“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in while, you could miss it” – Ferris Bueller
For the second time in a week, I’m starting a blog post with a famous quote from that cultural icon of my teenage years, Ferris Bueller.
(By the way, it’s entirely possible that some of you may not know who Ferris Bueller is. If you’ve never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I suggest you finish reading this blog post and then run as quickly as possible to see this classic 80s movie.)
Last time, I talked about how important is it to be present in our lives—why we need to look around and pay attention to the things happening to us. As I noted, the present is all we have, and if we don’t pay attention to those moments, we essentially miss out on life.
But if you look at Ferris Bueller’s classic quote, you’ll notice there’s another part to it: slowing down.
It’s easy to “see” things, even if they’re quickly passing us by. If I’m driving by a forest, I have no trouble noticing that it’s a forest. But before we can truly pay attention to the important things in our lives—before I’m able to notice the amazing color of the leaves or the nest full of newborn baby birds—we need to slow down. That way, we can attend to the meaningful details.
In this post, I want to address the notion of “slowing down” and how, paradoxically, slowing down can actually help us get more done and enjoy our lives more.
But first, a story.
The Cult of Speed
Two weeks ago, I attended a psychology conference in New York City. The hotel we stayed in was smack-dab in the middle of Times Square. And if any of you have been to Times Square before, you understand why NYC is called The City That Never Sleeps.
There were bright lights everywhere.
There was food everywhere.
There were taxi cabs racing everywhere.
There were people everywhere.
And everything was moving fast—very fast.
From the comfort of my 34th-floor hotel room, I was able to look down at the streets below with a feeling of calmness. But when I set foot onto Broadway, the calmness was gone, replaced by a sense of “needing to get somewhere fast.”
Sometimes I wonder if I would enjoy living in The City That Never Sleeps (or any city, for that matter). On the one hand, it would be nice to have access to many accommodations that aren’t available in the town where I currently live. But then I also think about how fast everything moves. And that reminds me of how I felt several years ago when I was moving way too fast.
Back in 2010-2011, my life was a whirlwind.
I was working hard to establish my career, and things were going pretty well. I was publishing my research and starting to get it “out there.” As a result, I was traveling around the country, giving talks on the things I had been writing about. In addition, I was lucky enough to win some teaching awards. All of this led to an interesting job offer from another university (which I ultimately declined). And to top it all off, my wife and I were expecting our second son.
From an objective standpoint, my life was good.
But, subjectively, I was miserable.
I had way too much on my plate, and with everything moving so fast, I felt like I didn’t have time to savor any of it. Rather than revel in the good things that were happening to me, I was living day to day, simply trying to make sure my misery didn’t escalate any further.
At first, I thought that I needed some useful productivity “hacks”: tricks that I could use to get more done in less time. But I slowly began to realize that productivity wasn’t the issue.
In his book, Honoré discusses how our world has become governed by the “cult of speed,” where everyone feels the need to do a million things as fast as they can.
Interestingly, as Honoré discusses, this approach may be hurting our productivity. For example, in an attempt to get more done, we often resort to multi-tasking: studying, replying to text messages, dealing with the kids (or spouses or roommates), paying bills, cooking dinner, and watching TV—all at the same time. Unfortunately, even though we feel like we’re getting a lot done, multi-tasking actually reduces our productivity, largely because switching back and forth saps our ability to do any of the tasks well. Ultimately, we either need more time to complete everything, or we finish the tasks quickly with less-than-desirable results.
Honoré also discusses how the “cult of speed” may be damaging our relationships. He opens his book with a telling anecdote of trying to find shortened versions of well-known bedtime stories, so he could quickly read to his kids and then get back to work (which probably isn’t the best way to improve that relationship).
There’s even some evidence that people who don’t take the time to slow down and think are less likely to come up with creative solutions to problems.
The Slow Philosophy
To counter the cult of speed, Honoré suggests that we need to slow down. As he writes on his website:
“The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity…”
As I read Honoré’s book, I realized that I too was a member of the cult of speed. In an attempt to be as productive as possible, I was trying to juggle too much. And the only way to get “too much” done was to go as fast as I could.
