Slowing down to save time

Pascal

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” So Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher, allegedly excused himself once. Or perhaps it was Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw.

It’s witty, it’s ironic, it’s true: that’s why any of them might have said it.

Here is how I know that: I write for The Economist, and most of our articles are short. I’ve opined on the subject of optimal length in writing before, but in this context, let’s just say that it is the shortening that takes all of the time.

Because I have so little time, I got into the bad habit of not shortening, and not cleaning up, my emails. You see, there were too many emails, and I was too busy to take time for any one of them. (Bear with me. You’re supposed to find an irony building.)

But why were there so many emails in the first place? Oh yes, because all sorts of people (mainly PR people, but also others) are writing me emails. And those are all busy, busy, busy people, with very little time. So their emails are long and sloppy. They refer to an attachment that is missing. They invite me to an event on the wrong date, or omit the date, or the place, even as they somehow find paragraphs of other things to say.

So then, since we are all so very, very busy, we shoot the emails back and forth to clarify this and rectify that, and the threads grow and take more of our time, making us even busier and requiring us to write even faster, thus making our emails longer and sloppier….

So, for a few months, I’ve been trying an experiment. I respond less fast, and often not at all. When I do email, I take more time. I actually read through emails before I push Send. I check that phone numbers and dates are correct, and that all the information is there. I think about what is extraneous and what I can cut.

Lo, the threads are getting ever so slightly shorter, the iterations fewer, the decisions more decisive.

Fewer words → more meaning
Less activity → more action

To my surprise, I am finding that, by slowing down, I have more time. If, like Pascal, I need to write a letter, I might now be able to make it … shorter. I hope I can keep this up.

195 thoughts on “Slowing down to save time

  1. So true! Too many of my colleagues confuse activity and productivity and feel that if they aren’t always doing something (i.e., looking busy) they won’t live up to expectations of how a self-importantly busy person should appear.

    That’s problem one, problem two is instant communication telecommunications devices in the hands of those same people–they feel obligated to use them even if they have nothing to say.

    • …..It’s not really a “review”, is it? More like a brief description………

      We northerners like to read our books uninfluenced by what anyone thinks about them.

      It’s the way we are.

  2. Once again, you nailed it! I was grousing a few weeks ago about the amount of email and my wise assistant said, “look how little mail we now get.” Yet, when a letter was in the inbox, we never felt that we had to drop what we were doing to reply in two sentences. It takes discipline since I do believe that there is something addictive about the machines we enjoy so much but I have been trying this year (well, four weeks is a start.), to restrict my email “time” to a few periods each day instead of a continuous treadmill, believing that quality is better than quantity or speed of response.

    • “Discipline”: Indeed, that’s what is required nowadays.

      I seem to recall reading somewhere that our neurological response to our devices is the same as when we gamble. There’s an addictive thing going on.

      Thanks, Jim.

    • Wow. Thank you, Christopher!

      The reviewer is not any old reviewer. Patrick Hunt is the leading living Hannibal scholar, so this means a lot. I’ll do a blog post about it later today.

      Thanks again!

  3. Enjoyable, well-crafted and intelligent – coming from the Economist, hardly a surprise but still much appreciated.
    I have also found that we need to pick the right tool for each job – e.g. sometimes one quick phone call eliminates a slew of emails, saving time & energy and producing far greater clarity and rapport, especially when feelings are involved. Using text eliminates the nonverbal and paraverbal cues that carry more information than do our words, greatly enhancing the odds & severity of misunderstandings, while hobbling our ability to resolve them amicably. A recipe for wasted time and counterproductive communication, unless we learn to use other methods as appropriate.
    Thanks for this fine piece.

  4. Where would we be without email, but I still like to write letters by hand. For me, that’s when I can take the time to think and compose so that they words express exactly what I want them to say. And hey, it’s a whole lot easier to to drag around a notebook and pen instead of an electronic device!

  5. Carl Honore wrote a book about it called “In the Praise of Slow”. I thought it was a really interesting and inspiring read. There’s something called The slow movement, and by thinking this way, you’re the part of it! 🙂

    • I read his book, In Praise of Slowness. My favorite memory: In the prologue he mentions that while he was researching his book on slowness in Italy, he was pulled over for …. speeding.

  6. Very TIMELY post! Seriously, I can see this being very useful to virtually every blogger who cones across it.
    No wonder you’ve been Freshly Pressed!

