Carl Honoré on the art of living slowly

What is the first thing that you do when you wake up in the morning? Draw the curtains? Roll over to snuggle up to with your partner or pillow? Spring out of bed and do ten push-ups to get the blood pumping? No, the first thing you do, the first thing everyone does, is check the time. From its perch on the bedside table, the clock gives us our bearings, telling us not only where we stand vis-a-vis the rest of the day, but also how to respond. If it’s early, I close my eyes and try to go back to sleep. If it’s late, I spring out of bed and make a beeline for the bathroom. Right from that first waking moment, the clock calls the shots. And so it goes, on through the day, as we scurry from one appointment, one deadline, to the next.

Does this sound familiar? Are you living too fast? This is the opening paragraph in Chapter One from the book 'In Praise of Slow' by Carl Honoré.

Carl talks to STYLE INC about what SLOW is all about.

On the Slow Movement

It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

Where the idea of slow was born

People have been defending the value of slowness for at least 200 years – think of the Romantics, or the Transcendentalists or even the hippies. But the idea of a Slow Movement which seeks to blend fast and slow to help people work, live and play better in the modern world is more recent. Born in Italy in the early 1990s the ****Slow Food movement helped recapture the word slow’ as something positive. But they concentrate on food. More recently Slow has become a universal label to explain the benefits of doing everything at the right speed: sex, work, education, exercise, etc.

The tell-tale symptoms of living too fast

When you feel tired all the time and like you’re just going through the motions, getting through the many things on your To-Do list but not engaging with them deeply or enjoying them very much. You don’t remember things as vividly when you rush through them. You feel like you’re racing through your life instead of actually living it. Illnesses are often the body’s way of saying Enough already, slow down!

The inspiration behind In Praise of Slow

My life had become an endless race against the clock. I was always in a hurry, scrambling to save a minute here, a few seconds there. My wake-up call came when I found myself toying with the idea of buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories (think Snow White in 60 seconds!) Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all. That’s why I began investigating the possibility of slowing down.

Gaining pleasure from slowing down

Pleasure is certainly a big gain from slowing down. Mae West once said that “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly” and though she was probably talking about sex (did she ever talk about anything else?) it’s an observation that holds true across the board. We are obsessed with the destination and have lost the art of enjoying the journey. Everything has to be instant so we miss out on the joy of anticipation, of looking forward to things. We lose the pleasure of striving to make something happen. I think that anticipation is a key ingredient in pleasure of any kind. When we look forward to something, imagining how it will be, planning how to enjoy it, getting a little nervous maybe – when the thing actually happens the pleasure is more intense.

The Slow Movement is not anti-speed

I love speed. I like my Internet connection to be fast and I play two of the fastest sports around, ice-hockey and squash, in my spare time. I live in London, which is a city of volcanic energy, and I enjoy working to deadlines. Speed has its place in the modern world. Often you have to move quickly, particularly at work. The problem is that speed has become a way of life. We do everything in a rush. We are stuck in fast forward and that is unhealthy.

On multitasking

The latest neuro-scientific research suggests what most of us already suspect: that the human brain is not very good at multitasking. Sure there are a few simple or routine tasks we can perform at the same time, but as soon as you have to engage the brain, you really need to focus on one activity at a time. Much of what passes for multitasking is nothing of the sort: it is sequential toggling between activities. And the research suggests that this flitting back and forth is actually very unproductive: we make more mistakes and can take up to twice as long to do things when we multitask.”

On changing attitudes

Changing attitudes is hard because our culture is marinated in the notion that doing more things at once is somehow deeply modern, efficient and fulfilling. But change is possible. Once people understand the limits of the human brain, it should become easier to kick the multitasking habit. Some companies are starting to encourage staff to focus on one activity at a time and wall themselves off from the barrage of electronic interruptions whenever possible. This will take time because most of us are adrenaline-junkies. We need to wean ourselves off multitasking slowly. That means starting with maybe an hour a day focusing on a challenging intellectual task with the gadgets switched off. Or setting aside an afternoon when you perform every task in sequence rather than in overlapping fashion and then seeing how much more quickly and accurately you get your work done.

Finding the right equilibrium

It’s about finding the right equilibrium and not being obsessively neurotic about time. My first step was realizing that I had got stuck in fast-forward, and that too much speed was doing me damage. Then I began making concrete changes. I cut back on the things I was trying to cram into my schedule to allow more time to rest and to devote to the things that are more important to me. So I dropped one sport (tennis) and reduced my TV-watching to a few hours a week, instead of a few hours a day. I also stopped wearing a watch, which seemed to make me less neurotic about time. I take breaks during the work day to relax, eat and do a bit of meditation. And I switch off my technology (email, cellphone, etc) whenever possible, instead of being always connected. I have learned to say “No” to things – work, social offers, etc – to avoid getting over-scheduled. This is especially important in my work. I get lots and lots of offers to write, speak, consult and it is tempting to do them all, but if I did I would become the opposite of what I’m preaching. So I choose the jobs that I think are the most important in order to keep a balance in my life.

Staying slow is a state of mind

One can be Slow in any profession (though some are clearly harder than others) because being Slow is essentially a state of mind. My life is still busy but not TOO busy. I have definitely changed – there is for me a very clear Before and After. Before I was always trying to do more and more things in less and less time. It was all about speed and quantity. Now I approach each thing seeking to do it as well as possible instead of as fast as possible. This has made a big change in the way I feel about time: I no longer feel a slave to it.

On people who claim that the world will inevitably go on speeding up and that a Slow revolution is a pie in the sky

I say look at the history books. Take the rise of feminism. In the 60s, when feminists said the world was unjust and the moment for change had come, the mainstream reaction was: No, the world has always been this way. You can’t change it. Go back to the kitchen! But look at the world today. Obviously there is a long way to go to create a world of perfect gender equality, but a woman today could hardly imagine how severely life was limited for her grandmother. I look at my sister and my grandmother and marvel at the change in just two generations. And the green movement has followed a similar arc: it was dismissed as a plaything for hippies and tree-huggers thirty years ago but today is near the top of the political agenda. The message is that the world can change, if we want it to. For a cultural revolution to occur, you need three factors: the need for change; an awareness of the need for change; and people willing to put that change into practice. We now have all three factors in place for the Slow revolution to push on. I think the Slow movement is at the same point as feminism or green-ism was 30 or 40 years ago. We won’t change the world, or make it Slow, by next year. It will take time. The Slow revolution will be slow. But I believe it will happen.

Image credit. Scanlan Theodore