The year is 2021. Productivity hackers have reached a fevered pitch in the West. Like timed number-crunching performance chefs, we demonstrate our prowess in skillfully chopping up our days. People hack their calendars apart like crazed ax murderers searching for the juiciest momentary morsels to fit a five-minute meditation or the latest Nootropic keto shake after hot yoga. Listless masses gawk at phone screens in bewildered awe at neatly manicured task management systems of the most organized online influencers to grace the internet. Oohs and ahhs erupt at the reduction of a single click or keypress from the path between bumbling primate brain and a marvelous digital canvas upon which to paint our masterworks.
Okay, okay. All of the melodrama and playful jabbing aside, it is quite an obsession in our era. I’ve fallen prey to it regularly for many years, especially since moving to one of the world’s most competitive technology hubs. The past couple of weeks, I took a bit of a deep dive on improving my typing to be more productive. Little did I know the rabbit hole that would manifest.
The prevalent rationale goes something like this: improve your typing speed, increase the rate of thought transfer between your brain and computer. Sounds reasonable enough and something I can 100% get behind. So I went full in with this logic, and looked at better keyboards, started practicing with typing tests online, and watching the latest videos from prominent YouTubers on the subject.
The deeper down this train of thought I went, the more I began to question some fundamental assumptions. Is that it? Do more words per minute equal more thoughts to the page, equaling more of your ideas captured in the ageless digital archive?https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fgiphy.com%2Fembed%2FFFb9yZK6t0oDu%2Ftwitter%2Fiframe&display_name=Giphy&url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.giphy.com%2Fmedia%2FFFb9yZK6t0oDu%2Fgiphy.gif&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.giphy.com%2Fmedia%2FFFb9yZK6t0oDu%2Fgiphy.gif&key=d04bfffea46d4aeda930ec88cc64b87c&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=giphy
It’s not quite that simple. Consider first what writing is: an exploratory process of navigating the bridge from a foggy mind to a clear external reality. You wrestle your words across it every time you put ink to paper, text to screen. Sometimes, we flow. Other times, we fight through every step and phrase.
Let’s take the first assumption. Perhaps you practice your little heart out for months and reach a typing speed of 150 words per minute.
For example’s sake, we’ll take the book The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. There are 187,790 words in the first entry to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ll conduct some ingenious mathematical maneuvers here and divide that total word count by our woefully optimistic 150 words per minute. Rounding up to the nearest whole number gives us 1,252 minutes or shy of 21 hours to type out the entire Fellowship of the Ring. Wow! That’s incredible, right!? If you already have a whole novel already composed down to the letter in your head, that will give you a massive boost in productivity. Imagine being able to compose an entire book every few days. Include a bit of time away from the keyboard to think, and it might take a week writing part-time.
It all sounds a bit ridiculous when you think about it. It really should. Writing, programming, composing music, creating anything new takes far more time wrestling within the mind’s eye than the actual act of producing the end product. It’s easy to forget. Our brains are washed by industrialized society, immersed in the venerated pillars of consumerism. Unsurprisingly, we view ourselves as machines of production to be constantly tuned in pursuit of optimal performance.
Let’s return to our contrived example and put it all into perspective now:
- The Lord of the Rings novel ended up being 187,790 words in total
- Mechanically speaking, an insanely fast typist (150 words per minute) could type this in under a week (~21 hours)
- An average typist (50 words per minute) could type this over a couple of weeks (~63 hours)
So a few days to a few weeks at most right? No big deal! So how long did Tolkien take to write the Lord of the Rings, anyway?
Some estimates indicate it may have taken 17 years.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fgiphy.com%2Fembed%2F6utVzLiyU9OuHbd70D%2Ftwitter%2Fiframe&display_name=Giphy&url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.giphy.com%2Fmedia%2F6utVzLiyU9OuHbd70D%2Fgiphy.gif&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.giphy.com%2Fmedia%2F6utVzLiyU9OuHbd70D%2Fgiphy.gif&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=giphy
That’s a lot of time thinking and a comparably minuscule output of actual words. Even considering the vast quantity of tangential stories, lore, and other literary works he had been crafting or contributed to during that time, it still belies an underlying truth about productivity. Most of the actual “work” is done in the liminal spaces, the continuous thoughts between infrequent bouts of feverish “production.” We hold in reverence the deep focus and flow state of pure mind to matter; we self-deprecate and punish ourselves for needing a much larger space for play and wandering thoughts to discover the shape of each creation.
In our admittedly oversimplified line of logic, you end up with about 43 words per day. That’s far slower than the late Stephen Hawking’s typing speed of 17 words per minute, author of numerous influential scientific papers and books about life, the universe, and everything. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King recommended writing a thousand words a day, which would only take a few hours of pouring out thoughts, even for a slower typist.
Productivity culture often focuses too much on increasing the optimization of time and efficiency of output. Most people hit burnout at some point because of this. We need to evolve and adjust the way we envision our ideal process.
I’m admittedly still working to apply some of the prevailing doctrines to my schedule and creative efforts. However, I was reminded over the past couple of weeks that it doesn’t matter how fast you can type if your clarity of mind is still the ultimate bottleneck. Our technological culture envisions our brains as pure information processors in skull boxes desperately waiting to be untethered from the limitations of our fingers to type, our mouths to speak, the clumsy flailing of our fleshy bodies.
One of the most prolific writers in the world took as much as 17 years to finish a single novel. We may miss a huge opportunity for improvement by becoming distracted with the tiny percentage of time spent physically writing, building, or bringing the thing from mind to matter. The making of a craft is only apparent to us in the final acts of creation; the formless intelligent design is the iceberg beneath the surface that grew for years in hiding, churning beneath your murky subconscious sea.
If we want to improve and optimize our brief span of life here, allowing time for self-exploration and reflection is the lowest hanging fruit. Then clarity will naturally follow.