What I’ve Learned By Doing the NY Times Crossword 800 Days in a Row

Before getting into this post, I should come clean: there was actually one friday about 450 days ago where I thought that I had already done the day’s puzzle but I hadn’t. So far that reason I haven’t actually done the puzzle 800 days in a row, but rather 800 days with one day missing. Ok, it feels good to get that off my chest.

Three years ago my family came to visit me in Budapest. My younger cousin, with whom I tend to be both cooperative and competitive with on just about everything, had printed out a few crosswords to do on the plane. I immediately felt that if she was getting into crosswords I should also get into them, so we started doing puzzles together. The New York Times puzzle ranges from Mondays (easy) to Saturdays (hard). We were doing Tuesdays and Wednesdays with some difficulty, but it was a fun challenge.

Fast forward a few years and we both do the puzzle every single day (except that one Friday) and we share our times with each other. The rules are simple: no cheating, no using the built-in check or reveal feature, and the puzzle must be done before midnight EST. At first my extra ~15 years of experience on this earth played to my advantage and I would beat her almost every day. Now her intelligence and quickness has overcome that advantage and I win 1-2 times per week average. Some weeks I don’t win at all.

Even if I’m not able to beat my cousin, I’m pretty good at crosswords these days. The last time I wasn’t able to solve the daily puzzle was over two years ago, and my median times range from around 3 minutes for a Monday to 10-15 for a Saturday (lots more variance there, so I’m not sure). Besides being a lot of fun to do the puzzle (just like my daily Chipotle, I look forward to it all day), I’ve learned a lot through doing the puzzle.

The biggest thing I’ve learned through doing puzzles is that any problem can be solved with enough time if you have a good attitude. The NY Times Crossword app or site will not give you a gold star unless you do the puzzle before midnight with no errors and no cheating. At first this doesn’t matter very much, but as your streak extends you feel a lot of pressure to get the puzzle right. In practice that means that you can be totally stuck staring at a 75% complete puzzle, have no leads, not recognize any of the clues, and you still have to sit there and try to work it out because… what’s the alternative?

Though my average times are pretty good, there have been around 10 puzzles in the past couple years that took me over an hour to do. A few took two hours, maybe more. And yet, every time I was able to solve it in the end.

This has given me a sense of omnipotence. At first those puzzles scared me, but now I look at them and think, “Ok, well, it’s just a matter of time. Keep working on it.” This translates to my other work as well, and it actually feels sort of similar to debugging a program. Outside of crosswords, my tolerance to just sit and work on a problem has certainly increased. Overall this is good, but my friends might argue that it’s not so great when we are stuck in an escape room and I don’t want to take any hints even if it means only seeing 1/3 of the room.

Another interesting phenomenon is what happens when I start a Saturday puzzle. On a Monday I’m spending about 1.25-1.5 seconds per clue, which means that most of them I just know right off the bat. “Icy precipitation”? Sleet. Saturdays are different. On a Saturday puzzle I may go through all 100-130 clues and only know one. Sometimes I go through and don’t know any of them with certainty. This can be incredibly daunting because you think, “I know less than 1% of the answers, but I still have to complete this thing perfectly and also try to beat my cousin, which is probably not going to happen.”

The amazing thing, though, is that you can build off such a tiny start. I put in a guess and then try to work the crosses. If a few of theme seem right I might try the words that cross them. Before I know it, I have a corner mostly filled out. Ten minutes later the whole puzzle is done and it doesn’t seem like such a tough puzzle anymore.

When we do projects in real life it’s easy to get discouraged by the enormity of reaching our end goal. I’ve learned from doing crosswords that even the smallest little start can snowball into success. When I have a big project in front of me I just think, “ok, i’ll do what I can to start and take it from there”, and it inevitably isn’t as hard as I expected.

Crossword puzzles are really great for the mind and are a neat little microcosm of bigger challenges. They’re fun, but you can also use them to look inwards at how you tackle problems and deal with challenges. And, with all of us being relatively quarantined still, there’s probably no better time than to get into them. My recommendation is to play the NY Times crosswords, start with Mondays and let yourself cheat at first to understand how crosswords work. Once you can solve Mondays without cheating, move on to Tuesdays, and so forth. As you get better, be more reluctant to cheat. By the time you get to Thursday you will need to start forcing yourself to work at it longer.


Photo is a cool lizard we saw drinking at Lake Mead.

Sorry my blog has been acting crazy recently. I know a lot of people got tons of emails last week and I’m sorry for that. I’m trying to avoid getting deep into Sett again but I may have to spend some time fixing some bugs.






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