Creating space for free flowing ideas by going 'input free'.
It can be tempting to cram every moment from waking till right before bed with stuff. Mostly other people's stuff. Newsfeeds full of thoughts and information, news, podcasts, email newsletters and inboxes full of co-worker requests all in the name of learning and trading information.
But could this consumption of other people’s ideas stifle our own ideas? What would happen if we spent a solid chunk of time without any 'input' of information, other people’s ideas or thoughts? Could that open up space for creativity to flow?
To create, you require space to go into what psychologists call ‘flow state’. Flow - a feeling likened to being in the zone - is defined as a mental state of ‘operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.’ But for many, carving out the time to get into a flow state on our side projects, creative endeavours or even at work can prove to be difficult with so many available distractions.
Cast your eye down a sidewalk and you'll see most people consumed in something. This isn't a new phenomenon. Catching up on the world and feeding curiosity is beneficial. However for most, the rate of consumption is going up, leaving little time or mental energy at the end of the day for personal projects or creating for fun. Other ideas are taking up space in our brains, just as our ideas do.
Alan Lightman is a little more than concerned with this constant stream, calling for society to cultivate more stillness and reflective free thought. ‘We need a mental attitude that values and protects stillness, privacy, solitude, slowness, personal reflection; that honours the inner self; that allows each of us to wander about without schedule within our own minds. Otherwise, we are destroying our inner selves and our creative capacities.’
Are we distracting ourselves from what we really want to be doing?
It’s not healthy for our brains to be jam packed from dusk till dawn. This saves little time for free-flowing independent thoughts, ideas and reflection. I began to wonder, am I often distracting myself? And from what?
On top of that, there is the constant stream of articles, books and podcasts on our to read, listen, digest and contemplate deeply lists. My lists of stuff to consume were ballooning. Nothing was getting written, which is what I really want to be doing. Simply trying to keep up with all the incredible content out there took up all my free time. I’d created an overflow of other people’s ideas in my brain. Great, thoughtful ideas. But not mine.
Spending a good part of a week going 'input free' was a welcome change by the time the idea had entered my atmosphere. When day 1 arrived, there was an underlying hesitation to unplug from the digital universe. A stronger desire to create space in my mind overcame the hesitation.
What does ‘going input free’ mean?
The concept of going 'input-free' was introduced to me via RESET - an online course I took created by knowledge worker Jocelyn K Glei. Jocelyn is a writer, thinker and creator focusing on how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. RESET is pitched as a ‘cosmic tune-up for your workday’ and is full of tools to refresh the way you work.
The thinking behind the input free week from the course is simple: Stop consuming to make room for ideas. For the aha moments and creating space for questions, answers and insight to flow. It’s to pause and stop the mindless consumption of content.
'The quantity of inputs we consume, and the types of inputs we consume, have a substantive impact on our well-being and creativity. Are you subsisting on a media diet that's comprised primarily of toxic inputs? How can you start to shift that dynamic and invite some space and healthier inputs?'. - Jocelyn
Even when the content consumed is high brow, written or recorded by the most intriguing minds our own ideas need space to exist and develop. It's hard to vet exactly what content comes your way online. The idea in the course of clocking off from consuming any inputs had me both terrified and eager - both feelings a sign it was time. I selected 4 days.
On no podcasts or headphones when walking.
Podcasts were off limits. Music was OK when working or hanging out at home, but no music or headphones when doing anything else like shopping, walking, commuting or exercising.
No distractions when walking or commuting was a welcome change. Walking can extend the trains of a thought, with many writers and creatives us. Having the morning and work commutes to think, uninterrupted as my body was engaged in movement and rhythm was invaluable to start the day on my own terms.
I found myself thinking about ideas, subconsciously processing experiences and observing. Reflecting more on conversations I was having, experiences and my relationships helped identify ways I could be more fully present or times when I didn’t listen properly. The level of attention I was giving my thoughts in turn allowed me to feel more deeply. At times, feeling was uncomfortable. I desired a podcast or Facebook as a distraction to ‘tune out’, which is exactly the automatic behaviours the input free break was meant to bring to the surface.
