Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from. – Lynda Barry

In the spring of 2016, the great cartoonist and educator, Lynda Barry, did the unthinkable, prior to giving a lecture and writing class at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

She demanded that all participating staff members surrender their phones and other such personal devices.

Her victims were as jangled by this prospect as your average iPhone-addicted teen, but surrendered, agreeing to write by hand, another antiquated notion Barry subscribes to:

The delete button makes it so that anything you’re unsure of you can get rid of, so nothing new has a chance. Writing by hand is a revelation for people. Maybe that’s why they asked me to NASA – I still know how to use my hands… there is a different way of thinking that goes along with them.

Barry—who told the Onion’s AV Club that she crafted her book What It Is with an eye toward bored readers stuck in a Jiffy Lube oil-change waiting room—is also a big proponent of doodling, which she views as a creative neurological response to boredom:

Boring meeting, you have a pen, the usual clowns are yakking. Most people will draw something, even people who can’t draw. I say “If you’re bored, what do you draw?” And everybody has something they draw. Like “Oh yeah, my little guy, I draw him.” Or “I draw eyeballs, or palm trees.” … So I asked them “Why do you think you do that? Why do you think you doodle during those meetings?” I believe that it’s because it makes having to endure that particular situation more bearable, by changing our experience of time. It’s so slight. I always say it’s the difference between, if you’re not doodling, the minutes feel like a cheese grater on your face. But if you are doodling, it’s more like Brillo.  It’s not much better, but there is a difference. You could handle Brillo a little longer than the cheese grater.

Meetings and classrooms are among the few remaining venues in which screen-addicted moths are expected to force themselves away from the phone’s inviting flame. Other settings—like the Jiffy Lube waiting room—require more initiative on the user’s part.




Once, we were keener students of minor changes to familiar environments, the books strangers were reading in the subway, and those strangers themselves. Our subsequent observations were known to spark conversation and sometimes ideas that led to creative projects.

Now, many of us let those opportunities slide by, as we fill up on such fleeting confections as Candy Crush, funny videos, and all-you-can-eat servings of social media.

It’s also tempting to use our phones as defacto shields any time social anxiety looms. This dodge may provide short term comfort, especially to younger people, but remember, Barry and many of her cartoonist peers, including Daniel Clowes, Simon Hanselmann, and Ariel Schrag, toughed it out by making art. That’s what got them through the loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom of their middle and high school years.

The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleasant experience for me… It was on those quiet weekend nights when even my parents were out having fun that I began making serious attempts to make stories in comics form.

– Adrian Tomine, introduction to 32 Stories

Barry is far from alone in encouraging adults to peel themselves away from their phone dependency for their creative good.

Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s Removed imagines a series of everyday situations in which phones and other personal devices have been rendered invisible. (It’s worth noting that he removed the offending articles from the models’ hands, rather that Photoshopping them out later.)

Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport’s recent book, Deep Work, posits that all that shallow phone time is creating stress, anxiety, and lost creative opportunities, while also doing a number on our personal and professional lives.

Author Manoush Zomorodi’s recent TED Talk on how boredom can lead to brilliant ideas, below, details a weeklong experiment in battling smartphone habits, with lots of scientific evidence to back up her findings.

But what if you wipe the slate of digital distractions only to find that your brain’s just… empty? A once occupied room, now devoid of anything but dimly recalled memes, and generalized dread over the state of the world?

The aforementioned 2010 AV Club interview with Barry offers both encouragement and some useful suggestions that will get the temporarily paralyzed moving again:

I don’t know what the strip’s going to be about when I start. I never know. I oftentimes have—I call it the word-bag. Just a bag of words. I’ll just reach in there, and I’ll pull out a word, and it’ll say “ping-pong.” I’ll just have that in my head, and I’ll start drawing the pictures as if I can… I hear a sentence, I just hear it. As soon as I hear even the beginning of the first sentence, then I just… I write really slow. So I’ll be writing that, and I’ll know what’s going to go at the top of the panel. Then, when it gets to the end, usually I’ll know what the next one is. By three sentences or four in that first panel, I stop, and then I say “Now it’s time for the drawing.” Then I’ll draw. But then I’ll hear the next one over on another page! Or when I’m drawing Marlys and Arna, I might hear her say something, but then I’ll hear Marlys say something back. So once that first sentence is there, I have all kinds of choices as to where I put my brush. But if nothing is happening, then I just go over to what I call my decoy page. It’s like decoy ducks. I go over there and just start messing around.

