Slabs of time

From Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. … Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

I haven’t written a novel, and probably never will, but Stephenson’s remarks describe my experience doing math and especially developing software. I can do simple, routine work in short blocks of time, but I need larger blocks of time to work on complex projects or to be more creative.

Related post: Four hours of concentration

5 thoughts on “Slabs of time

  1. Having both written vast software projects AND having worked on a linked pair of 600 page novels over the last two and a half years, I am probably one of the few people who can comment on your reply to this Neal Stephenson quote.

    …and I pronounce the two things almost identical. 4+ hrs per day, day after day after day, is the bullseye mixture. Nothing else can substitute.

  2. Right. This is absolutely correct.

    There is some work that does not require a full 4 hours. For example, I can revise a document even if I only have 30 minutes… But to create something new? It takes me a long time to enter the “flow” and disruptions are very costly.

  3. I remember being puzzled when I first encountered Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive” soon after college. The concepts were neatly summarized on an audiotape and my reaction was sort of, “Yeah, so what?” In particular, his starting with the need to consolidate time didn’t resonate at all with me.

    Well, many years later, with a big family and lots of stuff going on, I can certainly say I now get what Drucker and Stephenson were saying. Four uninterrupted hours would seem like a huge luxury at this stage in my life. At best, I manage to grab 2-3 hours in the middle of the night a couple times a week.

    And yes, Paul Graham’s “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” is quite helpful for clarifying issues involved in juggling work and still getting creative stuff done.

  4. Rimas Blekaitis

    The best image I’ve been able to come up with – to convince people I need to work without interruption either on software or prose fiction – is that it’s like diving for pearls. If I have to dive twenty feet down to get to the bottom, then I get called back up, it’s not like I’m back down at the bottom again – I have to dive all the way down.

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