I always thought I had a handicap, until I realized it was a superpower.
I. ONE-FOURTH OF A LIFE
At some point in my life I started to realize that I experience time differently than most people–and not in a way that I liked. It’s as if I have half the number of waking hours, and as if during those hours, I have half the energy that everybody else has. It’s not even about productivity or the effective use of that time, but literally how much of it is available to begin with, to waste or to put to good use.
If I leave the house for at least a couple of hours, for just about any reason–getting groceries, going to a cafe, seeing a friend, going to work–that’s about all I can do in the whole day. Sometimes I even need a nap afterwards. Everyone else seems to be able to get out and do more things than I can, spend more time with friends than I can, and even watch more TV, read more books, go through more social media, and do more chores than I can. All at the same time. All while working as much as I do and sleeping as much as I do. Some of them while also raising kids, which I don’t have.
It’s not that I feel competitive about it, it’s just frustrating feeling like I am only able to experience about 1/4 as much life as everybody else can. And wondering if I’m the only person who goes through life this way. All my life, I wanted to be normal.
My interest in planning out my days and tracking where my time goes probably grew out of a desire to try to figure out what the hell was going on with me and where the large disparity comes from, as well as to try not to waste the pathetic amounts of time it feels like I have. It’s perhaps a way to compensate, except that earlier on, I didn’t think of it as compensating; I assumed that everyone else was just way better at time management than I was, and so I’d better try to catch up. After several years of observing my own patterns, I’ve started to have some idea of where all my time is going.
II. TIME WARPS — DAYDREAMING — POST-INTERACTION PROCESSING
First: I just do everything really slowly. I can just observe myself and someone else in the same room doing the same task, and see how much longer it takes. I walk slowly, I eat slowly, I brush my teeth slowly. Friends have commented that it’s like I move in slow motion. Of course, to me it feels like I’m normal, and everyone else has access to some sort of time warp where they can just skip ahead at certain moments. I’m at a restaurant with friends, they bring everyone’s food at the same time, I take a bite or two–and then I see that everyone else’s plate is empty. When it’s time to go, we all stand up from the table at about the same time, and then everyone else already has their coats and scarves and backpacks on, ready to walk out the door, and I still have to do all of that. I still don’t understand how it happens. I have tried moving faster, but I gave up pursuing that as soon as I started. It stresses me out to try to move faster than my natural pace, and I suspect wouldn’t actually make that much of a difference, as I don’t think it accounts for a large proportion of the disparity.
Second–but this may be directly related to the first–I daydream a lot. After I wake up, it usually takes me 30-60 minutes to get out of bed, because I’m in that dreamy half-awake state. But then I might more or less stay in that state for several hours, until something forces me out of it. Often I’d stay in it while getting ready and having coffee, while taking a shower, and through my whole commute, and then snap out of it upon getting to work. But I may return to that state at various points throughout the day, sometimes just for a minute or two, sometimes for hours.
When I daydream, it’s almost as random as night-dreaming. It could involve memories, imagined interactions, imagined conversations, thinking through my reaction e.g. to something at work, or to a book or movie–or even composing blog posts, like this one, which was conceived of and partially composed while daydreaming. This definitely causes me to move more slowly at whatever I’m doing; it also causes those blips in time where minutes or hours seem to drop out of consciousness, and the clock seems to have just instantaneously advanced to a later point, as I’ve been lost in thought. Repeated throughout the day, these add up to a noticeable “loss” in the time available to do more tangible things.
Finally: I have to spend time decompressing or “processing” after interactions. If I do anything social or talk to anyone (which could be in person, video chat, or over the phone, or sometimes even chatting via text / instant message), I have to “process” it immediately afterwards. That’s the name I made up for it. This means either pacing around the house (especially if I’ve just gotten home), or sitting motionless in the exact same position I was sitting while talking (because it doesn’t even occur to me to get up until I’m done processing). It usually involves mentally replaying parts of what was said, in an uneven distribution: some parts of the conversation are already forgotten, while others I replay ten or twenty times. It doesn’t matter whether the conversation had anything emotional or significant, or if it was just a fun, light catch-up with a friend.
