“When a creative artist is fatigued it is often from too much inflow, not too much outflow” — Julia Cameron
If most of us, myself included, were completely honest about our balance between consumption and creation, we’d see that it’s pretty out of whack. We consume far more than we create when it should be the opposite. Every day our consumption diet includes any of the following
- Articles on Web sites
- Status updates
- Online Shopping
If you actually took inventory of all the digital content that you consumed over the course of a week, you would actually be horrified.
Because my upcoming book is about creative habits, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about my own consumption habits and my areas of weakness. One of those areas of weakness is inflow. We may not realize it, but managing our inflow is one of the best opportunities to design our environments for optimal performance and creativity. Excessive consumption and inflow inhibit creativity, negatively impacts our ability to do deep work and reduces our cumulative output. So let’s look at how and why this happens.
1. Excessive Consumption Causes Decision Fatigue
On average, we’re making over 300 decisions a day. A few months ago, I downloaded the dating app Bumble. After a few hours of playing with the app, I realized that every swipe was a decision. That was just the beginning of the decision fatigue that results from excessive consumption. And that made me think about all the other decisions that are made through our consumption habits.
- Every time you click on, read, or comment on an article you make a decision
- Every time you like, reply to or write a Facebook status update you make a decision
- Every time you read, reply to or write an email you make a decision
- Every time you browse and buy something online you make a decision
- Every time you scroll through the queue on Netflix you make a decision
This is in addition to the other 300 decisions we’re making each day. The same willpower that could have been directed towards creation gets completely depleted by our consumption habits if we’re not careful about them.
2. Excessive Consumption is Harmful to Our Attention Spans
If you’ve ever sat in a Starbucks and watched a group of teenagers, you’ll see the definition of short attention spans. They’ll spend over an hour attempting to take the perfect selfie. This is between multiple status updates and check-ins to whatever social network they’re addicted to.
But where this becomes really apparent is in Cal Newport’s research around the concept of Deep Work. According to Cal, if your attention is constantly shifting to stimuli that are novel, when it comes time to do deep work, your ability to do deep work is going to suffer. It’s the cognitive equivalent of being an athlete who smokes.
3. Excessive consumption results in multitasking and attention residue
It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox ever ten minutes or so. Indeed, many justify this behavior as better than the old practice of leaving an inbox open on the screen at all times…. That quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. — Cal Newport
Just imagine how much harder it is to sustain attention for something like reading a book when you’ve spent your whole day jumping from one website to another, scrolling through articles and not doing much actual reading. You end up being mediocre at a bunch of things as opposed to being excellent at one thing.
4. Excessive Consumption could be Bad for Our Mental Health
Every email you receive, every notification, and every “like” you get on a post releases a shot of dopamine, thereby making the products and services that we use on a daily basis addictive as hell. The sense of fulfillment and satisfaction derived from this doesn’t last very long. As a result, we crave these dopamine hits all day long.
But what’s more disturbing is what it’s doing to our mental health. Simon Sinek’s research on this predicts that in young people we’re going to see a much greater likelihood of depression, social anxiety, and the inability to communicative effectively because their faces are buried in screens getting their dopamine fix from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep.
According to Kelly McGonigal’s work and her book The Upside of Stress, people who use social media excessively experience a decreased sense of satisfaction with their lives. No matter what you accomplish, achieve or do, somebody is always up to something far more epic than you are if you live your life through the lens of your Facebook news feed.
As I’ve said before, you should treat the information you consume like the food you eat. And if you over-ate the way you over-consume you wouldn’t be alive very long.
5. Reduce Your Inflow
There are some really basic ways that anybody can reduce their inflow that won’t be disruptive to their lives or their work.
- A Separate Email Address for newsletters, notifications , etc: As someone who spends the day scouring the web for insanely interesting people to interview on the Unmistakable Creative, I need to have a decent level of inflow. This is why I have two email addresses. One is for communication that’s essential. The other is for newsletters and things that I sign up for on the web. Cal Newport goes as far as to have separate email addresses for multiple purposes, which is another approach.
- Facebook Newsfeed Obliterator: This is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a Chrome extension that removes the newsfeed from Facebook. About once a week I reenable Safari on my phone and see what everybody else is up to. But on a day to day basis I have no idea and I can focus all my efforts on what I’m there to do which is manage the community around Unmistakable Creative.
- Go Analog: I believe there’s tremendous power to being analog in an increasingly digital world.Some of the best designers in the world don’t turn on their computers for days. Nearly every post I write is written by hand first. When you’re a writer, using pen and paper gives you a chance to truly hear the sound of your own voice.
When you limit the inflow, you increase the energy that can be directed towards your outflow. You create more than you consume.