building the focus muscle

I’m working on a large project for Fortuny – I can’t show it to you for a couple more weeks but I can show you some of the fabrics I’m working with – their new cashmere velvets – I wish you could feel them – and the colors are glorious.

fortuny velvet

It’s a project I love and one that makes me wish for more hours in the day which of course I can’t have. But maybe I can increase the depth of my focus and attention to make the absolute most of the time I do have. I know the sensation of deep focus but it’s a place that has become increasingly difficult to get to.

I think of my creativity, my imagination, as a muscle – something to be cared for, fed nurtured and exercised.

I think of time as a precious and finite commodity and I manage and protect it thoughtfully and carefully.

I am realizing that my ability to focus needs to be cared for, exercised, managed and protected too. I know it has been diminished by constant connectedness, the myriad of small grabs for my attention that were not there 20 years ago. So I work at it, plan for it and block out chunks of time away from distractions – internet and phone free time to sink into deep focus. I thought that was enough until I listened to this episode of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast :

Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World with Cal Newport

It’s a great episode and I hope you’ll listen. What struck me most was the idea that some habits and behaviors outside of those chunks of protected time have undermining, damaging effects on my ability to focus deeply, to manage my attention.

Newport offered the example of waiting in line at a grocery store – I pull out my phone – and so does almost everybody else. I notice the same on the subway – the train comes out of a tunnel and everybody pulls out their phone. It’s a habit and such a small thing – what harm could it do? Why not fill that little bubble of grocery line time with instagram or email etc.?

“Both our personal and professional lives are increasingly built around these sources of distraction. From a cognitive perspective, that’s like being an athlete who smokes.”

Cal Newport

It’s teaching my mind to run away from boredom – to fill gaps with novel stimulation from a never ending source, It weakens the muscle that resists distraction, the muscle that helps me stay truly present in the moment, the stitch.

songbird work

Since I first listened a couple weeks ago I stopped pulling out my phone in little downtime moments like waiting in the grocery or post office line and it’s uncomfortable – alarmingly uncomfortable. In fact it’s easier not to bring it. I think it’s good practice for pulling my attention back to the present or an opportunity to daydream – that little device steals so much daydreaming time. I am far more likely to have an idea while day dreaming than I am while looking at twitter.

I’m not giving up my phone or the internet – but I am working harder to put them in their place. And I do feel a strong nostalgia for the pre- connected life.

* Further – If you’re interested in this sort of thing you might enjoy another Unmistakable Creative episode on focus and productivity too.


  1. This was the most perfect posting for me right now. I’ve had so many ‘things’ on my mind and one of them as been “have-to-do’s”. I’m currently trying to simplify my life so that I’ll have more time in my studio. I want to experiment and yet there never seems time to do so. That will end as of today. I love the idea that its those ‘little’ distractions that take us away from our creative selves. Thanks for your words today. I needed to read them!

  2. Such a timely reminder as I fritter away the morning and even a bit of the afternoon on social media. Thank you!

  3. I am relatively new to the cell phone world – I’ve owned one for about 6 months now. I always have a small note pad in my purse and while away the minutes jotting down my ideas and making quick but terrible sketches of the stuff in my head. Sometimes it makes no sense but every once in awhile there’s a small gem.

  4. “Velvet Cashmere”!!!! Send me your scraps…such a luxury. Can’t wait to see what you make.

  5. Love the colors! That bright blue and deeper brown at the bottom make me daydream!! Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

    I will listen later to the podcasts…I don’t have a smartphone, so I have avoided the trap of always checking my phone. But there’s always Facebook or TV in the evenings…sometimes I do just turn everything off and stare around my room and redo it in my mind…it is great exercise to just look and dream!

  6. Laurie Sharp

    Great reminder to exercise on focus for creativity. and to allow yourself time to be… without distractions. If you read about other creative types, scientists and mathematicians even, you see that they came to some of their greatest discoveries and insights during the time when they left the mind free to wander and wonder. Then, seemingly quite suddenly, ideas pop into their heads! When you leave the space available for inspiration, amazing things will appear to you. Thank you for sharing the resources like the podcast,too. With so much information available, sometimes it is difficult to discover the gems of wisdom lurking around.