Simply being more observant of my physical surroundings was another benefit, as I enjoyed the streams of light bursting through towering trees and paying attention to other people.
Overall, the silence was revered and I’m finding myself spending less time plugged in whilst walking as a result.
“Suddenly I came out of my thoughts to notice everything around me again-the catkins on the willows, the lapping of the water, the leafy patterns of the shadows across the path. And then myself, walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronization with legs in a body that felt long and stretched out, almost as sinuous as a snake… when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
On no books.
Personally, reading for me is a must do to settle my mind and relax. 10 minutes with a book in the morning or before bed is time treasured. This was the most difficult of the 'inputs' to abstain from. Night time reading was replaced with some journaling and pottering around, however not much is above curling up with a book. If I were to do another input free week, I'd consider allowing books.
On no articles or news.
My inbox was filling with emails that I felt compelled to read, world issues that had to be comprehensively understood and content on producing more meaningful work waiting. The internet has no shortage of good content out there to be consumed, but we only have a limited ability to read a teeny blip of it. Stressing out about not getting to articles I wanted to read, about not stressing out and being present and productive, was extremely unproductive. The irony was not lost on me.
Giving myself permission to Ctrl+A+Del all the email blasts, newsletters and tabs built up was extraordinarily refreshing. I’d developed an internal expectation that I had to be constantly educating myself, learning, broadening my knowledge and real all the great stuff I had opted into. I’d allowed my high and often unrealistic expectations run a little wild and needed to pause and take stock.
Abstaining from reading online was the most beneficial of all the inputs and instead of spending time on my phone or laptop reading, I wrote an article on an idea formed during this time (that came to fruition whilst walking). Usually an article takes ~4 weeks to complete in my 'normal life'. This particular piece took ~5 days and I suspect the quality is higher too, as I wasn't mimicking any writing style or ideas I'd been consuming. No news or online reading had the biggest impact.
On no social media.
My phone has minimal social media apps and I already implement strategies like moving social media apps to random folders and disabling my Facebook newsfeed on my laptop, so I'm halfway there. However I still use it regularly so no social media was welcomed and enjoyed. After the 4 days I had not missed... anything.
Taking breaks from social media can be refreshing, a time saver and can help you get out of the loop-de-loops of checking, checking, checking. To properly prepare, let people close know so you don't miss an invite to a snap afternoon BBQ. Then swiftly log out and delete your apps.
On no TV.
When working full time TV is rarely on but after a few days I did miss the zoning out a lighthearted comedy can bring. One of my intentions of this 'input free' experiment was to avoid distractions and to sit with my thoughts and see what came from it. However with no reading, no TV or movies, what does one do? Thinking of a few analog hobbies helped me prepare so before bed I doodled. Some of it good and some of it terrible. I attempted children’s poetry which... wasn't great. I cooked and listened to music, painted pages of patterns and fluffed around tidying and sorting through things.
Surprisingly, after the input free days ended I did watch a few movies directly after and was totally immersed in the stories. A greater appreciation for each story I watched had been fostered. Perhaps this was due to days without any exposure to other people's experiences.
My ideas poured out, my emotions ran a bit wild. I deleted a tonne of emails and newsletters afterwards.
I thoroughly relished in the interrupted thought trails that can be rare in a modern life. Seldom do we create enough time for deep thinking in our lives, with every minute scheduled (guilty). What became of just my own thoughts was a waterfall of ideas and feelings. Little pockets of white space have been implemented in my day-to-day and sitting quietly for a few minutes is something I strongly value.
I came out the other side with clarity, an idea or two, a piece of written work and a new appreciation to be discerning about what I choose to consume, and how much.
4 days may not seem like a lot, but give it a go and you'll see that 4 days with yourself is time very well spent.
Build the input free experiment around your own needs.
Input free can be strictly applied, or set your own boundaries. Perhaps setting mini input free challenges (e.g. deleting social media apps) can be a place to start if going cold turkey seems a little daunting or not possible in your line of work. However - if you really can't fathom disconnecting from everyone else’s ideas perhaps it really is time to spend some attention on your own.