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Please give this essay your full attention.

The other day in class we were reviewing some work the students had done and an interesting conversation took place.

As I looked at the work the students had produced, I asked one of them, “Where were you when you were working on this?” He said he’d been working on concepts while watching a movie. (Okay, in his defense, the movie was Art & Copy, one I’d handed out as required viewing.)

As we talked I began to realize other ad students might profit from giving some thought to how they go about sitting down to work. I’ll wager many of them do their advertising thinking the way my teenager would prefer to do his math: the TV’s on in the background, music’s playing on his computer, and his Facebook feed scrolls past in an endless necklace of gossip and bright shiny objects.

A very smart woman named Linda Stone coined a term to describe this very popular but ineffective problem-solving mindset: continuous partial attention.

Continuous partial attention involves skimming the surface of several incoming data streams and picking out the few details our cursory glance tells us are important. While such an approach may give us the illusion we’re being productive, we are not. Yes, it lets us cast a wider net but it also keeps us from focusing on and learning about anything.

For years I’ve heard the old excuse that “Kids are different today. They’re multi-tasking.” Oh, baloney. Our brains have been wired a certain way since we first thumped to the African plains from the trees above. We’re either focusing on something or we are not.

Poorly focused attention to work is not the providence of only students.  From The New York Times, I quote: “Employees in information-intensive companies waste 28% of their time on unnecessary e-mails and other interruptions.”

The lesson is this: When it’s time to work, quit shattering the power of your full mind with movies, emails, music, and Facebook.

Here’s the thing, people. Every creative assignment you’ll receive in this business will come with a deadline. You’ll have only a certain amount of time to come up with something great. Yet I’ll wager if any of us could watch a film of ourselves “working,” we’d turn beet red seeing how much time we waste screwing around with coffee breaks, phone calls, texting, Facebooking, Twittering, flirting, and yuckin’ it up out in the hallway.

In fact, we are so eager to be distracted that, left uninterrupted, we will interrupt ourselves.

We do this because of what’s called “resistance to writing.” It’s a sort of self-imposed writer’s block that creative people practice when faced with a creative challenge. Oh, we may sit down to work but we’ll leave the TV on and keep our email open nearby as a sort of trapdoor we can sneak through when the ideas aren’t coming and we begin to feel the anxiety that creative challenges can bring.

For today, all we need to do is acknowledge that this defense mechanism exists and when we sit down to work we commit to it completely. Unplug your land line, turn off your smart phone, turn off the email, turn off the TV, turn off the music, find a pen and paper, put your feet up, and give it your whole mind.

You may be amazed at how both your productivity and the quality of your ideas begin to improve.

Beautiful Cities (While Nice) Are Not A Requirement For Creativity

I couldn't work here. Seriously.

Advertising is an itinerant business. I tell students when you step out of school and into the river of commerce, let the current take you where it may. Yes, you can have your target cities, your preferred agencies, but the creative process and the creative life are unpredictable and full of unexpected left turns.

I was lucky and grew up in an area that had five or six great agencies already going strong. I’ve also been lucky not having to move too many times over the course of my career. I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Richmond, Atlanta, Austin, and now I am here – in the incredible city that’s home to the Savannah College of Art & Design.

I’ve found something to love in each of these five cities but this Savannah gig is a bell ringer. See, the thing is, for the last 20 years this is where I’ve come for our family vacations. (To the Savannah airport and then onto a 90-minute drive through the Low Country to a small paradise known as Fripp Island.)

Today I find myself driving into work down streets that, had the gods been art directors in my class, I might’ve said, “Hey guys, don’t ya think you oughta pull it back a bit? I mean, it looks kinda fake. Sorta over-done?” Filtered through a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss, the sunlight lands in playful patterns on the dashboard as I pass antebellum homes from the pages of Architectural Digest and Forrest Gump.

The beauty of this city has inspired many artists to create marvelous work, the most visible perhaps being that great book Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil.  But for my money, I don’t need a beautiful place in order to be creative. And neither do you.

Yes, it’s fun to live in creative communities like Savannah or Austin. But if fortune carries you to some little Midwestern town known more for its giant ball of twine than its agencies, remember this: when it comes time to actually sit down and be creative I’ve always found the fewer distractions the better.

Creativity, at least the kind I’ve been practicing in advertising over the years is an inward pursuit. I’ve spent years in my head running up and down hallways, rattling doorknobs to see where things go, rotating visuals in my head, arranging and rearranging just the right words. The last thing I need while I’m trying to do all this internal heavy-lifting is a distraction from the real world.

In an interview author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) said he keeps a small office with nothing in it but a table and a chair that both face a white wall.  Furthermore, he can’t screw around on line as the wireless connection of his laptop is disabled. He’s not the first writer this finicky. Marcel Proust worked in a cork-lined room.

When I work, I may not require cork but I do want a small room with no stuff in it; just a coupla chairs and a desk. No windows, please; I’d just end up staring out of them wondering stupid stuff like, “I wonder where Spanish moss comes from?” Adler Hall, where we SCAD ad geeks do our stuff, has very few windows and that’s a good thing.

Ah, but even when we don’t have external distractions like windows, we creative types will make distractions — we’ll text, we’ll flirt, we’ll browse.  We do all this because of what’s called “creative resistance.” It’s a sort of self-imposed writer’s block that creative people practice when faced with a creative challenge. Oh, we’ll sit down to work but we’ll leave the TV on, or keep our email open nearby as a sort of trapdoor we can sneak through when the ideas aren’t coming and the anxiety grows.

It may help you to acknowledge you probably employ this defense mechanism from time to time; and to promise yourself when you sit down to work, to commit to it completely. Unplug your landline, turn off your smart phone, turn off the email, find a pen and paper, turn away from the window, put your feet up, and give it your whole mind.

So whether you live in a sterile suburb of Cleveland or the most heavily-mimed area of San Francisco, remember, creativity is an internal act. You can be extraordinarily creative no matter where the river takes you.