Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.         — Blaise Pascal

 

Our day begins with good intentions. Feeling rested and focused, we set our priorities. We resolve that today will be different from yesterday, because today, we we’ll stay on task. But then we turn on our computers and smart-phones, and before we know it, we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

We’re living in an exciting time as artists—a time when technology is empowering us to bypass gatekeepers and connect directly with our audience. And for those of us who work alone in an office or at home, technology offers some welcome relief. “That’s my Twitter origin tale,” says writer Colson Whitehead, “it’s nice to have a little company during the long workday.”

But the downside of technological innovation is that our computers, phones, and myriad of screens also offer countless distractions from the creative work that matters most to us. The temptation is especially strong for artists who use technology as an essential tool in their creative work. Composers compose music on their computer, writers write novels, filmmakers edit their films, photographers develop work digitally. Even painters must spend time sharing their work online and connecting with their audience. But there is a critical difference between using our computers in an active way versus passively allowing them to hijack our day.

So how do we make the most of this technology without frittering our lives away? How do we create time and space for deep thinking, creation, and real connection within the chaos of digital life?

 

The Serpentine Gallery in London and Edge.org collaborated on the Serpentine Map Marathon, which included non-stop live presentations by over 50 artists, poets, writers, philosophers, scholars, musicians, architects, designers and scientists. This drawing by Douglas Rushkoff was part of the event. (Photo courtesy Edge.org. Click to Enlarge)

 

After thirteen years of working at The MacDowell Colony, I’ve witnessed the transformative power of retreat. To disconnect, to court solitude, and to seek out a community of supportive peers is the perfect recipe for creating great art.

Recently, I had a conversation with an artist who was suffering a serious bout of depression because she was transitioning from MacDowell to her “real life.” And I remember how devastated I felt when leaving my residencies at the Hambidge Center. It’s not that our “real lives” are so horrible. It’s that colonies and other retreats reduce our choices to a manageable workload. Because we don’t have to answer the phone or keep up with every email, run errands, or think about what to cook for dinner, we feel less overwhelmed and are better able to focus. We feel more like our true selves.

The lesson of such retreats is that simplification and less choice often lead to more contentment (an idea that Barry Schwartz addresses in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.)

But how do we create this kind of “retreat” in our daily lives once a residency is over? And how about those who can’t get away because of work or family?