Before becoming an entrepreneur, I set out to write for a living. This sounds like a fantastical existence, but it was actually hard, even if joyous, work. I woke up early in the morning, walked to a coffee shop, and started reading--anything. It didn't matter what I read; the process of focusing on something unrelated to my writing task and caffeine constituted the formula required to tap my creative well. After 45 minutes or so thoughts would bubble up, and my only job was to collect them. Editing would come later in the afternoon, when my mind was tired out and drained of inspiration for the day. I knew to give myself the entire morning for the creative process, even if it yielded only 100 words. Looking back, this process was a pure luxury.
Later, when my company was new--no employees yet, just us founders--I used to plan my day around optimizing productivity, and gone were the mornings that I dedicated to creating. Since much of my work involved communication with sponsors and partners on the East Coast, I reserved the mornings for "busy work"--calls and email primarily. And creative tasks that required more uninterrupted focus time, such as writing proposals or blog posts, I reserved for the afternoon. We didn't have an office, so if I wasn't meeting with my partners in person at a cafe or one of our houses, I did my busy work primarily at home and my uninterrupted work at nearby coffee shops.
Of course, as the business grew, this separation between busy and focus time became much more difficult to maintain. People--God forbid--would occasionally call me back in the afternoon, in the middle of my focus time. Increasingly I found I always needed to speak with people when they called, and I de-prioritized my focus time to the free crevices in my afternoon, which didn't really exist. I tried to schedule in time for creativity like I did appointments--in a short and specific timeframe. I could no longer wait around for ideas to percolate in my mind. I had to force them to come during the period I'd designated to briefly focus. Creative ideas were stifled, deprived of the air they needed to be really great. This bothered me for a long time, but, I reasoned, most professionals have to deal with the pressures of meetings and deadlines. If I was going to grow my business effectively I had to be more productive. I had to back away from things like writing blog posts and reading to stimulate creative thought.
When we received venture funding and hired employees we moved into an office, taking away the change of scenery that normally signaled my uninterrupted focus time, and new activities--meetings, and normal face to face interactions with people--began to fill in. I found pockets of time to sit and think, usually during my hour-long commute to and from the office, but as our East Coast staff grew that time was increasingly used to touch base with clients and colleagues. I would get to our office parking lot not even remembering the drive to work.
As I traveled more I realized that there were built-in periods of disconnectedness when no one could reach me, and I could not reach them even if I wanted to. During these times I finished presentations, sketched out strategies, caught up on business trades, perhaps even wrote a blog post or two. Having this time was what made traveling constantly for the past five years bearable. I knew that once I got off the plane there would be no time to focus anymore; my life would consist of a brief and intense series of trains, taxis, meetings, working lunches, and periods of "downtime", in between used to catch up on email and make calls.
Every year at this time I look at my schedule while it is only marginally complicated compared to how it looked at the end of the previous year, and I ask myself the same question--how do I build in more uninterrupted focus time? And why, during the holidays when I make time to relax and reflect, do I find it so difficult to focus? The blog posts that I expected to ooze out of me have more like sputtered out incoherently. When I have periods of crucial time, like now, I think of all the small quickie tasks that I could be knocking out instead. I check email, my Facebook page, my Twitter feed, my calendar. I realize that I am out of practice.
And I realize that there is an ongoing argument occurring in my mind--the more eloquent side sharing that the multitude means of communication that exist today are not only personally convenient and enriching, but justify my work in social media. I've succeeded because of this shift in the balance of downtime and our obsession with being always on. And I've been plagued by it--the time that I used to take to allow creativity to manifest has evaporated into busyness. Will we, as a society, have a decreasing capability to create because we've erased unplugged reflection from our lives?
Pico Iyer wrote in the New York Times this week:
In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.
He shares how a premium has been placed on opportunities that allow us to unplug--fancy spas, even moves to rural areas. But ultimately we have an inability to sit still.
In the early days of my company we had the challenge of proving to sponsors and advertisers the value of social media. While we suspected that recommendations by digital influencers were valuable, there was no tangible proof for years that social media could move the needle for marketers. Now they are convinced. How, similarly, can I make the case for unplugged reflection time? How can we show that it ultimately makes us more productive?