Right after the interaction, it feels like everything is too scattered for me to be able to do anything else. Imagine if every time you got home after having left the house, every single piece of furniture and possession in the house was in the wrong place, with some stuff floating in the air, etc–but you knew that if you paced around for a while replaying the conversations you just had, eventually everything in the house would be pretty much as you left it, and then you could go on with whatever you wanted to do. That’s like my brain after I talk to someone. And I process until it feels settled again.
If I interact for an hour, I have to process for about half an hour. Interact for two hours–process for one hour. The curve drops off after that: if I interact for like 10 hours straight, then I would probably process for a couple hours, fall asleep, and try to take it easy the next day. If I was “on” more than usual during the interaction, for example if I spoke in front of a group at any point, then it might take even longer. Sometimes I have to run on a deficit for a while, because I don’t have time to process everything as much as I want to for several days or more. And that seems to work the same way as running on a sleep deficit for days, weeks, or longer: at some point it’s not possible to make up all the hours; you just take a hit in overall health. While I had a full-time job, I was always running on a deficit of processing time. Always. This is why I don’t think I can sustainably do a traditional workweek, if it involves regular meetings. There aren’t enough hours in the week; I spent almost all my free time processing, and it still wasn’t enough.
While processing, I can’t really do anything else. The most that I can do is maybe google stuff that we talked about, reply to text messages, or like, if I was in the middle of some mindless computer task before the interaction, such as tagging blog posts or other forms of organizing, sometimes I can go back to that right after the interaction, and it actually helps me decompress. But I really don’t have a lot of brain space. If I had a tea or some food next to me, I usually forget to even eat or drink it.
While I’m processing, it’s like a flow state, where I lose track of time. It’s as if I was talking to you in a video chat, and we both said goodbye and signed off at the same time, but it actually took me a full hour to sign off. We say goodbye at 5pm, I laugh to myself about something you said, then I look at the clock and it’s 6pm, and I go, “Oh, it’s late, and I have to pee.”
As you can imagine, this is a massive time sink, with no actual advantages, as far as I can tell. I don’t know that I remember conversations particularly well, for having replayed them. I just came to think of it as a handicap that I would just have to live with and work around. You know, there are probably adults who need to sleep like 13 hours a day, and they might not get anything out of it. It’s like that. You just live with it. But it feels like only being able to live half of every day, because the other half is spent processing the half that was lived. It’s annoying.
(By the way, perhaps you’re wondering about the implications for being in a relationship? This is something I haven’t managed to get a good read on so far. Maybe the best I can say is that interacting with a partner doesn’t count the same way as interacting with other people–the “curve” is different–but it’s not zero, it’s at least slightly draining compared to being alone. Certainly being with an extrovert was a struggle for me in the past.)
(I wondered whether this might be some form of OCD. There is a form of OCD that involves replaying conversations. But it doesn’t seem to match my experience, as my processing is not an emotional or distressing experience for me, and it doesn’t have to do with fear, or regret. It’s a relaxing way of decompressing and settling back into myself, maybe similar to someone who feels the need to run or work out after a workday. Time-consuming, but not necessarily bad.)
I have never in my life heard of anybody else doing the same. But it does seem like something that might be more common in introverts than extroverts. But then again, I’ve never really mentioned it to other people, either. Maybe a lot of us do this, and we all think we’re the only ones.
The only thing I have heard of that comes close at all is that Sarah Manguso writes in her book Ongoingness about how she used to feel the need to record as much of life as possible in her diary. Though her reasons were different than mine–a way to make life’s happenings real, make them live on by preventing them from being forgotten, and not just a way to decompress–the feeling of always running on a deficit is much the same: “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.”
