Input vs. Creativity (Or, Thoughts on Surfing the Web)

13 Jul 2010

This is another post from the now-retired Make & Meaning blog.

Image by Bob.Fornal, via Flickr

How many blogs are you currently subscribed to? How many people do you follow on Twitter? How many Facebook friends do you have? In short, how many hours a week do you spend trying to keep up on internet input?

The great thing about the web, as we all know by now, is that there's no shortage of cool new stuff to read, watch, and listen to. The frustrating thing about the web, as we're all beginning to find out, is that the limits of our time and attention are as fixed as they ever were.

Can any of us really hope to keep up with it all? Nope. And yet, conditioned by decades of much-scarcer information resources, we sure try. For a while, at least.

Image by Senor Codo, via Flickr

I used to read every single new blog entry in my Google Reader. Now I have hundreds of unread entries in there all the time. I used to log into Twitter and read every single tweet posted by every person I followed since the last time I logged in. Now, the very idea makes me laugh.

And therein lies the problem with relentless input. The more we try to read, watch, and listen to, the less we'll tend to remember, value, or even deeply comprehend. Eventually, all the input just kind of runs together, and we're fragmented and distracted.

This can hardly be a good state of affairs for the creative mind.

Image by an untrained eye, via Flickr

As Brenda Ueland so perfectly put it, "The imagination needs moodling - long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering."

I love all the material I take in on the web each day. I truly wish I could get to all of it. But I've been worried for some time about how all this input affects my attention span, and eventually, my capacity for deep thought and occasional flashes of inspiration. I worry that all this online time eats up that valuable moodling time - not to mention, my capacity to moodle in the first place.


Instead, I think it may be time to place some limits on input. And I've been noticing lately that some of the web's more prominent thinkers are beginning to change the way they handle the input. Gary Vaynerchuk is re-drawing his priorities. Chris Brogan is, too. And Seth Godin has been placing limits on input for a long time.

Now, there's a finer point here - Vaynerchuck and Brogan aren't actually saying that they aren't accepting any more input. Instead, they're deciding which inputs are most important to their goals, and focusing in on those. (I'm glad to see this happening - there's a great takeaway here. No matter how much or little time you have for input, you always have it in your power to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of what you take in each day.)

Not only that, I think the creative mind needs more of a rhythm - periods of input, followed by periods of moodling, followed by periods of output. Too much of the first, I'm finding, crowds out the other two.

Image by Sapphiren, via Flickr

Ultimately, it seems to me that the information we take in bears a lot of resemblance to the foods we eat. Consume high-quality stuff, and you feel and work better. Consume junk, and the opposite happens. (Although, there's no denying that a handful of informational M&Ms does make a bad day go down better.)

So, what if we approached our stream of input with a stewardship mindset, continually adjusting it for quality? Have you ever thought about why you read the blogs you read, or follow the people you follow? How often do you weed out your RSS reader or Facebook friends? How much do you filter your Twitter stream?

Image by ell brown, via Flickr

Do you have any creative goals you're serving with your surfing? And if you do, how much does your online activity support these goals? What things are you doing online that don't support your goals?

While we're at it, how much do you control the flow of your input? How many times a day do you check your email? Do you keep Twitter and Facebook open in your browser all the time? How much of your day is spent offline?

As I'm wrestling with these questions, I'd love to talk with you in the comments - how are you currently wrangling your input, or how would you like to be?


I really like this idea, Diane (And that name!) :-)

There really is an intuitive path through all the input, if we can let the rest go. Which feels challenging, because what if we miss something good? Except, you know what? The really great stuff has a way of re-surfacing until we see it. Thanks for chiming in here!

I've been playing with similar attention-management practices lately, Stacy. Finding it surprisingly challenging to "turn off the firehose" sometimes. At times, I'll even have to devise an analog way to work on a project, so I can be removed from my computer and actually concentrate. I like the 5-10 minutes an hour practice - may give that one a try.

