#13: To read or to write?

What to do, when you've got nothing to do?

When you’re in doubt about how to spend your time, and you’re forced to choose between reading something or writing something, which one should you choose?

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.“

Benjamin Franklin

I often ponder this question about one’s default way to spend idle. I think it comes from my belief that how my life turns out depends almost entirely on how I choose to spend my idle time.

Idle time is time that is our own. Time that is not our employer’s, our Army’s, or our school’s. We are all obligated to trade some of our idle time for money, security, and basic literacy. Some folks I know trade more idle time than what I think is necessary, but that’s just my opinion. I have no business telling people how to live.

I think the impact of our idle time is severely underrated.

Every time you sit in the toilet bowl, you have at least 2 minutes of it. Every time you go out to meet a friend, you have at least 10 minutes of waiting for the bus or train. Every night when your toddler finally falls asleep, you probably have at least 1 hour of it.

Idle time stacks up, and it stacks up fast!

So, now, let’s go back to the original question: read or write? How would you spend your idle time if you were forced to pick one of the two?

For me, my instincts tell me that I should default to reading because reading broadens our knowledge base and understanding of the world. But my rational mind tells me that I ought to default to writing, and more specifically, time-boxed writing.


Because writing, I realise, is when I learn.

Perhaps your experience differs. For me, reading is like filling my bottle with seawater when I’m thirsty - I’m not going to be able to drink it until I distil it. Writing is the process of distilling potable knowledge.

Okay, so “Why time-boxed?” you may ask. Here’s how I reason about it.

We all read a lot every day. If not books, then articles, social media posts, newsletters, and papers. Text remains our primary medium of work.

But reading alone does almost nothing. It’s seawater.

Yet, only a handful of people feel compelled to write on any given day. Even as a person who actively publishes newsletter posts like this one, I have my days of preferring to watch TV, take a hot bath, go for a walk, etc., instead of writing.

Those compelled to write tend to overdo it, always trying to give birth to perfect prose from the perfect seed of an idea, ending up taking too much time, often producing nothing shareable with the world. Guilty.

And so…

if we already read a lot during the day…

and if we tend not to write, even though it’s vitally important…

then we ought to default to writing (so we actually do it) with a time limit (so we don’t overdo it).

The hardest part is probably the time-boxing. It’s so easy to say, “I’m going to give myself 1 hour to write this,” and then proceed to spend 30 minutes after that hour editing for prose, generating DALL-E images to liven up the post, … until all of a sudden, you realise you’d distilled more water than your bottle can hold.

Okay, let’s round this post off with that Benjamin Franklin quote from earlier:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.

Don’t write things that are not worth reading sounds incredibly smug. I’ll write whatever I want to help me think!

But, don’t publish things that are not worth reading? Fine, I agree. Although… I reckon that it’s nearly impossible to sit down for 30 or 60 minutes to think in complete sentences and not produce something worth reading. Most of my notes on the newsletter are worth reading to me and, evidently, a handful of you, and — (gulp) — they’re effectively me just thinking in complete sentences!

Then there’s the second charge: do something worth writing about. I’d argue that reading constitutes doing something. But in case that’s not interesting enough, other options come to mind:

  • raising a kid or a dog
  • talking to a stranger
  • sharing an opinion with a coworker
  • making a new breakfast
  • painting one of your walls a new shade
  • ranting about a topic to your spouse
  • going on a date with someone
  • reading the instructions manual on your new coffee machine cover to cover… oh, wait, I’m accidentally back to reading

If you’ve ever thought about your default activity, and it’s a toss up between reading and writing, I hope this helped. Go forth and write, folks. Boil the ocean, one bottle at a time!

I thought this admission might speak to the difficulty of time-boxing writing: this post took me 1 hour and 11 minutes to write and publish! It’s more than the time box I’d set for myself. But hey, at least I’m doing a hard-cut now and using this stopwatch screenshot as the post graphic:

See you in the next note!

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