Yvonne Abraham

Fast-forward through life

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 26, 2011

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“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another,’’ said philosopher William James.

Also handy: being able to watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’’ at 1.45 times normal speed.

By any standard, Nirav Dave was majorly stressed. A computer scientist wrapping up a doctorate at MIT, Dave whiled away the hours it took for computers to test his coding work by catching up on television shows, checking e-mail, and touring around online.

Until it dawned on him that, as long as he was doing all of these things at once, he was not doing any of them well.

“In my work, I can’t multitask,’’ he said, sitting on a couch at MIT’s Stata Center on a recent morning. “If I’m spending more than 5 percent of my time looking at something else, I’m not being efficient. If it’s that way for my work, why is it not the same for everything I do?’’

Dave is an unlikely candidate for such an awakening: He seems built for maximum multitasking. He’s scary-smart and a voracious culture consumer. At 28, he has been web-connected most of his life. In college, he surfed through lectures, emerging from laptop land only when the material seemed new.

“I’m sick of doing all these tasks at once,’’ Dave recalls deciding.

There has been a stack of studies in recent years showing that jumping from video to e-mail to browsing compromises our ability to absorb what we are seeing and think deeply, and makes our brains more receptive to irrelevant junk.

But we are busy and easily distracted, and life is short. Unplugging is unthinkable for a lot of people (like, say, the kind who check for Whitey updates approximately 600 times in the course of writing a single column). And there is not enough time to focus on tasks one by one.

Unless you do some of them faster.

So Dave worked out a way to speed up video without chipmunking the dialogue. He started out watching TV shows and movies at 1.2 times normal speed, but now he is usually at 1.45 times normal. Watching an hour-long show takes 30 minutes, minus commercials.

Not only does this save Dave time he can then spend on e-mail, reading, and browsing, but the speed requires him to focus more closely, so he is less easily distracted. He uses the same technology with audiobooks and podcasts of lectures.

At this point you may be having thoughts such as “What have we come to?’’ and “How dare anybody mess with a cult classic like ‘Buffy’?’’

(If the thought you’re having is “How about you just don’t watch TV?’’ this column is not for you.)

Well, I watched with Dave, and it turns out that even great TV benefits from a little alacrity.

The scene-setting in the very first episode of “Buffy’’ — a darkened science lab, a hand smashing through a window — is no less creepy when sped up; the part where Darla morphs and sinks her teeth into that poor doofus in the high school is no less shocking; Buffy’s perkiness is a little more over the top, if you can imagine such a thing.

All in all, it was pretty satisfying viewing, the extra speed barely noticeable after a few minutes. It is an elegant solution to a very modern problem. This speed thing has its limits, of course.

“A lot of people get the human interaction squeezed out of their daily routine,’’ Dave said. “They shouldn’t be sped up.’’ Nonetheless, I entertain fantasies of applying Dave’s approach to certain human interactions that could do with some hustle: Weddings; work meetings; most of my previous relationships.

Dave has given me more than an intriguing possibility for managing life: I now have a “Buffy’’ habit. I’ve been watching episodes on my laptop — at regular speed.

It. Takes. Forever.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at