Permission to Slow Down
Tomorrow marks six weeks since I finished my book draft. When I finished it, I decided to try following Stephen King’s advice:
“How long you let your book rest— sort of like bread dough between kneadings— is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and (one hopes) mellowing.”
Not looking at it for six weeks after looking at it every day for five months was terrifying. As someone deeply addicted to speed, I worried I would lose my momentum if I stepped away. Or, worse, I worried I might get distracted by some shiny object and not return.
If you ask authors or anyone exposed to the industry to describe book publishing, one of the first words they’ll likely say is “slow.” The proposal process is slow. The pitch process is slow. The writing process can be slow. Then it takes a year after you finish for them to slap it onto dead trees and ship it to bookstores. Turning a manuscript into a book takes 33% longer than growing a human.
My book contract wasn’t finalized until October 15th, 2022, so my final manuscript isn’t due until October 15th, 2023. When I finished the first draft in November, I still had nearly eleven months before the final was due. Taking a break for a month and a half was unlikely to sink me. The generous deadline you get from working with a publisher was the only reason I had the confidence and security to take such a long break.
As I’m going through the publishing process and adjusting my mind to working on such a long timeline, I realize it may be a feature, not a bug. Stepping away for six weeks, not looking at the draft, and compiling notes on any changes or improvements that come to mind, will dramatically improve the book's quality once I can implement them. A bit of space provided an incredible amount of clarity on what needed to change and where it was weak. Not working on it for six weeks feels like it was as valuable as most six-week periods where I was working on it.
But I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable taking such a long break if I didn’t know I had another eleven months to finish the book. I needed permission to slow down. And by slowing down, I suspect I made more progress than I would have if I had immediately started chipping away at editing as soon as the draft was done. Slowing down might have sped up the path to a manuscript I’m happy with.
Cal Newport recently shared a distinction between short-term and long-term productivity on the Making Sense podcast. Short-term productivity is what you do during the day, week, or even month. It’s the checklists and goals and routines and that sweet, sweet dopamine drip of Getting Things Done. But checking off hundreds of boxes does not necessarily translate to a life filled with great achievements. No one has their Asana archive on their tombstone.1 Great entrepreneurs, authors, creatives, whoever you admire, hardly ever talk about their robust productivity routine and intense notion templates. They’re focused on long-term productivity. A life of great achievements.
When your goal is to be long-term productive, say by creating jobs for hundreds of people or publishing a few great books, you realize your day-to-day productivity isn’t what you should optimize around. Taking a strategic break from a problem lets your mind noodle on it in the background so you can attack it more intelligently afterward. Anyone who exercises regularly knows that rest is when your body gets stronger.2
In the context of long-term productivity, the two-year publishing cycle isn’t bad at all. If you took a year-long break after each book and published every three years, you’d publish 20 books over a 60-year writing career. Publishing 20 books is an incredibly productive life, and that’s with spending over a third on vacation! When you consider how few decisions shape the course of your life, taking a week or two to deliberate on the big ones isn’t a big deal at all. You can slow down. It’ll be okay.
So I’m grateful now for the pace of the publishing world. Having the space to take an extended break has made my work stronger, and it’s not something I would have otherwise been comfortable doing.
Maybe you need permission to slow down on something, too. Go for it.
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Assuming you actually exercised hard, of course.