The Better You Are,
The Longer It Takes
For tribal man space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role.
-- Marshall McLuhan
Yeah, I know you don't want to read about why I'm exhausted. After all, you don't even know me, it's Friday, and you want to read something fun. Or useful. Well, fun-and-useful isn't exactly my forté -- suffering-and-half-crazed is a little more in my line -- but trust me, there's something relevant here. I hope.
Wait a second! It's your fault that I'm so tired! Yes, you. We're trying to impress IPs like yourself and attract repeat readers, as is every other bunch of bozos online. We're trying to make this webzine look like a polished operation, but frankly, that's hard to do on four hours' sleep a night. I've been working 90-hour weeks... make that 100-hour weeks, recently. Why? At first I thought it was lousy time management on my part, but I no longer buy that explanation. The problem, I suspect, is that (drum roll) I'm just too damn good for my own good.
Don't Bother Me, I'm Busy Being Perfect
Oh, sure, if I could have forced myself to do the kind of half-assed Web design and coding that most online artistes seem to specialize in, I could have completed the construction of this Web site in half the time -- and you, Dear Reader (who probably doesn't know aesthetics from aerobics) might not have noticed the difference. [San! Stop insulting your own readers! -JC] If I could just force myself to spend less time drawing the illustrations... [San -- we own a talent agency, remember? Our agents represent hundreds of IP illustrators all over the world, remember? -JC] And let's not forget project management. I've been building Web sites since the Early Days, and I've come to suspect that one reason sites decay is bad planning (mostly by clueless suits) in the early stages. As a result, I've been obsessive about scalability. Technical scalability requires initial Web-site architecture that allows production people down the road to work on the site without degrading the design; creative scalability requires not hiring the first people to come along, but screening and testing and pondering applicants carefully.
The right architecture and the right staff: that should preserve quality and save time later -- key goals of good planning and project management. However, that careful architecture and staffing takes extra time now -- time that I don't have.
The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure.
-- William Blake
What does it signify (other than stark raving egomania, a condition that I frankly enjoy) when I say that my time problem is caused by my being too good? Don't we normally assume that someone who's expert at a task can do it faster than someone who's less skilled? Yes, but that statement is only true if taken literally. Perhaps the expert could do "it" faster -- if "it" meant the identical work at the same (poor) quality level as the non-expert would deliver -- but that's unlikely to happen.
Psychic that I am, I know what you're thinking: the point San's struggling to make here is about perfectionism. Actually it's not. The key issue here is less common and more subtle. I know it will seem obvious and simple once I say this -- most important things do, once you write them down clearly -- but anyway:
The more expert you are at a task, the longer it often takes, simply because you know how to usefully spend more time at the task.
The Naked Truth
The clearest example I can think of is from my early days as a hippie art student in New York. One of my concentrations was artistic anatomy, which is like "life drawing" but with more of a technical underpinning. There I was along with the other young art students, fondling my charcoal stick and my big pad, staring at a couple of nude models and struggling to draw them while the teacher walked around the room giving advice.
Despite having been raised and trained from infancy in my father's art studio -- an environment where the inability to draw would have immediately branded you as some kind of defective idiot -- I discovered pretty quickly that I didn't draw nudes very well. I would sketch out the entire figure in about ten minutes and then, after pondering what to do next, I'd start "polishing" it with subtle shadings and suchlike gimmickry...
The teacher walked up (this guy was good). "What's all that shading crap?" he asked. (A gentle New York soul, just like me.)
"Don't give me that crap. You put about ten minutes' real work into this drawing, right?"
I dumbly nodded yes.
"And then," he sneered, "you didn't know what to do next, because you don't know enough anatomy to understand what you're seeing when you look at the model. You don't know how to put any more meaningful detail into it, so you start with the phony shading polishing junk. Listen, when you reach the point where you really don't know what you're doing, just stop working on that drawing, okay? When you reach that point, even if it's only after five minutes, leave the damn drawing alone and start another one. Or go study the anatomy charts on the wall and learn something new. Don't work on any one drawing longer than you know how to."
