Does Avoiding the Internet Really Help Creative Work?

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: Hello and welcome to working overtime. I’m your host, Isaac Butler,

S3: and I’m your other host, Karen Hon.

S1: And would you believe it? I’m your third host. June Thomas.

S2: We’ve gotten all three of us together, this time to introduce working overtime, which is a new show from us here at working. It’s a little extra tidbit every other week where we’ll be talking about how to be more creative, how to be more productive or maybe how to just be. This week, we wanted to share with you and discuss a special voicemail left from one of our previous guests and a friend of the program, the Great Alison Bechdel. Let’s take a listen.

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S4: My creative advice is very boring and obvious, and it’s something I very rarely manage to actually achieve. But when I do, it’s always extremely productive, which is get off the freaking internet. I have an app that will lock me out of my browsers and my email and any social media sites so that instead of my attention getting around like a handful of marble tile floor, I have no choice but to enter a state of deep, contemplative, calm and focus.

S2: We have all heard this advice from many different corners, you know, over the course of our lives, if you want to be productive, get off the internet. It can be an incredible time and focus suck. You don’t need to have that argument on Twitter about whether or not the latest season of succession was repetitive. That’s not helping you get your work done. But before we get started, let me just ask you both. Do you think that this is actually true? Like, if the internet wasn’t there, would we just find something else to distract us? Or is it this perfect machine of of creativity and attention sapping?

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S1: I think it looms large because usually usually when we’re trying to get our creative work done, at least for people like us, we’re on our computers and just the press of a button. We can be on this internet thing, we can be checking our email. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about it. Like, I don’t sometimes I just don’t.

S3: There’s nothing special about the internet.

S1: That’s what I said. Sometimes I just don’t care about the internet or my cat or my problems, because sometimes I can concentrate and on days when I cannot concentrate. The internet is just one of the many things that’s in the way. I don’t need the internet to distract me. I don’t need anything because on days like that, the contents of my head are the true focus thieves.

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S3: Yeah, I agree that like the internet isn’t the only thing that is standing between me and a productive workday. But at the same time, when again we are people who are on our laptops a lot that is kind of the biggest and kind of most malleable thing. Like I can go on my browser and do pretty much anything like I can watch YouTube clips, I can write messages to my friends. That isn’t my work. The possibilities are limitless, and that’s kind of like choosing between a sports set that has like every ball and racket that you would want. And then having like your ping pong set on the other side of the room, it’s like, that’s the difference to me.

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S2: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. It’s like the infinite nature of it. When you get sick of one thing you’re doing on the internet, you can move on to another thing you’re doing on the internet, right? Whereas if you’re, you know, in the 19th century when, like in 19th century New England, when the Calvinists idea of fun was like sitting in a rocking chair, you know, at some point you run out of interesting things you can do while sitting in a rocking chair. Mm hmm. I mean, to me, I guess the thing that feels most pernicious in this particular respect about the internet is that a lot of it feels like it uses the same mental muscles that I used to be creative, you know, like, OK, so if I stop writing and I take a 30 minute break to play Mass Effect or whatever, you know, I’m not I don’t feel like I’ve been creative during that time period. I feel like I’ve been usefully bored during that time period. My brain is still doing other things, but if I’m on social media like that feels like writing to me on some level in a way that those other activities don’t. Did does that rhyme with your own experience?

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S1: Kind of. But you know, I also think that many of the things you can do on the internet instead of writing or whatever it is you’re trying to do really are genuinely useful, productive and good for you. So, you know, if you’re not getting anywhere with a chapter or a report or a paper or whatever, is you trying to focus on? But you can. I don’t know, you know, research another section or find a place to eat this weekend or find a solution to a problem that a relative is experiencing. Well, if those are things that you’re going to have to do anyway, if they’re effectively sort of open loops in your brain. Maybe it’s good to cross them off the old To-Do list. Like, I think maybe sometimes we get we fetishize concentration and we demonize distraction. And you know, what does it matter? If sometimes it does, sometimes it does. If you have a deadline, that is just, you know, literally grazing your head. Well, yeah, no. Then you got to you’ve got to do what you can to, you know, do this, this thing that we’re all so desirous of focus. But I think we get a little bit of our minds about, you know, concentration in a way that isn’t necessarily good for us.

