Ten-minute meals. Twenty-minute workouts. Constantly checking your work e-mail from your cellphone while you’re out with friends. What do these have in common? They’re all meant to help us accomplish things faster and in theory, better. But is the need for speed a good thing?
“In these early years of the 21st century, everything and everyone is under pressure to go faster,” Carl Honoré wrote in his book, “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed.” We’re spending less time with each other and on the activities we enjoy and more time working and staring into Facebook’s glow. “Speed has helped to remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating,” wrote Honoré. “Who wants to live without the Internet or jet travel? The problem is that our love of speed, our obsession with doing more and more in less and less time, has gone too far; it has turned into an addiction, a kind of idolatry.”
In other words, living such a fast-paced lifestyle is not all efficiency and productivity. For some, it can make your life feel more, rather than less, hectic.
“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality,” Honoré wrote. “Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections—with people, culture, work, food, everything.”
You don’t have to completely take your foot off the gas pedal, but finding moments and ways to slow down the pace at least once in a while can lead to a more fulfilling, calmer life. Want to try merging into the slow lane? Follow these tips.
1. Decrease your work hours.
The American work ethic—which praises logging incredibly long hours and being constantly available to the office—is bad for us in almost every way. First, it’s harmful to our health: “It leaves less time and energy for exercise and makes us more likely to drink too much alcohol or reach for convenience foods,” writes Honoré. “It is no coincidence that the fastest nations are also often the fattest.”
Beyond that, it’s bad for our work. Medical interns work some of the longest hours of anybody—their shifts can last longer than a day. A study published in 2004 in The New England Journal of Medicine found that interns made 36 percent more errors when working their normal hours, compared to when they worked a reduced schedule. Not only that, but interns who worked fewer hours got more procedures done than those on their normal shifts. Slowing down the workday by reducing hours allowed for more accurate and more efficient work (and, presumably, for happier interns). As Honoré puts it, “Working less often means working better.”
Of course, working fewer hours isn’t something everyone can afford. But according to Honoré, the financial hit might be smaller than you expect. “Spending less time on the job means spending less money on the things that allow us to work: transport, parking, eating out, coffee, convenience food, childcare, laundry, retail therapy,” he wrote.
2. Get more sleep.
The more we try to cram into our waking hours, the less time we allow for sleep. “With so much to do and so little time to do it, the average American now gets 90 minutes less shut-eye per night than she did a century ago,” Honoré wrote. Sure, you may have checked off more things on your ‘to do’ list, but how well did you accomplish those tasks? Countless studies—like this one—indicate that sleep deprivation makes us more error-prone. We’re also more likely to get into a car crash when we’re running on less sleep. On the flip side, there are a myriad of benefits to making sleep a priority: Proper sleep leads to eating fewer calories and improves our cardiovascular health and energy while lowering our risk of cancer.
3. Cook more.
Cooking meals from scratch—as opposed to buying prepackaged Lean Cuisines or relying on Chinese take-out—is one way to redefine mealtime as a ritual rather than just another activity to cram into your day. It can be a reminder to pause, to both incorporate a break into our rushed lives and reconnect with our food. In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” Michael Pollan compared a meal he foraged and hunted for, then cooked, with a fast-food meal he and his family ate in the car: “The pleasures of the one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance,” he wrote. Beyond increasing awareness of and focus on what we’re eating, cooking allows us to control the amount of calories in our food. Research shows that home-cooked meals tend to be healthier.
4. When you’re frustrated, take a breather.
Common wisdom says that when we get stuck on a problem, the best way forward is to concentrate and work harder. Not true! A consistently active brain is a death trap for creativity. Working hard is a good thing, but the best way to generate new ideas when you’re frustrated is to stop what you’re doing.
In his most recent book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Jonah Lehrer examined the provenance of ingenuity. In an interview on NPR’s "Fresh Air," he described the necessity of letting yourself off the hook when you’re stuck. "When you look at where insights come from, they often come when we least expect them,” he said. “In fact, that’s one of the defining features of moments of insight, that they only arrive after we stop looking for them. So, if you're an engineer and you’re stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you're going to be really frustrated. You're going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you're actually wasting time. At that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax."
Or, as Honoré put it in his book, “'Fast Thinking’ is rational, analytical, linear, logical. It is what we do under pressure, when the clock is ticking; it is the way computers think and the way the modern workplace operates; it delivers clear solutions to well-defined problems. ‘Slow Thinking’ is intuitive, woolly and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and we have the time to let ideas simmer at their own pace on the back burner. It yields rich and subtle insights.”
5. Make sure your leisure activities are actually leisurely.
While working out may be your release after a hectic day at work, it’s important to be mindful of your physical limitations. “Every year, millions of people around the world suffer sports- and gym-related injuries,” Honoré wrote. “Many are caused by pushing the body too hard, too fast, too soon. Even yoga is not immune.”
That doesn’t mean working out is bad—just that exercise, like life, requires balance. If you’re an avid runner used to hitting the pavement or treadmill seven days a week, try taking a break for a couple of those days or swap running for activities that are easier on the joints— like swimming or lifting weights. If you’re really into yoga, listen to your body. If you’re feeling depleted or distracted, you don’t have to do a handstand in the middle of the room. Child’s pose is good enough.
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