For the Love of Automaticity

Kurt Russell is in a new movie other than The Hateful Eight, a different western by newish director/writer S. Craig Zahler called Bone Tomahawk. This blog post is not about that movie. It is about a probably-is-true and interesting factoid on the IMDb profile page of the director:

[Zahler] wrote scripts for 9 years while working as a catering chef.

You may have heard how driving can induce a hypnotic state in people. This process is called cognitive automaticity and it applies to running, reading, cooking, data entry, and other monotonous tasks. It is glorious and I love it.*

When I read that fact about Mr. Zahler on the internet, I immediately understood how he accumulated a wealth of creative ideas.** I’ve spent the majority of my adult life thriving in repetitious, high-production computing jobs. Processing hundreds of financial documents and portfolios, digitizing medical records, moderating on websites, the list goes on. These jobs offered me wide expertise in quickly and accurately completing exceptionally boring, tedious tasks. These were often small ponds and, for the only time in my life, I was a great white shark. Not in the sense that I ruthlessly devoured prey; I was often not conscious while I moved.

    Chomp.   Great White Shark by  Elias Levy on Flickr

  Chomp. Great White Shark by Elias Levy on Flickr

I’d often get teased for ‘zoning out’ while I worked. Coworkers could tap me on the shoulder, put things on my desk, push my chair, and I’d keep working. More than once I had Very Important People try to figure out what made me different. I considered saying that I wasn’t actually paying attention when I worked, that I was putting together short stories, movies, and books in my head. But that would have been stupid. My typical reply was that I loved my job, it was like a video game to me, and don’t you ever make me answer a phone.

If you’ve had a big idea while driving, running, sewing, coding, gardening, or playing catch with the dog, you know how valuable rote tasks can be. Doing something productive that requires only a part of your brain is like recess for your creativity. Losing this type of free time is an unacknowledged misery when becoming a manager.***

Creative people need a break from thinking. They need automaticity.


*Supposedly, automaticity is important in language acquisition, but I’ve reaped no benefits there.

**The internet is made by experts, for soon-to-be experts.

***Sure, you SAY you miss “the work” and “solving problems” and “actually accomplishing things” but don’t you REALLY miss wondering whether you can develop a bike that rides on telephone wires?