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S3: Yeah, I think that’s the most generous take that I’ve heard on it and also someone that I agree with. Like, I don’t think it’s all bad to take your mind off of it from time to time. Like, I think I think that we’ve talked about on the show allies like, what do you do when you feel like you’re hitting a wall? And even though like you still have to keep working on that project and sometimes getting a little distracted is what’ll help in that scenario. That said, I feel like social media to a certain extent. It does feel like a part of my job, but maybe not to the extreme degree that I think Isaac feels that it does like. It feels more to me like doing one Sudoku square as opposed to like finishing multiple puzzles, if that makes sense. And also it for me, at least a lot of using social media is just about shooting the shit with my friends as opposed to coming up with. I guess more untethered or original thoughts, if that makes sense. I said if that makes sense twice, so you can see how unmoored I am thinking about it.

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S2: No, I think I think that makes total sense. I think that it makes total sense, whereas like I’m often like shooting ideas out there that will turn into pieces later or, you know, you know, whatever, like riffing on on on that sort of stuff. So that, yeah, no, no, that totally makes sense to me.

S3: And maybe it’s also sort of because of the places that I’ve worked, where a lot of editors that have worked with have been like, don’t tweeted out, just write it. Or if it’s something that I think is a piece, then I probably won’t wait it out. Yeah, if it’s just a joke, then who cares, you know? Right?

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S1: I was going to say, Isaac, I do think you have a slightly different way of using Twitter than I do. I also know you’re in a different stage of of your book right now. You are in that stage of like getting the word out and doing whatever you can to build recognition and so on, and knowing

S2: all of my followers exactly getting any little teeny bit of praise I receive.

S1: Exactly. Gopher. No, you gotta. You gotta. But I do think that you I have stopped using Twitter that way. Not about the the promotion because we all have to do that and none of us are exempt. And if you are, then what the heck are you doing even on social media, you’re just wasting your time. Yeah, but you know, it’s it’s lost. I just don’t tweet ideas anymore. I very, you know, it’s I use it in a very dull way compared to how I have at different times. And I don’t know if it’s just because of, you know, cycles of life or, you know, work things that are going on. Or if I’ve just kind of lost interest, I don’t know, but I do think that you you are much more sort of, you know, throwing out fishes to see if there will be. That’s a really bizarre image, but hopefully you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

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S2: Right? I mean, that’s interesting because, you know, June, you’re not using it that much care and you’re more joking around with your friends. Me, I’m more generating ideas. I wonder if this or if any of our, you know, somewhat different attitudes about the internet are generational, right? Because like, look, I ran a base in high school. But the first time I used a web browser was the

S3: decs Oh

S2: my god. Excuse me, while I age like Sean Connery during the credits sequence of Star as well, you asked that question and turn into a skeleton. A bill by a bulletin board system was like a message board that you hosted on your computer and people literally oh, your phone number on their modem to access that that message board? Yeah.

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S3: Y- yeah. And then it reads out the messages to

S2: no, no, no, no, no. You you call using your modem on your computer. And so you’re interfacing with like a message board system, but it’s actually hosted on someone’s computer that you access via modem. Oh yeah, OK. Yeah, yeah. Anybody with a

S1: dinosaur is very

S2: big. They yeah, they would. Yeah, but you know, no, but just just, you know, like my gene and

S3: I are the young ones here.

S2: Yeah, exactly. My my you

S3: need to expand this

S2: day of like the day I moved into my dorm. Freshman year is the day I use the actual, the actual internet for the first time and like learned how to use Netscape Navigator and all that stuff. And in fact, it was my first week of school that I logged on to a relatively new website called Slate.com because someone had told me about today’s papers. And obviously, you know, Karen, your I guess what they call a digital native or whatever. And June, I think you were using stone tablets, something

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S1: your mom is my native tongue. Yes.

S2: So so I just wondering, though, like, are we being stereotypical of our generations? Or, you know, is there anything to like the age at which you were when you first got sucked into the internet determines to some extent your relationship to it?

