Have you ever heard of the Slow movement? Probably not.
In an age of 24/7 business, of overloaded schedules, of wireless access and a ceaseless need to stay in the loop, there isn’t much tolerance among working people for a Huckleberry Finn approach to managing the day—lazy afternoons, long lunches, and watching the sun drift across the sky. We all may wish we could take this approach, but few of us have a realistic expectation of getting there any time soon. There’s just too much to do, and it all needs to get done now.
Everywhere you turn you hear people talking about their ever-increasing task load; that the workday has extended to 18 hours or more; that email and wireless devices are addictive and that people are using them, or are feeling pressured into using them, well into the hours that used to be reserved for personal life. This, it seems, is the new norm.
In spite of this, there are others who still profess the value of going more slowly, even if their voices more often than not get drowned out. They say they’re part of a Slow movement. They represent a collection of organizations and individuals that together advocates working slower, speaking slower, eating slower, and basically living slower.
There are cities in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere that have tried to make this Slow movement an official lifestyle, mandating traffic patterns, store-opening hours, and even business practices – like meeting-free-Fridays- to fit with this philosophy. And, thanks to the Internet, these advocates have all joined together to become a new global presence.
So, is this for real? Is the slow approach tenable here in North America? Can it work for you, in your business, with your customers and your boss, in a way that will make things better?
Sure, the Italian countryside certainly seems a good place to encourage the Slow movement. Workers have come and gone across its fields and streets for thousands of years. There’s probably a greater readiness there to accept a shifting of gears, since, after all, Old World Europeans have “been there and done that” in so many different ways that their collective sense of time, life, and related values is by now mature and pragmatic.
But how realistic is it to expect the Slow movement to catch on in those areas of the world where a high-speed work ethic still reigns supreme? It goes against instinct—against the very forces that have propelled human beings to adapt and advance. The desire to further yourself, to protect yourself and your family from harm, and to identify opportunities to improve living conditions are strong basic urges, and although, ultimately, most people work really hard so that one day they no longer have to work so much, the idea of slowing down to get there just doesn’t make sense.
Julie Burchill, a writer for the London Times put it this way: “There is something rather sad about those people always banging on about the joys of Slow Shopping, and of its kissing cousin Slow Food; it points to dull and dreary nostalgia-hounds with too much time on their hands and a morbid fear of modernity …”1
I disagree. I have been able to achieve more by adopting Slow principles than I was ever able to do. I’m a Type-A personality, and Alpha. I crave constant input and simulation, and I can’t stand wasting even a minute of time that could otherwise be put to good use. So I according to the experts, I am totally the wrong type of person to adopt the principles of the Slow movement. Yet it still works for me.
My belief is that slow is not only wise, it is essential. For as the pace of life speeds up, the skills that we need to attract and build business and to maintain a superior level of productivity are getting buried under a false momentum that plays on some very deep-seated fears inside the human mind. Furthermore, there are laws of physics that demonstrate that working faster doesn’t get you there faster. But in large part, the digital age has forced us to work faster and live faster, and in so doing we have started to lose sight of the maxim “more haste, less speed.”
It’s important to make the point here that not everything that is quick is bad. Responding quickly to a client’s call might win new business. Solving a client’s problem quickly might generate greater loyalty. Getting out of the way of a falling piano is a healthier option than just standing still.
Quickness is vital to competitiveness and to survival. But quickness and quality cannot be fully achieved if everything else about your work and your mental state is hurried to the point of confusion or exhaustion. The cheetah, for example, is the fastest animal on earth. The cheetah knows so much about being fast primarily because she also knows about going slow. She knows she cannot run 70 miles an hour all day and still expect to make a catch. She knows her own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of her quarry and is thus better empowered to strike at the right time, in the right measure.
So, ultimately, this is what I’m getting at: You can get further, faster, by incorporating slow into your life’s strategy.
Putting Speed into Perspective: Why Are We Racing?
A colleague of mine is the CEO of a media and design firm, and he has also been racing Porsches professionally since the age of 18. Nevertheless, he gives advice that seems contrary to the racer’s image. He says, “If you want to win, you have to know how to slow down as much as how to speed up. How you enter and exit a corner will have enormous impact on your performance on the straightaway.” He continues, “You have to be thinking two cars ahead. Not what the guy in front of you is doing, but the guy in front of him. The same goes for anyone driving on any highway. And you can’t do that if your mind is not together and cool.”
We’re all driving Porsches, mentally at least, from the moment the alarm goes off in the morning until we get back into bed, 13, 16, maybe 20 hours later. But unlike professional racers, it seems a lot of us succumb to the pressure to drive in the fast lane all the time. Urged on by the persistent prodding of our wireless technologies, we feel a palpable need to extend our accessibility and responsibility well beyond reasonable limits. Many people today check their messages from their bedside the moment the clock radio announces the new morning, before their eyes have even properly focused. Many also check in as they retire to their beds at night. If they could swing it, I’m sure they would even arrange to have their email forwarded to their dreams.
As the world becomes more and more connected, we all feel a renewed pressure to outperform, to differentiate ourselves from the competition, to do more and do it faster and usually with fewer resources than ever before. Like a giant poker game, the fear of not achieving these goals drives us forward, fueled by the constant, lurking threat that there is someone out there—a manager, a shareholder, a client, an auditor, or a competitor—who holds the final card, the ace of spades, the card of death—a person who can pull your job, your business, your identity, and your connection to the human race across the table and out of the game.
But the main point is this: No-one can hope to secure a place in either the present or the future simply by staying on the hamster wheel, working as hard and as fast as you can, 18 hours a day. Such behavior sits on the path of personal extinction.
All living species, including humans, have had to continually adapt to their changing environments. Major changes used to take thousands of years over many generations. Now substantial change happens in mere months, whether we’re capable of handling it or not.
I believe the next major evolutionary step for people who live and work in developed economies is to learn to counter some of the ancient instincts that have made speed so influential in their actions. We need to cool down and use slow as the next tool of strategic advantage. A cool mind and body provides fertile ground for creativity, providing the opportunity to deliver better solutions and circumstances, no matter what line of work we happen to be in.
As newer, hungrier economies outpace us with cheaper, faster hard goods and cheaper, immediately accessible outsourced services, the act of cooling down will help us thrive, by making sure we are ready to listen actively, think clearly, work effectively and exist proactively, keeping health and balance side-by-side with competitiveness and innovation. This is the recipe for our future. For as the pace of life continues to increase, and as jobs change and markets shift, will still be able to react—quickly—by being mentally prepared. Quite simply, more can be done in the cool shade of clear thinking than under the hot sun of exertion and reactionism.