In Praise of Slowness

My notes from In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré.

Speed is not always the best policy. Evolution works on the principle of survival of the fittest, not the fastest. Remember who won the race between the tortoise and the hare. As we hurry through life, cramming more into every hour, we are stretching ourselves to the breaking point.

Overwork is a health hazard in other ways, too. It leaves less time and energy for exercise, and makes us more likely to drink too much alcohol or reach for convenience foods. It is no coincidence that the fastest nations are also often the fattest.

Perhaps kids suffer most from the orgy of acceleration. They are growing up faster than ever before. Many children are now as busy as their parents, juggling diaries packed with everything from after-school tutoring to piano lessons and football practice. A recent cartoon said it all: two little girls are standing at the school bus stop, each clutching a personal planner. One says to the other, “Okay, I’ll move ballet back an hour, reschedule gymnastics, and cancel piano . . . you shift your violin lesson to Thursday and skip soccer practice . . . that gives us from 3:15 to 3:45 on Wednesday the i6th to play.”

Why were so many duels, battles and other events in history held at dawn? Not because our ancestors were partial to early rises, but because dawn was the one time that everyone could identify and agree on.

When mechanical clocks began springing up in town squares across Europe, the line between keeping time and keeping control blurred further. Cologne offers a revealing case study. Historical records suggest that a public clock was erected in the German city around 1370. In 1374, Cologne passed a statute that fixed the start and end of the workday for labourers, and limited their lunch break to “one hour and no longer.” In 1391, the city imposed a curfew of 9 P.M. (8 P.M. in winter) on foreign visitors, followed by a general curfew of 11 P.M. in 1398. In the space of one generation, the people of Cologne went from never knowing for sure what time it was to allowing a clock to dictate when they worked, how long they took lunch and when they went home every night. was gaining the upper hand over Natural Time.

The clock is the operating system of modem capitalism, the thing that makes everything else possible—meetings, deadlines, contracts, manufacturing processes, schedules, transport, working shifts.

“[I]t is always easier to leap when you know others are leaping, too.”

Right through the Industrial Revolution, people sought ways to challenge, restrain or escape the accelerating pace of life. In 1776, the bookbinders of Paris called a strike to limit their working day to fourteen hours. Later, in the new factories, unions campaigned for more time off. The standard refrain was: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.” In a gesture that underscored the link between time and power, radical unionists smashed the clocks above the factory gates.

In the late nineteenth century, physicians and psychiatrists began calling attention to the deleterious effects of speed. George Beard got the ball rolling in 1881 with American Nervousness, which blamed fast living for everything from neuralgia to tooth decay and hair loss. Beard argued that the modern obsession with punctuality, with making every second count, made everyone feel that “a delay of a few minutes might destroy the hopes of a lifetime.”

When bicycles first became popular in the 1890s, some feared that riding into the wind at high speed would cause permanent disfigurement, or “bicycle face.”

Suburbia is often a lonely, transient place, where people know the neighbours cars better than they know the neighbours themselves.

Near the end of my stay in Kentlands, something happens to confirm the view that New Urbanism, or at least a version of it, is a good thing for North America. To remind myself what a conventional suburb feels like, I set out on foot to explore one on the other side of Gaithersburg. It is a perfect day for a walk. Birds play tag across a cloudless autumn sky. A light breeze riffles through the trees. The neighbourhood is neat and affluent—and as lively as a graveyard. Every house has a garage out front, and many have a vehicle or two parked in the driveway. From time to time, someone emerges from a front door, jumps into a car and drives off. I feel like an interloper. After about twenty minutes, a police cruiser pulls up at the curb beside me. The officer in the passenger seat leans out the window and says, “Good morning, sir. Everything okay?”

“Everything s fine,” I reply. “I’m just taking a walk.”

“A what?”

“A walk. You know, like a stroll. I wanted to stretch my legs a little.”

“Do you live in this neighbourhood?”

“No, I’m from out of town.”

“Figures,” he laughs. “Folks don’t do much walking round here.”

“Yeah, everyone seems to be driving,” I say. “Maybe they should walk more.”

“Maybe so.” As the squad car pulls away, the officer adds, with gentle irony, “You enjoy that walk now, ya hear.”

Across the street, a network of underground sprinklers splutters into life, spraying clouds of water over the local baseball field. I stand alone on the sidewalk, amused and appalled. I have just been stopped by the police—for walking.

“This art of resting the mind and the power of dismissing from it all care and worry is probably one of the secrets of energy in our great men.”
– Captain J. A. Hadfield

In the war against the cult of speed, the front line is inside our heads.

“Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination.”
– Albert Einstein

As one Zen master put it, “Instead of saying ‘Don’t just sit there; do something’ we should say the opposite, ‘Dont just do something; sit there.”

