Bread Time: Letting Go Of Urgency

I took the last couple of weeks—thanks to the more flexible schedule of the holiday season—to work on bread-baking.

I made a sweet potato challah bread, two different types of swirly brioche, and a multigrain sandwich bread. I’m sure you know this—but baking bread isn’t something you do when you’re in a hurry. You need time to knead it so that the gluten develops. You need time to let the yeast turn sugar into carbon dioxide so that the bread rises. You need time to bake it so that it’s not, as Paul Hollywood might say, stodgy in the middle.

Up until a few years ago, baking wasn’t my thing. It felt too rigid, too easily screwed up. I liked to cook—by feel, by taste, by approximation—but not bake. But as I’ve gotten better about doing things with care and patience, the world of baking opened up to me.

And while I certainly love to eat what I’ve baked, I’m finding that I’m actually enjoying the practice of baking much more than the consumption of my baked goods. Luckily, there are plenty of people I can share the product of my labor with.

At the low end, making a loaf of bread is probably going to take about 3 hours. But plenty of bread is best made with a cool, overnight rise—that means making a loaf can take 16 hours or more. Now, letting bread dough rise is a funny thing. The recipe is always going to give a range, say 90 minutes to two hours. But so many different factors can impact the way yeast does its job. For instance, we keep our house pretty cool in the winter. So my dough will rise, but it typically does so more slowly than the recipe suggests it will. If I just automatically skipped to the next step after 90 minutes, I’d probably underproof my bread every time.

Instead, I need to pay attention to how it’s reacting on that day, at that temperature, with that recipe, and at this humidity. What is it supposed to look like or feel like when it’s ready for the next step? Is it there yet? How about now? 

At the same time, it’s completely possible to overdo it, too. If I leave my dough unattended and it rises beyond where it should, I might overproof it. The sugar will end up spent and it won’t rise at all in the oven. 

Patience. Attention. Care.

Baking is the perfect opportunity for me to practice these character traits that are in no way natural to me. Not only to practice but to find enjoyment in them. To find satisfaction and pleasure in kneading the bread long enough so that it “windowpanes” or baking the bread long enough to produce that lovely hollow sound when I knock on the bottom of it.

I know I’m not the first person to write about baking as character development or self-improvement. People have written about stress baking and #ragebaking, and of course, the collective pandemic fascination with sourdough starter and banana bread. Much has been written lately about finding a place in our lives for hobbies—that a good life includes activities done just for the sheer enjoyment of them. I can relate to all of these sentiments and motivations.

Yet, for me, at least right now, baking is more about rediscovering a sense of time.

Patience, yes, but also the way kneading, rising, and baking tether me to the experience of time as present—not what I should have done in the past or what I’m supposed to do in the future. Each minute that passes is felt as gluten developing in my hands or observed as yeast producing tiny bubbles. I am present as I sit reading on the couch in between steps or folding the laundry while the air is perfumed by what’s happening in the oven. Time becomes embodied and sensory.

Much has been said about how the pandemic has created such disorientation with the passage of time. There were the local TV stations that made a point of reminding viewers of the day of the week, and the memes that joked about March 135th. Joe Zadeh, writing for Noema Magazine, put it this way:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people reported that their experience of time had become warped and weird. Being trapped at home or laboring unusually excessive hours made days feel like hours and hours like minutes, while some months felt endless and others passed almost without notice. It seemed the time in our clocks and the time in our minds had drifted apart.

The Tyranny of Time

He goes on to explore “clock time” as a mathematical construct, a unit of measurement that has evolved—“been perfected”—in a way that renders it further and further from our visceral, sensory experience of time. Time today is untethered from the rotation of the planet, the planet’s revolution around the sun, or the feeling of cool air or warm breezes on our skin. Time, in a very real way, has gotten away from us.

And yet, many of us have worked so hard to manage and optimize our time that we have a profound sense of clock time. Jocelyn K. Glei in conversation with Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals, remarked on how internalized clock time can become thanks to our obsession with managing and optimizing our time. Many of us develop a distinct awareness of how long certain activities take—enough to predict the time to the minute. She says that she feels always on the clock because “I am the clock.” And, it seems that as our internalization of clock time becomes more complete, we become profoundly separated from time as represented by our bodies and the natural world.

What’s the harm? we may wonder. Perhaps this is an adaptation to the built world that is productive, even evolutionary. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether that adaptation really serves us or whether it serves existing systems of harm and exploitation. Or as L. M. Sacasas put it, “In innumerable ways we bend ourselves to fit the pattern of a techno-economic order that exists for its own sake and not for ours.”

Baking reminds me that it doesn’t matter whether the clock says it’s been an hour or two. If the dough hasn’t doubled, it’s not time for the next step. The dough doesn’t care what other activities I hoped to accomplish during the day. It doesn’t care that I’ve allotted a certain amount of clock time to the task of baking. The dough is on Bread Time. And as the baker, so am I.

The same is true of any of my professional endeavors. While there is certainly a need for synchronicity and due dates, most of my work happens outside of preset timeframes. I’m writing this essay on my couch, with the cats at my feet, before the sun comes up. I’m wrapped up in a blanket that Sean knit last spring—another project independent of clock time.

At the beginning of this year, I wrote on Instagram that the longer I’ve been in business, the more apparent it is just how slow things move. And, I might go even further today. 

The longer I’ve been alive, the more apparent it is that things take their own time.

