neurodivergence, the creative process

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough.

While writing an article for Medium earlier today, I discussed the importance of rebooting after the hard work of creating.

Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal calls this phase “breathing in.” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to it as “sharpening the saw.” I think of it as “rebooting.”

Whatever you decide to call it, the fact is that if the quality and/or quantity of your output is declining, it’s probably not because you’re too lazy. It’s probably because you’re not lazy enough.

Image: Blog post title image with post title, URL, and a student resting on top of a tall pile of books.

We All Work Too Much

Yes, of course I’d say that. I’m a confessed workaholic whose addiction has nearly killed me more than once. But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

Remember the 40-hour workweek? For most US adults, it’s more like 47 hours, according to one Gallup poll. Millennials are particularly bad about overworking, being more likely to agree to take on even more work or to refuse to step away from work entirely even for short periods.

A 2010 LexisNexus study found that many workers reported being on the verge of “breakdown” under the onslaught of information they handled at their jobs each day. In 2010! When the total worldwide data created was 2 zettabytes, compared to 74 zettabytes today!

If the information overload feels like it’s getting worse, that’s because it is. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by how we treat the value of staying busy.

We treat the state of being constantly busy as a virtue, as if it proves that we’re valuable or our lives have meaning. There is, I suspect, a good reason for this behavior beyond assuaging our own egos as to our worth: Constant downsizing and job loss through automation have proven to two entire generations now that if we’re not constantly doing work, we’re communicating that we can be and should be replaced.

Rest Makes Us More Productive

For centuries, people scoffed at the idea that rest could be productive on its own, let alone make workers more productive. The US’s current work ethic is largely an artifact of our earliest Puritan ancestors, who firmly believed in the rectifying power of constant labor. (The fact that a good portion of them died of starvation during their first two winters in New England may have had something to do with their obsession.) During the Industrial Revolution, “work houses” were created for people too poor to support themselves, on the grounds that they were poor only because they were indolent and a good 16 hours a day of picking tar out of old bits of rope in exchange for three bowls of gruel and a bed of straw would fix them.

The idea that hard work is a virtue and rest a vice is well ingrained into our culture. The more we study rest and work, however, the more it becomes clear that we have our morals exactly backwards.

Research indicates, for instance, that taking adequate rest periods allows us to get more done in a shorter time frame. For example, when Basecamp decided to move to a four-day workweek, the company found that its staff actually got more done in four weeks than they were getting done in five. Researchers who examine the brains of occupied and idle individuals via MRI and similar scanning tools have also discovered that the brain is “working” even when it’s not engaged in a task – and that, in fact, the brain’s “idle time” is essential to its ability to focus on tasks.

The longer I’m in control of my own schedule, the bigger a proponent I am of work time that allows each worker to manage the ebb and flow of their own energy.

I, for instance, tend to work in intense three- to five-hour bursts – and then spend the rest of the day rebooting. In those bursts, I get work done that the market seems to think I’d need eight to ten hours of a workday to do. At least, that’s the impression I get from all the recruiters who want me to apply for jobs that pay exactly what I’m making now, but that demand I be physically present for 40 hours a week instead of 10.

So far, so good. But “productivity” is a virtue generated by our social expectations, particularly in the US. It’s not necessarily a personal virtue – and when applied to personal work, “productivity” can be a real inspiration-killer.

Your personal work needs you to rest, too. Because:

Boredom is Good for Creativity

In a 2014 study published in Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman tested the effects of boredom on a particular type of creativity known as “divergent thinking.” It’s the kind that helps you do things like, say, generate a bunch of new uses for an ordinary household item.

Mann and Cadman began by splitting research subjects into two groups. Both groups were asked to generate as many ideas as they could for using a pair of plastic cups. Before this task, however, one group was asked to copy numbers out of the phone book; the other was given no such mind-numbing activity.

The phone book copiers ended up generating significantly more uses for the cups than the control group, however. It was as if being a little bored first made the creative mind restless, so it jumped at the chance to do something creative like play with cup ideas.

Mann and Cadman then repeated the study, but with a twist. To see whether degree of boredom made a difference, they created a study with three groups. One group served as a control group. One group copied numbers out of the phone book, as before. The third group was assigned merely to read the phone book. Then, all three worked on finding creative uses for plastic cups.

Once again, boredom helped generate new ideas. And more boredom seemed to do more. The phone book readers came up with the most cup-related ideas, followed by the phone book copiers; both groups outperformed the control group.

You Deserve To Live

If nothing else, take this from someone who actually did nearly die four different times from overwork: You deserve to rest because you deserve to live.


