On Creative Strategies And Controlling Time 


“I think that controlling time is what leads you to success.”

-Rafael Nadal

I often think about how to work better, which means how to do more with less, and how to stretch my attentional dollar. Working better comes down to using time with more focus by having a creative objective for the moment. But this approach doesn’t come naturally to me. My default is to perpetually wander (which I like to think connects to a sense of wonder), so I work at having objectives. You could call it an experiment that I’m free to quit any time I wish. But I haven’t quit yet because the approach works. 

In an interview on Tennis Channel, Rafael Nadal spoke about what makes great players so great. In a memorable formulation, he says: “I think that controlling time is what leads you to success.” Nadal said that the greats have super fast reaction times, allowing them to assess and respond to a situation almost before it has transpired and make micro-adjustments on the fly. This observation reminded me that what tennis looks like from a viewer’s perspective is different from what it feels like for a master player. Great players shift their thinking into a more intuitive gear, a gear not so encumbered by conscious deliberation.

Outside of sport, controlling time is required to maintain a creative objective and there are numerous ways to do that. The first way it to allocate a tiny amount of time to a task. These blog posts are often written this way—as “warm ups” for more substantial writing that may never materialize. One advantage of using tiny bits of time in this way is that they’re easy to fill. Caught on a crowded subway car with eight stops to go? No problem—take out your phone and write some notes. A second way to control time is to allocate a single task to a given time span. I do this with improvising, or editing, and always limit the work to a single type: as much as I want to edit something I’ve just played or written, I’ll leave that for another session. A third way to control time is to take a few moments to consider how the work (the music, the writing, etc.) is affecting your sense of time. Is it taking you out of time? Is it returning you to an earlier time? Is it pointing towards future times? Does it seem impatient with time or luxuriate in it? I thought about these aspects of time recently while I was experimenting with delay-lay-lay-lay effects. I was delightfully caught off guard by how a few pitches can transform into a grand, liquid sound, and I was surprised by how this sound re-booted my sense of time: I just sat there, mesmerized, and for a while could think of nothing but the virtues of echo. Very seductive. All of the work we do has a relationship to time in the sense that it took us time to make it, and in the sense that it shapes how we feel time. In fact, one of the reasons why “great works” are great is that they deeply affect our sense of time. That’s why we call them “timeless”—they seem unaffected by, or outside of, time. 

Back to Nadal’s quote about controlling time. In addition to referring to players’ reaction times, he was saying that it’s important to control one’s focus, not get ahead (or behind) oneself, and stay in the moment. For me, working better is figuring out ways to use time to access different patterns of perception. Surely there’s more than one way to feel and inhabit this passing moment?   


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