I wouldn’t say that my younger cousin and I are competitive, but let’s just say that when she got good at crossword puzzles, I felt that I had little choice but to also get good at crossword puzzles. So for the past few months I’ve averaged probably 2-4 crossword puzzles per day.
Crossword puzzles, to me, are the ideal diversion. They’re fun enough to kill time in line or on an airplane, but difficult enough that you’re not going to spend all day doing them. They obviously aren’t useful like doing actual work, but I like how they make me think about words.
New York Times crossword puzzles are the gold standard of puzzles. Mondays are so easy that just about anyone can do them, while Saturdays are very difficult. Sundays are mixed difficulty and are always very big.
For a while I could do Tuesdays and Wednesdays consistently but could never do Thursdays. Thursdays have much more abstract and tricky questions than Wednesdays. For example, “Hebrew leader?” is “ALEPH”, as that’s the first letter in Hebrew. It took me a while to get a handle on those.
As you move to Friday and Saturday, there are more and more clues that don’t have definite answers, so they rely on the surrounding context. For example, “Tree line?” was “ANTS”, because ants form a line when they climb a tree. There’s no way to definitively know that’s correct until you have several of the letters filled in due to the perpendicular clues.
So there’s a lot going on in crosswords. You need some cultural knowledge, some creativity, some strategy, and some lexical depth.
The most interesting discovery I’ve made is how wildly my crossword performance varies. I would have thought that my skill level would be consistent, but that’s not true at all. Sometimes I’ll have a puzzle that I’m so stuck on that I think it’s way above my ability, and then later I’ll solve it with no hesitation.
The biggest determinant in my performance is how rested I am. I typically do a crossword or two before I sleep and then another one at lunch. A very common pattern is that I’ll get stuck on a Saturday at night, and then the next day at lunch will quickly figure out the clues I was stuck on.
The opposite rarely happens. If I don’t finish at lunch and try to pick it up when I’m tired, I usually give up and do an easier one. Once in a while I’ll make some progress, but it’s not like the other way around.
Yesterday I was tired. I had to wake up early and had enough going on in the morning that I couldn’t sneak in a short nap to make up for missed sleep. I was also driving around all day in the heat, which makes me more tired.
On my todo list for the day was adding a couple new cruise lines to CruiseSheet, which should be a pretty straightforward task as I’ve obviously done that before. But it didn’t work immediately. It showed no errors, but the cruises weren’t there. I tried a few things, got frustrated, and cleaned up my house instead (my go-to task when I know I can’t perform complex mental tasks).
Today I woke up after a good amount of sleep, drank some tea, and immediately fixed the CruiseSheet problem. It was an obvious bug that I just wasn’t able to see the following day. It felt a lot like seeing a crossword puzzle with fresh, rested, eyes.
Getting more sleep is the least sexy productivity hack ever. It seems (and sometimes feels) lazy. It’s simple. The results aren’t obvious unless you’re looking for them. But it’s also extremely important if you do work that relies on your brain. I suppose there are probably some people that can function at a high level on 5-6 hours of sleep, but they’re rare. Try getting an extra hour of sleep every day for a week and see how you do on work. Or crossword puzzles.
Photo is a sunset on Lake Champlain in Vermont.
I’m annoyed with myself that I let my posting schedule slip to the weekend, so I’m rewinding it back this week. I actually wrote this post a week ago and already have another one ready for next week. Proactivity!