In Praise of Distraction
How inspiration comes from skipping work
Not all those who wander are lost.
—J R R Tolkien
Two changes that we can make to our thinking about production
Attention is difficult.
Whether it’s off the topic reading for a post or leaving off work because it’s nice out, I get immersed in activities that have no expected productive value. And even when I’m making good progress the work is slower going than I would like.
The off-the-topic reading I do can make a blog post take 25 hours instead of 15. The reading may be worth doing, but I sense it’s wasting my time.
Curiosity may be derived from laziness, or it might come from acting on a sudden interest in finding out what an actor—popular decades ago—is doing these days, while in the middle of drafting the difficult final chapter of my novel.
Indecision might lead an author to write three sentences instead of one—each possibly the last sentence of a novel—leaving them in the text until deciding which one is right for the story.
Since choosing the right words is integral to writing a good story, the best move after a couple of hours of work might be to leave those three sentences in the text and come back to them with a fresh mind the next day.
If the indecision is over fifty pages of text and the brick wall seems impenetrable, a month of heavy reading and work on a new story may lead to the answer to the problem of the novel.
When you're invested in those projects so stubbornly resistant to being finished, distraction can play a crucially productive role in developing a work.
The idea for writing Faust came to Goethe in 1769, though he waited four years before commencing the project. He paused from working on it in 1775 for three years to brainstorm a ‘plan’ for continuing it.
Goethe spent 57 years writing Faust. He published part one in 1808, then spent 24 years drafting part two, finishing it months before his death in 1832. Part one was a conventionally structured romantic drama, part two is different. It’s filled with flying spirits, ethereal locations, time travel, a homunculus. It’s never been staged in its entirety. Faust is a play and an epic. The meticulous thought Goethe put into writing his big play turned it into the greatest German literary work of all time. 57 years isn’t so long. It’s the blink of an eye.
It’s a commonly held notion that distraction is bad for productivity. But if you’re working outside of the assembly line—there’s a fecundity of inspiration in distraction that can lead to producing something fantastic.
In distraction, we get our mind off the labor of our work and the mechanics of the rudimentary activities we are always doing.
They may not be and usually are not the answers to our working problem. An artist’s temptation to grind through the work is ever-persistent, but there’s an excellent need for coming out of the study to go for a swim or make love. It can be anything that appeals to you outside of your routine.
We need to exercise the dormant parts of ourselves.
Exercise a literary mind with calculus, with a foreign language. Exercise a scientist’s brain with T S Eliot.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “what is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Inspiration comes from intentional and unintentional means.
Through intentional means, you’re working when you become inspired. If you write novels, you show up every day to work and write. Some days you write ten pages of fantastic material. Other days you write three pages of so-so material—but every day you put in the same amount of time.
You work: inspiration follows. The overall effect of your effort over time is the fruition of your impulse. The number of days you put into the project over the total effort makes three page days equal to ten page days.
Unintentional inspiration is when you are inspired without seeking to be inspired. An idea pops into her head while she’s waiting in a grocery line. In her case, it’s a vision she has for a mural about Rohingya refugees in India. She goes home and drafts the sketches that becomes the basis for it.
With help from the internet, I compiled a shortlist of actions—ideas being actions of the mind—arguing in favor of distraction.
You’re doing enough work. We think we’re not doing enough work. We need to get more tasks done during the day—we don’t need to. We don’t need to add more completed tasks to our belt every day—we need to deviate from routine—deliberately, not waywardly—to allow time for those things that we would otherwise let slip by.
That book that I’ve been meaning to read for years, now decades, actually gets read after two hours a week are devoted to its pages for a couple of months.
Take breaks. Space gives us time to put our actions into perspective. How often do you remind yourself that the thing frustrating you now will not bother you in a week?
This is not to say that people who space themselves from their routine are less ambitious, but that part of the race is refueling to go further.
Let your thinking be scattered. You can always pull it back. This idea is common in meditation. When we meditate, we’re still thinking whether or not we’re trying not to.
In Shambhala meditation, the idea is to slow your thoughts while seated in the noble posture.
Embrace thoughts that persist—understand their emotional quality—then brush them away. It’s kind of like allowing raindrops to accumulate on the windshield of a car and then activating the wipers to clear the rain off the window.
Distraction is a counterpart of focus—not its enemy.
We think of symphonies, candlelit rooms, paintings—Arcadia as inspiring—but what would’ve inspired Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead if he hadn’t experienced a prison camp himself?
This is an extreme example because Dostoyevsky was pulled away from his literary career at the age of 27—distracted from it by the state, you might say—for his association with the Petrashevsky Circle, a progressive intellectual group that embraced socialism. He spent eight months in prison before being led with others to a firing squad. Dostoyevsky believed he was about to die; then, the execution was called off at the last moment. It was a mock execution and turned out to be part of his punishment. One of the prisoners immediately went insane. Dostoyevsky went to a labor camp in Siberia for four years. In Siberia, he observed murderers, the cruelty of the guards, and kind souls commingling in the squalid conditions.
The experiences he had in Siberia radically changed his thinking toward the conservative spirituality and nationalism that paved the way for his consecutive masterpieces that followed.
In Siberia, Dostoyevsky not only learned the ideas that would guide him through his psychological revelations of humanity in his later writing. The seeds of power and mystery so beguiling in his last books were planted in Dostoyevsky while he was a prisoner in Siberia. His late novels have catalyzed discussions and inspiration since their publication. One can read his first novel Poor Folk and see that it is a good and accurate portrayal of Russian peasantry—but it doesn’t have the strange beauty and staying power of the work that he would develop after Siberia.
But the major transformations that distraction ignites in us most often come from mundanities.
What would’ve inspired Kafka to write The Metamorphosis if he had had an exciting job?