Slow down, get smart

Businessmen picture
Thinking inside the box

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 Honoré still rushes around the world speaking about the benefits of slowing down. He says he is a victim of his own success. But at least he aspires to slowness.

Time poverty

Many of us complain of 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 milliseconds promised me by the speed-dial function. 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, 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 for 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 American, The 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 best seller, 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, 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 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, 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.

Part 2