Brains, Computers, Focus — How Do You Stay Productively Creative?

The original pomodoro. Photo (CC-BY-SA) borgmarc.

For an artist, being productive and being happy are often closely intertwined. Whether you’re polishing off an album, practicing your instrument, patching or coding a new musical tool, or managing your career, music requires immense levels of focus and discipline. Then there’s the matter of the stuff that tends to be an obstacle: your day job, your to-do list, your taxes. Most musicians aren’t full-time, but even if you are, sometimes the greatest challenge is simply hurdling everything that isn’t your music, leaving you time for what is.

Digital technology is naturally the bread and butter of the site, but lately, the computer has been blamed for a lack of a focus. Certainly, computers do provide opportunities for abuse: browsers with multiple tabs, always-on Internet connections, and endless capacity to switch tasks could make your computer a distraction machine. But I do have to admit, I’ve found recent allegations about the Internet frustrating. Anecdotally, they just don’t make sense: I doodled and daydreamed in class as a kid long before the Web. I’ve never really needed advanced technology to be distracted. I also can find immense, profound focus using technology. It just doesn’t add up. To make matters worse, a lot of claims that the Internet was “rewiring” your mind made heavy use of blood flow imaging of the brain, long a suspect and incomplete means of modeling the complexity of human thought.

Happily, Science may be on my side. My friend Nick Bilton wrote a superb round-up of the flip side of the argument, pointing in particular to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s rebuttal.

The Defense of Computers, the Internet and Our Brains [New York Times Bits Blog]

It’s well worth reading – if, like me, you don’t mind reading on a screen from beginning to end, thoughtfully.

Okay, so the medium isn’t to blame. But that leaves the responsibility square in our court. Blessed with one of the great miracles of the universe, your mind, how can you tap into your deepest channels of creative expressiveness – and get all the business of your life out of the way?

Disciplined focus

Techniques, like computers, are just tools, but they can be useful nonetheless. I’m particularly pleased at the moment with the Pomodoro Technique, in case you didn’t guess from the tomato picture that leads this post.

The idea is this: work on a task, just one task, without distractions or multi-tasking, for 25 minutes. Then take a five-minute break.

It’s incredibly simple – and, to me, incredibly effective. I’ve tried it while working on music and coding, and felt more focused. I find it does two things. For one, it gives me the discipline to avoid checking a browser tab to procrastinate when I get stuck on a task – always with the knowledge that I only have to keep up this level of focus for less than half an hour. Avoiding multitasking is essential: it allows you to make the Internet a powerful tool for inspiration.

Oddly, the other advantage has actually been that it forces me to take breaks. Often, I have no problem plunging into a task, especially something like music. The problem is, over-abundant focus can be as energy-sapping as distraction: sitting at a computer or desk, your body begins to tense up, you forget to drink water and stretch, and so on. Even working with music, that can mean that you begin to lose focus or perspective. Returning to the Internet as a tool, those five minute breaks could be a chance for a quick Internet injection of ideas from off the fovea, off the central focal point of your eye. Creativity is sometimes best stimulated by something that has nothing to do with the task at hand.

Generally, I found the technique had the opposite impact from what I expected: it made me more able to lose track of time, by keeping my body and mind in a rhythm.

See Lifehacker for more:

The Pomodoro Technique Trains Your Brain Away From Distractions

There’s even a Google Chrome extension, which is nice when you’re browsing: Chromodoro Adds a Pomodoro Timer to Chrome

Pomodoro is a native Mac app; it provides loads of configurability.

Focus Booster is an AIR app (also available in the browser) with a nice, graphical progress bar.

For everything else, I just use a stopwatch on my phone. Any stopwatch will do; you don’t really need a dedicated app.

Task management

Okay, this is more than a little extreme. Photo (CC-BY) Rob and Stephanie Levy.

In addition to focus, though, I’m interested how readers manage tasks. For me, this fits into two broad categories:

1. Elements of big projects, stuff I care about
2. Everything else

Task management for me is taking care of the “everything else” stuff so I can focus on the big projects. And that usually means segregating lists. I like Gina Trapani’s incredibly-elegant command-line todo tool, which I’ve found to be the quickest way of adding tasks, sorting them to find out what you should be doing next with a small slice of time, and getting them done and forgotten about – minimal management required. (I use the Python fork; see a recent happy birthday post. If I ever have time, I’ll whip up a quick Android version to keep my ‘Droid coding skills sharp.)

That’s just one tool, though; Remember the Milk is excellent on the Web, desktop, iPhone, and Android. So is paper.

What about tracking progress on big projects, though? An in-progress music album feels different than a long list of random tasks (send in a tax form, invoice so and so, pick up laundry detergent). But it can be helpful to divide big projects into smaller steps – and it can be essential to remember small details of something like a piece of music as you work. How do you manage those tasks?

For collaborative projects, a lot of people I know are great fans of simple, subscription-based Web project management Basecamp. Years after this was a highly-hyped tool, it remains helpful; it’s what I’m using now to collaborate on an electronics project and to work on an elaborate redesign of CDM.

Basecamp doesn’t make much sense if you’re polishing off your album, though, necessarily. So what tools do you use?

Mindfulness

Still from a film; photo (CC-BY Noyes/mindfulness.

I’ll close with one simple thought, which is that what binds all these things together for me is a simple sense of mindfulness. It’s a concept from Buddhism, reinforced in Psychology, but I find even without disciplined meditation or something elaborate, basic awareness can have a profound impact on your work and focus. Just taking a moment to take note of my breathing, stop thinking about other things for a moment, or be aware of how my body feels can radically alter my day. As I’ve talked to artists – as I did while meeting with various folks in Germany and Portugal traveling over the past weeks – I’ve heard similar things.

As it happens, the image I found above comes from a Norway-based composer and sound designer named Harry Koopman, who himself focuses on this very issue – and has short films and soundtracks to accompany them. Those films could be ideal sources of audiovisual meditation if you need something online to focus your head before an extended work session.
http://www.mindfulness.nl/

None of this is directly related to music, but for the kinds of music being produced on this site, I think it’s very relevant. Readers on CDM are often assembling their own tools and assembling their own music from scratch, working with the incredible abstraction music production on computers demands, working with scores, and getting close to the most personal, intimate sense of self-expression in musical creation. Without discipline and focus, it’s possible to wind up frustrated and downright depressed fast – and the opposite is true, too. for me is a great time to think about this stuff; it’s the break in the academic calendar (and I still am often teaching), it’s a big seasonal shift here in North America, and amidst travel and occasional trips to the beach, my head is clear. With dissertation research, software to code, documentation, writing, blogging, and music, I know I have plenty to keep me busy. Maybe having the winter mindset in the midst of summer (see photo above) is part of what makes this all work.

So I’m curious what you think. Hopefully we can follow up with more tips for keeping you creative. And digital. And musical. Creatively digitally musical.

So, let us know:
1. How do you stay focused when working on a computer?
2. Does the Pomodoro work for you?
3. How do you manage tasks – little ones, or big ones associated with musical projects?
4. How do you keep your mind happy?

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This article originally appeared in Create Digital Music here, reproduced under creative commons license.