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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Is the “Efficiency Trap” Blocking Your Writing?

virtual library canstockphoto5894314 (2)When someone recommends a book, I go to my library’s website. Some books I can download immediately; I request the others be sent to my local branch.

When I get an email informing me that the requested book has arrived, I stop on my way home for the Y. I find my book on the Hold for Pickup shelf easily because books are arranged by library ID number. I use the self-serve check out and I’m in and out of the library in five minutes.

I don’t drive to the main library only to discover the book I’m looking for is not on the shelf. I don’t have to drive to a branch on the other side of the metro to pick up a book my local branch doesn’t have. I don’t even have to wait in line to check out.

It’s an extremely efficient system.

Which is why I need to change it. As I’ve said before, creativity is not efficient and efficiency is not creative.

The Efficiency Trap

Efficiency can be a good thing, but I’ve “efficiencied” myself out valuable random input.

Because I no longer wander the stacks at the main library, I’ve lost the chance of stumbling on an unexpected book. I don’t see the spines of related books shelved next to the book I request, so I lose the opportunity to happen upon a book I didn’t know I needed, a book that could hold exactly the detail I need.

I don’t even talk to a librarian when I check out my books, so I lose the opportunity for that expert to tell me “You’re interested in X, have you read Y?”

It’s simple enough to solve this particular efficiency problem; I could just schedule a library field trip once a month.

efficientThe larger challenge is that I’m caught up in the “efficiency trap.” I bought the story that “I’m so busy and I have so much to do, I have to be efficient in how I spend my time.”

When I’m in that frenzied mindset, I forget how essential it is for creative people to “waste time” to stay open to the random.

Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!

It’s as if we terrified of life without a screen. When we’re waiting in line, we check email on our phone. When we stop for coffee, we open our laptop. When we’re exhausted after a day of rushing around, we collapse in front the TV or numb out with Pinterest.

There’s no need to talk to strangers. We have so much screen-time, we have less time to pay attention to the people we know, let alone people we don’t know. And it’s the people we don’t know who are most likely to drop the unfamiliar random bits that feed our creativity.

Stick With Who You Know

We spend that screen-time repeating what we’re already comfortable with. I’m certainly no expert on SEO, but I do know that social media like Facebook and Twitter are going to select what input I see based on who I “follow,” “friend” or “like” and what’s trending.

It’s possible that with a world-wide network of instant communication and hundreds of radio and TV channels to choose from, we could witness far more diversity of lifestyles and cultural, religious and political perspectives and opinions than we could pre-internet when three broadcast companies determined what was available on a handful of TV channels. But we don’t.

brain canstockphoto7718872 (2)Our brains are hard-wired to seek the familiar. Our instinct is to associate with others who are like us. There is tremendous value in knowing your tribe (like the tribe of writers for example) and being with your tribe. But every tribe benefits from fair trade with other tribes.

Our tribe of writers has a high need for contact with “outsiders.” Creativity requires the unfamiliar. It requires variety, deviation from the norm and random input. Seeking that is not our brain’s default, so it requires conscious action. As old sources of random input fall away, we need to consciously seek out new sources.

Accidental Tourist

Opportunities for random encounters with the unfamiliar is one of the prime benefits of travel. We can expand our creativity by challenging ourselves to be tourists in our own towns:

  • eat a restaurant in a neighborhood you rarely visit
  • go to a play or concert in a school your kids don’t attend
  • tune into a radio station that you never listen to
  • explore a store you’d never shop in and ask questions
  • spend a half hour watching a channel selected by a random number generator
  • go to a tourist attraction in your area that you haven’t visited in years

Where do you find random? Please comment — I really want to know because I know I need more random.

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11 Comments on “Is the “Efficiency Trap” Blocking Your Writing?”

  1. Joel D Canfield February 11, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    I need to eat different foods. Read genres I don’t usually read. Watch a movie I don’t think I’ll understand. Talk to random strangers on the street or at a coffee shop.

    I am a magnificent creature of habit. I wear a different shirt every day: all longsleeved black turtlenecks. Yeah, I own other shirts, but my default, every single day, is the same.

    Same tea almost every morning. Coffee at 11.

    Habit has launched me into wildly creative mode. Working feverishly on two novels and written and recorded 6 songs this month.

    But there are places I could so easily inject some random, some alien seed, and I need to make it happen.


    • rosannebane February 11, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

      Thanks Joel for your observations about the tension between following habits and seeking the random.


  2. Laura Sommers February 10, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    Very cool. One thing I’ve learned from decades of working in a creative field, is that true, effective creativity is messy, not structured. We tell clients in our design business that we follow a “process,” but the more seasoned I get, the more I realize this is just something we say to reassure them and give them a program to follow. Reminds me of the conversation you and I had recently about “cognitive disinhibition” and creativity… that creative people seem to have less ability (or desire) to block random stimuli and thoughts. I drive around to find random… going down streets I’ve never traveled before, getting lost in my own area on purpose. Thanks for a great post.


    • rosannebane February 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

      Thanks Laura. Perhaps creativity is like sausage-making: a process best left unseen by clients/consumers. Thanks for the reminder about cognitive disinhibition — there could be a blog post on that coming up soon — and for the suggestion to get lost while driving. All I have to do is cross the river into St. Paul to get myself lost. And with GPS on my phone, I don’t have to worry about finding my way back home again.


  3. Kate Larkin February 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    Very interesting, Rosanne, and very timely. But I wonder about suffering from too much random. My ideas for a novel have spanned so many times, places, etc. that I have to put a stop to it. I’ve set a deadline for this part of the writing process and will toss all notes from these fishing trips into a bag (including notes from library books that winked at me as I walked by), then trust that whatever comes up from a blind draw will be the right thing to develop into a story.

    I’m good with random up to a point. It’s getting old, yet as deadline approaches, I find myself getting more anxious: Really? my saboteur says. You’re gonna pull a novel out of a bag? Yeah, I say. Either that or go shoot myself.
    This is a resistance game, an unhealthy exploitation of a healthy part of the creative process.

    Thank you for helping me name that animal. Thank you for providing such a fresh perspective on what can be easily overlooked or under-appreciated. Thank you!


    • rosannebane February 11, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      You’re most welcome Kate! Great Saboteur spotting, which is an essential skill for every novelist. Take a look at Joel’s comment and you’ll see that habits are a wonderful counterbalance for random, so if you feel you’re dipping into the “over-doing random” area, give yourself some simple habits you enjoy.


  4. Cia February 10, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    Time and time again, the things you write about are so apt. For myself efficiency is about control, which is really about fear of the unknown. Hope, trust and randomness go together. I am making a commitment to bringing more randomness to my life. Thank you, Rosanne.


    • rosannebane February 11, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

      Cia, you’re absolutely right on target about efficiency being an attempt to control what really can’t be controlled.


  5. Gerrie February 10, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

    This is such an important message, Rosanne!!!! Thanks for sharing.


    • rosannebane February 10, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

      Gerrie, I’m delighted it was the right message at the right time for you! Thanks for reading and commenting.



  1. Is Your Writing Blocked or Have You Run Out of Random? | The Bane of Your Resistance - February 10, 2014

    […] Next post: Do you have enough random? Where do you get random? […]


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