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.