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Input vs. Creativity (Or, Thoughts on Surfing the Web)
This is another post from the now-retired Make & Meaning blog.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?