Updated March 25, 2019
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Have you noticed that modern life is a drummer playing at breakneck speed? From work to meals, to exercise, to conversations, our pace is fast and furious. But even at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, nonconformists like Henry David Thoreau were already encouraging us to move at a slower, more deliberate pace in life.
But is slower even possible today in the age of smartphones, instant communication, and rapidly changing society? Could you succeed at work, investing, or anything else while moving slower? And why would you even want to?
Those are the questions I’ll try to answer in the rest of this article.
The Benefits of Slowing Down
I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.”
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Hurry is necessary at times. If a car is speeding at you while you cross the street, you run. But what about all of the other times you hurry just because you’re in the habit? Speed has become so ingrained in our culture and our minds that we don’t even question it.
But it does not have to be that way. And there are many very good reasons to reduce the speed of life. Here is a list of a few personal and professional benefits you may experience by slowing down.
Slow is Fast With People
“With people, slow is fast and fast is slow.”
– Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Have you ever noticed that pushing someone to move faster does not persuade them as effectively? In fact, the opposite is true. I relearn this lesson every time I try to rush my 5 and 8-year-old kids get out the door to any kind of activity!
I first learned this lesson in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey said that you can be fast and efficient with systems, machines, and processes. But with people, slowing down to understand and to listen IS more efficient.
So, whenever I meet with people to discuss purchasing their house or rental property, I’ve learned to leave my watch in the car. The pace of the conversation is dictated by the other person, not by me. Sometimes that means 2+ hour meetings. Sometimes it’s only 15 minutes.
But I’m convinced that my willingness to go slow (or at their pace) makes a big difference in my ability to connect and help solve their problem. And of course, that same principle applies to your personal relationships.
Slowness Cultivates Creativity and Deep Thinking
“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)– Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
The future of the economy is knowledge work. And knowledge-based jobs require deep, focused, and creative thinking.
Cal Newport calls this Deep Work in his excellent book by the same title. He says that the ability to focus, without distraction on a given task is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it’s becoming increasingly valuable.
So, how do you cultivate this type of deep work and focused thinking?
For me, it comes when I slow down. Some of my best ideas “pop up” during slow times like in the shower, on a walk, or while holding a sleeping child in my arms. For this reason, I always have a pen and paper nearby when those “large and melodious thoughts” happen to drop on me!
But you can also cultivate deep, insightful thinking by creating deep work time blocks. For me, I schedule these 1-4 hour blocks like I’d schedule a doctors appointment (i.e. you can’t miss it and there no interruptions).
And I also turn off the smartphone and put it somewhere I can’t see it (like the closet)! Yes, some research shows that even having a phone on your desk and turned off can decrease your ability to go deep with your thinking.
If you are committed to creative, innovative thinking in your work or other projects, slowing down to think is essential.
More Enjoyment of the Everyday Pleasures
When my family lived in Ecuador in South America for 17 months, some of my favorite experiences were everyday events. I enjoyed the long, slow meals filled with good conversation. I treasured slow afternoons in the park with families playing and picnicking together. And I loved regular holidays when the entire city slowly strolled the streets and public spaces with family and friends.
Walking. Talking. Eating. Friends. Family.
These are the pleasures of life best enjoyed slowly. You can’t hurry up and check these events off your list like you do the rest of your life. If you do, the enjoyment will pass you by.
Of course, we can’t live our entire life at this pace (or can we?). But islands of enjoyment mixed into the ocean of our life make the hustle and bustle worthwhile.
So if you’re still with me, you probably don’t need any more convincing that slowing down is worth the effort.
Now let’s move on to some practical strategies to help you begin slowing down.
Practical Strategies to Slow Down in Fast-Paced World
Having the intention to slow down and actually doing it are two different things. The pressure to speed up is all around us. You’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
But I’d like to share a few practical ideas that may help you to carve out more slow time in your life. Please keep in mind that these aren’t concepts I’ve perfected. I’ll be struggling right beside you!
But the benefits of slowing down are worth the effort.
Listen More, Talk Less
I shared earlier that with people, slow is fast. Truly understanding the nuances of another person’s mind and heart requires careful and slow listening. And even when you do think you know what’s best (like with your teenage kids), the other person must feel and know that you care to listen.
But too often our knee-jerk response is to insert our own opinion or counter-point. Even when we aren’t talking, our mind brainstorms responses instead of simply listening.
“Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”
Listen twice as much as you speak. That’s the practice. And it’s not easy!
The skill is one part commitment to listen and another part the skill of asking questions.
Questions slow the conversation down. They give the other person pause. They ask that person to dig deeper to help you understand their point of view.
The result of this practice, when done well, is both practical and psychologically satisfying. You’re much more likely to learn about the other person so that you can understand them better. And the other person is much more likely to feel good about the relationship because they’ve been heard and understood.
Slow, Distraction-Free Meals
Of the many wonderful gifts I received from my parents growing up, one of the best was the ritual of slow, home-cooked meals together as a family. My brother, mother, father, and I would regularly sit around a table together to eat with the television turned off.
My mother was a busy self-employed professional and my father was an entrepreneur, so weekday schedules were hectic. But very regularly, my brother and I would come home from sports and other school activities to a hot, home-cooked meal.
Now, I realize how rare and fortunate we were to get that. I realize it’s not possible for everyone at every point in their life. But the point is the effort, vision, and prioritization required of my parents to slow down enough to make these meals happen.
