The Machine & The Magician: What you need to know about distraction

I’ve been learning a lot about the creative process lately. Like you, so much of my life is built around the concept that sometimes I need to be highly productive and other times I need to be highly creative. But, at all times, my work is best when it is both on time and creatively completed.

The Machine

Since childhood, we’ve been taught that there are times to sit down and focus all of our efforts on a task. I remember being rewarded as a 6 year old in kindergarten for my ability to sit down and do my work. My teacher had it set up so that each child, during a segment of the day for learning, could work at their own pace. I was really, really good at doing this. But if you looked at someone or whispered to your neighbor or suddenly got up and did a wiggle dance, that was inappropriate & bad.

In college, you were probably truly challenged academically for the first time– you had to learn how to study and knock hard projects out quickly. Further, you learned that there were times that if you disciplined yourself to focus that you could turn your brain into a task-master machine.

I knew that I could disappear into the corners of Moody’s library for four hours with a mug of coffee and emerge with a 10 page paper, 25 definitions memorized, a test prepared for, and 2 chapters of a book read with annotated notes for later review.

The machine is the opposite of creative. It pounds out work. It produces. And when the grades came out the one with the most powerful machine often won the highest grades.

As an adult I depend on turning on this machine. It takes me a while to get to that “machine” space, but if I put my headphones in with some improvisational jazz, turn off social media, and get into a project I can get there– knocking out a lot in a short amount of time.

The Magician

Have you been around babies & toddlers? I’ve had 3 of them crawl around my house in my lifetime. They are born magicians… incredibly creative in what they do. Turn your head for a second and BAM– they’ve done something amazing. Children can take two seemingly unrelated things and tie them together magically. In an instant they can disappear into a pretend world full of adventure, they can create stories out of thin air complete with backstory and plot twists.

You don’t have to teach a child how to be creative, it’s intuitive. If you allow them to just be themselves they are automatically creative.

To Review

The Machine is learned behavior to concentrate hard on a task, it is good.

The Magician is your natural creative self, the part of you that sees clay and stcks and smiles, it is also good.

Distraction isn’t bad

When I am in work mode I tend to think distractions are bad. Positive reinforcement from teachers and success in college taught me that. I get somewhere quiet and predictable. I work very well after the kids go to bed or at my office. Interruptions and distractions feel like the enemy. Phones, texts, Facebook, Twitter, visitors, going to the bathroom… all feel as though they will disturb the machines production.

But that’s not how it works. Your best work happens because an idea is sparked. When I get peer review of my work and overlay positive feedback with the timing of its production, the things that are most often the best– a creative solution, a breakthrough, an insight, a great paragraph— most often are in my work because the machine got turned off for a time and the magician was allowed to play. Perhaps I was in full machine mode and needed a lunch break? While walking there, my mind still churning on the work, I’ll get an idea or a solution or a insight into that work that I add. But sometimes this happens because a phone rings in another room, or a someone at a coffee shop drops something. Those breaks from Machine mode allow the Magician to play with the thing I’m working with and mix it with something else.

In fact, I’ve learned that intentionally allowing myself to become distracted can be an excellent way to generate new ideas. Taking a walk, shower, phone call, checking Facebook, listening to a sermon, catching up on the news, pulling weeds in the garden, playing with my kids, goofing off, even doing a small task like packing a box– all of these things allow me to turn the Machine off and allow my naturally creative mind, the Magician, to begin playing with ideas.

The Machine and the Magician are Playmates

I’ve learned that the Machine and the Magician are not adversaries. I will not truly be productive if I see the Machine as the winner and the Magician as the loser. (Though many people perpetuate that myth & it certainly seems productive.) My work is at its best when I foster interplay between getting things done and getting things done playfully. My work is best, not when I have hours and hours of uninterrupted Machine time, but when I have concerted time which builds in intentional distractibility so that the Magician has his voice.






3 responses to “The Machine & The Magician: What you need to know about distraction”

  1. Dee Avatar

    You are so right! Great post.

  2. […] looking at the potential impact of the Gospel message on a community? Research shows that distraction leads to creativity while focused attention leads to mere productivity. And in many churches we are very productive at some things while largely ignoring the major […]

  3. Brandon Pachey Avatar
    Brandon Pachey

    See this has been a struggle with me watching how my wife homeschools my kids. Its so less structured and from an education and training structure taught by the machine, its frustrating to me to see them on youtube, itunes etc while on “break” during homeschooling time. Thanks for this though, I definetley think it is a reminder I needed. Well, back to the machine.

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