Neural Wiring, To-Do Lists, and Knowing Where Your Keys Are

My day yesterday was full of discovery. I learned things about people, and rather than smiling and nodding and thinking to myself “Wow, people really suck for not being just like me,” I actually absorbed some ideas about people’s differences. I know. I think I’m growing as a person.

I lecture my students all the time about how everyone’s writing process is different, that every writer has to find his/her process, develop it, and go with what works best for the individual.

I just never applied that thinking to regular people, i.e., nonwriters. Hell, it sometimes even shocks me to talk to actual writers (NOT students writing their first short stories, which are inevitably about ghosts, or child abuse, or rape, or all of the above), and find their processes are drastically different from mine.

I start thinking that way about the rest of my life, too. My husband and I have lived together for years, and I never understood how every single morning his toiletries are in different positions. My deodorant has a spot. My toothbrush has a spot. That is where they live, and where they are returned when I am done with them. You could draw chalk outlines.

My keys go on the rack as soon as I come through the door, my bag on the stairs so I can haul it up on my next pass. Whereas my husband has to seek out his wallet and keys in some new exotic locale every day. It drove me nuts, because I just couldn’t comprehend how these items didn’t have spots, how he didn’t let them go home to their spots when he was done with them.

I had a eureka moment yesterday. I’m a cat. Cats are creatures of routine. Have you ever stayed home from work in the middle of the week, and found that your normally affectionate cat completely ignored you? You being home on a Wednesday isn’t part of her routine.

I’m like that. I brush my teeth and wash my face and pee and shower all in the same order, every time I do them. I walk in the front door the same way each time. Let’s call me a line-thinker, a nicer way to say OCD. I’m in a creative field, but I’m a straighforward, orderly thinker, sometimes to my own detriment.

On the other hand, I believe others are “cluster thinkers,” what some might call right-brain thinking. My husband, and I guess a lot of other husbands, has no routines whatsoever. He might wake up, take the dogs out, have breakfast, and shower today. Tomorrow he might shower, take the dogs out, work on his bike, eat breakfast, dogs again, and wander off to work. The next day he’ll feel like something different.

The nice thing is that he’s able to troubleshoot things like you wouldn’t believe, able to come up with creative solutions, to spark on far-out ideas floating out there in the ether. It’s part of what makes him a great scientist. It’s also what makes it hard for him to work in a scientific environment, because apart from idea-generation, they expect you to plod along in an orderly fashion.

When he gets frustrated at his lack of organization, at the way his day seems to fall apart, and at the end of it he discovers he didn’t get done what he intended to, I always gave him my ego-centric solutions: make a list. Schedule time for people to come to you with problems. Have a fallback plan if it all goes awry.

Only what works for me, and I suppose other “left-brain” type cats, doesn’t work for him. He makes a list, but then forgets to check it. Tomorrow he might make another list (only in a different place), or he might not.

All the training seminars in the world won’t help him – they’re generally for the methodical thinkers, the planners who are simply in need of more efficient strategies. No one really comes up with time management and organization strategies for cluster thinkers. And yet they’re the ones who really need a mechanism for adjusting to a working culture that prizes order and rules: we can’t all be daffy painters and poets.

So I’m off to research tools and strategies that are completely off my radar. And to try not to get angry about toothpaste that migrates around the bathroom.

(Photo courtesy of KellyK’s flickr roll, under an Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons license.)

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