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In Praise of Slowness

By Carl Honore

Around the globe people are exploring ways to put on the brakes. Is it possible to slow down in a world addicted to speed-without giving up your career or joining a commune? This chronicler of the new Slow Movement says yes.

Every parent knows that children like bedtime stories read at a gentle, meandering pace. But three years ago, in reading Dr. Seuss to my son, I was too fast, too busy, too hurried to slow down. Instead, I whizzed through The Cat in the Hat, skipping a line here, a paragraph there, sometimes a whole page. Things got so rushed I even considered buying a book of one-minute bedtime stories.

And that's when the alarm bells started ringing.

Had it really come to this? Was I really in such a hurry that I would fob off my son with a sound bite at the end of the day?

Thankfully, I never bought the 60-second stories. Instead, I began investigating the prospects for slowing down in a world addicted to speed. What I discovered is that around the globe people are finding ways to put on the brakes—all without having to ditch their careers and join a commune.

Despite its benefits, slowness remains a tough sell because so many of us are stuck in fast-forward. These days, we speed-read, speed-walk, speed-dial and speed-date. We drive fast, talk fast, think fast, eat fast and work fast.

Consider the breakneck pace of the average law office. The phone calls, faxes and e-mails never stop. Nor does the pressure to squeeze in another client—or three. For those striving to make partner, it feels like survival of the fastest. Or as Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum, put it: "We're moving from a world in which the big eat the small to one in which the fast eat the slow."

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.

Americans now sleep 90 minutes less a night than they did a century ago. Also, stress-related illnesses are soaring, costing the U.S. economy up to $200 billion a year in medical bills and absenteeism. People are burning out younger than ever before. In our haste, it's a struggle to relax, to take pleasure from things, to enjoy the moment. Who among us has enough time for family, friends or community these days? We race through life instead of living 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 Norway, 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 chill out—soaking in the bath, sunning on the beach or walking the dog. Psychologists call this "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 10 of Fortune's "Best Companies to Work For."

Even when the workday is long, carving out slow moments—think onsite aromatherapy, massage or Pilates—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 objets 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 10 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."

Some companies are taking that logic to its ultimate conclusion by encouraging staff to nap on the job. A recent NASA study found that a 24-minute snooze does wonders for a pilot's alertness and performance. Many of the most dynamic figures in history were nappers: John F. Kennedy, Thomas Edison, Napoleon Bonaparte, John D. Rockefeller and Winston Churchill, for a few.

Yarde Metals, a U.S. company that makes metal products, urges its employees to take sleeping breaks—and reaps the benefits in better morale and higher productivity. Even in faster-than-thou Manhattan, bond dealers and corporate lawyers are queuing up for 20-minute naps in specially designed "pods" in the Empire State Building. And in Spain, where people no longer have time to go home at midday for a boozy lunch followed by a long sleep, workers are filing into modern "siesta salons" for a short backrub and 40 winks.

At one such salon in Barcelona, I met the manager of a business supplies company after her daily nap.

"By the early afternoon I start to flag," she said, smoothing out a crease in her blouse. "A short siesta is the perfect way to recharge my batteries."

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 superhighway. Software maker Veritas and others have introduced e-mail-free days. Ernst & Young encourages its employees not to check work messages over the weekend. A senior manager at IBM now signs off every e-mail with the following rallying cry: "Read your mail just twice each day. Recapture your life's time and relearn to dream. Join the slow e-mail movement!" And that's at IBM, not an aromatherapy cooperative.

In a similar vein, Orange, one of the leading cell phone networks in Britain, is running an advertising campaign with the message that good things happen when your phone is turned off. You make new friends. You find romance. You bond with your children. You smell the roses.

The Orange campaign is a vivid reminder that slowing down pays dividends beyond the workplace, too.

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. Even in the United States, home of the drive-through restaurant and all-in-one breakfast bar, more and more people are reconnecting with the slower pleasures of the table. In Minneapolis the mayor is spearheading a campaign to encourage families to eat dinner together four times a week.

Slowing down can also work wonders on the romance front. We all laughed when the pop star Sting raved about romping Tantric-style for hours on end, but now couples all over the world are flocking to workshops to learn the art of unhurried lovemaking. Since returning from one such retreat in upstate New York, a lawyer friend of mine finds his married life is better than ever. "Instead of just doing it to keep up the batting average, my wife and I take our time over sex now and the result is a lot more physical pleasure and a lot more emotional connection," he said.

Wherever you look, the slow revolution is gaining ground. Millions of people are retuning their bodies and minds with slower exercise (think yoga, tai chi and SuperSlow weight lifting) and slower forms of medicine (think Reiki, acupuncture and herbalism).

Slowness is even leaving its mark on urban planning. A Slow Cities movement is now spreading across Europe. The 30-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.