S1: I am a person who rejects all, all ideas about generations. I think they’re hogwash. And yeah, it’s true. I was in my 30s. I think when I first used the internet, even though I was actually a relatively early adopter. I’m just old, but it just does not bother me. It doesn’t. I just don’t see it as a particular kind of distraction. However, for all of my Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about, the internet is our friend. No, it doesn’t distract me when I have work and when I’m trying to do, as we say my own work, I use my own, you know, my personal computer, my laptop and I have not put slack on that machine because to me, Slack is what absolutely. You know, it’s it’s a beautifully packaged distraction device. So I, you know, I’m being like, Oh, I don’t know what you guys talking about. I’ve got willpower. No, it’s just that these particular things don’t really suck my attention. Whereas Slack. Oh my God, that thing. I cannot. Not Luke. And that’s the thing that just gives me an attention. And of about five seconds, so, you know, for all of my I just don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s bullshit.

S3: Yeah, anything that gives you a notification that you’ve missed something is the worst because as soon as I see the little red pop up on my slack icon, I want to go click it. Yeah, it’s the worst.

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S2: Yeah, I do actually think in a weird way, turning off as many of your notifications as possible is a more successful, you know, distraction avoidance strategy than getting off the internet. You know, they’re just like, don’t let your phone tell you anyone has sent you a message about anything you know, and that can be a lot better.

S1: Or if you like me, you know, I love to feel like, you know, the Slate podcast network will fall apart if somebody is trying to get to me and I’m not paying attention like, yeah, no, just like knowing that if it was really serious, they could do me and that I will hear, then I’m fine with. And that actually calms me down and causes me not to be distracted. So I just think maybe it’s a question of knowing what it is that sets you off or pulls you out is the thing that matters and and like for me, I don’t have to be looking at it, but if I just know that I would get a ping and I would hear a noise, then I would, you know, go and do whatever little mice do when they hear that bell. But otherwise I would be like all over it.

S3: Yeah. I wonder, though, like I feel, even though we all encounter the internet at different stages in our life, I feel like the primary use for it has always been to communicate with other people, even if we are using it using, like Twitter in different ways. The internet in general has always been there to help you bridge that gap like forums, a.m. email, everything like. I think that’s always been kind of the number one part of the internet for me.

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S2: Yeah, yeah, totally.

S1: OK, we’re going to take a quick break, but we’ll be right back with more. Working overtime. Hey, working listeners, do you have any creative advice you’d like to share with us, or maybe you have a problem or a hurdle with your creative work that you’d like us to help you solve? Either way? Give us a call and leave a message at three zero four nine three three. W o r k. That’s three zero four nine three three nine six seven five. Or send us an email at working at Slate.com. All right. Back to the show.

S2: So if you do want to get off the internet, though, if you’re going through those periods because we should say, you know what? One way to tell whether you need to get off the internet or not is if you are actually having trouble completing your work. If you’re someone who regularly makes your deadlines and you’re distracted on the internet and then it’s actually not a problem, right? It’s just a thing with the brain. I mean, you might want to spend that time reading books or watching movies or whatever, but I’m just saying, you know, it’s not actually impacting your work if you’re able to get your work done. But sometimes we all go through phases where we got to, we got to avoid the internet. We got to turn it off, we got to get to work. What what do you all do? June you have an app for, like everything, work and productivity. So is there an app for that? Is there an app that you use to get off the freaking internet?

S1: You know, again, I think this might be the only thing that I don’t have an app for. I think turning off the internet or Wi-Fi would just make me hate myself. You know, look at it or don’t. And again, for all of that, I still can’t look at it like, so I don’t know. I don’t have an app for it. Weird, huh?

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S2: Yes. You’re not like a freedom person.

S1: No, I’ve never tried freedom. I don’t want any freedom. I don’t know. I just like this. There was a really interesting piece in The New Yorker back in December by a writer called Julian Lucas, and it was about all the various distraction free writing options that are available on the, you know, that are available these days, apps and and even devices that you can spend money on. And I, you know, I enjoyed reading it. I had tried some of them, some of whom I’d wanted to try. But again, I don’t think I think we’re just blaming the internet for something that’s, you know, and I think something that I definitely recognize is trying a new app or trying a new device as if that’s going to be the thing that solves our our concentration problem. Our deadline meeting problem or whatever it is, really, we’re just we’re just trying novelty. We’re just saying maybe this will work just to kind of that’s another form of distraction, I think. But, you know, interesting. At the same time, you know, if you find something that works for you, hey, you know, I’m proud of you, I I’m envious of you, but this just isn’t my thing.