There is little sense in trying to predict or control how long something will take. Yeast produces the gas that makes the dough rise at a pace dependent on outside circumstances. Sometimes a 10,000-word essay takes less time than a 2,000-word article. Good decisions can get made in an instant. While “bad” decisions can be analyzed, researched, and carefully considered for months. 

What happens if we start to let go of presuppositions about time altogether?

What other markers of progress, growth, experience can we measure? What happens if we let go of measuring altogether? How does measuring or not measuring the use of our time transform what we believe to be valuable?

Ben Franklin, in a distillation of the prevailing Protestant ethic and emerging capitalist ethic, said, “Time is money.” But what else could time be? What if time were practice? Connection? Care? Love? How does redefining time outside of a financial equation change our perception of it? How does it change the way we plan or our expectations of how time is spent?

We create so much heartache with the way we expect our projects or goals to unfold in time.

We might even feel shame when we don’t accomplish everything others accomplish in the same timeframe. Our expectations create urgency. And urgency distorts our desire—so that we often take action that is harmful to ourselves and others. With a few important exceptions, urgency just doesn’t need to be a variable in most projects or decisions.

If I bring urgency to kneading a loaf of bread or letting the dough rise, I accomplish nothing more than if I bring patience and attentiveness. In fact, there’s a good chance that urgency will cause me to produce something inedible! My time, then, is not money. It’s not even food.

Urgency robs me of both the pleasure of the process and the result of my diligence.

We might think of urgency as a habit of mind. It’s part of our modern modus operandi. We’ve learned to cram as much as we can into shorter and shorter periods of time—the whole productivity industry is based on this desire. To break the habit, we not only have to practice doing things differently but reexamine the stories and assumptions that have formed the habit.

“Time is money,” is one of those stories. Assuming that there is always a problem to be fixed is another. Still another might be tying productivity to a sense of self-worth or even identity. Now is better than later, faster is better than slower. Our culture is teeming with stories about urgency, time, and productivity. What happens when we start to let them go? 

Could we start to recognize that plans, projects, ideas, opportunities, and problems unfold on their own time? Could we learn that slow and indeterminate—rather than urgent—is the natural state of things? And what expectations would we need to let go of as we do?

Zadeh also writes that “Colonialism was not just a conquest of land… but also a conquest of time.” This reminds me that indigenous cultures and economies are not based on clock time but, instead, the time of bodies, seasons, plants, and animals. It reminds me that urgency isn’t a natural state for the body—that the way I feel urgency is an unpleasant sensation. Urgency feels more like anxiety than it feels like pleasure. Urgency doesn’t belong in my body, just like it doesn’t belong in the bread.

In her essay, “Maple Sugar Moon,” Robin Wall Kimmerer explores time and maybe even our inclination to rush things as she tells the story of learning to make maple syrup with her daughters:

In a climate where winter lasts six months, we always search assiduously for signs of spring, but never more eagerly than after we decided to make syrup. The girls ask every day, “Can we start yet?” But our beginning was entirely determined by the season. For the sap to run you need a combination of warm days and freezing nights. Warm is a relative term, of course, thirty-five to forty-two degrees, so that the sun thaws the trunk and starts the flow of sap inside. We watch the calendar and the thermometer, and Larkin asks, “How do the trees know it’s time if they can’t see the thermometer?” Indeed, how does a being without eyes or nose or nerves of any kind know what to do and when to do it? There are not even leaves out to detect the sun; every bit of the tree, except the buds, is swathed in thick, dead bark. And yet the trees are not fooled by a midwinter thaw.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Trees sense the optimal time to let their sap start flowing. Sugarmakers tune into similar cues. I watch and poke the dough to know when it’s time to move on with my recipe. If part of the project is letting go of urgency and even our expectations around how long something should take, then the other part of the project might be discerning the cues we can use to know when to move on or take the next step. 

As we unlearn embodied urgency, can we relearn what readiness feels like?

Looks like? Tastes like? Sounds like?

At this time of year, I not only think about my plans for the next year but what I’ve learned about the process of planning over the past year. I’m always trying to hone my approach to planning, especially for my business. This year, after experimenting with different ways to use my time, I’m noticing how much I’ve practiced letting things marinate—or maybe ferment is the better word—and how much more comfortable waiting has become. I like that. I’ve also been thinking about time—how I spend it, what I create with it, how I value it. And I plan to continue to explore those questions further in the new year. 

For now, I’ll keep baking and practice noticing the passage of time—however quickly or slowly it may be—with all of my senses. I’ll trust that, just as the yeast is doing its thing to help me produce a loaf of bread, the way I spend my time today and tomorrow is work that’s contributing to the health and sustainability of my businesses, as well as my own. 

By Tara McMullin

Writer, Podcaster, Producer. Founder of What Works.

Dec 8, 2021

Read More

Personal Branding and The Crafting of Self

I remember the first time I had my picture taken professionally. The photographer belonged to an artists’ workspace in an old goggle factory. The top floor was an event space—just a big empty loft with the original flooring, exposed brick walls, and giant windows. I...

Work Doesn’t Have to Make Money to be Valuable

On a typical evening, you’ll find my husband, Sean, and I on the sofa. We eat dinner and crack up watching the latest Good Mythical Morning episode. After, we move on to whatever television show we’re binging–currently The 100.  I work on a crossword puzzle or...

What Works offers in-depth, well-researched content that strips away the hype of the 21st-century economy. Whether you love the podcast, the articles, or the Instagram content, we’d love your support