The Question That’s Saving My Creativity

My smartphone has become a barrier to my creativity.

I don’t blame the phone or the world of social media it connects me to. I blame myself. Our smartphones are tools after all. They began as digital Swiss Army knives. Phones that could play music and access email and take photos seemed so useful when they first came on the market. 

Today of course, they’re more than that. Our smartphones have become our personal assistants and the narrators of our lives, broadcasting our movements and thoughts to the world. They’ve become our nearly constant companions. (This video from 2013 uncomfortably highlights our collective digital overuse. Unfortunately it’s still relevant.)  

Putting technology in its proper place has become a theme here at The Art of Simple. (Tsh recently wrote about her month-long screen break and about trading online interactions for real-world experiences.) Many of us realize that overuse of screens and tech has become a problem, and we think it’s worth exploring what the solutions might be. 

One area I didn’t expect my tech use to negatively effect is my creativity.

I haven’t posted on Instagram since early July. The break was unintentional at first but it’s caused me to rethink my use of technology in general. I’ve started to see that my social media use and overall screen habits have actually started to hurt my ability to be creative. Here are some of the ways I’ve seen that happen:

  • It’s shortened my attention span. I’m less able to stay focused on a single task.
  • It fills my daydream and unstructured thinking time.
  • It stirs up feelings of comparison and envy.
  • It turns me into a passive consumer rather than an empowered creator.
  • It causes me to devalue the creative work I want to do most: long-form writing.

I first started thinking about my own tech use in 2014. That’s when I read an Outside magazine article by David Roberts, a political reporter who took a year sabbatical from social media and smartphone apps. Before his sabbatical, Roberts estimated that between his phone, computer, and TV, he spent 12 hours a day staring at screens. (He also tweeted an average of 30 times a day.) I deactivated my personal Facebook profile shortly after reading that article and haven’t been back. Instead, I turned to Instagram. 

At the time Instagram felt fresh and different and innovative. It was a place where people shared their creative work and unedited snapshots of life. Rather than a mysterious algorithm, Instagram feeds were chronological. What you saw in your feed is what people were posting in real time.

Over the years, however, new features were added and use of the platform changed. I started using Instagram because it was a creative outlet and a way to connect with other people. But this summer I realized that the negatives of the platform had started to outweigh the positives for me. Most significantly, social media’s constant presence had started to change how I lived my life, particularly my creative life. David Roberts’ description resonated with me: 

“I was never completely where I was, never entirely doing what I was doing. I always had one eye on the digital world. Every bit of conversation was a potential tweet, every sunset a potential Instagram.”

Like Roberts, I realized that even when I wasn’t posting on social media, I was often evaluating my daily experiences for their online potential. (Specifically their “content” potential, as if my life was a tiny news network I was running.) With increasing frequency, I had thoughts such as: Would this photo of my breakfast make a good Instastory if I added a cool font? Should I do a series of posts on this book I’m reading?

The more I became aware of this mindset, the more uncomfortable I felt. I thought: What am I doing? Why do I feel a need to share my egg sandwich with the world? 

Now you could argue that my desire to share my egg sandwich with an “audience” is based on a deeper desire for connection with other people. And when I first started using social media, it was about connection for me. I’ve met and connected with plenty of wonderful people on Instagram. I know from experience that there are good things about social media.

Yet I know myself too. And these days, my motivation for using social media has become less about connection and more about validation and producing creative work that offers instant gratification.

As I started questioning my social media use, it led to a more pointed and significant question:

“Is this how I want to use my creativity?” 

I don’t have limitless creative energy, and I don’t have limitless time. I’m going to spend my creativity on something. What is it going to be? Since shifting to full-time freelance work this year, I’ve focused most of my creative efforts on long-form writing: book manuscripts and book pitches. This is the type of writing that’s most meaningful and fulfilling to me in the long run—but it can also be a slog.

At the moment, I don’t have very much to show for all the time I’ve put into it. There’s no one clicking “like” on my daily work. That’s why the temptation can be so strong to spend my energy on social media instead of digging into this deeper work. Instant feedback. Instant gratification. A swig of dopamine for a quick energy boost.

This simple question has helped give me perspective. It reminds me to save my creative energy and time for the activities I value most.

When (or if) I return to using social media, I want to be more wise about it. But I also know that it’s not just about social media. I need other healthy screen habits too. One of the reasons that “unplugging” from the digital world can be difficult is that our phones do so many things for us. Before we unplug, we have to untangle.

My phone used to be—among other things—my alarm clock, meteorologist, recipe box, navigator, grocery list, and budget tracker. Some of these functions are incredibly helpful. But there are simple tasks I’ve taken away from my phone that help me spend less time using it (and prevent me from following internet rabbit trails):

  • I use a digital alarm clock rather than the alarm on my phone. (That way, my phone can charge overnight in the living room instead of on my nightstand. Then I don’t turn my phone on until after I’ve had coffee and gotten ready for the day.)
  • Rather than my phone’s notes app, I use a notebook to jot down writing ideas. (This notebook is my favorite. I’m on my fourth one. It’s small enough to fit in my purse or bag—just like a phone.)
  • We own an inexpensive camera so we can separate phone use from photography. (Though I’m still working on that one.)
  • I read physical books and try to remember to bring them along with me when I know I’m going to be waiting somewhere. (My current read? Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.)
  • I check out cookbooks from my library to find recipes I like (and cookbooks to eventually purchase) rather than using only Pinterest or my internet browser.

These are small changes of course, but they help curb my tech use. And when I spend less time staring at screens, I suddenly have more pockets of time where I’m free to think, dream, and perhaps most importantly—create.