Related Content:

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Prof. Cal Newport

Lynda Barry’s Illustrated Syllabus & Homework Assignments from Her New UW-Madison Course, “Making Comics”

Lynda Barry, Cartoonist Turned Professor, Gives Her Old Fashioned Take on the Future of Education

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Computer Scientist Cal Newport

A familiar ding comes from your pocket, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smartphone. Before you can think, “it can wait,” you’ve disappeared into the screen like little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Taken by a ghostly presence with designs upon your soul—your time, emotional well-being, creativity—Facebook. Someone has requested my friendship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opinion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the little performative gestures, imprinted in the fingers and the thumbs.

Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, VKontact, Sina Weibo…. Just maybe, social media addiction is a global epidemic, a collection of emotionally, socially, and politically, toxic behaviors. As Suren Ramasubbu reports, “social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain” that make us think intensely about our self-image and public perception, create new neural pathways, and release dopamine and oxytocin, which keep us coming back for more little red hearts, tiny thumbs-ups, and diminutive gold stars (good job!).




While the nature of addiction is a controversial topic, it will arouse little disagreement to say that we live—as Georgetown University Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport writes in the subtitle of his book Deep Work—in a “distracted world.” (The full title is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.) Newport’s prescription will go down less easily. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, Newport argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowledges the oddity of being a “millennial computer scientist book author, standing on a TED stage” who never had a social media account and urges others to give up theirs.

Any one of his overlapping demographics is likely to have a significant web presence. Put all of them together and we expect Newport to be pitching a startup network to an audience of venture capitalists. Even the story about why he first abstained could have made him a minor character in The Social Network. But feelings of professional jealousy soon turned to wariness and alarm. “This seems dangerous,” he says, then lets us know—because we surely wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re convinced he’s happier than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods”—all sugar and fat, no nutrients.

Newport names another objection to quitting—the necessity of social media as an essential business tool—then pivots to his book and his commitment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes version in Brian Johnson’s video above. Johnson begins by contrasting deep work with “shallow work,” where we spend most of our time, “constantly responding to the latest and loudest email and push notification for social media, or text messages or phone ringing, whatever.”

While we may get little endorphin boosts from all of this heavily mediated social activity, we pay a high price in stress, anxiety, and lost time in our personal, professional, and creative lives. The research on overwork and distraction supports Newport’s conclusions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emotional investment in a project. Without getting too specific, such work, Newport says, is not only personally fulfilling, but valuable “in a 21st century economy” for its rarity.

Social media, on the other hand, he claims, contributes little to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your overloaded browser, and tune in to the cluttered state of your mind, you might find yourself agreeing with his heretical proposition. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

To delve further into Newport’s thinking, see his books: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Both books are also available in audio format on Audible.com. Sign up for a free trial here.

Related Content:

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How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

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The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Flickr Commons photo by J Stimp

Everyone used to read Samuel Johnson. Now it seems hardly anyone does. That’s a shame. Johnson understood the human mind, its sadly amusing frailties and its double-blind alleys. He understood the nature of that mysterious act we casually refer to as “creativity.” It is not the kind of thing one lucks into or masters after a seminar or lecture series. It requires discipline and a mind free of distraction. “My dear friend,” said Johnson in 1783, according to his biographer and secretary Boswell, “clear your mind of cant.”

There’s no missing apostrophe in his advice. Inspiring as it may sound, Johnson did not mean to say “you can do it!” He meant “cant,” an old word for cheap deception, bias, hypocrisy, insincere expression. “It is a mode of talking in Society,” he conceded, “but don’t think foolishly.” Johnson’s injunction resonated through a couple centuries, became garbled into a banal affirmation, and was lost in a graveyard of image macros. Let us endeavor to retrieve it, and ruminate on its wisdom.