Oh, devices... you should see my partner and I finish a workday. We step away from our computers... and then take up our iPod Touches. Eesh. :-)

That's a lovely mode for screening, Anitra - I love it! Perhaps we'll all evolve into keeping up with a smaller group of blogs we have this personal connection to. And then maybe we'll see more blogs like CRAFT that "curate" lots of different web content, bringing us (and this will sound familiar) things editors have selected around a particular theme. Maybe a model like that would allow more of us to have a more meaningful relationship with the web.

Welcome, Devin, and thank you so much for hanging out here!

I thought I'd made a big step earlier this year when I switched my emailer from automatically checking for new mail every 5 minutes, and set it to manually check instead. I thought I'd take up a program of checking email twice a day only - morning and late afternoon.

Yeah. That lasted one week. But I stayed in manual-check mode, so that's got to count for something. Right? :-/

True that - for every great art/craft blog, there's a pretty food blog... or an interesting biz blog... or an amazing online comic....

Interestingly, it used to be that we saw the things we saw in print or broadcast because some "gatekeeper" somewhere decided the public should see it. And that sadly limited the number of makers who could find a wider audience. Now we have the opposite (and, to my mind, slightly better) problem: no gatekeepers and way too much excellent content!

I've been commenting less on blogs, spending more time outside with the dog which helps with my creativity. I do notice that ideas are coming faster now that I am away from the computer for most of the day. I usually have my email open when I draw but everything else gets turned off because its too distracting. I try to look for art related things online, but often I end up finding a food blogs to read, or another interesting blog. I want to start to focus more on things online that have to do with art, business and possibly border collies but there are so many distractions online that time flies by before I know it. m

Oh, well said. I have been struggling with this . . . I am absolutely overwhelmed with input. My moodling and output time had dwindled down to almost nothing - now, I'm pumping up the moodling and the output (at least in terms of time in my art studio), but feeling oh-so-guilty about unread blog posts and unposted Twitter bits and blog entries . . . and at the same time, I'm craving more real one-on-one face time with the people I value and wondering how the heck to fit that in. Oh, days like today I wish I just lived on an island with my best friends . . .

You know, that's really what Summit of Awesome felt like to me - and it was glorious. Made me realize how little face time I get with people - like you! What a luxury it was to hang out for six days during the cruise. The ol' keyboard is dandy, but I miss that connecting, too.

Yes!! Summit of Awesome was like time on an island with your best friends . . . and who can beat floating in a ship with the coolest craft geek ever?? Sigh . . . maybe we need to get together for dinner?

Nice pst! I've been thinking about this "info overload" quite a bit recently. I think what's going on is that we need to trust our intuition more instead of feeling like we need to look at every post, blog, tweet, etc.....or that we need to do it every day. Which ones are we drawn to on which days? Follow that intuition and then let the rest go. Big topic, but an important one. I think this is the biggest lesson the internet is teaching us: No shoulds. Follow your intuition.

I don't belong to Twitter or Facebook, and I have no intention of joining in the foreseeable future. It is difficult to resist the onslaught of stimuli and information thrown at us by contemporary culture, but I am learning to trust how much better I feel when I shut off the computer and spend several hours at a time in Nature, away from people and "modern life." In Nature, the pace is slower, there is no rush and I can actually hear myself think.

What a beautiful comment, Sierra. Well-said. Thank you for chiming in here!

Oh gosh. I've cleaned out my RSS feed once. I was subscribing to over 500 blogs and had 3,000 unread items upon returning from a vacation. I promptly cleaned house...which was difficult. I get emotional attached to blogs, because behind blogs are bloggers, so cutting them out feels like cutting out a friend.

I freely admit I spend wayyy too much time online. I check my e-mail several times an hour. There are times where in order to get things done, I shut the computer, do three things and reward myself with 15 minutes of internet time. Terrible.

HAHA! Let's all kick in and fund the development of that slightly-anti-social network, shall we?

That seems totally relevant here - the more quality (less quantity) we let ourselves be exposed to online, the more effect it has on our thinking and expression, I think. Glad you ended up here!

