GPSolo Magazine - September 2006
In Praise of Slowness
Consider the breakneck pace of the average law office. The phone calls, faxes, and e-mails never stop. Nor does the pres sure to squeeze in another client—or three. For those striving to make partner, it feels like survival of the fastest.
Of course, speed is not always bad. It can be fun, liberating, empowering. The problem, though, is that many of us have forgotten how to slow down, even for a day and even when we need to most. We are stuck in roadrunner mode and pay a heavy price for it.
So what is the cure for all this rushaholism? Simple: Just slow down a little. Get inspired by some ways in which others across the world are downshifting both on the job and off.
If you snooze, do you lose? Fact versus fallacy. Let’s look at the workplace first. In contrast with the United States, working hours have been falling steadily in Europe. The result is a quality of life—think six weeks of annual vacation—that Americans can only dream about. Even in Japan, working hours are down and leisure is no longer a dirty word.
But this is about more than leisure. As well as making life more enjoyable, working less can mean working more efficiently. Often derided as lazy vacation-junkies, the French are actually the world’s most productive workers per hour. And the citizens of Finland, Denmark, and Sweden all spend far less time on the job than do Americans, yet their economies rank among the most competitive in the world.
This productivity is not hard to explain. When employees have enough time off, they come back to work refreshed and invigorated. They are more creative, too, because relaxation helps the brain slip into a richer, more nuanced mode of thinking. That is why our best ideas seldom come in the middle of a fast-paced meeting or in the final dash to make a deadline. They come when we engage in what psychologists call “slow thinking.”
Fortunately, leading companies in the United States see the writing on the wall. For example, SAS, a software giant based in Cary, North Carolina, combines a 35-hour workweek with generous vacation benefits. The payoff is robust profits and a regular place in the top of Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work For.”
Even when the workday is long, carving out slow moments can galvanize staff and goose the bottom line. Lawyers at the Washington, D.C., office of DLA Piper Rudnick now get in touch with their inner tortoise during in-house yoga classes.
Pioneered by the dot-coms, chill-out rooms are springing up in the corporate mainstream. Take the enterprise-solutions behemoth Oracle. In its Tokyo office, where 12-hour days are common, it has installed a soundproof meditation suite with soft lighting and a wooden floor bordered by smooth pebbles and objet d’art. At first, staff stayed away, fearful that shifting down a gear would hurt their output. But many are now converts. “People who think that taking ten or 15 minutes to sit quietly in a room is a waste of time are wrong,” one Oracle executive told me. “By slowing down a little, you come back to the fast part of your day with more energy and clarity.”
Another way is to switch off the technology from time to time. Hewlett-Packard, which makes its money selling high-tech gadgets, recently warned that keeping cell phones and BlackBerry devices turned on around the clock leads to burnout and data overload.
That’s why companies, even in very fast industries, are starting to put speed limits on the information super-highway. Software maker Veritas and others have introduced e-mail-free days. Ernst & Young encourages its employees not to check work messages over the weekend.
Turning the tables: The art of good living. Among the downshifts from the rush these days, many people are taking a less hurried approach to food and eating better as a result. Look at the rise of farmers’ markets and cooking classes, or the renaissance of handmade bread, cheese, and beer. The Italian-based “slow food” movement, which stands for everything fast food does not, now has 80,000 members in 100 countries.
Slowness is even leaving its mark on urban planning. A “slow cities” movement is now spreading across Europe. The 60-plus member towns curb traffic, make more space for walking and cycling, and promote slow food. Their stated aim is to rediscover the lost art of good living. In North America, planners inspired by the new urbanism movement are building walkable neighborhoods that put people before cars and foster community spirit. “You live better when your neighborhood allows you to slow down and connect with other people,” said one resident of Kentlands, a new urbanist suburb in Maryland.
Promoting daydreams: Slow- down to the future. In the same spirit, parents are rebelling against the trend for hot-housing children. Overscheduled and overworked, many kids today suffer from anxiety and even burnout. Living in fast forward is inimical to childhood. Drifting around, exploring the world at their own pace, even getting bored can teach kids how to think creatively and how to get along with others.
With the help of groups such as Putting Families First, many American parents are cutting back on extracurricular activities—which, of course, helps moms and dads slow down, too. Across the United States, a growing number of towns now hold slow-down days when teachers assign no homework, after-school clubs are canceled, and parents come home early for a family dinner.
Parents who think hot-housing is the only way to get their children into Harvard or Yale should heed the warnings now emanating from elite colleges around the world. Admissions officers everywhere lament the rise of a new kind of applicant: brisk, industrious, accomplished, but lacking spark and curiosity. “We are training our children to be workaholics,” warned Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
A meeting with a group of teenagers persuaded Jones that elite colleges are sending the wrong message to parents and children. “I asked them: ‘What do you daydream about?’ and one kid said to me: ‘We don’t daydream. There’s no reward for it, so we don’t do it.’ Boy, that hit me right between the eyes,” she said. “Colleges have created mechanisms to crowd out the kids who are dreamers, to crowd out the kids who step off the conventional path and want to do something unique. But what does it mean to have a nation of kids who don’t know how to dream?”
To send the message that less is more and that daydreaming is good, Jones has shrunk the section devoted to extracurricular activities on the MIT application form. She also travels across the United States to reassure anxious parents that slowing down will benefit their children.
Conduct at your own tempo. Of course, you can take this deceleration thing too far. Slower is not always better. Too much slowness is just as bad as too much speed. What we really need is balance—an understanding that sometimes fast is good, but that sometimes slow is good, too.
Carl Honoré is an award-winning Canadian journalist and former speedaholic who now lives in London. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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