I Turned Off the Noise for a Week, and Here’s What I Learned
Tempting as it is, filling all your time with other people’s content can stunt your creativity
It began innocently enough. Dying to know what happened next on my favorite true-crime podcast, I turned it on one day as I cleaned the bathroom.
Soon, though, realizing the potential of my new discovery, I began consuming content everywhere. From seemingly innocuous things like listening to articles in the car to less conventional ones like catching clips of my favorite late-night satirists in the shower, the space around me became filled with unrelenting noise. Which was fine, I thought, because I was only consuming these media during my downtime.
I had a lot of reasons to need the distraction — growing issues between my parents and me; a surprise pregnancy following two miscarriages; a home construction project — and I found various kinds of noise to need.
In the background, as I completed life’s tasks, I listened to music, articles, books, stories, podcasts, impeachment hearings, and anything else that caught my attention. When one was over, I just rolled into the next. Sometimes I’d listen to three or four takes on the same news story in my hunger to get out of my own head.
Even during downtimes, noise can interfere with your creativity
Before long, though, I began feeling really uncreative and unproductive in my writing. I carved out time each day — many hours, in fact — to work on my current novel. But when I sat to write, I just couldn’t get into the story. What should Lucinda do next? How does Emeka get involved in the story? What even is the story, and what made me think it was a good idea to write it in the first place? I didn’t even know anymore.
That was all kind of a big deal, considering that growing inside my belly right now is a very hard deadline for finishing this draft and sending it off for editorial review.
Before this obsession began, I would literally talk to my characters. In the shower, I would have conversations with Elle and try to figure out why she did the things she did and what she’d do next. As I grocery shopped, I would try to figure out how the story would change if Zavi was a villain. Now, with all the content I was devouring, my subconscious didn’t have space (or the peace) to work any of this out.
On some level, I knew what I was doing was detrimental to my creativity at best, and unhealthy at worst. I hadn’t created any new memoir content in months, and I sat in a silent standoff with the book. But there was just so much stuff out there to know, and I really felt like I needed to know all of it.
Silence allows your imagination to get back in the driver’s seat
By chance, I was at the supermarket last week when a particular smell gave me an idea for a poem. I stood distracted at the checkout line, stanzas already percolating in my mind. It was important enough to watch the words come together that, when I returned to my car, rather than turning on the latest podcast I was bingeing, I drove home in silence.
I resisted the urge to turn on the radio as I unpacked the groceries, and by the time I’d put away the bags and opened my computer, the words flew from my fingers onto the screen and I’d written my first poem in months.
After another day or two of silencing my life, my mind was crawling with ideas for new poems and essays — they come to me faster than I can even write down each premise, let alone put together the whole story.
Now, after my kids have gone to school and I’ve finished at the gym, my day is more or less silent. My phone and my watch stay on the other side of the house. I don’t turn on even the ambient music I used to use for writing. I close my email, and my stats page, and my social networking sites. My writing software goes into a distraction-free mode. No more passive content consumption.
And the words and ideas come.
To-do lists help cut through the noise
Serendipity recently sent me the story, What to Do When You’ve Failed to be Productive, by Itxy Lopez. The title alone felt like a personal indictment, and reading the opening paragraph made me wonder if she’d been looking over my shoulder for the last year. I closed my blinds and read on.
In it, one suggestion Itxy makes for overcoming unexpected challenges to productivity is altering your to-do list — moving some tasks to different days, letting some drop off altogether, and prioritizing but maybe shortening the most important ones so you’re still making progress even if it’s not as much as you’d planned.
The problem, in my case, was that I don’t have a to-do list. Like, at all. I’m a mom. I work from home. I do 60 million things every day and procrastinate 30 million more. I just do things until there’s nothing to do, which will keep me in business roughly until I turn to dust. Still, as I eyed the reusable notebook I’d gotten for Christmas, I wondered if I could gain something from putting those commitments to paper.
So, I made myself a to-do list. Since I have a lot of obligations, it was a full-page list, organized on one axis by day and the other by category (construction, freelancing, novel writing, and so on). I even wrote what I planned to make for dinner each night, as the question is the source of no less than two hours per week of staring out into space, pondering my usefulness as a spouse and parent.
The list turned out to be a game-changer, helping me figure out what was really important (writing my book) and prioritizing it over low-hanging fruit (submitting insurance claims), along with actually scheduling those two-minute tasks that I’ve been procrastinating, in some cases, for over a year (sorry to my state’s Small Business Division).
I actually completed all the tasks on my list and I felt focused enough that I was probably twice as productive that week than I had been in any other since NaNoWriMo 2018 when I started this damn novel in the first place.
Most outside temptations can wait
When I had a list, I realized how many other things come up that I allow to get in the way of what I should really be focusing on. The truth is, most of these things can wait.
The conversation with my husband about the fixtures in the new bathroom can happen after my workday is over.
The message from my doctor’s office to remind me of next week’s appointment, the notification that I made another 43 cents on a story I wrote six months ago, the text my friend sent of her baby doing cute baby laughs, even that splotch of peanut butter my daughter left on the counter when she made her breakfast this morning — all of those will still be there in a few hours. They might seem like quick, easy things to handle right now, but they all take me out of the creative process and it’s difficult to maintain my connection with my plot and characters if I’m constantly pulled out of that world.
Eliminating these distractions has given me occasion to believe that I might actually finish this book before my newborn crashes through the wall like the Kool-Aid pitcher and turns everything all topsy-turvy. After that, I’ll no doubt be attempting to figure out how to be productive when all I do is breastfeed and change diapers.
But, until then, at least I’ve got a plan.