Ooh, you raise an interesting point I've been seeing more and more lately, Rach. Blogs that add too much to the stream are, perhaps, suffering in this age of internet overcrowd. So many people I've spoken to seem to prefer blogs that post only a few times per week, and only the A-Game material.

Great point on Twitcleaner. Time for another visit there myself.

Absolutely, Christina! The real world speaks with a much quieter voice, but holds every bit as much inspiration.

YES. Yes we do!

It is very hard managing it all. Along the way, I've given up on a lot of the content that is coming in. I used to read my google reader everyday, but I don't even bother with it anymore. I have go-to blogs that I like to read (like yours) that inspire me, but otherwise I don't seek them out.

It doesn't help that I do social media part of my time during the day as well. After seeing stuff during the day, I like to read my Facebook a bit in the evening and do my own blog. I find that even with my Facebook cruising, I spend way too much time goofing off on there when I can actually be getting sleep!!

Another thing, I don't know if anyone talked about, but I used to get a good 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Now, it's more like 5-6. I know this isn't just me. I know others do it too and there has to be a breaking point. I'm wondering what the health fallout of all of this will be in time.

Oh, geez - guilty of the too-frequent-email-check, too! I like your discipline there - sometimes you really do have to get free of the computer. Otherwise, whole days can evaporate.

Well written article Diane. For my part, I can't even imagine adding too much blogging to the stream. I've struggled for two months just to get content on my new blog, to tweet and open up a facebook account. I'm sure I'll get better on all this, but for now, just adding something to the steam is a challenge after a day of creative work. I used to think I had unlimited creativity. Internet is teaching me a lesson. So much content. Good content. Lesson - I won't try to keep up, just enjoy what I can do in this new creative outlet. See, you created a little monster in the twitter class I took with you. Gotta keep everything in perspective. Oh yes, I check email about 10 times a day, but not twitter......LOL!

HAHAHA! Oh, I just unleashed a monster that was already there. :-) Believe me, the content-making really does get easier over time, Jean. I can produce a post in a few minutes now that would have taken several hours a few years ago. Over time, you become more fluent in your own blog's "language," and things flow more easily.

I lost my phone the other day in a cab. It's AMAZING how much free time I now have to think. I'm not being jokey. Think about it. Think how often we reach for our phone in the "in between times."

Oh, get crafting. It's much better for you. : )

Seriously. If my iPod Touch is within reach, I'm checking it. I've taken to actively putting it at the other end of the house at times. Perhaps I should just put it in a cab! :-)

That's a splendid idea, Bobbi! It's like taking that "urge to check something" we all seem to have developed, and redirecting it. Boy, if I ever needed a good reason to finally start that granny square blanket... :-)

Boy, so do I, Alexa. I definitely feel major changes in the way I concentrate and process information. I've often wondered about how you manage doing crafty social media for work, and then coming home to do a craft blog and personal social media.

...Actually, that's the podcast we should do. I'm emailing you...

This is such a timely post. (Timely, haha). Anyway...I complain constantly to myself that I don't have enough time to quilt. Analyzing that whole thing, it is because I spent WAY too much time reading quilting blogs, checking out pictures on flickr, commenting, etc. And...also becoming somewhat depressed because I seemingly cannot get motivated and "produce" as many quilts as other bloggers. How do they do it? They are also blogging and posting pictures, and I am sure spending much time looking at other bloggers' sites, etc. Do they not sleep? It makes me exhausted. So...I think I need to weed out my blogroll, spend less time reading about creative things and more time doing creative things.

There you go... I fall prey to the same thing - looking at making so much I run out of time to make. :-/

I made a comment on Twitter recently that social media has damaged my attention span. I wrote something like, "if you can't get it out in 300 words or less, you've lost me".

After reading your post I realize that statement is both sad AND true. I've been thinking about it since reading this yesterday. I decided to analyze not so much the amount of time I spend online (because I've already cut back a LOT), but the quality of where I spend it. In a handful of minutes, I visited something like 20 or 30 sites. I literally jumped from one page to another, never reading anything for too long.

