O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

“How Do You Find the Time?” and the iPad

Yes, of course I want an iPad. Who doesn’t? They’re sleek, cool, “magical” little computery things. My Austin friend, Shuey, has one and keeps handing it to drooling strangers who can barely keep their hands off it, and who barely maintain their hipster Austin coolness once they start gliding around on its touchscreen. 95% of the people on earth would like to play with one and the other 5 percent are lying.

But there’s one thing about the iPad that strikes me based on the early reviews, most of which are singing its praises: the iPad is wonderful for consuming stuff, like videos, photos, and books. You don’t exactly need an iPad, Farhad Manjoo writes. No one needs one, but “the iPad is the best media-consumption device ever made.”


It’s beautiful when you need to consume stuff people have produced. But it’s hardly ideal for moving a step backward along the chain, and producing stuff yourself.

That’s something to think about.

The one writing-related question I get asked more often than anything else is “How do you find the time?”

Since 2003, I’ve written eight books solo and contributed to several others, but I am not a full-time author. I’ve had another full-time job during the writing of each of these books. It’s a flexible job, but it’s one that has demanded my focus during the typical 8 to 5 office schedule. Which means my books have all been written late at night and early in the morning, while most of the other people in my house have been asleep. Even now, as a full-time freelancer, I dedicate business hours mostly to client work. No time for writing books until later.


Writing books, it seems, is my hobby. It’s an organized hobby. If you don’t ever sit down and compare the income to the number of hours spent writing — that’s an hourly wage no one wants to calculate — it’s an occasionally profitable hobby.

But how do I get it all done? How do I find the time and discipline to do it?

A few weeks ago Seth Godin linked to a transcript of a talk given by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. It’s from a fascinating conference speech Shirky gave in 2008, and is called “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.” He talks about how amazed he was once when a television producer questioned someone’s productivity by asking “Where do people find the time?”


Shirky: That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

He then describes Wikipedia as a great example of this “cognitive surplus,” which where we get the millions of blogs and twitter feeds and Flickr accounts and YouTube videos and other productive ways people are passing the time. If you were to do a back-of-the-napkin calculation of the amount of time it took to produce Wikipedia (and this is from two years ago) — every page, edit, discussion, line of code, language, etc. — then it has to total something like 100 million hours of human thought.


Which is crazy. But how valuable is Wikipedia? You shouldn’t cite it in your research paper, but as a starting point for learning about anything, it’s ridiculously helpful.

Where do people find the time for those 100 million hours? Consider that every year, Shirky says, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television. That’s enough TV to use our cognitive surplus to create 2,000 Wikipedias. We watch 100 million hours of ads — one “Wikipedia unit” — every weekend.

We totally have the time. We just aren’t using it. We have what Shirky calls a “cognitive surplus” — most of us have more knowledge and time and talent than we are able to use — until we waste it consuming stuff like TV. What if we carved out just a small portion of it not for consumption, but for creation? Integrating that surplus into something creative rather than watching sitcoms is how Wikipedia gets built, and how books get written, and how societies get transformed. It’s how you find the time.


The truth is that I have the time — and you have the time, too. We all do. The difference is how we choose to prioritize our time. I like to ask a simple question when I’m deciding how to spend the next hour:

What’s better for me: an hour working out or an extra hour watching TV?

What’s better for my career: an hour writing my next book or an extra hour watching TV?

What’s better for my family: an hour of the four of us playing Sorry! or an hour of the four of us watching Minute to Win It?

Sometimes I watch TV because it’s a good way to unwind. I love Lost and Castle and 30 Rock and Chuck. But I limit how much TV I watch, because I’d rather my life be defined by the things I create — a list of finished triathlons, a roster of books I’ve written, a lifetime of great memories with my kids — than a list of the TV shows I mindlessly consumed.


