Is slowing down bad?

You’d think promoting counter-urgency in business would be as popular as a middle-of-the-night-car-alarm-wake-up-call. Do a news search on “slow and business” and you get nothing but misery, pain, and frustration. Don’t we associate slow with failure, inefficiency; and perhaps worse — laziness?

Speed worship

We love speed. We have speed dating, speed networking, and fast food. Microsoft tells us to “Do more, faster.” And who wants to argue? When it comes to connectivity or processing speed, I don’t. We require our products to get to market faster. After all, competition is fierce. We’d better be efficient, get there first — be a winner. How do we do this? We forge ahead. We speed up. The less time we have, the more we try to cram into it. Time is a non-renewable resource.

The defining realization of time compression for Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, came when he discovered the one-minute bedtime story for children. Honoré, a self-confessed “rushaholic,” paused to think about the impact of continual accelerated time. Honoré’s book brought an awareness of slow to thousands as it flew off shelves. The irony is that Honoré still rushes around the world speaking about the benefits of slowing down. He says he is a victim of his success. But at least he aspires to slowness.

Time poverty

Many of us complain about not having enough time. Civility suffers. Attention spans decrease. Patience vanishes. Mistakes mount.

Efforts to speed up often backfire. If you’re like me, you waste hours trying to figure out your latest gadget’s instructions written by someone with less mastery of English than a baboon. I really want to save the milliseconds promised me by the latest update. I’ve got plans for that time. A millisecond here, a millisecond there, it adds up.

Seth Godin wrote on his blog that inbound customer service agents are rewarded for getting rid of customers fast. An agent who slowed down enough to spend time and respond appropriately to a complex call wouldn’t be thought of as successful. Complexity needs time and patience. And when we can’t speed up anymore, we work longer hours. We’ll outwork the competition. Brilliant thinking!

James Glick, the author of Faster, The Acceleration of Just About Everything, says time is used as a status symbol. Working long hours is a badge of honor. It shows our commitment. Busyness is good. Increasingly, the pressure is on employees to be seen to come in early and stay late. But are we more effective by working longer hours?

Economist Juliet Schor, in The Overworked AmericanThe Unexpected Decline of Leisure, calculated that Americans in 1991 worked a full month more than they did two decades earlier. New studies show Americans now work 350 hours a year more than their European counterparts. Are those Europeans lazily wasting their time with long vacations and family life?

Question: Where do all these extra hours come from? Answer: Sleep.

The cost of speed

Studies done on overworked and sleep-deprived doctors showed they had the alertness of people legally drunk. You might think working long hours makes a hero, but how would you like to be operated on by an exhausted doctor? In 1999, The Institute of Medicine reported 98,000 deaths due to medical errors.

Daniel Dement, sleep researcher, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center, and author of the national bestseller, The Promise of Sleep, shows how sleep debt lowers IQ, has long-term health risks, and is responsible for thirty-three percent of traffic-fatigue-related accidents.

Sleeping on the job

Arshad Chowdhury, the co-founder of MetroNaps, said fewer people are getting enough sleep. Many are only sleeping four to six hours a night. His company makes the EnergyPod, a chair that would look at home on the Starship Enterprise, designed for employee naps. He got the idea when still working in the investment banking industry where he noticed exhausted employees falling asleep at their desks.

When I asked Chowdhury about the difficulty of getting people to slow down enough to nap at work, he said it was a matter of culture. Employees at Procter & Gamble Services in Germany are enthusiastically embracing power napping. The company is pleased with the resulting improvements in employee energy and well-being. Miami airport installed EnergyPods so harried travelers can recharge and renew. And mini-hotel rooms are now catching on in major airports around the world, so the previously rushed can be the newly relaxed.

According to Chowdhury, the EnergyPod is more popular with West Coast companies. It may be a matter of openness to new ideas, but there is also a raft of scientific evidence as to the benefits of napping, and the stupefying — in some cases lethal — effects of sleep deprivation.

