What Christopher Nolan Can Tell You About Directing Your Life


Christopher Nolan is one of the most desirable high-budget directors, writers and producers in the world. Still in his 40s, Nolan has racked up quite the résumé over the last two decades. His credits include films like Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Interstellar. This summer, moviegoers across the globe are expected to pour into theaters to catch Nolan’s latest, Dunkirk, which chronicles an evacuation of Allied forces from France during World War II.

To date, Nolan’s films have netted nearly $2 billion on a global scale. From what it looks like, that figure will only continue to swell as the filmmaker’s career evolves.

Nolan, who started making films when he was a kid, is completely self-taught; he never went to film school. The reason he succeeds so magnificently is because he’s viciously focused on storytelling and cares a great deal about what matters to his craft. Nolan also knows how to shut out the bells and whistles that distract most people from reaching their full potential. Believe it or not, he doesn’t own a phone and doesn’t have an email address—imagine that.

This is not to say that you need to smash your smartphone and start ignoring emails from your bosses and coworkers to become a more productive and effective worker. Rather, if you are leading a complex project, you will probably be more successful in your efforts if you know how to focus on what’s important when things get hectic or confusing.

That’s because the fewer distractions you have, the easier it becomes to make better decisions in difficult and complicated situations.

For many of us, it’s safe to say that we’ll never be charged with steering multi-million dollar projects like Nolan is. (But, to be fair, you never know.) Still, the filmmaker’s success can teach us a whole lot about how we can become better at our own crafts.

Practice mindfulness

By now, you’ve probably come across the term “mindfulness” over the course of your readings about productivity. If you haven’t, mindfulness can be defined as the practice of paying more attention to the present moment and using your brainpower to consciously focus on the task at hand—not the millions of distractions that abound.

In today’s world, distractions come at us from every conceivable angle. Our inboxes are flooded with requests and inquiries. Social media sends us an endless avalanche of notifications. Our friends and loved ones call and shoot us text messages periodically over the course of the day. The list goes on.

It’s impossible to do your best work if you can’t focus on what needs to be done. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that mindfulness has been linked to success with very high-level decision making. Mindfulness practitioners have proven to be better readers and have stronger working memories. They’re also able to better focus on the task at hand. When you are able to tune out unhelpful stimuli, you’re able to tune in to the things that matter most. In this light, mindfulness also helps with both near-term and long-term strategic planning.

Are you addicted to distractions?

If you’re the type of person who’s glued to a screen all day, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. One recent study found that one out of every eight people is absolutely addicted to their smartphone. Making matters worse, the research also revealed that we become increasingly addicted to our devices the more we use them.

So maybe the devices that promise us productivity actually work against us.

The good news is that if you find yourself in such a predicament, you have the power to conquer your addictions. It starts with having the right mindset and believing that you are always a work in progress and that you alone have the ability to change your thoughts and behaviors.

If you want to bring Christopher Nolan’s remarkable focus to your own projects, you may want to take up mindfulness. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that media multi-taskers—defined as those who, for example, read a book while listening to music or watch a movie while texting their friends—benefited from doing simple meditation exercises.

Think about it this way. Have you ever felt your phone buzz in your pocket only to check it and see that no one’s called or texted you and you have no notifications? There’s actually a name for that—phantom vibration syndrome—and it’s more common than you might think. Of course, when this occurs, you’re just imagining the buzzing sensation you’re familiar with when someone actually sends you a text message. But since no one is texting you, it just means your brain is devoting however many resources “checking in” with the nerves in your thigh.

In other words, you’re distracted—consciously or not.

From a professional perspective, you can only reach your full potential when you have a clear mind. If you feel as though your life is too chaotic and you’re always running around and are thus incapable of producing at your highest levels, you may want to:

  • Accept things the way they are.
  • Do your best to live in the moment.
  • Visualize what you want to accomplish and work hard toward that goal.
  • Use your devices as infrequently as possible.
  • Take small steps on the way to conquering large objectives.

You may never direct a global blockbuster, but you will almost certainly have the chance to make a noticeable impact on specific projects and initiatives you champion over the course of your career. The fewer distractions that occupy your thoughts, the more successful you’ll be at the work you do.

So take a deep breath. Exhale. The future belongs to you.

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