Part of it was because I only gave myself a few minutes online before going back to work, so I felt this pressure to check everything in those few minutes. The other part was, even if I had unlimited time, I probably still would be surfing this way - my attention span really does seem altered!

So, my goal now is to not just cut back on time, but cut off the unimportant things, too. Big challenge. I feel kind of intimidated.

I so agree, Brandi - sitting down to read a book can be challenging sometimes now. I'd like to think that the attention span is elastic and can be retrained to longer concentration. Good luck in your endeavors!

No where is my ADD nature more evident that when I am on the computer. Which can be pretty much all day. I do Virtual Acadamy with my kids and so I am on the computer doing this or that lesson, marking attendance etc etc and I slip off into looking at some web page, checking my email. Tweeting. My offline time and creativity have gone down exponentially. I really need an input diet.. will be seriously looking at this and probably handing off my lap top to my husband to help!!

It IS really challenging when your work is computer-based too, isn't it? It's like the work stuff and the leisure stuff is all right there at your fingertips at the same time, all day long, and all clamoring for your attention. I go through that too. ACK!

I only read what really inspires me at the moment (sometimes crafting, sometimes design, sometimes organizing...) I have thousands of unread posts on my reader. And I'm finally OK with that. I'll still add someone new to the list but I tell myself I have to unsubscribe to someone else. Then I feel guilty...

I think it's totally okay to set limits like you're doing. After all, our capacity to take it all in is necessarily limited. I think you're curating your attention, and that's a great practice.

YES! The re-surfacing piece......I totally agree....and meant to say something about that. Sometimes things come up over and over and finally, it's like "OK, I GET IT.....I need to look at ________" Actually YOUR NAME has come up lots of times recently, so yesterday when I read Bridget's facebook post I said OK. SisterDiane. Need to take a look at her blog, and here I am! (and hey, I like your name too)

Wow, that's awesome! I'm so glad you decided to stop by!

Meant to write you back today on that. Sounds cool. I'll be in touch over e-mail tomorrow.

Diane, CRAFT is actually the way I found this post. And, get this, I found it while I was on a quest to streamline my RSS feeds into 7 life categories instead of the 44 that I have right now. My goal is to select the 10 blogs I find most relevant and inspiring per category. That gives me 70 blogs to play with when, YIKES! I'm currently subscribed to 1,805!!!

I guess this is my rest of summer project.

But it is really important, I think, to get at the underlying root of this behavior (at least on my part). What is this urge to collect, rather than to actually engage and communicate with others?

A balance of input and creative output does seem the best goal. Setting time limits is a step in the right direction. However, formulating creative output takes waaaay more time than input (unless maybe you are reading books and novels, as I still enjoy doing), so I should budget my time accordingly (less on the input, much more on the output). Why am I so drawn to the input instead of the output though? Probably because there is a lot more thinking and effort required to do the output part, while visually absorbing input is a much more passive endeavour.

Thanks so much for your lovely working through of this topic and selection of exceptional accompanying pictures. They were fun and added to my thinking about your message!

Hi, Ivy9 - WOWEE. 1805 blogs?! My head would explode! :-)

Are you familiar with Julia Cameron? ( She does an exercise in her classes for unblocking artists - where they aren't allowed to read anything for a week. Her concept is that input is an all-too-convenient way of stuffing output down deep so we won't have to deal with it.

What's super interesting to me about that is, her courses were designed in the 1990's - before we were all inundated with online content too!

Anyway. Thanks so much for commenting, and I wish you all the best with that summer project! :-)

I have definitely noticed periods of input, pause time and output in myself. I'm not sure how comfortable I am comparing my creativity to the way a computer functions, but I think it's a good analogy anyhow. Something that used to confuse me a lot is the fact that I'm interested in so many different areas and I seem to switch between them at short notice. A friend put me on to to use as my blog reader. It has tabs and windows that I've used to divide blogs up by theme - crochet, knitting, art, fabric arts, interior decorating, fashion, etc. I just go to the tab that interests me on any given occasion.
I also have a rule that if I haven't read a blog for a while, I will only read the newest 10 posts (or first page). Otherwise I could be there all day - and all night!