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commentary and current events, the creative process

Let’s Talk KonMari #1: Clothing and the Social Self

If you’ve been checking my Twitter feed, you may have noticed that I too have jumped on the KonMari bandwagon. And I have very strong opinions.

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This Netflix glitch conveys the gist.

This blog post series will stick to the same basic outline as the KonMari method itself:

What This Series Is Not: A how-to guide or a humblebrag about how great my space looks now.

What This Series Is: An attempt to lay out the various realizations I’ve had while tidying – especially the ones I had while actually doing the practice and simultaneously reading the backlash to Kondo and her method.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Kondo’s Netflix series “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” both lay out the how. Spark Joy and the Netflix series give plenty of examples of the what. I want to explore the why.

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KonMari, Capitalism, and Several Yous

Hold each item you own in your hands. Does this item make you feel happy? If not, why do you keep it?

No, really: Why do you keep it?

That’s KonMari in a nutshell. But, like Hamlet’s, this nutshell creates you king of infinite space.

Margaret Dilloway has written an excellent piece at HuffPo about the Shinto roots of the KonMari method and how they give rise to many of the elements of the method that make us the most anxious. As far as my limited knowledge of Shinto will permit, I believe Dilloway is spot-on.

But it’s not Shinto alone that makes Westerners anxious about the KonMari method. It’s the way the method itself collides with some of our most fervently-held beliefs about labor, material goods, and the self.

Hating Yourself is Good for You (Now Buy More Stuff)

Here in the US, we’re not used to trusting ourselves. Our economy depends on us not trusting ourselves. Our relationship to our material possessions developed over decades of not trusting ourselves, of using things to build the “someone else” we need to be in order to be happy, because we are deeply certain that we are not already that person. (If we were that person, wouldn’t we be happy already?)

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Fun fact: I only typed “ads that make” into Google Image Search. “ads that make you feel bad about yourself” was Google’s first recommendation.

It’s this dynamic that produces both clothing ads and the airbrushed models in them. It’s the cause of My Closet Is Packed and I Have Nothing to Wear Syndrome. It’s generated thousands of hours’ worth of commentary, of “just be happy with yourself!” pablum, and an entire industry of life-coaching, wellness products, and self-care in order to get you spend even more money on the “you” you’re convinced you are not.

In the face of all this ad-generating self-doubt, KonMari commits a massive sin: It doesn’t tell you that you need to be fixed.

Worse: It begins by having you do decision-making from your own inner sense of authenticity.

Worst of all: The standard KonMari gives you to make that decision is, in US material culture, extremely suspect.

“Does this spark joy?” is highly suspect because it is imminently personal. As Kondo reiterates multiple times in her books, the standard is whether an item makes you happy. Not whether you need it, not whether someone gave it to you, not whether you spend a lot of money on it or it’s hard to find or it makes Janice in Accounting turn green with envy when she sees you with it.

Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy?

All of the consequences of owning it that I listed above might make you happy. You might really love having exactly what you need, or being the curator of thirty years’ worth of gifts, or owning things you paid dearly for, or showing off things nobody else has, or ruining Janice’s day.

But those considerations are secondary to the question: Does it make you happy?

All you need in order to tidy is the yes or no. Your happiness is reason enough to keep an item, and your unhappiness is reason enough to discard it.

The more backlash against Kondo and her method that I read, the more convinced I am that this cardinal sin against material culture – being told that our own happiness is good enough – lies at the root of it all. We are so used to being told we’re inadequate that hearing that our judgment can in fact be trusted feels like being told we’re inadequate.

How dare you tell me that the magic was in me all along! I’ve spent my whole life in pursuit of my ideal self – and I’ve spent a lot of money, too!

We bought the things in order to feel safer, more important, more confident – in a word, happier. Sometimes we did feel happier. And sometimes we made it harder to hear our own inner voice.

The Clothes Make the Man – And Everyone Else

KonMari’ing one’s clothes seems to have gotten less backlash than KonMari’ing books or komono, perhaps because we consciously leverage clothing to mediate our identity. Clothing is a malleable medium; through it, we can choose how others see us, and by doing so, we can also fine-tune how much of that image is the “inner me” and how much is a public persona.

And the pressure to use clothing in this way is immense. On average, USians own more clothes and wash them more often that at any previous time in our history. “Fast fashion” allows us to keep up with trends at (nearly) any price point. It also pressures us to keep up with trends: Doing so costs money, and it also communicates that you have money.

Even kids know that there’s a “right” number, type and combination of clothing to wear. I got bullied in elementary school for “not matching” (implying the need to buy/own enough clothes that your outfits always coordinate); in middle school for wearing in-style but “off-brand” jeans (implying there’s a correct amount of money to invest in your public body blankets slash identity markers), and in high school for wearing my favorite outfit, a pair of black corduroy overalls and a babydoll t-shirt, once a week (implying you should have enough clothes to make your outfits non-repetitive).

