We have a challenge for you. Stop reading this blog post.
We’re serious, stop reading, close your eyes and just breathe for 60 seconds.
What was that like? What was going on inside your head?
Some people report a profound feeling of relief and relaxation – a sense of truly slowing down, from just 60 seconds of breathing. Others, perhaps the majority, report 60 seconds of mental whirring and chatter. For most people stopping for even 60 seconds feels uncomfortable and weird.
We upped the ante in one workshop and asked our participants to spend 10 minutes – 10 minutes! – doing nothing. We told them to stay in the room, not to look at their phones, and not to talk to each other. Again, some found it truly relaxing, and others quite excruciating.
The biggest complaint from the ones who hated it? That it was a total waste of time. Their minds spent the whole 10 minutes reminding them of what they could be doing with that precious, precious time.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Most of us learned Aesop’s tale of the Tortoise and the Hare as children – it’s not just a story anymore, it is part of our common understanding of the world. The moral is clear, and one that few would argue with in theory – more haste less speed! But for a piece of folk wisdom that is near-universally embraced, I find it astonishing the degree to which people in the modern (specifically Western industrial) world ignore it. Most of us still operate on the principle that faster is better.
And yet, growing evidence suggests that Aesop was right: that multi-tasking gives the illusion of productivity, but tends to result in a state of perpetual fire-fighting, cleaning up the mess of previous decisions made in haste; that when we are operating at pace, we tend to slip into mental autopilot, denying ourselves access to both our intellect and intuition.
I am Productive = I am of Value
So why does the Western business world still seem so in thrall to the myth of pace and productivity? Capitalism thrives in an environment where people subconsciously link their productivity to their sense of self-worth – as long as you are productive you are OK. As a result, many of us find ourselves locked in a perpetual cycle of self-imposed busy-ness…
Recent research in the US showed that Americans have, on average, five hours more free time per week than they did 30 years ago, but that they feel busier than ever. We suspect that you’d find similar results in many other societies.
We constantly speak with clients who report feeling rushed, overwhelmed, starved of time for themselves. And when moments of downtime do arrive they don’t know what to do with them, occupying themselves with social media, iPhone games, chores and busy work, anything to fill the gap.
Addicted to Speed?
The modern relationship with pace and productivity has all the hallmarks of an addiction. Some astonishing studies from Virginia and Harvard Universities in 2014 demonstrated how unbearable the act of slowing down seems to be for the modern mind.
In these studies, participants were ushered into a room adorned with only a chair, and told that their job was to simply sit and think for 15 minutes. On average – much like our participants – they did not enjoy the experience. So the researchers repeated the study, this time offering the participants the option of giving themselves a mild – but painful – electric shock.
12 of the 18 men in the study self-administered up to four electric shocks, as did six of the 24 women. Given the choice between being alone with their thoughts or receiving a series of electric shock many of the participants – and the majority of the men – chose the shocks!
There is something in these moments of silence, something that rises to the surface that many of us seem reluctant to be with. Feelings, thoughts, questions that are just a bit too real or raw.
And, because we don’t want to deal with this stuff, many of us are living and working in a way that is ruining our health, divorcing us from our sense of purpose, and contributing to the destruction of the natural world.
Productivity for What?
Not that we are even necessarily conscious of this. Ask most people why they operate at the pace that they do and they point to external reasons – their workload, their boss, their family commitments, all this stuff that just has to be done!
So for us the question is ‘why’? Why does all this stuff have to be done?
Because we would not just challenge the idea that pace means productivity. We would go further and challenge the underlying assumption that productivity is in itself something worth striving for. Productivity for what?
Many argue that GDP is an unhelpful metric for measuring the prosperity of a country. Yes, GDP measures how active an economy is but it tells us nothing about the kind of economic activities it is pursuing.
If the way that we do business is contributing to catastrophic environmental destruction and social injustice, then can we really say that a country with high GDP is successful?
Similarly, our question to you would be – what are you spending the precious resources of your time, energy, and attention on?
Is it stuff that really, really matters to you? Or is it the priorities of a culture that demands constant activity to validate our existence? Perhaps the more meaningful question is not ‘are you productive’ but ‘how are you productive’?
And while we remain a culture addicted to pace, there are signs of a new way of life emerging. The growing mindfulness industry shows a yearning to be actually here and now. The ‘slow movement’ that emerged in the 1980s now encompasses ‘slow food’, ‘slow travel’, even ‘slow sex’.
Slow Down, Connect, Choose
While the ‘slow’ movement is about pace, it is also more than that. It is about focusing on process rather than outcome. Quality rather than quantity.
Slow food and fashion is locally sourced, with profits going back into the community. Slow travellers leave no environmental trace, and seek to interact meaningfully with local people.
Slowness opens up space for greater understanding, better quality thinking and invites moments of serendipity.
Slowness allows connection – with other people; with the planet; with ourselves.
So we invite you once more to slow down.
Ask yourself: “What is it that I really want for myself?
Ask yourself: “What impact do I want to have on the world?”
Ask yourself: “What is it that truly deserves my time, energy, and attention? And what is it that just does not?”
And from this place of slowness – choose.