Inevitably, decelerating in one walk of life often turns out to be the thin end of the wedge. A CEO I know decided to slow down his company, which makes ventilation systems for buildings, after discovering the joys of slower lovemaking. Instead of dashing to fill every order as quickly as possible, his staff now take their time. The result: Product standards are up and work is pouring in. "It's like the old story of the tortoise and the hare," he said. "We're beating our rivals by taking the slow approach."

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, teaches kids how to think creatively and how to get along with others. Children, just like adults—or even more so—need time to relax and recharge.

With the help of groups like Putting Families First, many American parents are cutting back on extracurricular activities—which, of course, helps moms and dads slow down, too. Around the United States, a growing number of towns, from Ridgewood, New Jersey, to Plymouth, Minnesota, now hold slow-down days when teachers assign no homework, after-school clubs are cancelled and parents come home early for a family dinner. "Spending a relaxed day together as a family made us appreciate what we were missing out on by being so rushed and busy all the time," said one father of three in Ridgewood. "We've cut back on the extracurriculars to spend more time just hanging out together and it's great."

A backlash against excessive homework is also gathering steam across the world. One father in California is suing his local education authority for ruining his family life with endless after-school assignments. Last year, a posh British private school banned homework for all pupils up to age 13. The high-achieving parents were appalled. "Our children will fall behind," they cried. The principal told them to have faith. A year after the homework ban, the school's average marks in math and science shot up 20 percent.

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 around the United States to reassure anxious parents that slowing down will benefit their children.

In a similar vein, Harvard now sends its freshmen a letter extolling the virtues of doing less and relaxing more. The title of the letter: "Slow Down."

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.

Is it really possible to rediscover the brake pedal while pursuing a high-flying career? The answer is yes. I know because I do it myself. I still live in a very fast city ( London), work in a very fast industry (media) and play very fast sports (squash and hockey) in my spare time. But I have also got in touch with my inner tortoise.

Slowing down has made me more relaxed, energetic and productive. I feel closer to my friends and family and more able to enjoy each moment of my day.

Bedtime stories are certainly a lot more fun when you don't speed-read them.

About the Author

Carl Honore is an award-winning Canadian journalist and former speedaholic who now lives in London. He is the author of In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).

Sidebar

A Life in Balance

By Stephen J. Harhai, Principal, Law Office of Stephen J. Harhai, Denver, CO

The yearning for a slower life is a natural reaction to the freneticism of the Information Age. Yet we don't need to gaze far back in history to find the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction: the rural to urban migration in search of greater excitement and opportunity. Neither fast nor slow is inherently good. It is the balance in life that is fulfilling.

In fact, the absolute pace doesn't matter at all, it only matters that it is the right pace. The stillness of the monk and the meticulous speed of the surgeon are simply opposite sides of the same coin: the application of attention to the important matter at hand. One of the most interesting challenges in life lies in discovering what is important—and acting accordingly.

Sounds of Silence

By Martha Fay Africa, Managing Director, Major Lindsey & Africa, San Francisco, CA

By simply not turning on my cell phone except when a prearranged call is coming in, I manage to go from point A to point B without distraction. By not checking e-mail except when I am in my office, I manage to maintain an inner dialogue that is rich and diffuse. My mind is free to roam, to explore, to reflect and, yes, to worry. I guard (and limit) access because I cherish the "luxury" of random thoughts, of focused thoughts, of the awareness of one's surroundings, which, for me, must include a fair amount of silence. My family hates that I don't keep my cell phone on, but I reserve the right to use it at my convenience, not to let it use me.

 

Free to Be Family-Friendly

By Erik J. Heels, Patent Attorney, Clock Tower Law Group, Maynard, MA

After chasing the Internet for the bulk of the 1990s, I had an important choice to make when the Internet bubble burst and I found myself considering my next career move. I had always planned on returning to the practice of law, and the success that I'd had in the Internet space gave me the financial freedom to choose a slower lifestyle. I briefly considered going to another fast-paced start-up or to a large law firm, but then I recalled the 26 trips I took one year in the 1990s, the same year I missed seeing my son learn to walk. So I decided to start my own law firm on my own terms.

Starting my own law practice in the midst of a recession had its own challenges, but in the end—and with support from friends and family—I was able to successfully launch and grow the firm. Our billable targets are half those of larger firms, and we rarely work past 6 p.m. or on the weekends. There are three of us in the firm, and we have a combined total of seven children. We don't make as much money as we could elsewhere, but this is a great place to work, and I am not burned out at the end of the day. I expect the firm will continue to grow in the future as others learn the benefits of working in a family-friendly environment.

