Tackling the two types of time paralysis

by Suw on April 5, 2023

ClocksIn the last week, I’ve had both not enough and too much time to write. The human brain can be kinda stupid.

This morning, as I was wondering what to write in this week’s newsletter, an email popped into my inbox that turned out to be fruitfully apropos. In Three tales of creative slowness, author Mason Currey writes about how dismal it feels when your work is going just so much more slowly than you want it to, with examples from painter Gwen Jones, Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story and Sarah Manguso’s book 300 Arguments.

Walking to the corner shop and thinking about how painful that experience is, I realised that I have lately been suffering from two types of creative paralysis that can feed into the sometimes glacial pace of creativity: too much time and not enough time.

You might be wondering how it’s possible to have both too much and not enough time, to which I can only reply that the human brain is a marvellously (annoyingly) complicated thing and, like Douglas Adams’ Electric Monk, we can hold two or more entirely contradictory beliefs in our mind at once without short-circuiting. I can feel simultaneously like I have too much time for one project whilst experiencing a distinct a lack of time for another.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that my essay on the potential for large language models (LLMs) to disrupt several aspects of the publishing industry had left me feeling quite down. But it also left me with another problem: I want to write a follow-up, but the news was just coming too fast for me to keep up. I felt like I just did not have enough time to read everything that was being published, let alone synthesise it into something interesting and novel. I felt completely overwhelmed. But that post netted me a dozen or so new subscribers, so I also felt obliged to write something new. Indeed, half of those new subscribers left within the fortnight, clearly disappointed that I’m not an AI specialist.

There are a bunch of things going on here, indeed there’s probably too much to unpick in one post, but even without thinking I can spot:

  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of public humiliation, I’m scared of getting my facts wrong
  • Completionism, I want to have read everything about the subject so that I can feel informed (this is a form of a lack of self-confidence)
  • Co-dependency and people pleasing, I feel I ought to write what I think others expect me to write rather than what I want to write
  • Continuation bias, I feel that I have write more on LLMs because I started writing about LLMs
  • Scarcity mindset, I focus more on how little time I had rather than using the time I actually have available to me

All of these things deserve a deep dive on their own, but you can start to see how paralysing this can be. Really, the feeling that I have no time to write is just the surface expression of a deeper fault system, to use a geological analogy, that needs mapping and examining. And because there’s a complex interplay between these different fears, there are a host of ways to tackle this problem:

  • Split the problem down into smaller, more manageable chunks and just tackle one at a time
  • Accept that I will never read everything, but that that won’t prevent me from writing something insightful
  • Accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and that some people are always going to think I’m an idiot
  • Isolate and focus on what I want to write, rather than second-guessing others
  • Reject continuation bias and write what I want to write
  • Break the process of writing down into smaller, more manageable chunks so that I can use the shorter periods of time that are available to me; don’t wait for a whole day to come free

So far, so good. That all makes sense.

But what about this “too much time” malarkey? How is it possible to have too much time to write?

This is where Currey’s post really hit home. We all expect that we can do a lot more in a week or a day or even an hour than we often can. When we only have a half hour to write, then that limitation can be freeing, because it puts boundaries around our expectations. We just crack on and see where we get.

But Friday, I had a whole day to work on my script. There were no calls in the diary, nothing else I needed to do. I had a nice clear run at it. On Thursday night, I was excited about the prospect. But by Friday morning I was feeling quite paralysed. It was just so much time. How was I ever going to keep the momentum up for all those hours?

Of course, I didn’t. Instead, I spent some time faffing about with ChatGPT to see if it could edit text (it can, up to a point), and then whether it can edit text in Welsh (it can, up to a point). I experimented with asking it to turn a portion of a script into prose suitable for a novel (it did a half decent job, though it did skip important bits and it did hallucinate a little), then I asked it to turn part of a short story into a script (it made a total pig’s breakfast of it).

I didn’t need to have done any of that.

Again, I can spot a few fish swimming underneath the ice:

  • Perfectionism, again. I’d got this idea that Friday was going to be a perfect writing day, but feared that neither the day nor the writing would live up to that expectation.
  • Procrastination. I could, and will, write a whole load about this at some point, but procrastination is tightly linked to perfectionism.
  • Tiredness. It was Friday. I actually wasn’t feeling great.

The cure for all of these things is, though, the same: Stop thinking and start doing. If necessary, use the Pomodoro technique – put a 25 minute timer on and just go heads down until the bell rings. Cut the big tranche of time into less scary portions, lean into your craft, and remember that you don’t need to be “in the mood” to write.

I should have done that on Friday, but with all the will in the world, sometimes we don’t do what we know we need to do because the human brain is spicy and a bit stupid. But I feel that, having written this, I will be a bit more prepared next time. Because there will be a next time.

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