We may even do so with our favorite modern brief in hand, the scientific study. There are many we could turn to. For example, notes Derek Beres, in a 2014 book neuroscientist Daniel Levitin brought his research to bear in arguing that “information overload keeps us mired in noise…. This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but creativity as well.” “We sure think we’re accomplishing a lot,” Levitin told Susan Page on The Diane Rehm Show in 2015, “but that’s an illusion… as a neuroscientist, I can tell you one thing the brain is very good at is self-delusion.”

Johnson’s age had its own version of information overload, as did that of another curmudgeonly voice from the past, T.S. Eliot, who wondered, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The question leaves Eliot’s readers asking whether what we take for knowledge or information really are such? Maybe they’re just as often forms of needless busyness, distraction, and overthinking. Stanford researcher Emma Seppälä suggests as much in her work on “the science of happiness.” At Quartz, she writes,

We need to find ways to give our brains a break…. At work, we’re intensely analyzing problems, organizing data, writing—all activities that require focus. During downtime, we immerse ourselves in our phones while standing in line at the store or lose ourselves in Netflix after hours.

Seppälä exhorts us to relax and let go of the constant need for stimulation, to take longs walks without the phone, get out of our comfort zones, make time for fun and games, and generally build in time for leisure. How does this work? Let’s look at some additional research. Bar-Ilan University’s Moshe Bar and Shira Baror undertook a study to measure the effects of distraction, or what they call “mental load,” the “stray thoughts” and “obsessive ruminations” that clutter the mind with information and loose ends. Our “capacity for original and creative thinking,” Bar writes at The New York Times, “is markedly stymied” by a busy mind. “The cluttered mind,” writes Jessica Stillman, “is a creativity killer.”

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Bar and Baror describe how “conditions of high load” foster unoriginal thinking. Participants in their experiment were asked to remember strings of arbitrary numbers, then to play word association games. “Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses(e.g., white/black),” writes Bar, “whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g. white/cloud).” Our brains have limited resources. When constrained and overwhelmed with thoughts, they pursue well-trod paths of least resistance, trying to efficiently bring order to chaos.

“Imagination,” on the other hand, wrote Dr. Johnson elsewhere, “a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations and impatient of restraint, has always endeavored to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the enclosures of regularity.” Bar describes the contrast between the imaginative mind and the information processing mind as “a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation.” Gorging on information makes our brains “’exploit’ what we already know,” or think we know, “leaning on our expectation, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment.” When our minds are “unloaded,” on the other hand, such as can occur during a hike or a long, relaxing shower, we can shed fixed patterns of thinking, and explore creative insights that might otherwise get buried or discarded.

As Drake Baer succinctly puts in at New York Magazine’s Science of Us, “When you have nothing to think about, you can do your best thinking.” Getting to that state in a climate of perpetual, unsleeping distraction, opinion, and alarm, requires another kind of discipline: the discipline to unplug, wander off, and clear your mind.

For another angle on this, you might want to check out Cal Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Charles Darwin & Charles Dickens’ Four-Hour Work Day: The Case for Why Less Work Can Mean More Productivity

We all operate at different levels of ambition: some just want to get by and enjoy themselves, while others strive to make achievements with as long-lasting an impact on humanity as possible. If we think of candidates for the latter category, Charles Darwin may well come to mind, at least in the sense that the work he did as a naturalist, and more so the theory of evolution that came out of it, has ensured that we remember his name well over a century after his death and will surely continue to do so centuries hence. But research into Darwin’s working life suggests something less than workaholism — and indeed, that he put in a fraction of the number of hours we associate with serious ambition.

“After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half,” writes Nautilus‘ Alex Soojung-kim Pang. “At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.” After this walk he would answer letters, take a nap, take another walk, go back to his study, and then have dinner with the family. Darwin typically got to bed, according to a daily schedule drawn from his son Francis’ reminiscences of his father, by 10:30.




