Isolation or Distraction? Which is better for the Creative process?

The traditional image of the productive and creative thinker is one who takes time to contemplate and consider a problem independently and at length.

One of the most powerful images of this approach ( pictured) is Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (1880) 

It is harder nowadays to remain in ‘splendid isolation’  – to create the space and time to consider information fully.  For many in this scenario, distraction is the enemy of ideas and the creative process; and it has become a greater a threat as we live in a world full of so many compelling distractions.

But – although we have long taken it for granted, is this proposition correct?  Is distraction really the enemy of creativity and considered thinking?

Two different perspectives on this – one presented by James Caig in his seewhathappens blog, entitled – The Power of Patience ( and the other from a recent edition of Wired Magazine – Distracted? How hyperstimulation is making you smarter by Tom Cheshire (

From The Power of Patience

Where patience once indicated a lack of control, now it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us. Patience no longer connotes disempowerment—perhaps now patience is power.”

But the quality of our work suffers too. If you’re perpetually distracted you spend all your time at surface level. It can be difficult to penetrate the problem with any depth. Depth yields insight, and insight is what differentiates your solution from that of anyone else. 

There are plenty of other ‘distraction’ alarm bells going off, regarding the potential damage being done to our productivity levels and even our intellectual capabilities.

Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist, calls it “digital dementia”. According to him – a generation is voluntarily lobotomising itself with digital hyperstimulation, reposting Tumblrs until catatonia comes. 

From Susan Greenfield, another neuroscientist – “Already we are seeing a generation of 20-somethings still living at home, wearing onesies, perhaps playing mythical or sci-fi games with simplified values of all-good or all-evil, and/or craving the constant attention of others through social-networking sites… The speed required for reaction and the reduced time for reflection might mean that those reactions and evaluations themselves are becoming increasingly superficial.” 

As we get exposed to more stuff, we hope of course that we will get better at separating the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’. And the good news from some research quarters, is that this is happening (e.g.: Howard Rheingold author of  Net Smart: How To Thrive Online

The really interesting piece from the Wired article pertains to research that shows how we, and especially the younger generations, are getting better at dealing with distractions – That even in a multitasking, always-on, digitally distracted world, it actually looks as if children are getting smarter: not just at short-form, creative exercises, but more rigorous academic thought.

 The evidence suggests that technology can distract them, but it also means — in the right environment and with the right techniques — it could be making them smarter. Rather than decrying kids’ digital dependence (because it isn’t going away, ever), a handful of researchers and thinkers are figuring out how it is altering them for the better.

What is also interesting is that many Educational experts (the people who really know about studying) are using a range of technological tools in their approach –

Again from Wired

 ….education experts are interested in putting digital technologies at the heart of education in ways that fit how children use digital media, so that they understand how to use them best.

 A good example is – Heidi Siwak, a primary-school teacher in Ontario. She gets her class involved in day-long Twitter projects, where, for example, they’ll debate a book on the Holocaust with people around the world. “You can only do it if your school lets you use Facebook and Twitter in school,” says Thompson. “What Heidi is doing is superb and a model for how you can do this. There’s inertia at an institutional level. But there are a thousand flowers blooming at a classroom level. And that’s the fun stuff to watch.”


So, which is better for productivity and Creative Thinking – Isolation or Distraction?

The truth, as in most cases, lies somewhere between these two perspectives. But it is interesting to hear the new ‘distraction is good’ theory, as it provides an interesting counterpoint to the established view that digital distractions are ruining us.

For sure, if you have something important to do you have to focus on it; in order get it done properly. But digital distractions can provide a wealth of information that will improve what we create.  

Most interestingly, it seems that we may be underestimating our capabilities and that we, and especially the younger generations, are not only getting better at using a range of digital technologies but also learning to turn distractions to our advantage.