It’s Play Time!

While it’s sometimes necessary to put your nose to the grindstone, the magic happens when you just let go. Here’s how one workaholic does it.
Written by Colleen Wainwright on April 2, 2009

Originally published in communicatrix, a monthly newsletter; reprinted here under a Creative Commons license.

Last month, I went to one walloping, not-inexpensive, wholly elective, whiz-bang of a conference—South by Southwest Interactive—and if I have my way, I’ll do a lot more so-called foolhardy things like that.

Ma Papanek Miller

Why? Because while focused, nose-to-the-grindstone activity is necessary, and definitely produces results of a certain kind, the magic happens when you just let go.

I get that “letting go” is hardly the modus operandi du jour. When times get challenging (and boy howdy, do these ever qualify), many of us default to one of two modes that reside at opposite ends of the spectrum: overwork or checking out.

I know; I do it, too.

I also know that in either of those modes, my ability to connect effectively with other people—to express myself clearly, to stay open and sensitive to the nuances of expression that mean the difference between TALKING and UNDERSTANDING—is hampered. When I’m wound up in work mode or vegged out in escape mode, there’s no room for the unquantifiable but undeniable excellence that can happen when I’m relaxed, refreshed and open, the way I was in Austin a few weeks ago.

Conversely, when I clear a little psychic and physical space for things to happen, I end up with the most rewarding meetings, the richest writing, the best performances (or, these days, speaking engagements). Preparation, groundwork, due diligence are all important, but they’ll only take you so far: improv brings you the rest of the distance, and as any good musician or actor (or painter, or dancer, or thinker, or or or) will tell you, improv happens when you play.

Fair warning: this is a huge work-in-progress for me. I seem to be wired for work; a friend who pointed me towards the Enneagram correctly pegged me as a “3,” which is basically shorthand for “Happiest When Working A** Off.” Oh, well.

Because I am a “three,” I have found both some ways to trick myself into playing, and ways to make a little room for the play itself.

1. Schedule a playdate from your list of same.
Oh, how embarrassing this one is. But it works. Somewhere in your life, there are a few people you really click with. You know: the kind where you pick up the phone to say “hi” and end up gabbing for two hours. I found myself avoiding picking up the phone to call certain people because I feared we wouldn’t have time; now I schedule them in. Yes, phone calls.

If you can, try scheduling in a real, live, in-person date with one of those rejuvenating souls at least every three weeks. I have mine staggered: a breakfast every month or so with my Enneagram friend; EstroFest with my creative lady-circle (five years, going strong!); Houston’s burger-and-veggie run with an old improv buddy every few months, etc.

2. Sign up for a class that has nothing (obvious) to do with work
The sneaky trick? Everything has to do with work in one way, especially if you’re a creative type. (I’m always telling my actor pals to read up on kayaking if they want to learn about acting.) Answers often come to us when we’re not actively working on them. A class in something else can loosen you up to do better work on your regular tasks.

And yes, money is an issue for everyone, especially these days. But via the magic of public libraries and rec centers, community colleges, adult night school, barter, and the like, there’s always a way. If things are really dire near you, check out a book or a video class on DVD from your library and DIY-it, alone or with a buddy.

3. 10 minutes per day of…
Yes, I’ve brought this up before, in the context of developing a new habit. But the beauty of the 10-minute time chunk is that even the most time-miserly among us is generally willing to cough up 10 minutes per day to do something extracurricular.

If you’ve still got an iron grip on your own body and brain, consider devoting the mental space available during your ablutions, laundry-folding, or other mindless-but-necessary tasks to daydreaming. If you ride public transit, put your earphones in but don’t play your iPod. If you drive by yourself to work, turn off the radio and sing — either an existing song, one you make up as a parody lyric, or something completely original. Walking the dog is good free time, too.


I have a feeling we’re all going to need as much play as possible in the months to come. If you have any great ways you’ve discovered to squeeze in play, or have discovered other great resources (my friend, Gretchen, has a Web site full of great tips on the subject), please let me know via email or the contact form, and I’ll see about putting together some kind of permanent resource page.

Thanks, and stay loose, baby!


Have a look at my web site for ideas about the work I've done. I look forward to hearing from you about your next project, the Internet, the environment, or life.

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