July 8th 2020
The internet is a noisy place, both a web of beautiful, boundless connections and information and a cesspool of whatever you can possibly imagine. It's the best of places and the worst of places. Daniel Milroy Maher explores how to stay inspired through all the noise, as part of our series on self care for creatives.
I remember a few years ago a friend of mine telling me that he had never missed an Instagram story from any of his followers, that before he went to sleep each day, he would have watched every story posted up until that point. He trawled through these digital snippets of life religiously, as though he was in danger of missing something truly important otherwise. Granted, he may have been exaggerating, and the story feature wasn’t as prevalent then as it is now, but I can still recall my bewilderment at hearing this. How can someone dedicate so much time to watching videos that are of no real use to them whatsoever?
It’s a fear of missing out, of not being up to date with other people’s lives – their exercise routines, dinner recipes and new homeware purchases – that drives many of us to spend so much time on social media. It’s a window into another existence, and it’s available at the tap of a finger. The irony is that often, in an effort to not feel left out, we do just that.
We look at what everyone else is up to, rather than focusing on what we’re up to. Coupled with our shorter attention spans that seem to grow shorter with every new technological jump, we can easily throw away so much of our day observing rather than doing.
I think the same goes for finding inspiration online. As a writer, every day I try to read a wide array of material from a range of sources – news outlets, personal blogs, educational platforms, arts and culture sites etc. – in order to feel stimulated. Sometimes I find myself moving from one to the next without giving myself time to reflect on what I’ve just read. Sometimes I’m not even sure how much I’ve actually retained. As a result, I feel mentally frazzled by the end of the day and often uninspired. It doesn’t help that these outlets of information are relentless in their pursuit. They want you to read everything that they’ve published and they want you to read it now. Your screen and inbox quickly fill up with notifications telling you what’s new.
It’s not just written content either. Does the process of watching a video, and then reading an article, and then scrolling through a feed, and then watching a story and then reading another article sound familiar to you?
It’s something that a lot of us do each day, jumping from one source to the next in order to fill an insatiable hunger for entertainment and information. Even as I write this, I can feel the pull of my phone as notifications pop up telling me what to read and what to watch. It can make it impossible to focus on the task at hand for more than even ten minutes without getting distracted.
At times, my job has required me to spend hours trawling through Instagram in search of content, from new artists and projects to write about to events and exhibitions that I can cover. Information overload is a strange sensation; you consume so much so quickly and yet, at the end of it, there’s emptiness. Did I actually engage with what I was just seeing? Can I recall half of it? These are the questions I’m left asking myself after two hours of looking at image after image. Sure, you get brief, transient hits of inspiration as you come across a nice painting, an interesting design or a beautiful building, but these are gone almost the moment they appear. There is no lasting inspiration from this, only a quick top up which soon fades. Like trying to fill a glass with a crack in it, everything seeps out.
I need to consume things at a slower pace to feel as though I’m truly engaging with them. Rather than skimming articles or only reading a few opening paragraphs of one before moving onto the next, I need to read it properly, allowing myself time to think about what I’m reading. If I come across a new series by an artist I follow, I need to take the time to truly appreciate the work and delve deeper into it to really benefit from the experience.
We’re so accustomed to consuming only the surface level details, that the prospect of sticking with something for longer than a few minutes can feel daunting or, ironically, like a waste of time.
But there are some steps that I have taken recently to combat this constant need for fast stimulation and I do think that they’re helping. The first is to limit the number of people and companies that I follow on all platforms, be it Instagram, YouTube or Facebook. I have tried to refine this list only to things that truly inspire me or are in some way important. Whereas I used to follow an endless number of accounts dedicated to art, design, photography and architecture, there is now only a small selection. These are the ones that actually resonate with me and post things that I’m interested in. The individuals I follow are people that make work that moves me and support and promote causes that I believe in. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some anomalies, some accounts that I go to for a quick laugh, but they are few.
By doing this, it means that even when I succumb to the lure of social media, I can usually expect to consume things that are of genuine interest to me. And because I follow fewer accounts, there a fewer things to look at that can potentially steal my time away from other more important things. It means that I can spend more time (if I choose to) engaging with things on a deeper level, and less time scrolling mindlessly through text and images that I’m not even really looking at, let alone understanding. To accompany this refinement of what and who I follow, I’ve also unsubscribed from many newsletters that I don’t even read and yet receive every single day, as well as turned off notifications for those apps and programs that love to bombard you from morning until night.
Another thing I’ve tried to do is spend more time completely disconnected from technology. I try not to use my phone excessively after waking up. I check it quickly, reply to messages that need replying to, and then I get on with my morning. I allocate myself an hour after breakfast to read a book, with my laptop and phone a safe distance away where I’m not tempted to use them. This old fashioned way of absorbing information is actually very effective. I pay attention to what I’m reading and, for once, I find myself lost in it. Rather than easily losing focus, I have to consciously break it so that I don’t end up reading for the entire day, though I wish I could.
As a result, when I begin the part of my day that requires work, I feel energised. I have oiled the machine and I’ve found some real inspiration. Regardless of whether or not what I was reading is directly applicable to what I’m working on, I feel creative. I’m ready to tackle ideas, understand them and come up with my own. My thoughts are not fuzzy from a morning’s worth of five-second stories and ten-second dance routines. Rather than having already racked up a couple of hours of surfing the web for entertainment, I’ve dedicated a smaller chunk of my day to a single source of information, and I’ve taken my sweet time with it. Attempting to achieve this sort of mental clarity from the moment you wake kickstarts a beneficial chain reaction that keeps you thinking and doing at higher capacities for the rest of the day.
When I do go on social media or browse the internet however, I try not to move rapidly from one app or website to another. I consume at a slower pace, and am conscious of the things I’m looking at. It’s very easy to drift into a blur of scrolling through feeds, but when you emerge at the other end, you’re frequently tired and restless. It feels as though habits like these gradually hardwire your brain to want more and need more to keep you satisfied. You begin to shy away from endeavours that offer delayed gratification, and instead opt for smaller commitments, quicker rewards and, ultimately, less meaningful connection. When it comes to finding inspiration online (and offline for that matter), the phrase slow and steady wins the race has never been truer.
Daniel Milroy Maher is London-based freelance writer, editor and publisher. He has written extensively on subjects ranging from photography and film to art and design. He is also a co-founder and editor of SWIM Magazine, an annual art publication.
Illustration by Melissa Ya