    • Holey Crap, this writer said they were messy and is a student of the farce multi-tasking- micromanagement, than told you how to stop being messy through their efforts, proved the old precept of “do it once ,do it right.” and gave you a common sense-istic note on clear communications and he’s a hit….Good glory. This is considered a top pick? It is so true than thought is a dying art, “Fill the people will crap, that is where the riches be at.” I’m dumber now, Thanks!

  7. Rushing things makes you feel like you have less time. And that you are out of control. finding your own pace gives you control so you work better. But then what would I know? I’ve got 3 assignments due in soon, and I’m messing around with blogs. Beats doing the housework. which reminds me…. where did I leave the cat?

  8. I think “quite flowing” might have understated that review a LOT! Congratulations, Cheers and Kudos! After reading it I had to go back and re-skim the blog to remeber what I was commenting on! I am now going to have to read your book!
    As far as slowing down to save time…I l-o-v-e that concept. I have a experimental hooby I do to entertain myself while I am working. Whatever new job I am learning, I find out all of the step you can eliminate without sacraficing the accuracy and effienciency of that task. Then you stop trying to find time there and move on to the next task. At some point, you have to slow down and perform ceratin steps, or you have to REDO your work later. Then how much time did we save, right? “A stitch in time saves nine.” A wonderfully wise concept that we can all use right now.
    And (wow you really got a bunch of stuff out of me this morning) I am working on a blog for next week about how the lack of anticipation and addiction to media devices has made a generation of children with tunnel vision.
    A very good choice for FP…and angain Congrats on the book review. I would love to have my work reviewed sometime, I know how thirlling it must be!!! Especially for someone so highly regarded giving you such a glowing review!!! I am looking forward to the book! AmberLena

  9. I’m so glad to see someone confirm what I’ve always suspected: It’s far easier to write a 1,200-word article than a 400-word article! And by “easy,” I mean “economical” — in terms of time, effort, etc.

    I can certainly appreciate your approach, though. Now if only I could convince potential publishers that less activity (on my blog) → more action. You and I can probably see the rationale behind this, but many industry insiders underscore the “publish every day, dammit!” philosophy.

    I, however, value quality over quantity.

  10. I couldn’t agree more. Often I find I’m unable to put a quality piece of short fiction out there when a word count suppresses me. Of course then, I wind up not submitting anything at all, and therefore halt any momentum I may have had as far as getting my work out there. Anyway, in an effort to keep this comment short and sweet, I’ll simply say nice post!

  11. One of my favorite books, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, exemplifies this practice of fewer words = more meaning. Also, Haruki Murakami’s short stories are packed full of insight using a few choice words.

  12. My dad used to be the Assistant Managing Editor for The Wall Street Journal, and would write short, concise, front-page articles in a column called “The Outlook” about global economic trends. He received praise from all over the world, mostly because he wrote uncomplicated articles that explained difficult concepts, but in ways that were easily understood. That was the “magic” of his style.

    In my last position as Editor and Publishing Dept. Team Leader for a small company in Texas, one of my ongoing projects was to oversee the production of our catalog. We standardized the size of the boxes that contained a graphic along with the product description. Text size never changed. So there we had it… make it fit. If it doesn’t, cut it. We did. Every text box was examined for where “Safer than ever before” became “completely safe” or “since the beginning of time” became “originally.” Even “nuts and bolts” became “nuts & bolts.” Another way to approach writing… have you ever taken out an ad in a newspaper before? You pay for every word. Rereading our posts, are there any words we’d rather not pay for? Then why make other people pay with their valuable time to read them? Short (as long as it’s still clear and meaningful) and simple are hard to beat. If everything we write isn’t reread and shortened before we send it, we’re probably doing others, as well as ourselves a disservice.

    • so what you’re saying is – revise? don’t be redundant?

      example: “have you ever taken out an ad in a newspaper before?”

      there’s one word here that doesn’t belong. it ads nothing, and it’s removal will actually improve the sentence because what the word itself brings to the sentence is already there.

      the word is ____________?

  13. Nice, thank you. I often regret it when I don’t take the time to shorten nearly anything I write, even a little post such as this one. I’m glad you were FP for this, as now I know about your Hannibal book and will look for it. Congratulations on its great review, too!