“On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects,” writes Pang, and of course not failing to mention “The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves.” Another textually prolific Victorian Englishman named Charles, adhering to a similarly non-life-consuming work routine, managed to produce — in addition to tireless letter-writing and campaigning for social reform — hundreds of short stories and articles, five novellas, and fifteen novels including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations

“After an early life burning the midnight oil,” writes Pang, Charles Dickens “settled into a schedule as ‘methodical or orderly’ as a ‘city clerk,’ his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day.” Pang finds that may other successful writers have kept similarly restrained work schedules, from Anthony Trollope to Alice Munro, Somerset Maugham to Gabriel García Márquez, Saul Bellow to Stephen King. He notes similar habits in science and mathematics as well, including Henri Poincaré and G.H. Hardy.

Research by Pang and others into work habits and productivity have recently drawn a great deal of attention, pointing as it does to the question of whether we might all consider working less in order to work better. “Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours voluntarily, you’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired,” writes the Harvard Business Review‘s Sarah Green Carmichael. What’s more, “work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds.” This discovery actually dates back to Darwin and Dickens’ 19th century: “When organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased – and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased.”

This goes just as much for academics, whose workweeks, “as long as they are, are not nearly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet),” writes Times Higher Education‘s David Matthews in a piece on the research of University of Pennsylvania professor (and ex-Goldman Sachs banker) Alexandra Michel. “Four hours a day is probably the limit for those looking to do genuinely original research, she says. In her experience, the only people who have avoided burnout and achieved some sort of balance in their lives are those sticking to this kind of schedule.” Michel finds that “because academics do not have their hours strictly defined and regulated (as manual workers do), ‘other controls take over. These controls are peer pressure.'” So at least we know the first step on the journey toward viable work habits: regarding the likes of Darwin and Dickens as your peers.

via Nautilus

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Richard Feynman’s “Notebook Technique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Richard Feynman knew his stuff. Had he not, he probably wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, let alone his various other prestigious scientific awards. But his reputation for learning all his life long with a special depth and rigor survives him, and in a sense accounts for his fame — of a degree that ensures his stern yet playful face will gaze out from dorm-room posters for generations to come — even more than does his “real” work. Many students of physics still, understandably, want to be like Feynman, but everyone else, even those of us with no interest in physics whatsoever, could also do well to learn from him: not from what he thought about, but from how he thought about it.

On his Study Hacks Blog, computer science professor Cal Newport explains what he calls “the Feynman notebook technique,” whereby “dedicating a notebook to a new learning task” can provide “concrete cues” to help mitigate the difficulty of starting out toward the mastery of a subject.




Feynman did it himself at least since his graduate-school days at Princeton when, according to biographer James Gleick, he once prepared for his oral examinations by opening a fresh notebook titled “NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT.” In it “he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.”

“At first, the notebook pages are empty,” writes Newport, “but as they fill with careful notes, your knowledge also grows. The drive to fill more pages keeps your motivation stoked.” In other, more general terms: “Translate your growing knowledge of something hard into a concrete form and you’re more likely to keep investing the mental energy needed to keep learning.” But how sure can you feel of your newly acquired knowledge if you don’t regularly test it? Feynman had to go face-to-face with the elders of the Princeton physics department, but if you don’t benefit from that kind of institutional threat, you might consider putting into practice another Feynman technique: “teaching” what you’ve learned to someone else.

Courera - Earn your Degree Online

In addition to being a great scientist, explains study-skills vlogger Thomas Frank, Feynman “was also a great teacher and a great explainer,” owing to his ability to “boil down incredibly complex concepts and put them in simple language that other people could understand.” Only when Feynman could do that did he know he truly understood a concept himself — be it a concept in physics, safecracking, or bongo-playing. As Frank explains, “if you’re shaky on a concept and you want to quickly improve your understanding,” try your hand at producing a Feynmanesque simple explanation, which will “test your understanding and challenge your assumptions.” Just make sure to bear in mind one of Feynman’s most quotable quotes: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” And if you find that you have indeed fooled yourself, head right back to the drawing board — or rather, to the notebook.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Wynton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Practice: For Musicians, Athletes, or Anyone Who Wants to Learn Something New

Image by Eric Delmar, via Wikimedia Commons

Practicing for countless hours before we can be good at something seems burdensome and boring. Maybe that’s why we’re drawn to stories of instant achievement. The monk realizes satori (and Neo learns kung fu); the superhero acquires great power out of the blue; Robert Johnson trades for genius at the crossroads. At the same time, we teach children they can’t master a skill without discipline and diligence. We repeat pop psych theories that specify the exact number hours required for excellence. The number may be arbitrary, but it comforts us to believe that practice might, eventually, make perfect. Because in truth we know there is no way around it. As Wynton Marsalis writes in “Wynton’s Twelve Ways to Practice: From Music to Schoolwork,” “practice is essential to learning music—and anything else, for that matter.”

