It Takes as Long as It Takes

After finishing a quote list, I was two thirds into the month yet only 12.5% to my publishing goal. With ten days left, I decided to tackle a book list keyword that would get me almost 75% of the way there. As often, the post was ambitious in its scope but routine in its requirements. I thought it would take me two days, maybe three. Ten days later, on the very last day of the month, I hit publish.

In writing, almost everything takes longer than you expect, and even what gets shipped on time will take longer than you’d like. That’s not a bad sign. It shows vision and flexibility. If you can scope each piece of writing perfectly ahead of time, chances are, you’re not creative enough. Not open-minded enough to adjust when new information and ideas arrive. J. K. Rowling might have known how Harry Potter would start and end from day one, but she didn’t know everything that would happen in-between.

Of course, not every creative project is a seven-book saga, and not every missed deadline can be claimed as a badge of honor. Once you’ve blown past your first target, however, it might be worth switching gears. Instead of entering rush mode, slow down. Clearly, you’ve underestimated this beast. That doesn’t call for a frantic flurry of unfocused attacks. It calls for directed, deliberate action — and that requires a new mantra: It takes as long as it takes.

In The Practicing Mind, Thomas M. Sterner tells a story from when he was a piano tuner, a trade that has lots of demand for only a few experts and requires a keen eye to detail. On a particularly busy day with about two and a half times the workload of an already “full” schedule, Sterner was too frustrated to keep chasing the clock. Instead, he decided to slow down. He took off his watch. He carefully opened his tool bag. He directed all his attention to the job at hand, and when he was done, he slowly packed up his tools again. The first time he looked at the clock was back in his truck. The result? He had finished the gig in almost half his usual time. He had slowed down only to speed up — not by design but by accident. As he later found out, however, even when done deliberately, slowing down can have the same effect. It takes as long as it takes — and when we approach a task with this attitude, “as long as it takes” will be not a second longer than it needs to be.

Once I realized my book list would require a lot more research and reflection, I decided to take all the time I needed. I read, I browsed, and I summarized my findings. I’m happy with the result, and if it does what it’s supposed to — rank on Google — then who’s to say taking 3x the initially calculated time wasn’t worth it? Even if not, I’d still rather have work out there that I’m proud to have my name on. That, too, takes as long as it takes.

“If you are aware of what you are doing, then you are probably working at the appropriate pace,” Sterner says. “The paradox of slowness is that you will find you accomplish the task more quickly and with less effort because you are not wasting energy.”

Rushing is a game you can’t win because by virtue of rushing itself, you’ve already admitted defeat. Go slow. Take your time. As much as you need. Often, but only ever in hindsight, you’ll discover you’ve arrived at your destination much faster than you thought you would. It takes as long as it takes.