Lichtenbergianism: Chapter Three, part 2

As I work my way through the text of my putative book on the creative process, you might like to read the rest of the text so far here. Also, the rest of my meditations on the process here.

The other secret to successful TASK AVOIDANCE is that gestation is a necessary part of the creative process in any model worth the study—and a smart artist uses TASK AVOIDANCE to let ideas fully form. For the Lichtenbergian, it is part of the joke—procrastination is a key to creativity—Cras melior est—but make no mistake: we know when we’re wasting time and when we’re allowing an idea to mature or a problem to percolate unseen.

It is a mistake to think that “creativity” is somehow limited to the actual actions involved in finishing a work. Planning—working out the kinks—developing a framework—sketching, doodling, warming up—daydreaming about possibilities [1]—these are as responsible for the quality of the finished product as the actual acts of painting or sculpting or composing or writing are.

As Danish mathematician/poet/designer Piet Hein put it in one of his aphoristic poems he called grooks:


To many people artists seem
undisciplined and lawless.
Such laziness, with such great gifts
seems little short of crime.
One mystery is how they make
the things they make so flawless;
another, what they’re doing with
their energy and time.[2]

It’s also true that simply walking away from a project[3] will sometimes allow your subconscious to work in the background on a solution to whatever has been puzzling you. History is replete with examples of great thinkers whose biggest ideas came upon them when they weren’t directly thinking about the problem. So absolutely, put down that sonnet and go get in the hot tub. You can thank me for it later.

Another important benefit of TASK AVOIDANCE is slack. Slack is that extra bit of rope that allows you to make adjustments in whatever it is you’re doing with that rope—in Lichtenbergianism, slack is extra time, and it is critical to any adaptive system like creativity.

One of my favorite fables about the importance of slack concerns a secretary in a large firm who was a wonder: she could schedule meetings, make calls, make copies, organize—you name it, she could get it all done for you at the drop of a hat. Then the company hired an efficiency consultant who found that the secretary often had nothing to do, large stretches of time which were not productive. They advised the company to schedule her workload more tightly so that she could get more done.

To everyone’s astonishment, her usefulness to the company plummeted. She couldn’t get to all the things she was asked to do and was often behind. No one could understand it.

They had taken her slack. All that time she was observed doing nothing was actually her being available to take on any task that was asked of her. When her whole day was scheduled, she was no longer able to pivot from one task to another and get them all done.[4]

In Lichtenbergianism, whenever you feel over-structured, rushed, or swamped, it’s time for a little TASK AVOIDANCE. Clear out some time for reading, or thinking about another project. Or, if worse comes to worse, clean your house. Ugh.

Just remember that filling every moment with work is not actually being efficient.

Tomorrow: Task Avoidance, part 3


[1] This is of course distinct from daydreaming about appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote your book.

[2] Piet Hein, Grooks 3.

[3] see also: ABANDONMENT

[4] still trying to ferret out attribution for this story; it may be from Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency , except I don’t think I’ve ever read that book; book’s on order

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