For jazz musicians, the time spent learning theory and refining technique finds eloquent expression in the concept of woodshedding, a “humbling but necessary chore,” writes Paul Klemperer at Big Apple Jazz, “like chopping wood before you can start the fire.”




Yet retiring to the woodshed “means more than just practicing…. You have to dig deep into yourself, discipline yourself, become focused on the music and your instrument.” As beginners, we tend to look at practice only as a chore. The best jazz musicians know there’s also “something philosophical, almost religious” about it. John Coltrane, for example, practiced ceaselessly, consciously defining his music as a spiritual and contemplative discipline.

Marsalis also implies a religious aspect in his short article: “when you practice, it means you are willing to sacrifice to sound good… I like to say that the time spent practicing is the true sign of virtue in a musician.” Maybe this piety is intended to dispel the myth of quick and easy deals with infernal entities. But most of Marsalis’ “twelve ways to practice” are as pragmatic as they come, and “will work,” he promises “for almost every activity—from music to schoolwork to sports.” Find his abridged list below, and read his full commentary at “the trumpeter’s bible,” Arban’s Method.

  1. Seek out instruction: A good teacher will help you understand the purpose of practicing and can teach you ways to make practicing easier and more productive.
  1. Write out a schedule: A schedule helps you organize your time. Be sure to allow time to review the fundamentals because they are the foundation of all the complicated things that come later.
  1. Set goals: Like a schedule, goals help you organize your time and chart your progress…. If a certain task turns out to be really difficult, relax your goals: practice doesnʼt have to be painful to achieve results.
  1. Concentrate: You can do more in 10 minutes of focused practice than in an hour of sighing and moaning. This means no video games, no television, no radio, just sitting still and working…. Concentrated effort takes practice too, especially for young people.
  1. Relax and practice slowly: Take your time; donʼt rush through things. Whenever you set out to learn something new – practicing scales, multiplication tables, verb tenses in Spanish – you need to start slowly and build up speed.
  1. Practice hard things longer: Donʼt be afraid of confronting your inadequacies; spend more time practicing what you canʼt do…. Successful practice means coming face to face with your shortcomings. Donʼt be discouraged; youʼll get it eventually.
  1. Practice with expression: Every day you walk around making yourself into “you,” so do everything with the proper attitude…. Express your “style” through how you do what you do.
  1. Learn from your mistakes: None of us are perfect, but donʼt be too hard on yourself. If you drop a touchdown pass, or strike out to end the game, itʼs not the end of the world. Pick yourself up, analyze what went wrong and keep going….
  1. Donʼt show off: Itʼs hard to resist showing off when you can do something well…. But my father told me, “Son, those who play for applause, thatʼs all they get.” When you get caught up in doing the tricky stuff, youʼre just cheating yourself and your audience.
  1. Think for yourself: Your success or failure at anything ultimately depends on your ability to solve problems, so donʼt become a robot…. Thinking for yourself helps develop your powers of judgment.
  1. Be optimistic: Optimism helps you get over your mistakes and go on to do better. It also gives you endurance because having a positive attitude makes you feel that something great is always about to happen.
  1. Look for connections: If you develop the discipline it takes to become good at something, that discipline will help you in whatever else you do…. The more you discover the relationships between things that at first seem different, the larger your world becomes. In other words, the woodshed can open up a whole world of possibilities.

You’ll note in even a cursory scan of Marsalis’ prescriptions that they begin with the imminently practical—the “chores” we can find tedious—and move further into the intangibles: developing creativity, humility, optimism, and, eventually, maybe, a gradual kind of enlightenment. You’ll notice on a closer read that the consciousness-raising and the mundane daily tasks go hand-in-hand.