S2: Alisa Gabert, who’s a wonderful essayist and poet, had a great piece on productivity apps as well in the believer recently, where she surveyed a bunch of them that I think it’s really worth checking out. And one of them, which at first I was like, Was this made up for this piece? But I think it’s real. I believe is called forest and you set a timer that and it locks your phone and a little image of a sapling grows on your phone. And then if you pick up your phone, the tree dies. So it like like fills you with with guilt for having a touch of the phone. I briefly used one that was called self-control, which is really basic. You just list the things that you want it to block, Twitter and Facebook, whatever. I’m not on Facebook anymore, but Twitter and Facebook, whatever. And then you set a timer and you actually have to re hard, reset your computer to get it to turn itself off like you can’t. And so one time I was having a conversation with someone about productivity apps and being there like, Oh, I use freedom. And I was like, Oh, really? I use this app. It’s it’s called self-control. And she thought I was insulting her. Oh no. She was like, you asshole. I was like, No, no, no, no. The app is actually called self-control. It’s real. I wasn’t saying I have self-control. I don’t. It’s called self-control, and she just would not believe me.

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S1: But also, though, don’t you think that the creators of self-control were setting people up for that kind of misunderstanding by giving it that name?

S2: Maybe there’s a certain perversity to it? Yes. Yeah. Hey, have you ever tried this app? It’s called self-control.

S1: Or maybe even have you ever tried self-control said in a very superior way.

S3: The tone does all the work.

S2: Yeah, exactly. What about what about you, Karen? Have you tried self-control?

S3: No, I haven’t tried the app. Only sheer willpower. The only app is that an app and

S2: an app called sheer willpower that I don’t know

S3: about. I wish the the only ad that I ever used, I think, was, I think it was when I was in college, but it basically would open up this browser window for you to use. And the idea was that there’s like no tabs at the top or anything like that. It’s just like a clean page that you write on. It does like little typewriter noises for when you type and you can you have an option of like, I think it was either putting on music or like nature sounds while you’re writing, so you’re trying to make you focus. It didn’t work super well for me, I think, or I didn’t feel any differently about it than I would any word processor. So I guess you could say is a failure in that regard. I also am the kind of person where if I turn off my wife, I just start getting anxious a little bit. Not because I’m like, I have to check my Twitter or anything, but just because I’m like, What if I need to go look something up that I don’t know right now? Like, I won’t have access to it? Do I turn my internet on Ben? Is that OK? What if I end up blah blah blah? It just spirals out from there?

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S1: What about you, Isaac? I’m very curious what your distractions are? What do you what do you want to?