Protopage is interesting - thanks for the link, Katie! I think organizing blog feeds thematically is really helpful - you can take in a particular subject as the mood strikes. And I love your idea of only reading the most recent posts instead of trying to catch up with it all. Sometimes, we just have to move on...

For those who use Google Reader, here's a video I did a while back that shows how to separate your blog feeds into lists by theme, similarly to how Katie does it on Protopage:

Thanks for this really thoughtful post Diane. I surf the web for inspiration, news, fun, but often times when I'm done I don't have the engergy to do much creatively myself. I've been trying to balance that more and not feel so obligated to digest as much as I can online. We're all so wired now and I think we're going to need to teach ourselves how to unplug and draw inspiration from the real world again.

I'm so appreciating this post.
This has been on my mind for ages, but I'm only recently beginning to trim things out. Just seeing over 200 unread posts in my reader makes me anxious, so I cut out a bunch of the blogs who post more than once a day. And guess what? My life has gone on.
Twitcleaner is helping me clean up my twitter. And facebook, that's next on my list.

Thank you for this.

I followed this to get here: " Sewsillyleigh: Like the idea of reducing exposure to higher quality." and I was caught by the idea of intentionally reducing my exposure to higher quality artistic visions, in order to increase my own artistic vision. But the actual idea behind this essay is easier for me to grasp.

This is exactly the way I've been feeling lately. I sometimes don't turn on my computer for a few days and then when I do, there are a few hours of catch-up with the blogs. The problem with email and Twitter for me is that I have an iPhone and it is *always* on my person. I find myself turning to my devices when I have a few minutes, rather than attend to my myriad creative projects. So yes, the content I take in is time consuming and distracting for sure. It is an interesting thing to consider thought - am I actually getting something out of what I'm reading/watching/listening to? The answer might make me change the way I interact with my IT devices. Thanks for posting about this!

What a great post. My partner and I discuss this ALL of the time. It's hard to walk away from our computers and as much as I'd like to blame it on our website (Queerly Wed,) it's because of all of the blogs, tweets and updates on Facebook that I get sucked into at times.

When I am writing a blog post, or working on our website (Queerly Wed), I have started to close everything except what is necessary. I am also working on taking 5-10 minute breaks every hour that I am working to futz around. It helps my mind get some rest and gear up for the next set of tasks at hand.

Yes, I find this a real challenge. I'm not a great multi-tasker and rotate between bouts of producing and bouts of consuming. Unfortunately, that means when I'm 'producing' I tend to go off the radar, and the unread posts, and Facebook notifications build up. However, I love the sense of completion that comes with publishing a post - that's when I'm in the best frame of mind for more input. Of course, these patterns are at slightly at odds with social media's requirement for regular and frequent dialogue... unless there is a place for slightly anti-social networking?!

This is something I struggle with a lot. Because I 'm trying to build an online business, I necessarily need to spend some time on the internet, doing my "engagement marketing", but I find there is such a fine line between the right amount of online time and too much. Too much makes me feel fidgety and anxious. Reading through the comments here, several folks have mentioned picking up their phones during down moments. I am very guilty of doing that as well. I can't just sit quiet. This has given me an idea of keeping small craft projects at hand - in my purse and by the couch - so when I have down time I can pick that up and work on it instead of checking my email one more time.

Wow. I think you've stuck a chord with a lot of us, or maybe a vein! I've been thinking about this, too There's so much to actually DO, it's begun to feel burdensome to keep up with the blogs I'm subscribed to. And then I feel guilty when I don't.

I'm realizing, though, that the ones I most enjoy reading are the ones where I feel a connection to the person, where somehow that person's spirit makes it through the screen and into my mind an heart. Hmmmm.