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Image: A Tumblr meme by user opricat. Person: uhm didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday Me: Yea but there’s this remarkable invention called the washing machine Me: definitely didn’t wash the shirt

…As everyone who’s ever heard this comment before knows, the point isn’t to make you admit washing machines exist; it’s to make you admit that you wore a shirt frequently enough for everyone to know that your wardrobe is not infinity deep. What are you, A Poor?

What’s particularly pernicious about this example is the way it works directly counter to trusting that inner judgment. We tend to wear things we like more frequently than things we don’t…but every time we do, we increase the chances of hearing that we were wrong to trust that inner sense of joy.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

I thought starting with clothes would be a breeze, because I’ve already spent decades working on my wardrobe. I’ve owned dozens of books on “cultivating the perfect closet.” I’ve had my colors done. For most of the early 2000s I carried around a collection of index cards on a keyring so I could reference them while clothes shopping and make sure I was buying the “right” clothing: timeless, high-quality, and adhering to every rule about how people with my coloring, shape and stature were “supposed” to dress.

For years, my wardrobe was a hot mess.

In the months before I discovered KonMari, I’d whittled my clothes down to a capsule wardrobe so tightly curated I brag about it on Quora. As a result, I figured the clothing category would go pretty quickly for me.

…It did, but it still surprised me.

My initial pile was much smaller than the ones you see on the Netflix series:

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(In this, as in every future photo, I did choose to keep the cat.)

What surprised me was that I did, in fact, end up throwing out two trash bags’ worth of stuff. What also surprised me was that it wasn’t easy.

I thought I was pretty unsentimental about my wardrobe. I don’t get attached to clothes because they remind me of certain life events or so-and-so gave them to me.

I do, however, get attached to clothes because they represent a version of me I thought I wanted or needed to be. I get very attached to clothes for this reason.

Notice I didn’t say I “felt joy” for these reasons. The attachment was entirely anxiety-based. Any “joy” I felt was actually relief as I put these items back in the pile, because then I didn’t have to face the anxiety of letting go of that way better version of myself I’m totally going to become as soon as I work up the courage to wear these leggings in public I swear.

Those items did get removed as I was putting clothes back in the drawers, though. I had trouble managing the anxiety as I held them, but when I saw them folded next to clothes I really do love, I realized they didn’t make me feel joy. They just made me feel tired.

Okay, But I Need Those Clothes

There was a time in my life, about ten years ago, when being able to get rid of clothing simply because “it made me feel tired” would have been an unimaginable luxury. Past Me would have scorned Future Me’s ass off.

Do you want to have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill? Because this is how you have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo reassures the reader not to worry about throwing out clothes for security reasons. When you’re done sorting, she says, “You will have what you need.”

Kondo doesn’t explain this, but about halfway through sorting my underwear, it hit me:

You will have what you need because you already have what you need.

I’m serious. Imagine this: You’re standing next to your whole wardrobe, all nice and clean and folded. You’re not wearing anything you own: It’s all clean, ready for you to pick what you want.

You reach into the pile and pull out….

You already know. You know which shirt, jeans, skirt or dress is your absolute favorite, your go-to, the number-one thing you want to wear when it’s clean. You know which pairs of underwear cups your bits just right and which ones are a guaranteed all-day wedgie. And so on.

It’s okay to let clothes go when you avoid wearing them anyway.

A Note on Thankfulness

Kondo recommends that when you decide not to keep something, you thank it before relegating it to the trash/recycle/donation bin.

Thanking things before letting them go is one of the biggest “sticking points” I’ve seen among Westerners learning about KonMari. I can’t count the number of social media posts/comments/tweets I’ve seen along the lines of “I’m not thanking my clothes, that’s stupid!”

On the whole, we in the US struggle with gratitude. Gratitude runs counter to our bootstrap-pulling, pioneer-know-howing, “I built it myself”-ing ethos. Gratitude implies that we’re in a position of neediness, of subservience.

Thanking our clothes implies that we somehow need them. That we’re dependent on them to perform certain tasks for us or to help us meet certain goals. And thanking clothes can be particularly galling. How dare you imply that I couldn’t have finished school or gotten my job or had a baby or become the 51st ranked Fortnite player in the world without this sock?

I spent about five years in my tweens and early teens incapable of uttering the words “Please” or “Thank you.” It wasn’t that I was actually ungrateful; it’s that saying those words put me in a position of vulnerability that I, traumatized and mentally ill, could not bear.