• Listen to the podcast episode about this post

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15 Comments

  1. Amy

    I have been thinking about getting a separate camera since my phone’s camera died and I haven’t had the time/energy/money to go get it fixed. I grew up scrapbooking alongside my mom and I miss having physical collections of memories to page through rather than scrolling through the series of random screenshots, pictures of “reminders,” “inspiration photos,” and bored selfies to get to the memorable trips and events. Thank you for this wise look at your digital life!

    Reply
    • Andrea Debbink

      You’re welcome, Amy! I’ve been thinking about making some photo books of recent trips and memories for that same reason: having physical collections of things rather than files on my computer or phone. I find that I’m overwhelmed by all the photos I’ve taken so I never really spend time looking at them!

      Reply
  2. Cheree

    I stopped using Facebook a couple years ago (for these very reasons that you have put so well–thank you!) and I never missed it. I keep the words “Audience of One” written on the dry erase board in my sewing room to remind me that I need only to answer to Him; the opinions and respect of others should be completely irrelevant. Because my son is now in one of our country’s military academies–and we are so new to this experience!–I’ve had to get back on to keep up on the unbelievable amount of news, helpful information and even the occasional pic that he might show up in on the various parents’ pages. It’s frustrating and sometimes a struggle but that time off taught me so much and, at least so far, I’m able to catch myself before going down that slope (I generally stay off of the main news feed). I do not use my phone/computer as much as, say, the average but for me it is still too much but I am grateful for my upbringing (very little tv, and NO video games–just being invented) that had us outside (we farmed), creating, reading and praying. For me, the big question is, How do we wake the people in our lives up to what they’re missing? Especially those whose careers require so much time being “on” all the time?

    Reply
    • Andrea Debbink

      I think your question is a good one! I don’t necessarily have the answer but I think one of the ways to help people see life beyond their screens is to simply point out and celebrate the things you can experience offline: good books, meaningful conversations, the beauty of nature, etc. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Rachel

    I LOVE this – thank you!!!!!!

    Reply
    • Andrea Debbink

      I’m glad to hear that! Thank you, Rachel!

      Reply
  4. Teresa

    There are so many things to take away from this article. I too struggle with the social media portion, but hadn’t even thought of my other overwhelming dependence on my phone. I love the idea of using an actual cookbook again, bringing a book with me, writing notes in an actual notebook, using an alarm clock and keeping my phone out of my bedroom. This is a fantastic article. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Andrea Debbink

      Thank you, Teresa! I’m glad it was helpful! I just picked up another cookbook from the library yesterday. Cookbooks have become my slow Saturday morning read. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Brenda

    Love to hear this from folks. I unplugged the tv over a year ago, haven’t missed it. Never opened a Facebook account or any of those programs, my laptop is used solely for when I want to work from home and for that purpose only. And trust me, ladies – your smartphone is not as smart as you are! Thanks for reminding me to get out my camera instead of my phone to use for pics! Technology has its place in today’s society (I guess) but one can never beat pen and paper for creativity and a good book for relaxation. I love the feel of a book in my hand and the smell of the paper and ink as I turn each page. Just something about it.

    I have also found myself unable to focus on the task at hand when using technology. I totally get it!

    Reply
    • Andrea Debbink

      I have to admit, I admire people like you who never waded into social media in the first place! Years ago I remember thinking that people who weren’t on social media were “behind.” Now I think they’re wise!

      Reply
  6. Charissa Steyn

    I hear ya girl on everything you just wrote. Feels like the internet isn’t worth any of my time anymore. I’m CRAVING face to face, eye contact, deep conversation, nature over screens, and work/writing/living without an audience. Now to untangle myself from all the other junk?!

    Reply
    • Andrea Debbink

      Thank you, Charissa! Me too! It helps to know there are other people thinking about this and trying to make similar changes.

      Reply
  7. Suse Fishburne

    What an awesome show – one of my favourites, for sure.

    I’ve just this week ditched social media as I was aware that it was affecting my mental health adversely. The prompt for me was hearing Instagram talked about in terms of us having “an audience.” As a person of faith, the idea of living for anything more than “an audience of One” unsettled me. I wanted to be sure that my follower numbers didn’t matter one bit, so deleted my account.

    An awful lot of what you talked about in this episode rang true. As a creative, I had become uncomfortable with the changes in my thinking as I created. My choices were being overly influenced by what ‘went down well’ online and I wasn’t making in the simple, slow way I craved as the resulting work wouldn’t be so impressive when photographed.

    I was also unhappy at giving over the control of how I felt about my work to others. When something I was pleased with didn’t get many likes, I’d become low, where I’d previously been really proud of myself.

    I think the idea of our social media activity being somehow grounded in loneliness rang true for me. I always expected too much of online interactions and ended up feeling disappointed, because the relationships there weren’t close enough to be truly empathetic.

    Seeing too many highlight reels is also unhelpful for me, however aware I am that it’s not the full picture. I started to notice my mood after social media sessions and could feel my mood dipping. Life’s too short, right? I’m now savouring the real stuff: spending more time gardening and posting actual handwritten notes to friends.

    Thank you both so much for your honesty and candidness in this episode – it’s one I’ll go back to, for sure.

    Reply
  8. Kelly

    Thanks for this! Feeling the same, especially related to my creative energy and focus!

    Reply
  9. Irene

    Thanks! I like, very much.
    This year I purposed to curb my phone use and as it is almost September, I know it’s going to be a goal again next year.

    I started by purposing not to take phones into meetings and not using my phone when I’m meeting a friend…and boy, is it tough!!

    Now I need to get a digital alarm clock, that’ll help alot.
    I’d like to learn more definitely.

    Stay blest.

    Reply

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