  14. You have nailed the issue at hand…

    I started doing exactly the same thing a while ago and encountered the same results, proving that it’s not how fast we get to our destination, but how we get to it.

    Good post.

  15. I completely agree! And not only does writing a shorter email/blog give you more time, it also gives your writing more emphasis and power, and makes it easier for the reader, hopefully making their lives easier too!

  16. What a great little piece! It is so true.

    Please take a moment to view my new Libertarian blog!
    Thanks! -Taylor

    • when people leave comments like this, do you ever wonder if they really even read the article, or do they just crawl through “freshly pressed” to try getting someone to look at their own blog?

  17. somewhere in there is the reason why i don’t like the whole “flash fiction” idea. while some people think it’s a new, creative way to tell a story, i look at it as laziness. it’s a summary, not a story. take the time to sit, think, plot, and write a story. for real.

  18. I like your piece. When I was in college, my advanced fiction professor took the 12 essays each student had written and placed 9 of them in one hand and 3 in the other. She called the three students up to the front and handed them their essays.

    To continue this experiment, she asked each of them how they had constructed their pieces. If they sat at the laptop and wrote or if they composed first writing by hand. Each of them had written by hand, with a pen[cil] and paper first. The other 9 of us shamefully thought of our rapid, fast keystrokes.

    She was 100% accurate. She could tell.

    The 9 of us had to redo our essays.

    Her point was, that doing something slow and doing it right the first time in the writing world will, in the end save time. Thought your post was very resonant and think your blog is great!

  19. Hah, I would congratulate you on being Freshly Pressed (come on, what’s a book published compared to this 15 minutes of fame in the blogosphere?) – except that it has added a further irony to your excellent post. In writing a succinct post on the virtues of brevity, you have earned yourself a sackload of comments. Which you may, or may not, read. We will assume that you have hung on our every word, but we will not be awaiting replies. 😉

  20. When we write as if every word counts we write with the burden of writing the best possible sentence with every word being exactly the one we mean.

    It’s enough to drive anyone to drink and now I have so much more respect for Faulkner.

  21. I write 100 word flash fiction on Fridays which really has made me a master at editing. The goal for me is to pack as much action into a short story while including a twist.

    Your point is well taken and many think they are writers now because of emailing. If they would just reread before pressing “send.”
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  22. I’m a nursing student and patients (PATIENTS!) tell me the same thing. Slow down, slow down or you’ll forever be running around. But walk and I feel guilty- I could be doing this faster. One day I’m going to do everything slowly, not run down the ward, not race through the supplies and have to go back when I miss something.

    Faster does not = better.

    Nice post.

  23. So true!! It’s amazing how tough it is to be concise. The great thing is that after all the cutting and the tightening…and more cutting and more tightening…you can really zero in on precisely what your message was intended to be in the first place! Less really is more.

    Well said.

  24. You’re completely right. In taking more time doing a task properly, you save yourself a lot of time having to go over it again, correcting it, sorting it out etc. I try to do this with every task, although, in our fast-paced world, this is not always easy.

  25. its true by slowing down we become more efficient and only have to do the job once because we are able to do it well. when we stop and focus we take less time.
    also it takes us back to the time when we had to write letters. there wasn’t this ability to throw emails to and from each other, letters had to be succinct, to the point and contain all of the correct relevant information. now we are having to do the same with emails
    brilliant post 🙂
    keep smiling

  26. Thanks for saying that — I’ve been thinking for a while that people waste more time in general in all the running around and trying to do and say too much than they would if they slowed down a little. If I send people a long e-mail (say three paragraphs instead of a sentence) that needs answers I find they only read the first sentence and I have to get in touch with everyone again. Now if I have 3 things that need to be answered I send 3 e-mails with one question each as the first — and preferably only– sentence. And that saves ME time! Really enjoyed your post!

  27. Said well and so succinctly! I agree, in that it is shortening my writing is what gives me fits, and I am prone to go “long and sloppy.” Thanks for the reminder.

  28. Every time I think I will write something short to save time I spend a huge amount of time plotting and revising rather than letting it flow. In the end I can write a good piece that thoughtful and around 1000 words. If I attempt to shorten this to lets say, 700 words, it can take me longer and it will never make me happy since I spent too much time thinking about it. Unless I have a constraint I tend to let words flow now.

  29. Love this! Especially the comment about the mathematical proof… I’m a Physics student, lol. And, another comment about activity not translating into productivity, best one liner I’ve heard in a while!