When the Clock Never Stops

By Jordan Furlong, Editor-in-Chief, National Magazine, Canadian Bar Association, Ottawa, ON

In every survey the Canadian Bar Association conducts, lawyers talk about "work-life balance." I've always found this an odd term, because work and life aren't two sides of the same coin—life is the coin, and work is one side of it. Or better yet, life is a tetrahedron and work is just one facet.

What lawyers are struggling to express with this phrase, I think, isn't so much a search for "balance" as a reaction against the overwhelming pressures of a life in the law. This pressure never eases, and it usually rises. If we don't control expectations, they overpower us. Accordingly, for most lawyers, anxiety is the standard operating mood.

I believe many lawyers feel overpressured because they've ended up with an assembly-line approach to their work. They've learned that the reward for greater efficiency in their job is not more time off, but more work. They don't get to enjoy the time that their increasing expertise saves—they just plow it back into the next file. Speed has become a matter not only of pace for lawyers, but also of volume. It's not just the hour you spend at the office—it's how much billable activity you can cram feverishly into that hour. Lawyers fear wasting a single drop of time because it's the fuel that powers their revenue. The faster they work, the more "efficient" the fuel becomes—and never mind the damage to the "vehicle."

What's the bottom line? In the billable-hours system, time literally is money. So if we want an easier pace at work and more time for ourselves, we'd better get used to a lower income—unless we're willing to adopt a compensation system that doesn't use time as currency. The lesson: Own the clock—don't let the clock own you.

In Touch with My Inner Speed-Freak

By G. Burgess Allison, The MITRE Corporation, McLean, VA

"Fast" can be an excuse or a choice. If you're using the Fast Pace of Life as an excuse to shortchange your job, or your family, or to read just the Cliff Notes of Goodnight Moon, your priorities could really stand a swift kick in the rear. (That's a technical term.) But you could also make some deliberate choices that help determine how fast your Fast Pace of Life will be. Technology, for example, is much more controllable than others might have you believe. Too often, I see one person's gadget enthusiasm turn into someone else's gadget overload. Hey, not everyone wants to be an Early Adopter, nor should they be. It's important not to confuse "needs to be reachable in an emergency" with "needs to possess every possible gadget." Have confidence in your opinions—usually, you should be the best judge of what you want.

Me? I'm incredibly fortunate. I enjoy and am passionate about what I do—at work, at home and as a volunteer. Choosing "fast" lets me do more. Frazzled? Often. Candles burning at both ends? At least. Not enough sleep? Oh, my goodness, if you only knew how much I've done while falling asleep on the keyboard—it's just too much fun to have passed up. Hectic? Absolutely. I wouldn't have it any other way.

HOW DO I SLOW DOWN? Practical Tips for Reducing the Speed of Your Life

  • Start with one hour. Set aside one hour each day when you can turn off the phone, disconnect from e-mail and hide your BlackBerry. Tell your assistant you expect him to be aggressive about guarding this important refueling time. Work on a project that requires thought, not action.
  • Commit to vacations. By now, you know the annual flow in your firm—when it will be busy, when it will be stressful and when it won't. Sit down now and mark out the days in 2006 when you will take vacation. Involve your family in the planning. Commit to these dates—make reservations, buy tickets. Trick yourself into actually doing it.
  • Share and savor your time with your friends. Organize "slow food" events and make eating and socializing the entire content of a long evening together. Resist the temptation to add a movie, concert or event of any kind.
  • Put a child in charge of your time. Make a weekly date to spend one-on-one time with one of your children. Tell her she's in charge of the agenda.
  • Find inspiration. These books will help put you in the right frame of mind: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less by Guy Claxton; Slow Down: The Fastest Way to Get Everything You Need by David Essel; and The Joy of Laziness: Why Life Is Better Slower—and How to Get There by Peter Axt and Michaela Axt-Gadermann.
  • Find help coping with stress. If you search Google for "lawyers and stress" the hits number in the tens of thousands. It's no wonder: Lawyers are at greater risk than other occupations for depression, substance abuse and other ailments. Where to turn? Start with the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), which maintains a national clearinghouse on state and local assistance programs at www.abanet.org/legalservices/colap. Then visit LawCare, where you can download powerful "how-to" materials on stress, depression, substance abuse, bereavement, bullying and helping others manage stress at www.lawcare.org.uk/freedownloads.htm. LawCare is a confidential advisory service to help lawyers deal with the health issues and related emotional difficulties resulting from a stressful career as a lawyer.

Taming the Idea Swarm

By Stephanie West Allen, Principal, Allen&Nichols Productions, Inc., Denver, CO

Lawyers frequently score high in idea productivity, meaning the number of ideas produced in your head during any period of time. But a person blessed with the gift of extreme thought output typically finds this stimulating blessing is accompanied by a distracting and demanding burden. The ideas are not always easy to manage; they constantly spin and twirl in your mind and may even compete with each other. How do you slow them down?