Slow Thinking, the thinking during meditation, is good for creativity. It calms the mind.

Thinking of my mindless day job in that way is interesting. I spent 7 years behind a desk, pretending to be busy, yet came up with idea after idea.

There’ve been more than a few instances since that I’ve wondered about that immense mental productivity and where it went.

In retrospect I can now see that job as a sort of a low level of stress meditation. But at the time I simply hated it.

Many Eastern exercise regimes teach people to extend the moment by easing them into a relaxed state of readiness. Even in martial arts such as karate, judo and kendo, with their lightning-fast kicks and punches, combatants learn to maintain a core of slowness. If the mind is racing, if they feel anxious and rushed, they are vulnerable. Through his own inner stillness, the martial arts expert learns to “slow down” his opponents’ moves in order to counter them more easily. He must be Slow on the inside to be fast on the outside. Western athletes call this “being in the zone. Even when performing an act of skill at high speed, they remain unflustered and unrushed.

Walking can even help ease the itch to accelerate. In a car, train or plane, where the engine always holds out the promise of more power, more speed, we feel tempted to go faster, and treat every delay as a personal affront. Because our bodies come with a built-in speed limit, walking can teach us to forget about acceleration. It is inherently Slow. In the words of Edward Abbey, the enfant terrible of American environmentalism: “There are some good things to say about walking. . . . Walking takes longer, for example, than any other form of locomotion except crawling. Thus, it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. . . . Walking makes the world much bigger and therefore more interesting. You have time to observe the details.”

Slow is the new fast.

“Time is a great healer.”
– English Proverb, Fourteenth Century

Mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body

Due to advanced technology we anticipated a world of leisure just a couple hundred years ago. In the 1700s Ben Franklin predicted we would work no more than 4 hours a week. George Bernard Shaw predicted a two hour workday by the year 2000. In 1956 Richard Nixon told us to prepare for the four day workweek.

To change the company culture of more hours = a better employee, Marriott allowed staff to leave whenever their work was done.

Bill Munck, the Marriott manager who oversaw the regime change, draws a conclusion that should be pinned up in boardrooms and factories everywhere: “One of the most important things we learned . . . was that people could be just as productive—and sometimes even more so— when they worked fewer hours.”

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the norm has been to pay people for the hours they spend on the job rather than for what they produce. But rigid timetables are out of step with the information economy, where the boundary between work and play is much more blurred than it was in the nineteenth century. Many modern jobs depend on the kind of creative thinking that seldom occurs at a desk and cannot be squeezed into fixed schedules. Letting people choose their own hours, or judging them on what they achieve rather than on how long they spend achieving it, can deliver the flexibility that many of us crave.

A simple way to reduce stress and improve problem solving is to have control over one’s time.

To control one’s time is to control one’s stress.

“Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion helped by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half.”
—Winston Churchill

In a world obsessed with work, leisure is a serious matter. The United Nations declared it a basic human right in 1948.

“It is in his pleasure that a man really lives; it is from his leisure that he constructs the true fabric of self.”
—Agnes Repplier

There’s more satisfaction doing one thing well than doing every thing faster.

While manufactured goods can be functional, durable, beautiful, even inspiring, the very fact that they are mass-produced makes them disposable.

Knitting is by nature Slow. You cannot push a button, turn a dial or flick a switch to knit more quickly. The real joy of knitting lies in the doing, rather than in reaching the finish line. Studies show that the rhythmic, repetitive dance of the needles can lower heart rate and blood pressure, lulling the knitter into a peaceful, almost meditative state. “The best thing about knitting is its slowness,” says Murphy. “It is so slow that we see the beauty inherent in every tiny act that makes up a sweater. So slow that we know the project is not going to get finished today—it may not get finished for many months or longer—and that allows us to make our peace with the unresolved nature of We slow down as we knit.”

In almost every culture, the garden is a sanctuary, a place to rest and ruminate. Niwa, the Japanese word for garden, means “an enclosure purified for the worship of the gods.”

Anything worth reading is worth reading slowly.

The virus of hurry.

“Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled.”
—Harry Lewis

Slow Down by Henry Lewis, Harvard Dean

“Success, like happiness, is best pursued obliquely.”
—Maurice Holt, Slow Schooling

If a child bites his nails his schedule may simply be overloaded.

We rush around trying to do as much as possible with every moment of the day. Yet we only appreciate life when we slow down. Life is just better when we know how to slow down.

Being Slow means never rushing, never striving to save time just for the sake of it.

In our hedonistic age, the Slow movement has a marketing ace up its sleeve: it peddles pleasure. The central tenet of the Slow philosophy is taking the time to do things properly, and thereby enjoy them more. Whatever its effect on the economic balance sheet, the Slow philosophy delivers the things that really make us happy: good health, a thriving environment, strong communities and relationships, freedom from perpetual hurry.