I just got back from a 7-day silent retreat, and one thing that surprised me was how creative I became after cutting out all outside influences for 3–4 days. Ideas were so exciting, because they were the only stimulation I had! It reminded me of how I felt during some of the creative projects I did as a kid, pre-Internet in a house that didn’t have cable.
This in turn got me thinking of the Montessori approach to learning. From what I understand, their innovation was realizing that young children have an innate drive to explore and interact with their environment. So, if you create an environment that they can learn through interacting with, they will learn by default. Put them in that environment, and just by naturally being a toddler, they’ll pick up the things they need to know.
I think we adults have a similar innate drive to create, and that drive can be supported or stifled by the environment. And, I think that instead of creating environments where we are creative by default, we live in a world where we are distracted by default.
In a vacuum, we have ideas and projects that want to see the light of day. However, with phones in our pockets mainlining the Internet into our veins at any moment, our minds never have the uninterrupted quiet we need to let the creative juices flow. It’s hard for the seed of a not-yet-fully formed idea to compete with Candy Crush or checking HN / Twitter / Facebook / Gmail for the nth time that day.
What if quiet, stillness, and boredom are the fertile soil in which creative ideas can blossom? Cal Newport has written about the importance of carving out periods of deep work in one’s schedule, but what would it look like to make that the default?
Here’s a stab at what a “creative by default” lifestyle might include:
· No phones for most of the day
· Internet only at pre-allotted times, 1–2x / day
· Documentation, Stack Overflow, programming libraries, and design templates locally hosted and available offline
· Immersion in nature
· Extended periods where you can only meditate or create — no socializing or passive consumption of material.
· Regular, planned social periods outside of the silent work / meditation periods
· Healthy, low glycemic index foods
· Alarm clocks, analog calendars, and other “dumb” devices to reduce dependency on a smartphone
· An emergency contact # (maybe a land-line) where family / friends / colleagues can contact you if an emergency arises during the extended offline periods
· Perhaps a typewriter or other device that never touches the Internet
· Intentionally chosen pieces of content to consume around the creative life and process (poems, essays, talks)
And, in a group setting:
· Having one terminal with Internet access for as-needed connectivity throughout the day
· A place to store phones if needed where everyone can see, again using social pressure to encourage limited use
· Designated places to collaborate / brainstorm that won’t spill over into the silent creative space
After being in that environment for a week, I strongly felt like I didn’t want to let the stillness and creativity go when I left the retreat. So, since coming home, I’ve begun to implement some of the above practices in my life, like only connecting to the Internet a few times per day, getting a flip phone to use in case of emergencies, and spending more time in nature.
I’m also interested in exploring these practices in community, as I feel like having a group of people intentionally doing this will make it even more powerful. If you’d be interested in trying out these practices in a 4–7 day retreat, sign up here and I’ll reach out when I have something concrete.
Or if you have ideas / want to get involved, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, follow me on here if you want to hear more updates on my experiments with living a “creative by default” lifestyle!