I’m sure that preparing a home-cooked meal and washing the dishes were not the most fun thing to do for my parents after a full, stressful day at work. But the slow, spontaneous magic of human interaction in the middle made it worth the sacrifice.
And not all of those magical interactions were happy! I remember plenty of raised voices, arguments, slammed fists, and unhappy endings (especially as teenagers).
But aren’t those also an essential part of life? Slow times together encompass them all.
Build a Slow Morning Routine
Many times life moves too fast because we simply don’t build enough cushion in our schedule.
In the morning, doesn’t it feel a lot faster and more stressful when you wake up 20 minutes before you have to leave? Just waking up 20-30 minutes earlier could give you extra space to ease yourself into your day.
But an extra hour or two could prove even more helpful. Think of all the slow, wonderful activities you could fit in before you start your normal day. With an hour or two, you could exercise, read, meditate, do a religious practice, or begin many other activities that feed your soul.
I certainly need to work in this area. It’s a commitment that ebbs and flows for me. But for at least 15 years I’ve had some sort of morning quiet-time practice.
One helpful practice I have been consistent with for many years is a morning meditation. I learned about it while practicing yoga, which usually ends with a short meditation.
Meditation has many different definitions and variations, but it’s essentially the practice of slowing down your mind with deliberate breathing. It’s a very simple practice that can be applied to a wide variety of life situations and belief systems.
U.S. meditation pioneer and advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn says this:
“Meditation is the process by which we go about deepening our attention and awareness, refining them, and putting them to greater practical use in our lives.”
I look at meditation as training for your mind, just like you would train your muscles in exercise. The more you can practice calm, slow gaps between thoughts, the more you can apply it throughout the rest of your life.
If you’re interested in beginning meditation, here are a few resources to get started:
- Meditation for Beginners: 20 Practical Tips for Understanding the Mind article at ZenHabits.com
- Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Meditation: A Simple 8 Point Program, by Eknath Easwaran
Long-term, Slow Travel (like a Walkabout)
“In this way, vagabonding [slow, long-term travel] is like a pilgrimage without a specific destination or goal – not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions, an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way.”
– Rolph Potts, Vagabonding
Short vacations or retreats are great. They give you a necessary break from the hustle of work. But I’ve become a fan of incorporating slow, long-term (multiple months or years) travel into my life. In addition to the 17-month trip I referenced earlier, I also wrote about slow travel in more depth in Mini-Retirement: How to Retire Before You’re Ready.
For me, this type of travel physically resets the speed of my life. It forces me to slow down my hectic routine, and then my mind eventually slows down as well. And unlike the goal-oriented nature of work and investing, slow travel is the goal itself. It’s “like a pilgrimage without a specific destination.”
The concept is similar to what the Australian Aborigines call a “walkabout.” Rolph Potts explains it further in Vagabonding:
“Culturally, the walkabout ritual is when Aborigines leave their work for a time and return to their native lifestyle in the outback. On a broader and more mythical level, however, walkabout acts as a kind of remedy when the duties and obligations of life cause one to lose track of his or her true self. To correct this, one merely leaves behind all possessions (except for survival essentials) and starts walking. What’s intriguing about walkabout is that there’s no physical goal: It simply continues until one becomes whole again.” [I added bold for emphasis]
“Until one becomes whole again.” That’s worth repeating.
Wholeness and balance are really what slowing down is all about. So long-term, slow travel can help you recover an essential part of life that’s too often missing.
Plan Your Days, Weeks, and Years
The habit of planning is non-negotiable for me. More than any other tool, it’s helped me to keep a reasonable pace in the midst of a chaotic world. By planning ahead of time I am less likely to become rushed and carried away by the pace and agendas of other people.
Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People teaches this concept with a story about filling a jar with rocks. If you first fill an empty jar with small rocks and sand, you’ll never be able to fit the large rocks. But if you begin with the large rocks, the same amount of small rocks and sand will fill in the spaces in between.
Planning your time works the same way. You anchor your daily, weekly, and yearly schedule with large rocks (i.e. the important things). Then the small and less important things simply fill the rest of the time as it’s available.
For me, daily priorities include time blocks for professional deep thinking and for slow time with people, exercise, meditation, and slow meals. These go into a schedule, just like a doctor appointment, so that nothing else interferes or interrupts these important, slow activities. The same thing happens with schedules for weekly and yearly priorities.
To learn more about my own planning process, here are articles I’ve written:
- The Annual Review: The #1 Habit of Exceptional People
- The List of 10: My Weekly System for Getting Priorities Done
- A “To-Think” List: How to Consistently Stimulate Your Best Thinking
- The Urgent & the Important: How to Take Control of Your Time
Rediscover the Concept of Time
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Thoreau slowed down to front only the essential facts of life. He did it by hiding away in the woods on Walden Pond for over a year.
I think the essential facts of life are worth slowing down for, but you and I are not Thoreau. We have to listen for the rhythm of our own drummer. We have to choose our own methods. And we must acknowledge that change may not happen all at once in a big, dramatic break from life.
Instead, habits and momentum change with consistent, small efforts. So, I hope you’ll consistently apply some of the ideas you’ve read here.
In this way, you can begin to break the chains of unconscious hurry and speed. And you can begin to rediscover the concept of time by living deliberately in a fast-paced world.
What methods help you to slow down? What challenges do you face when trying to slow down? Please leave your comments or questions below. Thank you!
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