After the first five or six times I did it with old clothing, however, I found that it felt weird not to do it. It made the entire process seem rushed. Worse, it made it harder for me to determine whether I was keeping things because I personally loved them or to allay that anxiety of “but I’ll become this person someday I swear!” or “but what if we end up homeless tomorrow?!” (NB: We are not going to end up homeless tomorrow.)

Since finishing my wardrobe about a week ago, I’ve also accepted: Yes, I do rely on my clothes. No, I wouldn’t have accomplished today’s tasks without my socks, or my shirt, or my winter coat.

It was -20F before wind chill here this week. Bootstraps notwithstanding, I’m not actually capable of not freezing to death in such weather on my own. I need clothes. And that’s okay.

So What Should I Do?

So much of the backlash has baffled me because The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up seems to go out of its way to tell the reader that Kondo can’t tell you what will make you happy. Only you can determine whether you find joy in one pair of underwear or ten, in thirty books or three hundred, in two spatulas or twenty-five.

In fact, the book devotes an entire chapter to discussing what Kondo calls the “click point,” at which people know that their space is filled with the right number of items for them. It devotes multiple pages to explaining that the click point is wholly and entirely personal.

Given the book’s repeated insistence that only you can know what and how much you need, it was odd to see people fight against the idea that Kondo “assigns quotas” (an actual phrase I saw one Facebook commenter use). But maybe it’s not that baffling after all.

We’re a society that spends millions every year on people, books, courses and objects that tell us how to fix ourselves. Kondo gently and persistently tells us that she cannot fix us because we were never broken.

Buying all that stuff that didn’t make us happy isn’t our fault. We did the best we could at the time with the tools we had.

But when that stuff comes in the door, it becomes our responsibility. To change the habits that accumulated it, we need to change how we respond to it. KonMari is one new way to respond.

We’re not wrong because we didn’t have this skill before. We were simply fighting to fix something that was never broken in the first place.

That message can be utterly enraging to hear. And rage often shoots the messenger.

Next time: Books.


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writing

Three Ways to Become A Writer

Disclaimer: Despite having become a writer, I’m still not sure I know how to become a writer.

That said, here’s the stuff I did that, in hindsight, was the most helpful in getting me to the point where my first book is a Real Thing That Exists in the World, my second book is in editing, and I have lost count of the number of non-book things I have published and where I have published them.

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1. Read obsessively.

Forget reading like it’s your job: Read like it’s the only thing standing between you and the gaping abyss of death. Read like your brain needs words and not oxygen molecules to survive. Read in bed. Read on the toilet. Read in the shower. Read while walking the dog. Read while standing in line at the grocery store.

It matters what you read…kind of. An understanding of novel structure and character development, for instance, is hard to get from Washington Post articles or the back of shampoo bottles. So if you want to write in a particular genre, keep a good mix of that genre in your reading.

But read other things too. Restricting yourself to one type of reading material will burn you out and limit your vision. Read ALL THE THINGS. You’d be amazed at how often my reading of technical articles on blockchain management, treatises on late 17th-century sailing, or academic tomes featuring modernist interpretations of child psychology appear in my neuroqueer sci-fi.

2. Write even when you’re not supposed to be writing.

First: write when you’re supposed to be writing. Pick a time every day you will sit down with your writing tools of choice, and then BE THERE ON TIME READY TO WORK. Hiss angrily and throw things at anyone who tries to distract you. Be there even if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas. Be there especially if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas.

But: also write even when you’re not supposed to be writing. Taking a class where the lecturer repeats things you’ve already learned? Write instead of taking notes. Boring meeting? Write. Have six loads of laundry to fold? Write. Kids have a recital or soccer game? Write. (Okay, this one might be kind of mean. Don’t be mean to your kids.)

Over the course of my tenth-grade history class alone, I wrote over 300 pages of fiction. It’s all terrible fan fiction and I will never let anyone read it, but I wrote it. And it taught me a lot about how to write.

3. Practice courage.

Courage isn’t a character stat. It’s not an inherent quality that some people are born with “enough” of and the rest of us are doomed to deficiency in.

Courage is an act. Courage is what you are doing when you say, “Hey, I’m scared of this thing, but accomplishing X by doing the thing is more important to me than my fear,” and then you pursue the more important thing.

I didn’t link this one to writing until I started my first novel. But by that time, I’d been practicing courage for years as a figure skater, a colorguard performer, a litigation attorney, and a teacher. I’m still scared every time I submit a piece of writing to an editor, even if that piece was specifically commissioned and I know they won’t reject it. I submit it because getting the work out there is more important to me than indulging my fear of criticism.

There are lots of ways to practice courage, and courage is an essential skill. You can write for years (I did), but putting your work out there is what makes you A Writer.


4. Drink a lot of coffee. Buy it for friends. Friends like me.

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