The Art of Noticing No. 0.1: Get In Your Own Head


Here is the second, but still beta, soft launch newsletter, in connection with the forthcoming book The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday. I'm encouraged by the feedback to the first test installment — I particularly thank Austin Kleon & Mark Frauenfelder via Recomendo for kind words —and I promise that the beta phase is ending.

But I know a lot of you are new, so to recap: The book (coming in May, but to my surprise already available for preorder) is a series of exercises and prompts and games and things you can actually do (or reflect upon) to build attention muscles or just get off your phone and enjoy noticing stuff that everyone else missed.

The book is done, but I keep coming across new and relevant ideas -- either for prompts you can try, or interesting or inspirational projects or writing you can check out. That's what this newsletter is for. So here goes.

1. Interview Your Parents. In a very, very charming 30-minute audio documentary for BBC Radio 4, Guy Garvey (of the band Elbow) describes spending a decade recording his dad’s stories, and explains why he wants you to do the same.

The first session was trying, he concedes, but gradually both found the process "therapeutic." Tuns out this wasn't just about creating memory documents, as valuable as that may be. This form of listening, an academic expert included in the doc offers, is "a really giving thing to do." And indeed, Garvey's interviews eventually got beyond the familiar tales his dad loved to tell, to ones that were more obscure, but ultimately deeper — stories without a punchline.

Listen to Guy Garvey: Recording Dad, here.

There's a lot in The Art of Noticing about talking and listening and interviewing (with a heavy dose of influence from the StoryCorps folks), and certainly parents figure into that. But this specific example is really inspiring.

2. Dept. of Useful Feedback: Responding to an item in last week's newsletter, Steve Portigal pointed me to the Instagram of street artists tombobnyc, who he describes as expert in "turning street infrastructure into trompe l'oiel." There's a bit in the book about looking at the world as though you were a street artist, and while I wasn't familiar with this work, it is exactly the style I was thinking of. Excellent stuff, thank you!

3. On The Upside of Spending Time Alone In Your Head. In an excerpt from his book about running, Peter Sagal explains why he runs without headphones.

I have a friend who wears headphones on long solo runs because, he says, “I can’t spend that much time alone in my head.” I disagree. He can, and he should. Spending that much time inside one’s head, along with the voices and the bats hanging from the various dendrites and neurons, is one of the best things about running, or at least one of the most therapeutic. Your brain is like a duvet cover: Every once in a while, it needs to be aired out.

This resonates with one of the exercises in TAoN: Unitasking. Sagal's take: After "being in your own head" for a while with no external distractions, your internal distractions fade out, too. You end up really focusing on whatever it is you're actually doing.

I think about my motion, and my breathing, my muscles, and their state of agitation or stress or relaxation. I note my surroundings — the downward slope I would never notice driving this street, the hawk’s nest I would never see for lack of looking up, the figure in a window caught in a solitary moment of their own. I think about the true meaning of distance — about the learning that comes from running a mile in your own shoes. I think about blisters and bliss, and the voices quiet.

Nice. So get into your own head! And see where that takes you....

--> Also, Sagal has a great interview with the excellent Think on KERA.

4. "The sneaky science behind your child’s tech obsession." In The Washington Post, Caroline Knorr offers tips for reducing distractions and intrusions from technology, especially for kids. I'd push back on the assertion that "humans are totally overpowered" by attention-grabbing tech design. That's only true to the extent that you let it be true. Still, there's useful advice here — and I definitely endorse reducing "notifications" as much as possible.

5. "The act of drawing something something has a 'massive' benefit for memory." Not everybody likes to draw, but I try in the book to encourage it anyway; drawing can be a really a useful trick for engaging with the world. This research suggests:

The 'drawing effect' – getting people to draw quick pictures of words in a list (such as “truck” or “pear”) led to much better recall of those words than writing them out multiple times. Creating just a four-second drawing was also superior to imagining the items or viewing pictures of the words.

The "four-second drawing" is such an interesting parameter -- maybe it takes some pressure off? If you try it, let me know!

Okay, that's it! I would really, really value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.). I'm just sorting out what day this should come out, and whether it should be weekly or biweekly -- the next one will be Official. Any comments please reply to this email or use

Thanks for reading!


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