While this may be all well and good for jazz musicians, students, athletes, or chess players, we may have reason for skepticism about success through practice more generally. Researchers at Princeton have found, for example, that the effectiveness of practice is “domain dependent.” In games, music, and sports, practice accounts for a good deal of improvement. In certain other “less stable” fields driven by celebrity and networking, for example, success can seem more dependent on personality or privileged access.

But it’s probably safe to assume that if you’re reading this post, you’re interested in mastering a skill, not cultivating a brand. Whether you want to play Carnegie Hall or “learn a language, cook good meals or get along well with people,” practice is essential, Marsalis argues, and practicing well is just as important as practicing often. For a look at how practice changes our brains, creating what we colloquially call “muscle memory,” see the TED-Ed video just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Procrastination is a skill, an art, a slight-of-hand technique. I’m procrastinating right now, but you’d never know it. How many tabs do I have open in my multiple browser windows? Pick a number, any number. How many tasks have I put off today? How many dreams have I deferred? I’ll never tell. The unskilled procrastinators stick out, they’re easy to spot. They talk a lot about what they’re not doing. They run around in circles of bewilderment like the troubled hero of Dr. Seuss’s Hunches in Bunches. The skilled practitioner makes it look easy.

But no matter how much Facebook time you get in before lunch and still manage to ace those performance reviews, you’re really only cheating yourself, am I right? You wanted to finish that novel/symphony/improv class/physics theorem. But something stopped you. Something in your brain perhaps. That’s where these things usually happen. When Stuart Langfield asked a neuroscientist about the neuroscience of procrastination, he got the following answer: “People think that you can turn on an MRI and see where something’s happening in the brain, but the truth is that’s not so. This stuff is vastly more complicated, so we have theories.”




There are theories aplenty that tell us, says Langfield, “what’s probably happening” in the brain. Langfield explains his own: the primitive, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding limbic system acts too quickly for our more deliberative, rational prefrontal cortex to catch up, rendering us stupefied by distractions. Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary and a procrastination expert, shares this view. You can see him explain it in the short video below. The evolutionary “design flaw,” says Langfield, might make the situation seem hopeless, were it not for “neuroplasticity,” a fancy buzzword that means we have the ability to change our brains.

Langfield’s purpose in his short video is not only to understand the biology of procrastination, but to overcome it. He asks psychologist Tim Pychyl, whose answers we see and hear as an incomprehensible jumble of ideas. But then Pychyl reduces the complicated theories to a simple solution. You guessed it, mindfulness meditation—to “downregulate the limbic system.” Really, that’s it? Just meditate? It is a proven way to reduce anxiety and improve concentration.

But Pychyl and his research team at Carleton University have a few more very practical suggestions, based on experimental data gathered by Steel and others. The Wall Street Journal offers this condensed list of tips:

Break a long-term project down into specific sub-goals. State the exact start time and how long (not just “tomorrow”) you plan to work on the task.

Just get started. It isn’t necessary to write a long list of tasks, or each intermediate step.

Remind yourself that finishing the task now helps you in the future. Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable.

Implement “microcosts,” or mini-delays, that require you to make a small effort to procrastinate, such as having to log on to a separate computer account for games.

Reward yourself not only for completing the entire project but also the sub-goals.

A Stockholm University study tested these strategies, assigning a group of 150 self-reported “high procrastinators” several of the self-help instructions over 10 weeks, and employing a reward system and varying levels of guidance. “The results,” WSJ reports, “showed that after intervention with both guided and unguided self-help, people improved their procrastination, though the guided therapy seemed to show greater benefit.”

Other times, adding self-help tasks to get us to the tasks we’re putting off doesn’t work so well. We can all take comfort in the fact that procrastination has a long history, dating back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and 18th century England. The wisdom of the ages could not defeat it, or as Samuel Johnson wrote, “even they who most steadily withstand it find it, if not the most violent, the most pertinacious of their passions, always renewing its attacks, and, though often vanquished, never destroyed.”