  30. The majority of cell phone conversations and text messages are I’m here now ( ie.on the bus,around the corner) I’ll be there in ten minutes. Time was you just used to show your smiling face at the door …Simple !

  31. Great job summing up an issue that is robbing many of us of time and energy!
    But you are also very right about needing more time to write less — in any venue. As a newspaper reporter, I find the word limits to be the bane of my existence. I can write a terrific (in my opinion) article in 20 minutes, but then I need an hour and a half to cut it to my word limit, while still making it say the same thing.

  32. Keep it tight is what my writing instructor always advised. Use your words effectively, and show not tell the story.
    E-mail must be short, and to the point to be effective.
    Good post great advice.

  33. Another thing that this post reminds me of is the quick reply to social media postings. I honestly ignore them for a while and then get on Tweetdeck on my tablet and just scroll through them all quickly, not reading almost any of them to just get them out of the way. I was thinking that for where I work an hour meeting once a week would be good so that we are all on the same page with no misunderstandings.

    The other big problem is that people want to point fingers and say they did not get the email, but in person people are either super non-confrontational or super…confrontational. But this does not matter, good communication will make things run better…

  34. Reblogged this on Life to Basics and commented:
    Reblogging your post – it has nailed a point in most of us that deal with technological devices. This is why I am still a sucker for handwritten notes, snail-mails, and postcards. All the activities involved in the process of sending one of which is filled with more thoughtfulness, I think. Thanks for this blog post.

  35. Are you familiar with Callimachus, also a believer in ‘less is more’, who said μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν, (mega biblion, mega kakon) or “Big book, big evil”. I’m sure he would have said the same about email as well. Thanks for the piece.

  36. “You are supposed to find an irony building.” hahaha1 cracked me up! excellent witty writing…great choice of words and phrases…loved it! i have started following the same practice too…i read only those emails that interest me and i take my own sweet time to reply to them 🙂
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  37. Yes, this is true, “Less is better.” This was one of the governing themes that produced west coast “cool” jazz in the fifties. Less notes than “bebop”, but better choices…..Nuff said. Keep Writing. Keep Blogging. Thanks

  38. Completely agreed. The increasing trend now a days is to talk even if it does not make sense. Unnecessary details always end up causing problems. Gonna keep this one short!

  39. You are so right about those emails!

    Oftentimes, I find myself rushing through tasks … only to find mistakes!!! LOADS of mistakes and then I spend so much more time on amendments and damage control!!!

    No more, sometimes it’s better to move slowly. Fast is not always good.

  40. Indeed! By extension of a writing class I once took; I refer to a good dense sentence as “Häagen-Dazs,” as opposed to some poor fluffy excuse for a sentence that means half as much. Please come visit my site and offer suggestions that relate to brevity, and clarity.

  41. Awesome post. The above does not just work with writing. I cooked for 20 years and I always told my charges, when it came to the number of ingredients in a recipe, “less is more”.

  42. We Jews have something that helps us how slowing down fastens you. it is called shabat, the day of rest. No cellphones, no mails, no job for 25 hours. Just enjoing family and friends, praying and eating. When the 25th hour comes to its end you do in one hour what 25 hours before you could accomplish only in a whole day….My last post was just about this.

  43. This was a good reminder to me to slow down. I just read a line in “The Stranger” that stuck out to me. “Only the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ still had any meaning for me.” While he is talking about time passing while in prison, in times of high stress I often forget to slow down and live today.

  44. That’s not going to stop people from not reading your concise pithy with the full rigour it deserves.

    They will then send you emails asking you to clarify or provide information which you had already provided in your original email, forcing you to send another (terse) email asking them to read the original email, which may or may not lead to further email correspondance. 😦

    Such is the hell that is instant communication in our world today where people are constantly distracted with short attention spans looking for the visceral thrill of the next distraction. *grin*

  45. When people tell you how busy they are, it’s as if they are trying to tell you how important they are. Hooray for this post! Focus on what really needs to be said, much more effective.

  46. Thanks for this – I think I need to learn that. I’m fretting over endless work emails lately and it’s affecting my weekends too. Time to sit back and not do anything, wait for all the details to come in, then get down to clearing everything once & for all. Everybody should read this! No more spamming emails with wrong dates, incomplete information and all these terrible time-wasting issues!