People with high idea productivity may not be able to mentally decelerate. But you can learn to choose the focus of the idea swarm. Deliberately decide to think about something tranquil or delightful or sweet. Once you have learned to control the theme of the thoughts, they are no longer an exhausting head commotion. Managed thoughts can transport you to a breezy island or a well-stocked chocolate shop—it's now your choice since you are in charge. You have tamed the topics, not the number of ideas in your head. Jump on those never-ending ideas and ride them all the way to seventh heaven.

10 Days Where the World Is Slow

By John Tredennick, Jr., CEO, CaseShare Systems, Denver, CO

Every day the world seems to spin a bit faster. More clients to manage, technology, employees and office problems, bills to pay, kids to shuttle, and a nonstop flood of e-mail. Slowing down sounds good, but I don't think it will happen anytime soon.

But you can take it slow for a few days every year. That's what I do. Each year, for about 10 days in August, my family heads to Lake Powell, in northern Arizona, for a slow … vacation. Lake Powell is set amid spectacular red rocks, towering walls and desert vistas. We pile in a houseboat and putt serenely along at 12 knots until we find a spot 40 miles up the lake with nobody around. Then we beach the boat, jump off the back into cool water, and sit in the shade. We talk, enjoy leisurely meals, dig sand castles, or drift out on a plastic floatie.

It works because nothing else actually works at Lake Powell. Cell phone towers don't grow there. No BlackBerrys or Treos, either. Most important, no e-mail or instant messenger. The only thing that works is slow. The morning starts off slow as the sun peeks over the distant cliffs. Breakfast is leisurely without TV or a morning paper. The day moves quietly and, blissfully, the night lasts forever, with time to eat leisurely, time to talk leisurely and time to think leisurely. You move at the pace of the stars, lingering before bedtime to watch the Big Dipper make its way across the night sky.

Slow is good, but finding it isn't easy. It hides in remote places where fast people don't usually go. It takes effort to get there. You have to want to be slow.

My world is getting faster by the day. But for 10 days at least every year, I go real slow….

At Trial: The Trail to the Story That Transcends

By Dale K. Perdue, Trial Lawyer, Columbus, OH

Legal actions that go to trial almost always involve complex factual situations, frequently spanning several years. The evidence never fits together neatly, and testimony always conflicts on some important points. This is simply the reality of litigation.

But the jury needs a simple story that captures their attention and reaches a just conclusion. To find the story that transcends the unavoidable inconsistencies, the trial lawyer must slow down. I find that the story will not come to me when I am charging full steam through documents, depositions and motions. I have to really throttle back my emotional energy—perhaps on the treadmill or just sitting quietly in my study. My mind must move to that tranquil state where it can slide the pieces of the case around until they settle into the essential story of the case.

Every case has an essential story that the jury can grasp, but you have to slow way down to find it.

Soothing Meetings

By Gerald A. Riskin, Co-Founder and Partner, Edge International

A true story: I was facilitating a meeting recently for all the partners from one continent of one of the world's major accounting firms. At the appointed time I was asked to wait a few moments before starting the session. Through the back door of the large meeting room walked about a dozen masseuses. A member of the firm asked all those who wished a neck and shoulder massage to just raise their hands and a masseuse would get to them during the meeting. The meeting proceeded with the usual issues, some of which were contentious and challenging, but the calming effect of the masseuses was palpable. I praised the firm for its courage to do something different—to, in their way, "take it slow."

Letting in the New

By Stewart Levine, Founder and Principal, Resolution Works, Oakland, CA

When I teach a seminar, one of the first things I do is let the audience know that I will—very consciously—be moving at a much slower pace than they are used to. I do it to give people the experience of deeply listening and engaging with themselves, others and the material we are covering. The change of pace is critical for real learning, as opposed to trying to jam more facts into an already overloaded mind moving along at mach speed and not paying much attention to anything but its own voice. I've discovered there are myriad benefits to getting off your bullet train and slowing down. Among them, you find how real creativity bubbles up from a void. When you're moving too fast, so full at the surface that you believe you have to push new things away, there is no space for true creativity to take place. Slowing down provides the space for an abundance of new clients, projects and relationships. Also, you discover and hear your own voice and heart. You recognize the ways you're operating on automatic pilot, which enables you to make some real choices. You deepen personal relationships by taking the time to listen and make genuine connections with others. You can smell the roses and taste the cornucopia of your personal life experience. And you don't miss opportunities that you otherwise just move beyond.

Had I learned to slow down earlier in my life, I probably would not have ruined a marriage and burned out on the practice of law. Hindsight is a wonderful teacher that now has me ask the question of whether it's what I'm doing that's distasteful or how I'm doing it. Slowing down enables that insight in a host of areas.

LP