Unfortunately, the cult of speed started to take its toll on me, and I ended up hating my work. As I’ve written previously, it took me 2 or 3 years to get over this feeling—and if truth be told, I’m still battling it to some extent.
As I talk to others, I see that many of them are also members of the cult of speed. And I certainly see this in many of my students. They believe that the only way to be successful is to take on as many things as possible (which, by the way, is a myth).
And the only way to get everything done is to join the cult.
Slowing Down and the 80/20 Rule
So what can you do if you’re a member of the cult of speed (or on your way to becoming one)? What can you do to slow down?
For me, it started with getting things off my plate. And the way I did this was by applying the Pareto principle, or what some call the “80/20 rule.” Most recently discussed by Tim Ferris in his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Work Week, this principle is named after a 19th-century Italian economist who observed that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people.
When applied to productivity, the 80/20 rule states that 80% of your good outcomes are caused by 20% of the things you do. For example, in my job, publishing research is one of the most important things I can do. I should therefore spend a good chunk of my work time writing and considerably less time doing things that won’t have a positive impact on my professional life.
Likewise, in my personal life, playing baseball with my kids or going to a movie with my wife will probably produce larger payoffs than mindlessly watching American Idol each week.
The 80/20 Rule: It’s Your Turn
If you’re interested in applying this activity, take a minute and write down everything you typically do on a daily basis—from hanging out with friends to exercising to studying to watching TV to working and everything else in between. Once you’ve come up with your list, honestly evaluate which activities produce the most important outcomes in your life (or which have the potential to produce important outcomes). You’ll probably find that many of the things you do on a daily basis don’t really do much for you (I mean, c’mon, does watching American Idol really do much for anybody?)
Now try to narrow your list down to the top 20%. Once you’ve done that, you can either (a) get as many “lower” activities off your list as possible (which is preferred if you want to decrease your workload), or (b) try to spend as much time as possible doing the most important activities and only as much time as necessary to manage the less important things.
When I applied the 80/20 rule to my life (as much as I could), a surprising thing happened: I actually become more productive. This was because I had fewer things on my plate and didn’t have to spent as much time juggling everything.
Importantly, I also became happier. With less to do, I was able to focus on the things that I enjoyed and that had the biggest impact in my life.
Slowing Down: Some Other Possibilities
In addition to applying the 80/20 rule, there are others ways to “slow down.” One is to follow a “sprint-then-rest” strategy. This means that you schedule busy times but that you purposefully add in down time (resting) afterward. If you do this frequently, you may find that your life “slows down” overall. My friend Julie Clow (Twitter: @clowjul) has written about this extensively in her great book, The Work Revolution.
Slowing down can also be as simple as cooking dinner for yourself a few times a week (rather than running out to get fast food), going for a nice walk (without your cell phone!), setting aside time to read a good book each night, meditating (which I highly recommend), exercising, going to a baseball game, or any other number of possibilities (for some great ideas, check out this blog post or this one).
Slowing Down: A Caveat
As you go about finding ways to slow down, a word of caution is in order. For many of us, slowing down when we’ve been members of the cult of speed might feel strange.
For instance, when my wife tries to slow down, she says it makes her nervous; she feels like she should be doing something instead.
Similarly, recent research by Dr. Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia supports this idea. Wilson and his colleagues asked college students to sit alone in a room for 15 minutes (with no cell phones!). He also gave them the option of pushing a button to deliver a small shock to themselves. Wilson and colleagues found that 67% of men and 25% of women preferred to administer shock to themselves rather than sit alone with their thoughts.
I guess, in a world where the cult of speed is everywhere, the lack of constant stimulation can be aversive to some.
Slowing Down and Seeing Our Lives
In short, it’s easy to get caught up in a world of never-ending responsibilities: Because there’s always more to do, it creates the perception that we need to be doing something.
But as Carl Honoré explained, and as I found out, moving ever faster and doing ever more doesn’t always produce the results we desire. In addition, the faster we move, the less able we are to see the details.
If we can find ways to slow down just a bit, we have more opportunities to pay attention. And when we have the chance to pay attention, we are better able to see the important moments that make up our lives.
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