and the way your face gets reflected in puddles? Getting away from a screen can help us remember all the ways in which our mind has an amazing ability to draw insight from the multisensory world that surrounds us.
Lest you scoff at my attempt to part you from your digital tools, let me be clear that I’m not advocating an all-out ban on technological aids. All I’m saying is give your brain a chance to remember how it once generated imaginative ideas before the Internet arrived . . . and perhaps give your back a chance to re-right its vertebrae once in a while. Prioritize real-world research sessions alongside (and preferably before) Google research sessions and just see what happens. Use your screen time to build upon those unique nuggets of ideas that only the real world can yield.
It took three weeks of no Internet for me to even realize I was crippling myself creatively by defaulting to Google every time I needed new ideas. Perhaps you will be quicker on the uptake and implement some no-screen time after reading this article. If my word isn’t enough, how about that of my editor who commented: “Clearly your time off has recharged you creatively!”
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Featured image attribution: Joyce Huis