So go ahead and splurge on your iPad. Someday I’ll probably get one, too. Consume some media with it, but keep it balanced. Shut down your iPad and turn off your TV and go do something. Create. Sell stuff on Etsy. Post on your blog. Say something on Twitter. Play a game with your family. Take a jog. Learn to cook.

You have a slice of the cognitive surplus, too. You can use it to create Wikipedia or you can just watch TV. Which will it be?

Comments read comments(15)
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posted April 12, 2010 at 9:49 am

Thank You!I get this question a lot as well – and I can tell you that a key difference in my life was when my family moved into a new house in 2005 and decided to try no cable for a year. A year later, and we found ourselves more productive, more connected, and, I would argue, more content.Unplug the television – get stuff done – and pretty soon people will be asking you, "Where do you find the time?"

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posted April 12, 2010 at 10:17 am

Really enjoying your posts and tweets Jason. Glad you "followed me" so that I could see what I was missing.Here's what I create when I turn the TV off and disconnect from the net.Redbuds at Bulloch Hall

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posted April 12, 2010 at 10:24 am

I love this post! Great perspective, Jason. Slightly convicting, a little annoying in a wish-I-wasn't-responsible-for-that-creative-remark-of-brilliance, but, yeah, great. : )

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posted April 12, 2010 at 11:48 am

A few weeks ago Seth Godin linked to a transcript of a talk given by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. It's from a fascinating conference speech Shirky gave in 2008, and is called "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus."Re Shirky's first example, someone told me once that the only reason the French Revolution didn't spread to England was two words long: Cheap Gin.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Why do people always immediately use TV as a crutch for these kinds of posts? ;)Do you think that reading the books is the same sort of consumption? I read a lot of books to review on my blog and I wonder about this a lot. I sort of miss just reading a book to read it and not justify it as being productive.But I really enjoyed this post! Don't get me wrong!

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Jason Boyett

posted April 12, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Good point, Amy! Actually, I had the same thought as I posted. Wait a second…am I not wanting people to consume my books? Of course, I am. Hypocrite!I think the difference is that, to read a book, you still have to engage with it. It's not a turn-your-brain-off sort of activity like TV-watching. When reading, you're still doing something "productive" with your consumption, like learning about the afterlife or the saints. :)So it's a step up from TV, I guess. Just like Wikipedia!

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Matthew H. John

posted April 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm

That's it: You've convinced me to quit reading your blog and get to work on my thesis.;-)

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Matt @ The Church of No People

posted April 12, 2010 at 9:03 pm

It makes me feel better that other guys, more successful guys still have to be disciplined with their time like me. But it also humbles me that I have so much more to accomplish in what little time I have.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Shueytexas here, posting from my iPad. I don't have anything to add. Just wanted to impart a measure of meta to the proceedings.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Amazing points, you are SO right… also…I'm gratified to see you like the same shows I do:)

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Tess Mallory

posted April 13, 2010 at 12:21 am

As someone who should be writing her next book, I needed to read this. Thanks Jason!

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Tess Mallory

posted April 13, 2010 at 12:22 am

As someone who should be writing her next book, I needed to read this! Thanks Jason!!

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Nicodemus at Nite

posted April 13, 2010 at 11:59 am

Very good thoughts and something I think about when people tell me they don't have time for anything. They usually tell me this when they've just listed all the shows that they're watching and currently have on their DVR. We make time for what we deem important.One of the best things in my life that was sucking up all my time was World of Warcraft. Phew, glad to be gone from that

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posted April 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm

This, actually, came at a very opportune time, for me… it was a neccessary kick in the rear for a guy like me… it inspired me to do an experiment, it would be awesome if some folks from here would join me … just check this out: collaborative, cognitive surplus story

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cool dad / eric

posted April 16, 2010 at 8:48 am

With one kid and one on the way, I feel that time slips between my fingers, and this is only one with TV show that I follow. But as I look at my day, there are spots that can be tightened and decisions that I can make to maximize my day as well as getting the rest and quality family time that I need.

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