Tinker Time

Play is key for survival

Lion cubs find it fun to play fight on the savannah, but an evolutionary biologist would tell you that there's more at work here: the impulse to play aids in their survival. They learn what works and what doesn't, social rules of thumb, and a chance to try out new moves.

Maybe play is the same for us. Maybe our uniquely human impulse to make and engage with art of all types is, as Steven Johnson puts it, "nature's way of helping us develop the ability to recognize a signal in all the noise - find patterns that were previously a series of random dots."

When we're busy, play time is probably one of the first to get cut. Let's turn that habit on its ear and make play a priority in 2017. Your ability to stay fresh and moving forward in your career depends on it.

Why I prioritize Tinker Time

Ideas are networks of other ideas—bricolage.

[Ideas] are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we've inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage. 
Steven Johnson

An ah-ha moment feels like it came out of no where. In reality, your brain bricolages together "the spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage". These are things you've heard, read, seen, experienced. Your knowledge base. Associations are made and then 💥 :

Combinatory creativity.

Advice Column #02: Finding Tinker Time

Hey Kat,

In response to your Tinker Time post: I LOVE this idea.

However, I find it nearly impossible to do with children around/in the vicinity... IF I have a few moments to myself to try to work on something creative, I feel so much internal pressure to get as much of what I love to do done in a short amount of time, knowing these times are far and few between (ie: play my violin, write a song, sew, write a letter, try to cook a new dish).

I end up short changing it all, or stopping all together, and resort to something mindless, like catching up on my latest binge Netflix fix. In the end, I feel unaccomplished.

This is not a complaint of my lifestyle (which happens to be a chosen lifestyle), but more of a challenge to be worked with. Any ideas on how to incorporate tinker time with wee ones around, who require an abundance of structure, time, energy? 🙂


Troubles in Tinkering Town


Dear Troubles,

I'm so glad you asked. Foremost: Thank you for everything you do in the job title of Mom. Mother's Day should come 12 times a year, in my opinion! #mamasdayout

A necessary disclaimer: Motherhood is a huge arena of human life I've yet to experience, so the ideas I invite you to try out are from one creative person to another, instead of not-a-mom to mom.

With multiple bambinos, it sounds like creative time feels rare to you. What I'm also picking up on, if I may, is a universal human tendency: an adversarial relationship with time.

The English language is pretty resentful of time: "killing time", "wasting time", "time's running out", "You need a time-out", "time's up", "time suck". It is no wonder most of us believe "There's never enough time" — we're always treating it like the enemy.

The first, crucial step to finding more pockets of creative time in your day starts with adopting a more friendly relationship with time. How? In this order:

How to Make Friends with Time (for more energy)

  1. Write an affirmation and stick it somewhere prominent. Something like "I have plenty of time for creativity today." Affirmations are beneficial beliefs that work their way into your consciousness and subconsciousness through the power of repetition. 3-4 places is even better!

  2. Start your day by playing an upbeat song about time. Time is on My Side by the Rolling Stones, or Plenty of Time by Connie Smith are great options. This will further help see time as your friend. I know it sounds cheesy, but I swear by it. 

  3. Carve out 1 non-negotiable hour of Tinker Time and hold it sacred. The sanctity you place around this time is super key, because you know and I know that laundry, dishes, and other never-ending maintenance activities required of adult humans can take over. You can read my post on important vs. urgent for more framing on this. One hour a day seem impossible? Try once a week to start and snag more as much as you can (tips on this coming up)

  4. Pick just 1 thing to do during your creative time. After a week of making eyes at your affirmation and singing along to Connie, maybe you're starting to make friends with time. You've committed to showing up for your inner artist at least 1 hour a week. By picking just 1 thing to do, you're reinforcing your belief that you have plenty of time for this, and there's more pockets of time where that came from.

How to Maximize Your Tinker Time

Depending on how old your little ones are, you can try a couple of different approaches to empower your kids to tinker, so you can have more tinker time for yourself:

  • Explore aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach to set up independent tinker stations for your children that they can access without asking you. For example, a painting station held up by strong magnets on the fridge, a collage station with interesting natural materials and glue.
  • Try "Ask 3 Before Me" rule: This is a classroom management tool commonly used in 2nd Grade and up, but you can adapt it for younger children. In some classrooms it means ask 3 peers before the teacher, in others it means first ask your brain, then a book, then a buddy, then the boss (you).

I hope you start to see more little pockets of time appear in your day!

With all my love and intelligence,

Try some mental wanderlust

Take some time to tinker this holiday break.

You can tinker with objects or ideas. What counts as tinkering? Two simple rules:

  1. What you're doing is not heavily structured.
  2. You have no particular goal in mind — tinker with a "Let's see what happens" attitude.

As I've spoken about at length, ideas rarely come when you're feeling pressure (internal or external). The idea is to relax both your body and brain, create a sense of safety and space to let your mind wander.

That's when a sort of "conceptual shuffle play" can take place, and breakthroughs can happen.

What is a #radicalsabbatical?

Even Storm Troopers need some me-time. 

Even Storm Troopers need some me-time. 

This is for the burnt-out-at-work folk. I don't mean you restless folks who are merely excited about vacay. I'm talking about, you've adopted the phrase "Just get through it" for the day, week, quarter, and you're not 100% sure how it started to take over your existence.

Have you seen Stefan Sagmeister's TED talk on the importance of taking a sabbatical? If not, I recommend you watch it now. He's a master of creativity and turning an idea on its ear. The idea he presents is primo, sticky brain taffy for anyone wanting to re-fresh and re-frame how you think of productivity and creativity in your job.

First: find some energy

"Sabbatical" is a serious-sounding word. Professors take year-long sabbaticals to think and work through ideas for entire books. Sagmeister uses this word but I don't want you to get mired in its typical uses in far-away disciplines, okay?

I took a "Radical Sabbatical" after I quit my curatorial career. It was 6 months of taking the descicated, exhausted, shell of myself and slowly, steadily pouring the life back into my bones. I walked around my city. I met people who clearly loved their careers.

Prior, I had had some ideas of what I really wanted to do, sure. Was I in any position to put those into play, even write 3-sentence emails to people requesting informational interviews? Hell no.

Forget the roaring river of energy you need to "pursue your dreams"! You need a steady trickle to even start thinking beyond the job you do now. Good brainstorming takes energy. Strategizing? Even more.

Depending on where you're at, you might not have enough energy even to think.

Then: design a #radicalsabbatical

This is where the #radicalsabbatical comes in. The holidays are coming up; hopefully you have 1.5-2 weeks off for vacation. It is, in fact, a short sabbatical from work. How to make it radical: design some activities and focused reflection around 2 simple questions:

  1. Is it time to take a step?
  2. What is 1 small step in the right direction?

Stillness is a must-have

I like to take showers in the dark with the door cracked open, or with a couple candles. It's warm, dark, comforting. A lot like being in the womb, I think?

You've probably experienced or heard that the shower is a fairly reliable place to have epiphanies or ah-ha moments. It's because you’re relaxed, feel safe, and it’s dimly lit. There isn't a lot of stuff to look at or think about — you're only responsible for getting clean, if even. Sensory stimulus is minimized, and so your your brain is freer to come up with ideas.

You need quiet to spark an idea, like how right before a match lights up, there's a barely perceptible space of quiet, and then ptschhh.

If you're leading a highly-stimulated, do-centric day, quiet time is hard to come by. I call it "Tinker Time": you can physically tinker and make something, or just daydream and tinker with ideas. Need more ideas? I invite you to build Tinker Time into your day by scheduling it on the calendar. If you don't make it do-able, you won't do it. :)