Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast. – Shakespeare
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from a man I consider the Slow Master, Christopher Richards of SlowDownNow.org, one of the inspirations for Zen Habits. Editor’s warning: Do not read this post while driving or operating heavy equipment.
In our rush-aholic world slowing down seems subversive. In the workplace we have to be “seen” to be working. Even though doing a task more slowly can often produce a result faster, many of us get caught up in unnecessary meetings and tasks. You may be suffering from too much speed. After all, you are reading this. We humans are not always-on, efficient machines that can run seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Burning the candle at both ends results in, well, burnout.
Humans need rests, relaxation, and recreation. We need time to think about things, to clear the mind, and to have fun. But to a person overburdened with claims on her time, fun seems only a distant remembered state of mind.
Slowing down is a way to incubate, conserve, and harvest our energy, not about relief from boredom by just watching more TV or going shopping. You may have to confront boredom at first. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
Don’t slow down quickly
If you’re a rush-aholic and want to slow down, your first impulse may be to try too hard and expect instant results. Making a change takes time and isn’t always easy. Expect a period of some discomfort. Many people who retire from an active life feel themselves at a loss. Hyperactivity is often a defense against boredom, and the fear of slowing down is really a fear of confronting yourself.
Workaholism may be the only socially condoned disease. Numerous books have been written about workaholism in America. In Japan there is an expression for death by overwork: Karoshi (Kah-roe-she).
If we let it, work can take over our lives. Work is of course necessary, but the problem is taking it too far. You decide what excess is for you. Having drive is a self-actualizing positive attribute, but being driven, being compelled to work long-hours, is soul destroying.
Josef Pieper’s seminal book, Leisure: The basis of culture written in the 1940’s warns us against what he calls the “Total World of Work.” We need leisure to rest, create, relate, and think. Our culture drifts toward destruction when we worship mindless know-how.
It’s odd that we have so much material wealth in America, but so many of us are dissatisfied and unable to enjoy. When everything is about work we are far less likely to do a good job. And of course, all work and no play, makes Jill a dull girl.
Slowing down has the reward of honoring the unique you, and being present for yourself and others. And what’s more, you just may discover the joy in enjoyment. You don’t need to do it alone, that’s why getting a slow coach can help through your transition to a more balanced life.
If you choose to work long hours (maybe you are self employed) then you are in control. But if you work long hours out of fear that if you don’t you’ll be demoted or fired, then that’s a recipe for burnout.
Slowing down, even a small amount, can help you be less demanding, less impulsive, and more patient with yourself and others. If slowing down makes you more considerate of other people, you’ll be even more likable than you are now.
A thought experiment
It’s your time. It’s your life. You can think of time as an investment. So take just a few minutes to imagine now.
Try this thought experiment. If you took tomorrow off and spent it by yourself, what would your day be like? How would you feel? For this experiment you’ll do nothing of practical value. You won’t use it to get things done.
The above is only a thought experiment. Just thinking about your day, what will the early morning be like? Where will you be at mid-day? Can you describe the place you imagine yourself to be? How do you anticipate your feeling at being alone?
Now try thinking about how you would spend half a day. Remember, this is not time to achieve a goal. You can spend your half-day with other people doing anything you like. How would you feel during this time, and how would you feel afterward?
If the thought experiment above took only a few minutes, could you actually take an hour to slow down? What would it be like to spend an hour completely free from any pressing matter?
I asked an assembly of management consultants (a highly-scheduled group) if they schedule unstructured time. None did. But what would it be like for you to take a slow hour?
The idea behind a lunch hour was that it gave one time for rest, sustenance, and renewal. But this practice has disappeared from many workplaces. Your slow hour could be as easy as assigning importance to this precious time. Make sure you keep a date with yourself. How would you use your slow hour? Would you be tempted to fill it up with striking things off your to-do list, or would you be able to slow down? Do you have to try it and find out? Would you feel guilty about taking care of yourself?
More haste, less speed, or haste makes waste are a well-known sayings. When under pressure, the ability to act slowly and deliberately is a benefit. The wise carpenter measures twice and cuts once. Taking time to read the map instead of blindly heading off in what you guess might be the right direction makes sense.
Thinking and considering before acting takes a level of impulse control that’s missing when we become overly stressed. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, is about keeping your head when all those about you are losing theirs. Maintaining a sense of calm when others are stressed and panicking is not easy. Slow is not about being lazy.
How many of us have heard our mothers tell us not to gobble our food? Children eat like animals until they are civilized. We eat and run. The slow food movement started in Italy as a backlash against fast food, but that is another subject. Current wisdom has it that eating slowly can help you lose weight. Taking your time to chew your food releases the nutrients. It’s easy to overeat, but slowing down can help.
In America, we talk about being full up after a meal. Food is seen as fuel. You are more likely to eat quickly if you eat alone. You are more likely to eat quickly if you are working at the same time. When we gulp down food our stomachs don’t have a chance to digest it properly, nor signal to our brains that we are satiated.
Taking a break between courses or eating smaller portions and waiting, eating with others, and taking time to digest what you eat is a good way to practice slowing down.
If you’ve ever tried to lift weights at the gym, you’ll know that doing it very slowly is far more demanding than doing it quickly. The idea of weight lifting is to build muscle. However, it’s common to see people rush through their routines counting repetitions, as if more is better. If they went more slowly, and used less weight they would get the result they are after more quickly. Ken Hutchins, founder of SuperSlow, invented a fat burning weight protocol that has weight trainers lift weights very slowly in order to get fast results.
My qiqong (Chi-Kung) practice of twelve slow and graceful repetitions of eighteen movements helps me develop a sense of calm. I’ve been doing this daily practice for many years and it’s easy, and promotes balance, and flexibility. If I want more of a workout, I simply slow down more.
When we slow down, we notice more. Noticing your breath is an easy slow exercise. That’s all, just notice how you are breathing. What could be easier?
“Multi-tasking is a moral weakness”, is of course all in fun. It’s impossible not to multi-task to some extent. Our bodies are alive with electro-chemical reactions. We are constantly breathing, thinking, and monitoring our internal and external environments. Yet we can choose to do fewer things in order to concentrate better.
When driving we can choose to drive safely, not to answer the phone, or listen to the radio, or talk to passengers. We can choose to just drive. Slowing down can teach us to notice more of what is going on around us.
Slowing down helps give our full-attention to what we are doing. Like full-attention Zen, slowing down can put us in the zone, or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience).
Try walking more slowly. Pause before responding to questions. Speak more slowly. Does this feel awkward? Why?
Slow down now
Personal energy, attention and time are limited. By slowing down we can use these better to our advantage. Slowing down is counter-intuitive. It’s not easy to go against the grain no matter how much sense it makes. But you don’t have to do it alone. If you want the benefits of slow and aren’t sure how you can give up your speed addiction a slow coach can help.
Christopher Richards writes SlowDownNow.org a humorous site about the slow lifestyle and blogs at www.blog.slowdownnow.org, and creativityandaction.com.