Actually, I used to journal every day for very similar reasons. (I’ve recently returned to journaling every day, but without feeling the same anxious need to get everything down, that used to drive me.) So, I guess that explains what happened to my early twenties. Between journaling, processing, and sleeping, it’s a wonder I managed to do anything else at all.
As for my experience of my own energy cycles, they are heavily affected by the post-interaction processing. Processing recenters me, but doesn’t give me my energy back. On the contrary, it’s tiring in itself, as if I did the social thing twice in a row. But aside from that, it’s hard to overstate how easily overstimulated I am by external stimuli. If I take public transit and walk around in a crowded city for a couple of hours, without talking to anyone, I still get drained after not too long and have to sit alone in a room for a while, preferably with the lights relatively dim. As I mentioned above, sometimes after a grocery run, I have to take a nap. Under the right conditions, like quiet and darkness, I have normal energy or better; if not for that, I’d wonder if I had an actual illness like anemia or something. As a somewhat ambitious person, it’s demoralizing to be constantly running out of energy after doing so little.
III. PSIONIC POWERS
More recently, I’ve begun to question whether it’s really true that I’m able to do a quarter of the stuff that anybody else is able to do, even though that’s exactly what it feels like on almost any given day. Is that always what it feels like? Or are there times when I feel like I can do equally as much as others can do, if not more?
Actually, there are occasions when I feel the exact opposite of what I’m used to: that I have much more energy than most other people, and that I have more time available to me. It’s whenever there’s something that requires a high degree of mental focus or attention, particularly if it’s constrainted to a relatively limited amount of time, though the time limit could be on different scales: it could be a few minutes, an hour or two, a week, three months–as long as the time allotted is a little bit constrained relative to the scope of the task. The task could be to take a test, write something, give a speech, build an app/website, find a better way to do something, or learn my way around any system, whether that’s a language or an economy or a process for doing something or the layout of a building or an academic policy. Or even just to listen to a friend talk, and to be fully present with them.
On such occasions, while I’m doing the task, it often feels like I literally have more cylinders available to me than are available to most other people I observe around me. Like I can visualize all the components of the problem or topic, hold them all in my head at the same time, rotate them, analyze them, put them back together, and then articulate what went through my head, in the form of words or math or code or a drawing. And then the time warp is in the reverse of what I’m used to, as I’ll realize that others working on the same thing haven’t even started yet.
It’s been this way since I was a child. I’ve always avoided talking about it, because there’s this intense stigma around saying that something was easy for you, like as if you’re bragging. But it’s a silly prejudice that has probably led to untold loneliness and suffering in the world, of people who experience this and have no way to share the experience with others. It may have also caused such topics to not be studied enough, though studying them could yield benefits for everyone. And: this is my blog so I get to talk about it.
This disparity is easiest to see clearly in timed test situations, but of course it’s not limited to those. If I think about it, in general, on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 meaning the highest engagement and energy usage, I’m usually either running at 1, or I’m running at 11–meaning, more engaged in the thing than almost anyone I’ve ever seen. Friends who receive emails from me either get a 1-line email, or an email that is 1000 or 2000+ words. If I’m in, then I’m all in. But it’s not an even distribution of time. It’s something like 5-10% of the time at 11, and all the rest of the time at 1. Also, it’s not like the results I see from working at level 11 are comparable to the results from working at 5.5 for twice the amount of time. Every level of engagement gives me access to certain ways of thinking which, when I’m at the lower levels, is simply not possible.
I also experience this “level 11 burst” not only cognitively or in problem-solving situations, but in social situations. Which explains my tendency to on occasion be the most social person at a large gathering–trying to talk to every single person I don’t know, learning everyone’s name, starting the dance circle, etc–after which I might not feel like leaving the house for a solid week. When I’m not feeling it, I can also be the biggest wallflower at a gathering. But if I show up at a gathering and decide, “I’m going to talk to every person here before I leave,” then I just do it. And I’ve never before had any explanation for the surge of social energy I get in those situations.
