How to Tap into the Power of Slowing Down

How to Tap into the Power of Slowing Down

It didn’t take the announcement of a Top Gun sequel 35 years in the making for us to acknowledge that we feel the need, the need for speed. Whether it’s self-help books teaching us how to go faster at work, intense interval and HIIT workouts, or scrolling through social feeds at a breakneck pace, almost every part of our lives seems to have accelerated. Sure, we might have gained some efficiency and productivity, but isn’t it time we also consider what we might be losing with all this rushing around? (That is, assuming we ever pause for long enough to ponder anything.)

As track coach and author Steve Magness put it in his recent Growth Equation newsletter, “You control the speed dial, and every once in a while it’s prudent to check in and see if it’s where it needs to be, or if you need to slow down and walk for a while, even if everyone else around you is running. Being okay with running your own race at your own pace is what life is often all about.” If you feel that your current pace is unsustainable, here are some things you can do to deliberately slow down and savor more of life.

1) Set Aside Slow Thinking Time

In a business culture that prizes speed, it’s hard to have anything other than two modes: fast or off. Work OS apps display stats on the number of projects completed and how long it took to finish each one, managers expect immediate responses via whatever communication platform your company uses, and “content factories” (somehow, these are actually a thing) churn out clickbait blog posts quicker than the Fast & Furious franchise releases sequels.

All of this looks good on dashboards and in investor presentations, but this relentless drive to get more done in less time is making us mistakenly place quantity above quality and elevating fast decision-making over prudence. The antidote is quite simple: slow down and reclaim as much time as you need to reset your priorities, consider smart solutions to thorny problems, and create connections between disparate ideas.

“The first step is to relax – put aside impatience, stop struggling, and learn to accept uncertainty and inaction,” author Carl Honoré suggests in his bestselling book In Praise of Slowness. “Wait for ideas to incubate below the radar, rather than striving to brainstorm them to the surface. Let the mind be quiet and still.”

It's unlikely that you will just stumble across extended periods of slow thinking. Instead, be proactive in scheduling at least one mid-length session per week and one or two longer ones each month. The agenda for these could be specific to a certain task or issue, or you could simply allow your brain to percolate and let new concepts drip their way through into your mental mug. 

2) Reintroduce Slowness to Your Training

Almost every fitness approach that’s popular right now emphasizes speed and many encourage participants to push their limits in each session while a hyperactive instructor yells at them and up-tempo music blares through big speakers (or, if it’s an at-home session, through earbuds). While some people feel motivated by this kind of environment, for others it creates sensory overload. And from a physical standpoint, such an intense approach disregards the fact that it takes your central nervous system up to three days to fully recover after a maximal effort, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. So if you try to give 100% today, tomorrow, and the next day, not only are you going to fail to achieve the adaptations you seek, but you’re also likely to keep your body stuck in a stress state. This can disrupt your hormones, diminish your sleep quality, and wreak havoc on your emotions.

There’s nothing wrong with an all-out interval or HIIT workout up to twice a week, but consider alternating such high-paced sessions with calmer ones that leave you feeling relaxed and restored afterward, instead of being a sweaty, quivering mess. There’s a reason that practices like Tai chi have endured for centuries – they make you feel centered and chilled out rather than rushed and crushed. You could alter almost any activity that you already do by performing it more slowly. Regress your run into a walk that lets you embrace the sights and sounds around you. Swap out rowing hard strokes for easy ones that allow you to focus on your technique.

“Slowness is the mother of all good movement,” says coach and martial arts master Dr. Mark Cheng. “Slowness is the mother of speed because slow movement allows you to be mentally serene, dynamically smooth, intrinsically strong, and interactively safe. You groove skill without stress, you learn synergy without strain, and you learn suppleness without sickness.”

3) Tame Your To-Do List

It’s a good thing to be positive about what you can achieve and proactive in getting it done. But the trouble if you keep trying to raise the bar is that you end up with a to-do list that’s so long and unwieldly that you’ll never get everything done, and your attempts to get as many minor tasks checked off as possible will detract from your ability to chip away at more important ones. You’ll end up feeling frustrated and maybe even like a failure when you get to the end of the week and find that half the things you hoped to get done remain incomplete.

In 1977, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky identified that part of the problem is that we underestimate the time it will take to do most things, which they called the planning fallacy. In his insightful book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman recommends avoiding this trap by consulting experts when you’re confronting a big, important task like overhauling your company’s benefits plan or writing your graduate school thesis (which one study showed only 30 percent of students were able to accurately predict the duration of). Applied research firm The Decision Lab also recommends breaking down larger projects into smaller subsections and then assigning a realistic timeline to each.

As for smaller tasks, the simplest way to cut yourself some slack and slow the heck down is to do less of them. Go through a couple of recent weekly lists and classify which tasks were must-haves, nice-to-haves, and just fillers to make you feel better about doing something. Then cross out everything in the last category and reduce the number of optional items on your to-do list.

What you’re left with will highlight the priorities you should be focusing on moving forward. Go one step further by figuring out which of these you can delegate or ask for help with. By deliberately doing less and clearing out all the clutter from your schedule, you’ll buy yourself back time and so feel less hurried.