Hospitals and airlines are now leading the way by introducing mandatory napping programs. Clearly, some businesses understand the value of coping with speed and the benefits of a well-rested workforce.

Speed and creativity

We’re conditioned to go fast. In school, children are taught to come up with the right answer promptly. There’s little time for discovery and developing a more leisurely and creative approach. Children are expected to know how but not necessarily why. The rush is on to get through the material. I have a friend who teaches MBA courses at a prestigious university. He laments the students’ desire only for tools. They have no time to be curious: to play with ideas and to find out why.

According to an article in The Economist, the educational accomplishments of U.S. children are poor by world standards. Our reading performance doesn’t even make it into the top 12 OECD countries. And only Mexico is behind us in math competence. Finland is number one in science education. What’s the Finnish secret? The schools hire well-qualified teachers—and here is the counter-intuitive part—they slow down and spend plenty of time with the students.


The life cycles of organizations, people, businesses, and products, have predictable stages. Each stage conflicts with other stages.

Let’s use a business as our example. Our founder gets a vague idea, a gut feeling, or intuition. Once the half-baked idea surfaces, she mulls it over. This stage is necessarily purposeless. It’s more about discovery than goal orientation. The idea may even be forgotten, but underlying processes are going on all the time.

Guy Claxton, author of Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, coined the term Undermind for this intuitive way of slow knowing. He contrasts this with what he calls D-mode: deliberate mode. Remember that sort of thinking you were praised for in your school? Of course, D-mode is necessary, but not here, and not yet.

Incubating ideas is similar to how a writer might go through several drafts before really knowing what he wants to write about. An artist may make multiple sketches before deciding on which direction to take a painting. It’s the process that gives birth to the new.

Once the business is born, then management by the seat of the pants is the name of the game. Everything is in flux. Our founder may hire people who thrive in a chaotic environment. Roles have not yet been defined. Everything speeds up. New ideas are welcome. The business is still malleable.

Taking shape

As the business succeeds, professional managers get hired and systems are put in place. Now the focus is on speed, efficiency, and productivity. There is little tolerance for anything that can’t be measured. Everything is results-driven. If time is not allotted to the “slow zone” then the company starts to look inward and becomes a rigid, rule-based organization detached from a dynamic marketplace. By now the creative talent needing a flexible environment has left. The company goes into decline and eventually dies.

Sir Ken Robinson, author, creativity expert, and educational guru, says that our education system is still a nineteenth-century model. Back then, the workforce wasn’t expected to be smart. It was expected to be efficient and obey. And the only options were to “do more, faster.” In the early twentieth century, workers were subjected to time and motion studies. Every movement was timed. Soon this sort of dehumanizing work was taken over by technology. But our education system is still playing catch up.

Slow creativity

Creativity, innovation, and adaptation drive our economy. Robinson says that creativity will become as essential to our future as literacy is today, and he is pushing for creativity to be taken seriously in education.

Innovation and creativity are not the same things. My definition of innovation is an improvement (or an alternative to) something in existence. Robinson’s definition of creativity is simply those ideas that have value.

There is a lot of talk in business about creativity. Sadly, most of it is just talk. Creativity is a process that takes time. New ideas, new ventures, and new ways of thinking don’t happen in a flash of inspiration, but they more readily surface after a period of incubation.

Slow seeing

Yogi Berra once opined that you can observe a lot by just watching. Nobel laureate, Szent-Gyorgyi said that discovery consists of seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one has thought.

Slowing down allows us to see more clearly what we otherwise miss. But in business, slow is not for sissies. Slow is counter-intuitive. And where speed and efficiency are articles of faith, slow is heretical. Einstein spent a lot of time staring out of the window from his Princeton office. He dreamed of riding on a moonbeam.

The future is uncertain. Taking the time to slow down can help us be more creative, see opportunities, avoid mistakes, and be more productive. Slow is not lazy, although it might look like it. Ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote most of his last book while soaking in the bathtub. By the way, I have tested this slow and productive method and I recommend it.