  7. Brilliant post yet again – and exactly what I needed right now – will definitely be following the link. I have so many distractions at the moment, not leas the impending birth of my (very late in life) surprise baby that is coinciding with the last few months of my Textiles degree, and yet I find myself on facebook or instagram and anywhere on the internet when I have far nicer and better things to be doing!
    Kath x

  8. I hate how phones consume people. I think because my job can be all consuming that I’m grateful for quiet moments when I actually have nothing on my mind but just absorb my surroundings. My son and I go for frequent walks together and no phones are ever involved. It makes a big difference to my quality of life. My son is nearly 18 now and I will miss those times we spent together walking.

  9. Great podcast, thank you. I like the concept that passion follows engagement. If you’re constantly on your phone or other device, you’re not engaging with what’s around you. My internet time can spark ideas and creativity, but too often I get sucked in, linking to other creatives’ websites before realizing 3 hrs has gone by and I’ve created nothing of my own! So, scheduled blocks of disconnect time is essential for me.

    I recently heard a quote from a feminist who said that boredom is a privilege. Her point being that In many parts of the world, boredom is quashed by the need to avoid more immediate dangers — war, starvation, severe drought, epidemics, etc. She was addressing young people who complain of being bored, but really it applies to all of us.

    And cashmere velvet? Nirvana. Enjoy!

  10. Catching up on the blog after some time away, and this is such an important post for me. Internet addiction is something I seriously struggle with, and I was only thinking of it as a drain on productivity, rather than a drain on creativity. Because I am much better pals with creativity than I am with productivity (at the moment) this is very motivating.

    I am such a huge fan of The Unmistakeable Creative, but I missed that episode! Sometimes I think I resist the episodes I need to hear the most. It’s on my list for today. Thank you, as always.

  11. Holy! Do I hear you loud and clear!! I only take my phone with me to have it for a phone and maybe to take the odd Instagram picture…but…there have been many times when I find myself thinking to take it out just to look at something on the screen. I love your ideas of focusing on the creativity and I’m a kindred spirit in this realm. Actually I find when I’m bored or distracted (like I was today) I go out in my studio and just start puttering and cleaning a bit and things will speak to me. I also try to pick a project thats been on the backburner (i call them U(n) F(inished) O(bjects). So when I’m not fully inspired I pick up a UFO and chip away at it.
    Your work is lovely by the way, so tactile and organic in form.
    Someday I will get the chance to wander Deadhorse Beach!!!

  12. I love Cal Newport. When I’m knitting though, my mind stills. Samething when I’m spinning. I work so many things out in my head that it feels rested after. And I can spin or knit for hours and hours. Daydreaming. Not bored just peaceful. When I don’t have a project or when I have a chaotic day, my hands itch for it. I can sleep soon after. No lingering worries to weigh me down. Not so with the phone. It requires full on attention. It’s a step away rather than a step towards.

  13. Yes!! Though you wrote this a couple of years ago, this is my reality now as well. I am making efforts to stay off of IG for long periods of time in the day. I keep wondering, “What would I create if I were not influenced by Instagram makers?” Not that I don’t LOVE to see all the amazing things folks are making and drawing and stitching and painting…but it gets me to going in different directions, which is fun, but I need focus, a stick-to-it-iveness to stay in one place. It isn’t just IG’s fault. It is my own life, full to the brim with family and work. Creatives must learn to manage and care for their precious time and energies, as you so beautifully say! Thank you!

  14. Hi, I have been reading your posts daily, since i discovered you. However, I am NOT distracted at all by the phone because I have decided that I only answer those marked as important, otherwise I ignore it. I also have a set times to come to the computer, i.e. in the morning I answer mail, come back when I have a break from my daily routine, just to check new messages or read some of your posts and enjoy your work as it progresses. Thank you for sharing. I will listen to Cal Newport, there is always something to learn.

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