The anatomy class was a mixed group, and I soon discovered how right he was -- the more experienced students could spend more time productively working on their drawings than I could. When they looked at the model, they recognized what many of the little lines and lumps actually were, what they anatomically "meant." That knowledge allowed them to spend more time developing their drawings in an integrated way, rather than just mindlessly copying unrelated bumps and blemishes like some kind of defective human camera; or doing stupid shading tricks that any first-year art student who didn't know a trapezius from a trampoline could do. Sure enough, as my anatomical knowledge slowly grew, I found that I too could work on a drawing for longer and longer periods of time while actually making it better rather than degrading it...
That was twenty-five years ago (good grief!), when my mind was filled with pencils and paints rather than computers and the Internet. Ultimately, this doesn't really feel so different; it's just a different medium. I look around the office -- it's late at night, and everybody else went home long ago, and I'm still sitting here working on this Web site. This is the fifth site I've built, and I understand it too well, every damn muscle and bone of its anatomy. There's no limit to how long I could work on this thing, and the more I work on it the better it gets. I feel trapped.
Feed Me, I'm Sleepy
I don't think this is just a "creative" thing, either. I've noticed this in every field I've worked in, including writing, design, creative direction, teaching, and computer technology: the more you know about a process, the more time you can constructively spend on it, constantly improving the quality without hitting the functional limit of your useful knowledge. I'll bet this is also true with management consultants writing business plans, or engineering IPs creating workflow schematics -- whatever.
Perhaps the converse of this idea will make the point even clearer. I know virtually nothing about writing a business plan; in fact, I'm pretty sure I've never actually seen one. Say someone asked me to write a business plan to start a lunch counter. I could write it in 20 seconds flat. In fact I will:
1. Rent a space
2. Buy food
3. Cook it
4. Sell it
I don't think I could improve on this if I had all day, which is good because I have to get some sleep sometime.
On The Other Hand...
Here's a new day. O Pendulum move slowly!
-- Harold Munro
Unfortunately, I can usually come up with counter-examples to disprove my own half-baked theories. For example, there's the clown who's so inept that a project takes him forever -- the bozo simply sits there staring at a task, frustrated and almost paralyzed, clueless about how to proceed and too ignorant to give up. Admittedly, that's an extreme example (although I've known people like that). Or there's the more typical case where a fumbler keeps poking at a task, imbued with a seemingly mystical faith that eventually, with sheer mindless persistence, something useful is bound to happen.
In other words, stumblebums can burn up time just like experts can; they just do it differently.
Clearly, then, in spite of the misleading title of this essay (yes, of course I snookered you on purpose) we can't make a blanket statement that the better you are at something, the longer it will take you to do. That kind of "correlation" is absurdly simplistic and often just wrong. There is a somewhat similar correlation, however, that might be useful. So let's refine the concept:
A person's expertise at a task is often correlated with how much time they can productively spend improving the result.
What Kind Of Creep Am I?
A corollary: the better you are at something, the more you need to be on guard against quality-creep. Perhaps you've heard about feature-creep -- the tendency for unplanned features to be added to a project while it's underway. In this essay I've been describing a related phenomenon we could call "quality-creep." When either or both of these are present, time-creep is likely to result. This overall creepiness may help explain why my projects typically take too long but turn out well. Is your skin crawling yet? Here are some pseudo-intellectual pseudo-equations:
expertise + perfectionism = qualitycreep
qualitycreep and/or featurecreep lead to timecreep
But why am I sitting here in this dark office, endlessly revising this essay? How will all this raving help me get more sleep, or get my life back? It's all very well to talk about trading off quality for time, but how will that help a sick work addict like me? What does life mean, anyway?
Exhausted, He Pretends To Figure It Out
Time goes, you say? Ah, no!
Alas, Time stays, we go.
-- Austin Dobson
Maybe I should just set a timer and -- come hell or high water -- go home at a normal hour like other people around here. [San, you've forgotten that you don't get in at a normal hour like other people around here. -JC] Maybe I should -- wait, I've got it. From now on I'm not going to work at anything I'm good at. I'll delegate everything I do well to other people, and I'll personally only do tasks at which I'm hopelessly inept. Yes! If I stick to processes about which I'm totally ignorant, there's no way I can spend a lot of time doing them. I'll quit this job and offer my services as an IP in some field I know nothing about. Marketing myself? No problem. I'll just throw in some meaningless, trivial connection to my background for a touch of verisimilitude. Hmm... something like...
Anybody need a business plan for a nude lunch counter?