On making time

April 17, 2008

Recently my former woodworking teacher, Gary Rogowski, wrote on his blog about how life often overwhelms our ability to find quality shop time (see it here).

This is something I’ve been thinking about since my wife and I had a baby in 2006. Before the baby, I used to say that it took an hour, after walking into the shop for the day, just to sweep up, figure out what I was doing, decide on the next step and get back to work on whatever I had going. It took three or four hours before I really had momentum.

Those days are long gone. I never walk into the shop “for the day.” We have a toddler, now, and I still have a day job in addition to my furniture-making. My shop time comes in one- or two-hour blocks — mostly in the early morning, when my wife and child are asleep. I get up at 5:30 or 6, eat a banana, make a cup of coffee and go to the shop. Do not check the e-mail. Do not see if the paper is here. Directly to the shop.

This gives me about an hour and a half, maybe two, before I need to get ready for my job. And I now realize that my earlier notion about taking an hour to get rolling was true only because I made it be true.

I recall reading about a novelist — I think it might have been Hemingway — who said he always quit writing for the day when he knew what the next sentence would say. If he was stumped when he quit, it was difficult to start the next time he set to work. The idea works for me. As I’m nearing the last few minutes in the shop for the day, I decide exactly what I need to do next. When I come in the following morning, I find this makes it easy to get going immediately.

My corollary to this rule is that I now try to avoid setting a goal of how much I want to get done by the end of my daily shop time — partly because I often miss the goal, and partly because it causes me to rush or compromise. I just walk in, try to work steadily until my time is up and then stop. I think this is not a natural or easy state of mind in a culture like ours. But it helps keep me focused on building the best piece I can, as opposed to “getting it done.”

Yes, this means my clients have to be patient. I very much appreciate them for it.

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