But there are people who procrastinate, beset by its pertinacity, and then there are chronic procrastinators. “If you’re an occasional procrastinator, says Pychyl, “quit thinking about your feelings and get to the next task.” Suck it up, in other words, and walk it off—maybe after a short course of self-help. For all the conflicting neuroscientific theory, “there is a quiet science behind procrastination,” writes Big Think, and “according to recent studies, procrastination is a learned habit.” Most research agrees it’s one we can unlearn through meditation and/or patient retraining of ourselves.

However if you’re of the chronic subset, say Pychyl, “you might need therapy to better understand your emotions and how you’re coping with them through avoidance.” Psychologist Joseph Ferrari at DePaul University agrees. Citing a figure of “20 percent of U.S. men and women” who “make procrastination their way of life,” he adds, “it is the person who does that habitually, always with plausible ‘excuses’ that has issues to address.” Only you can determine whether your trouble relates to bad habits or deeper psychological issues.

Whatever the causes, what might motivate us to meditate or seek therapy are the effects. Chronic procrastination is “not a time management issue,” says Ferrari, “it is a maladaptive lifestyle.” Habitual procrastinators, the WSJ writes, “have higher rates of depression and anxiety and poorer well-being.” We may think, writes Eric Jaffe at the Association for Psychological Science’s journal, of procrastination as “an innocuous habit at worst, and maybe even a helpful one at best,” a strategy Stanford philosophy professor John Perry argued for in The Art of Procrastination. Instead, Jaffe says, in a sobering summary of Pychyl’s research, “procrastination is really a self-inflicted wound that gradually chips away at the most valuable resource in the world: time.”

Related Content:

Free Online Psychology & Neuroscience Courses

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

Miranda July Teaches You How to Avoid Procrastination

The Art of Structured Procrastination

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, Presented in an Interactive Infographic

creative people infographic
Click the image above to access the interactive infographic.
The daily life of great authors, artists and philosophers has long been the subject of fascination among those who look upon their work in awe. After all, life can often feel like, to quote Elbert Hubbard, “one damned thing after another” — a constant muddle of obligations and responsibilities interspersed with moments of fleeting pleasure, wrapped in gnawing low-level existential panic. (Or, at least, it does to me.) Yet some people manage to transcend this perpetual barrage of office meetings, commuter traffic and the unholy allure of reality TV to create brilliant work. It’s easy to think that the key to their success is how they structure their day.

Mason Currey’s blog-turned-book Daily Rituals describes the workaday life of great minds from W.H. Auden to Immanuel Kant, from Flannery O’Connor to Franz Kafka. The one thing that Currey’s project underlines is that there is no magic bullet. The daily routines are as varied as the people who follow them– though long walks, a ridiculously early wake up time and a stiff drink are common to many.




One school of thought for creating is summed up by Gustave Flaubert’s maxim, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Haruki Murakami has a famously rigid routine that involves getting up at 4am and writing for nine hours straight, followed by a daily 10km run. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” He admits that his schedule allows little room for a social life.

Then there’s the fantastically prolific Belgian author George Simenon, who somehow managed to crank out 425 books over the course of his career. He would go for weeks without writing, followed by short bursts of frenzied activity. He would also wear the same outfit everyday while working on his novel, regularly take tranquilizers and somehow find the time to have sex with up to four different women a day.

Most writers fall somewhere in between. Toni Morrison, for instance, has a routine that that seems far more relatable than the superman schedules of Murakami or Simeon. Since she juggled raising two children and a full time job as an editor at Random House, Morrison simply wrote when she could. “I am not able to write regularly,” she once told The Paris Review. “I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”

Above is a way cool infographic of the daily routines of 26 different creators, created by Podio.com. And if you want to see an interactive version of the same graphic but with rollover bits of trivia, just click here. You’ll learn that Voltaire slept only 4 hours a day and worked constantly. Victor Hugo preferred to take a morning ice bath on his roof. And Maya Angelou preferred to work in an anonymous hotel room.

via ThisisColossal

Related Content:

The Daily Habits of Highly Productive Philosophers: Nietzsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

John Updike’s Advice to Young Writers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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