The importance of the grey zone
Joyce Carol Oates, asked to describe her writing process, said, “I clean my own house.” For a minute, I thought she’d misunderstood the question, but then I saw: Cleaning the house gives her time to think, the mental leisure for ideas to bounce around and connect in different ways. When she sits down to write, she’s very productive, because she’s documenting the thoughts that she’s already assembled. This makes perfect sense. For a writer, it’s the difference between sitting down with a blank page and a sense of purpose, or sitting down with a blank page and a sense of impending doom. The former is invigorating; the latter is enough to put you off writing for the rest of whatever. It’s getting harder and harder, though, to follow Oates’ example. Our technology and the expectations created by its use have encouraged us to think that every moment needs to be filled to overflowing. We measure productivity by the number of messages sent, phone calls fielded, simultaneous tasks–anything but the quality of thought. This is in spite of growing evidence that we’re mistaking activity for productivity. The IQ s of participants on one study dropped measurably–lower than marijuana users–when they were subjected to “always-on” technology–instant messages, Blackberries, anything that demanded immediate attention.
Other researchers concludes, that 28 percent of the work day is spent on interruptions–2.1 hours a day. The same study estimated that interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year–based just on wasted time, not the lower quality of work produced by distracted people. There’s also a human cost. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap–Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, has seen a dramatic increase in patients with symptoms like those of attention deficit disorder. He adds a new term to the multi-tasking discussion, “frazzing: frantic, ineffective multitasking, typically with the delusion that you are getting a lot done.” Surely there’s a place for the always-connected, immediate-response work style. Hallowell describes his patients as “making decisions in black-and-white, shoot-from-the-hip ways rather than giving things adequate thought.” While that doesn’t sound good to me, it fits for situations and jobs where the rules are black and white and snap decisions are what’s called for. Oddly, I can’t think of any really good examples–because in any setting, sooner or later something would be missed, some subtlety or implication.
The appeal of the grey zone
But lots of work–especially creative and high-end knowledge work–is done primarily if not exclusively in the grey zone between black and white. That’s where we’re told our future lies, what keeps jobs from migrating to cheaper labor markets or being replaced by machines, what gives our companies their competitive edges, what in the long run can make the world a better place. So what’s a frazzing knowledge worker to do? First, put technology in its place. Suggestions are everywhere: turn off the “ding” or the cell phone; set aside a specific time (or several) during the day to check e-mail; leave the cell phone turned off or at home when you’ve got something else to think about. Isn’t it odd that people who don’t otherwise seem selfless are willing to abandon themselves, their time, and their trains of thought to whoever might be on the other end of the ringing phone or bonging e-mail or IM?
Once you’ve decided to subjugate technology to your own agenda, make some space for thinking time. There’s a bit of serendipity involved, of course; you can’t always force creative thinking. It is like building a social life: If you don’t leave your house, you’re not likely to meet someone. And if you don’t make some space for thinking, you’re not likely to have ideas that inspire you. The shower is one of the most-cited spots where inspiration strikes, perhaps because the shower is a place we’re ill-equipped to multi-task. Drive-time works for me. I can use a cell phone while I drive, but I’d rather not–and I’m not very good at it. My commute is short and full of stop signs and I drink a Dr. Pepper while I drive. I just don’t have enough hands. But I’ve also found that having time for myself and my thoughts makes me better prepared to start work in the morning and shift out of work at the end of the day.
Change the angle
Folding laundry is good thinking time for me. I worry that, as my kids grow older and leave home, there just might not be enough towels to get a really good insight. Like Oates’ housecleaning, folding laundry is active but automatic enough to let my thoughts wander. Which is a good thing, science shows. We can look at problems from different perspectives, combine different elements, and come up with solutions we couldn’t have if we’d just tried to “power through.” Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer says, “When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and we can activate different areas of our brain.” While it may be good to have a housecleaner, or to drop off your laundry for someone else to do, don’t outsource all your repetitive, manual labor just for more time to multi-task. Come up with something else–knitting? woodcarving?–that will give you an excuse to let your thoughts wander.
After we’ve included some open thinking time in our days, we need to rethink our planning and pacing of projects. Typical plans include only the time a person needs actually to do the hands-on work, not the time required to have the idea to execute, or the time for reflection between iterations. A graphic designer I work with told me how important it is for her to immerse herself in a project–but to be able to walk away and return a day or two later with a fresh perspective. And working on several projects interspersed can mean that an idea that springs out of one project feeds another project that’s percolating. I’m proposing that we embrace woolgathering–by its original meaning. I learned recently that the word originally described poor people scavenging along hedges and trees for wool that had been pulled from sheep walking by. When the gatherers had enough, they’d card and spin the wool and make it into garments. Now that’s productive assembly of elements, over time, from here and there, merging them into one creative output.
Obsessing is not thinking
Finally, we need to use our thinking time for things that deserve it. We’re hugely drawn to obsessing about things that don’t matter; we’re compelled to run down to-do lists over and over. What works for me–when anything works for me, which is not always–is to plant reminders of what I want to be thinking about. For this essay, for example, I’ve had a note on my office whiteboard for weeks. A related magazine article on my desk at home, when I’ve walked by–on my way to that laundry–prompted me to think about this rather than the groceries we need or the state of my basement. And it’s worth it to me because the experience of sitting down to write with my thoughts collected and a direction to go is so enormously satisfying–at least as satisfying as having a clean house.
When she can collect her thoughts, Lois Maassen does marketing for Herman Miller and woolgathers about her children’s futures.