I’m an efficiency junkie. I have always been obsessed with the restricted nature of our available time (both at the lifetime, macro-level, as well as at the daily, micro-level).
This tendency was exacerbated by the years I spent in the Japanese corporate world, with its focus on concepts like takt time, and the prevention of muda.
As a writer, too, I am obsessed with efficiency. I constantly think about improving my brainstorming techniques. One cannot really standardize the artistic process, but there are ways of improving the generation and development of ideas, of prodding the mind, so to speak. I’ve purchased Dragon Dictate software so that I can write hands-free. Last month I finally bought Scrivener, an invaluable tool for the organization of any long-form piece of writing.
I’m also an exercise junkie. I spend at least an hour a day doing some form of cardio. I began running in the summer of 1984, as a means to lose weight. Since that long-ago summer, rarely has a day passed when I haven't run, walked, or tortured myself on a cardio machine.
Overall, that hour per day has been an hour well spent. Yes, there are those who would disagree, but I’m not interested in debating them. For our purposes here, I’m going to skip the question of whether cardio is the “right” or “optimal” way to exercise. (This is a point of controversy in fitness circles.) I’m also going to conveniently omit any discussion of “alternative” cardio regimes, such as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT.
So what I’m talking about here is the conventional cardio workout, done at an ambitious but not overly taxing pace. The problem is: conventional cardio takes time. If you do an hour of conventional cardio per day, that’s seven hours per week—almost as much time as the standard workday. That’s 30 hours per month, or 75% of the standard 40-hour workweek. Annually, that comes up to 45 standard 8-hour workdays, the equivalent of taking a month and a half completely off.
If you’re obsessed with efficiency, you simply have to find a way to use this time productively. I do the obvious things: Whenever I’m on an exercise bike or the treadmill, I have something to read. (I’ve read plenty of books that I’ve never touched when I’m not on a cardio machine.) While walking, I listen to audiobooks on my iPod.
But these are examples of content consumption. Content creation—writing—while exercising is a different matter, of course.
I don’t have a home treadmill, and so I haven't made the leap to a treadmill desk. I’ve tried writing on my iPhone while I’m pedaling my sole piece of home cardio equipment: a Schwinn recumbent stationary bike. While this is doable, I’ve generally found that the resultant output doesn't justify the effort and workout interruption involved.
I have, however, used cardio time for brainstorming story concepts, and the details of chapters within a novel. For brainstorming, walking beats every form of cardio, hands down. Charles Dickens routinely walked as many as 20 miles per day. It was during these walks that he worked out the plots of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and his other novels.
I don’t run as much as I used to because of foot problems; but there is no reason you couldn't brainstorm a story during a five-mile run, as well. In years past, I’ve had some of my best ideas while running. Oxygen and the brain—there’s something special about that combination.
Crime writer Michael Connelly has said that when you’re a writer, you’re “always writing”—even while you’re having dinner with your family, and socializing with friends. You’re always working on stories in your head, in other words.
For some people, this might be taking the quest for artistic efficiency too far. But if you have a daily cardio routine, there are plenty of ways to make your time on the treadmill or the running track more productive. Charles Dickens could have told you this, way back in the 1800s.