  47. You learn to write a lot with a few words after having written a newspaper column for as many years as I have. And you really can say more with fewer words. Get to the point…then get on with things.

  48. Our lives are being sucked into these screens. Every year there are more of them. First on desk tops, then laps, now in each hand. An entire people, all looking at facebook, and not faces.

  49. Good post! I share the sentiments. And I, too, let my e-mails pile up for a day or two, until I have a few moments to spare to respond to them properly–making them as short as I can.

  50. Good post! I share the sentiments. And I, too, let my e-mails pile up for a day or two, until I have a few moments to spare to respond to them properly–making them as short as I can.

  51. I very liked its blog. I am Brazilian and I do not speak very well English, but I in accordance with try to be coeso and necessary in my commentary its text.

    Blog visits mine!

  52. I agree. It is the shortening of my post that take the most of my time. I usually write a draft, wait a day or two and then reread it and cut some parts that does not seem good anymore.

  53. Very well said….often we want to achieve more in the 24 hrs time we got in a day. But whenever we speed up with new things, it ends up in re-doing the whole thing all over again.

    Well written 🙂

  54. I agree that it takes so much more time and thought to write something concise than it does something that drones on with no real flow. It is such a common problem, yet I have never heard anyone describe it so ironically before! I love the quote at the beginning; i fell that way all the time.

  55. how’s about :

    clear er (ing) possibly fewer words

    present with all that is possibly less movement

    and also
    your spending of time may save me (some of my) time

    !
    thanks any/all way(s) !

  56. Loved reading this. As a College student, I’m always experiencing word counts or page requirements to meet for my papers, and it poses an interesting problem for me. Not because I don’t have enough to write, but because I have too much. I’ll often have 10 pages of what I believe to be necessary information, but the maximum page limit is 8. This forces me to really ponder what is requisite information and what isn’t. I believe that fewer words truly do infer more meaning, especially in today’s frenetic society.

  57. Course u can do it. Whyever not???? perhaps u are a little chatterbox inside of you and you just have to get all those words out. whatever the reason – keep doing it!! : )

  58. This is a really great post. I’ve recently been reading lab results that test the effect of multi-tasking. Your post reminded me a lot about these. Productivity was lost when things became too hectic in these tests, and stress levels rose dramatically. This goes right along with your ideas. Thanks again for a great blog!

  59. This post is a mouthful. I wonder when can I learn to apply what you just said though. LOL! Seriously, you are right. I should really make it a point to write fewer → more meaning; do less activity → more action … just like what you said.

  60. If only researchers would act according to this old truth! In a short text they could sometimes find a contradiction, an error. Short texts -> better conclusions.

  61. This concept has been around for ages. I know how difficult getting to the point, and getting there clearly can be. I’ve written a lot, and the more I write the more I want to be creative. Suddenly I have five pages I must condense into 500 words or less. Clarity and creativity without blabbering. Still working on perfecting that- but we’ll see how I do.
    Good notion. Nicely expressed.

  62. Your talking about the new IBM strategy which they keep display in AD’s.

    Start Thinking, stop talking

    or the other way around.

    But ultimately i do feel its great and really need if peeps mind their job well and do not show off with just words. I really find many such annoying show off folks every day in office. I literally hate them.

  63. yeah right! if you got more time.. you’ll not send it right away. you’ll critic or edit your message such as sentence construction, deliberation to be comprehended well by your reader.. fun fact! 🙂

  64. A pencil which needs to be sharpened periodically (or even a mechanical pencil that needs the occasional re-twist or re-fill) are great for curbing the rapid outpouring. I can type too fast and I can overlook typos with impunity. The pencil makes me say it, and craft it, and occasionally shake my wrist to loosen the stiffness. By the time I get around to typing an idea up in an email, a post, etc., it’s pretty terse.

  65. It takes discipline since I do believe that there is something addictive about the machines we enjoy so much but I have been trying this year (well, four weeks is a start.), to restrict my email “time” to a few periods each day instead of a continuous treadmill !

  66. Writing short pieces is definitely a challenge when you become self-conscious about your vocabulary. Personally, I had to overcome a very important self-confidence issue about my writing, thinking that if I economized it it would limit me in my expression.

  67. This is so true, and it applies to so many other aspects of life as well. Sometimes we just have to take our time with certain things or most of the time we end up spending more time through the “shortcut”.

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