I have typically done well in jobs that allow for this kind of energy pattern. When I worked as a software engineer, for much of the day you’d see me going out for coffee, messing around on Slack, unable to concentrate on any one thing even when I tried. Then at some point in the afternoon I’d put my headphones on, switch on my brain, and I’d finish the entire day’s work in the last couple of hours. Whereas jobs that require a steady drip of half-attention all day are hell for me. My blogging days follow the same pattern. For most of the day I putter around, eat, drink tea, take walks, sit on the couch, process interactions, watch TV, all kinds of highly passive things. Then after dinner I’ll sit down and write a 3000-word post like this one.
It makes me think of the girl in Stranger Things (whose name is actually Eleven, but no pun was intended!). She is able to wield incredible psychokinetic power, but in short bursts–after which she faints and/or is super weak and has to gradually recover before being able to do it again.
In the world of StarCraft, a real-time strategy game series from the 1990s that is still played competitively today, there’s a type of unit called a Ghost–essentially a human that specializes in stealth, and has abilities that cost some of their energy to use. Such abilities include being cloaked, which makes them invisible to most other units, and EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which can remove energy from other units, like shields, and sometimes disable them. (According to Wikipedia, “The popular media often depict EMP effects incorrectly, causing misunderstandings among the public and even professionals. Official efforts have been made in the U.S. to disprove these misconceptions.” So I’ll reiterate that this version of EMP is fictional. Okay?)
The Ghost just slowly recharges energy over time, so if it’s out of energy, you just have to wait until it has enough before you can do another EMP round or call down a nuke. (Presumably we are talking about the energy of the suit that they wear, and not their actual personal energy, although Ghosts do have psionic powers, as that is how they qualify to go into Ghost training to begin with, so it could be both.) There are many types of units that use energy like this, but the Ghost is, in my opinion, the coolest one. (Another cool one is the Medic, which uses energy to heal other units.) This concept is very present everywhere in StarCraft, the concept of entities being able to wield a large amount of power in a single burst, and then having to slowly recharge before being able to do it again.
Thinking of it this way completely changes my narrative around my own abilities and disabilities, and how I fit into the world. What if the sluggishness and low energy I feel most of the time is inextricably tied to the short bursts, those EMP pulses, of mental power? What if I can’t have one without the other? By that model, I’m not slow, passive, weak, or inefficient–I’m recharging. I’m saving up energy for the next round. It’s not an overall energy deficit, but a different distribution of energy over time. And given the choice between this or the steady drip all day at a medium level of engagement, I’d choose the EMP pattern every time. The times when I’m at 11 are the times I feel most alive; and the recovery after an awesome burst of work is downright satisfying. When I change the story I’m telling myself, what I’ve always thought of as an inadequacy becomes a superpower.
I haven’t seen any literature (scientific or otherwise) about this kind of energy pattern; I haven’t seen it explicitly associated with introverts, creative people, or any other group. I don’t know if it’s correlated with any group or not. The closest thing I’ve seen is artists occasionally saying that the majority of their time is spent doing nothing, or doing passive things. I feel like all self-help, productivity, time management (or “energy management” or “attention management” as they’re calling it nowadays), and other such “how-to” literature, including in the creative sector, falls within the paradigm of consistency, of mostly pushing yourself steadily throughout the day and year, though with breaks to recover. But this recovery time is sort of assumed to be the minority of the time (“quick walks”, “power naps”, etc). No more than a couple hours (or even mere minutes!) a day, a few days of the week, a few weeks out of the year.
Nowhere have I seen somebody say that it’s okay, maybe even totally normal, to flip the balance around entirely, and expend all your energy in a short burst, then take the rest of the day to recover. And to work like this every single day. Ironically, it’s the established default pattern for expending physical energy. But to think of it as the pattern for mental or social energy seems radical. I think it’s an oversight that impoverishes the conversation around energy management–one that StarCraft has nevertheless had a handle on for over twenty years–and I think it could be better for people of all energy-pattern types if we talked about it, studied it, put a language around it, and used that to support and encourage each other. People like me exist. There should be room for this.