S2: I do think that the research thing when you’re writing nonfiction is real, that you might come across something that you need the answer to and you can’t get it. And you. I mean, that is where the the the abbreviation tick, you know, four things are going to insert later is very, very useful, right? And you just. But and so my Wi-Fi free drafts are just littered with texts and then you spend spend an hour with it going through and filling them all in, right? It’s not the end of the universe. So I’ve actually done a pretty good job of staying on task. I don’t I don’t usually blow deadlines I got. I try to get extensions in advance. That’s usually my thing is not, don’t, you know, don’t blow. It’s the opposite of the it’s better to ask forgiveness, them permission. You don’t actually want to do that with deadlines, right? You? Yeah. So I try to do it in advance. So just to give an example, you know, I wrote this piece about Gollum for Polygon and the original deadline we had set. There was just no way I was going to make it because of all the work, the pre-production work that needed to be done on the book and my teaching schedule, and I just wrote them, I was like, I need more time. I’m not going to be able to start writing this for like three more weeks. And they’re like, OK, we’ll do it in a month and we just worked it out. You know, all of that said, when I started work on the on the method. So this was like two years ago, I was going through a period where it was very difficult for me to get off the internet and get my work done. I did a couple of things. I quit Facebook that really helped. I quit Facebook. Not actually for that reason, but because it’s, you know, destroying democracy. But you know, I quit Facebook, which helped and and did some other stuff. But eventually I realized that like the thing that I was having trouble with was getting started on each chapter was that hump of getting started was the thing that the internet was really helping me put off. So for the first part of my book until I got the momentum going, really for the first part of my book, the first eight chapters, what I did was this I would spend a month on each chapter and I would research what I needed for that specific chapter because I already had like overarching stuff that I knew. But I would research what I needed for that specific chapter, and then I would create an incredibly detailed outline with quotes and blah blah blah blah blah on Google Docs. And then I would put that open that Google doc on my iPad right, which which only has Wi-Fi because you can work on it offline and turn off the Wi-Fi. And I would go to a cafe with a pad of paper and a pen, and I would handwrite the chapter, and that was the only way I was able to get that dough for. And then then at the end of the month, the last day or two of the month was spent typing it up, right? And so that really worked. That was a really clever way to to for me, anyway, did like trick myself into not being on the internet because the thing I needed was all of that information, right? But if I had already worked out all of that information, then I could just bring that information with me and just right, right, right, right by hand, which was also interesting because actually, stylistically, I’m a different writer when I write my hand than when I type. And so I do think, you know, some of the voice of the book comes out of it sort of hybrid ness of having been started by hand and then finished typed. So it’s just so like that was actually like a really cool experience. And then by the time I was going on part two, in part because the characters are more connected and the story is more condensed. Once we get to that point, there’s a bunch of time jumps in part one that there aren’t in part two. I was like, Oh, I actually need to research this whole thing and then write it all in one go. But I already have momentum going, and so I just didn’t need that process anymore. But I think what this speaks to for me is, you know, you got to sometimes find the way to trick yourself into doing the project, whatever it is, whether it’s like, All right, I’m handwriting it or all right, I’m all, I’m going to write it in a park, on a bench, or, you know, I’m going to I’m going to go to the library and write it in like whatever it is that you need to do to disrupt the routine that’s not working, I think could be very useful.

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S1: Yeah, I absolutely do that. So as much as I would love to be like, Oh, I just don’t know what y’all are talking about, I just get on with it. Here’s one thing that I do, and it’s in that very same situation of like starting something which you know that that that big white page is so overwhelming. Yeah, I will often just like work in multiple different apps or I don’t know if apps is the right word, like different programs, I guess. So among the ones that I might cycle through are, of course, Google Docs word log seek obsidian mem bear. Like I’ll just kind of try. And then somehow knowing that this is a different blank page and I can always go to that other blank page. It makes no sense, but somehow that is a trick that my mind will fall for and. Historically, that has been weirdly predictive, and I could not tell you why it makes no sense, but hey, you know, if it works, I’ll just keep doing it until I have to find another trick that my mind falls for. What about you, Karen?

S3: I don’t know, listening to what you were saying, I was like, that’s so wild, and I feel like I’m so tied to like one word processor at a time, and I’m curious if it’ll help if I jumped around. But who knows? I also used to be a fan of handwriting stuff. But I feel like since getting out of like End of High School was around when for me, like handwriting started to get phased out like everything after that, you turned in as like a printed out paper or a Google document. And so my hands writing stamina has dropped considerably since then. My handle cramp up a lot faster, so

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S1: I love to write and I, of course, I love paper. You know, we’ve talked about this before, but my problem with with handwriting stuff like this is that I, I tend to lose, you know, just that one paragraph that really finally cracked it. And then I’ll be spending hours and hours looking for that paragraph, which drives me crazy. And even though you will not be surprised to hear that using, you know, six different word processing programs that can also happen, it’s just so much easier. Like you can do a universal search and there it shows up. Whereas you know the lack of search ability of of paper, it’s it’s a problem with the Atman.

S2: I use this app, it’s called pen and paper.

S1: We’re throwing a million dollar ideas of left, right and center here.

S2: Yeah, absolutely. Well, before we give up any more multi-million dollar ideas, perhaps we should just say that’s the time we have for this week. If you enjoy the show or even if you don’t. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have ideas for things you would like to hear on working overtime or things we could do better or questions you want to address. We would love to hear from you. You can send us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three w o r k. That’s three zero four nine three three work.

S3: And if you’d like to support what we do, please sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com Slash Working Plus, you’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you’ll be supporting what we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month.

S1: Special thanks this week to production whiz Kevin Bendis and to our series producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working. And in two weeks, we’ll have another working overtime. Until then, get back to work.