Time Flies, Or Not

My perception of time and progress bears little relationship to reality.

Swimming. I swim on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I try to swim about thirty-six lengths, approximately half a mile. When I first started doing it, I had to stop periodically to catch my breath. Then it occurred to me that I should pace myself better. So I started swimming much more slowly. I stopped having to catch my breath between laps. And overnight I lopped five minutes off the time it took me to swim a half-mile. It made no sense. My new pace was sluggish, but I was going faster.

Dictating. I use Dragon by Nuance to dictate portions of my fiction writing and blog posts (any outrageous or surreal typos in this post, for example, are Dragon’s fault—and to illustrate, Dragon heard “outrageous” and rendered “outrages”). When I’m on a roll, I can type a thousand words in half an hour. When I started using Dragon, I was certain it would slow me down. And it does feel unbelievably slow, like my production is crawling along. But when I measure my words-per-hour production, it turns out that I Dragon just as quickly as I type. It’s just that instead of my fingers going a million miles per hour over the keyboard, I’m speaking very, very slowly and carefully. The unit of production has changed. When I type, a finger tap produces a letter, and ten thousand finger taps produce a thousand words. When I Dragon, an utterance produces a phrase, and there are only a couple hundred phrases in a thousand words.

Polishing. I recently changed my work style. For a while, I had emphasized word production over other goals. I’d do a day’s writing, and then, often without looking back, I’d do another day’s, until I couldn’t go any further. Then I’d go back and figure out what had bogged me down. Lately, I’ve been going back every time I finish a scene and polishing it, sometimes several times over. It feels really freaking slow. I can’t believe I’ll ever finish a book this way. But the absolutely crazy thing is that my production has not slowed down, not one whit. Going back and polishing seems, if anything, to make me write faster, because I’m more confident that I’m on the right track and I have plenty of time to consider where I’m going next. That means that when I sit down to write, there’s less hemming and hawing.

Here are the lessons of my quirky relationship with time and productivity.

1. Depend on objective, not subjective measures of time and output whenever humanly possible. Anyone who has ever listen to an infant cry for five minutes know that it feels like an eternity—but it’s still five minutes. Measure success in terms of words produced or pages written or time spent in the seat, not whether or not you feel like you did “a lot of work.”

2. Slow down—either by slowing down physical production itself, or inserting more time for thought and reflection—and you’ll speed up. Slowing down decreases your brain’s sense of urgency. When you work fast, you convince your brain that you’re under pressure. In response, it produces stress hormones, which are not the artist’s friend. Slow down, and you tell your lizard brain that you have all the time in the world. Into that sense of freedom comes creative genius.