The Rise Of The ‘Slow Productivity’ Movement

Amy Blankson
FORBES: This summer I had the unexpected opportunity to take an eight-hour drive across the beautiful country of Norway. I say this was unexpected because, until the morning of my departure, I thought I was going to enjoy a nice relaxing train ride through some epic scenery, all while propping my feet up to read, write, and play with my kids. But alas, that vision was not to be.

When we arrived at the train station at the crack of dawn, I realized in horror that I had accidentally booked our trip for the month prior! Since summer was the peak season, there were no other trains for days. Our only option was to continue our trip by car, which meant driving for a long time through difficult terrain in an unfamiliar country. However—as often happens in life—this fork in the road turned out to be one of the most meaningful moments in my adult life, and it taught me an important lesson: the art of slowing down.

But before I reveal just how I learned this nugget of wisdom, it’s worth pausing to think about why this art form is so hard to learn. If you’re like me, I pride myself in my ability to get stuff done–quickly. I’m efficient, effective and focused. Some days, my husband will ask me how my day at work was, and I’ll reply, “It was a good day. I got a lot done,” as if those two things are equated.

We are trained to work at hyper-speed, multi-tasking with aplomb and striving to exceed even our own personal record for productivity. Why? Because time and time again, we fall for what I call the Productivity Fallacy, thinking that if we just work hard enough or fast enough, we will finally have time to get to the things we enjoy doing the most (which is ironic given that research shows that we are scientifically more likely to be successful if we can learn to enjoy the present more, as explained in Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage).

Nevertheless, as I began my journey across Norway, my husband and I immediately started to game plan for how to make up for all of our “lost time.” If we didn’t linger too much on our way, perhaps we would make it to our destination before dark. That was before we realized that the max speed limit in Norway was about 40MPH. Surely there has to be a faster, more direct route, I thought. But alas…there was only one path and one lane. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do, but wait…and enjoy the journey, a lesson I would have reinforced multiple times over the next few hours. For instance, when a herd of cows decided to take a leisurely walk in the middle of the one-and-only road, we paused to observe their different personalities and give them each names. And when we came upon a tunnel blocked by a falling rock, we turned off the car and watched a family movie till the road crew arrived. So imagine my surprise at the end of the day, when we arrived at our destination that evening before the original train. Sometimes, speed doesn’t always get us to our destination faster–and it’s that realization that has transformed the way I approach my life and work this fall.

Slowing Down at Work
Learning to slow down is a hard lesson to learn (and apply) in our fast-paced world. In the past two years, productivity demands have increased, outpacing even the most efficient workers’ ability to keep up and do quality work.

Employers are realizing that no amount of gym memberships or meditation apps can compensate for the increased stress and decreased quality of life. Employees today are looking for something more–more humane policies, more aligned leadership, more connectedness, and more meaning. And and maybe–just maybe–my road trip across Norway can offer some insight into how employers can leverage a shift in mindset to co-create a future of work that is not only sustainable, but actually desirable.

Recently, I learned about a methodology called “Slow Productivity,” which was born out of the Slow Food movement of the 1980s when consumers began protesting against the fast-life culture embodied in fast food. The Slow Food Movement rapidly spread from the kitchen into other areas of life where speed is dominant, like work. Today, the Slow Productivity movement aims to provide a harmonious environment that allows work and home life to flourish. They do this by encouraging companies and workers to think differently about what it means to be productive.

  • In what environment do you produce your best work?
  • What practices support sustainable productivity (think marathons vs sprints)?
  • What kind of work are you doing and does it demand speed or thought?

According to Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, there are two systems that drive how we think (and consequently the results we achieve): System 1 for fast, intuitive emotional responses (gut-based decision-making) and System 2 for slower, more deliberative, and more logical thinking (strategic decision-making). With increased pressures on time, attention, and workloads, the temptation is to default to System 1 thinking, cranking through tasks at light speed, often at the expense of quality, accuracy, other people, and even our own happiness.

Often I hear from audiences, I love that idea in theory, but I just don’t have time to slow down. I argue that you don’t have time to not slow down. In the past year, 89% of individuals reported feeling burned out; 40% of individuals report that they are making flawed decisions due to digital distraction; and 90% feel like work-related stress has affected their home life. Going too fast has long reaching impacts not only on our work, but also on our physical and mental health.

It’s time to step back, take a beat, and give intention to our time and attention. To get started practicing Slow Productivity, here are a few tips:

Give yourself permission to slow down. Often, we are our own worst task-masters. Remind yourself that Slow Productivity will actually help produce better results and bring you greater happiness in the long-run. Whether you pause for 5 minutes or 50 minutes, your brain will appreciate the opportunity to slow down.

Set yourself up for success. What’s the point of slowing down if you’re still stuck in a vortex of distractions? Turn off unnecessary notifications and consider posting an email/Slack message to let others know you are in “deep work” mode.

Prepare for the Treadmill Effect. When you step off a fast-moving treadmill, you are likely to feel like the world is rushing by you. That’s what Slow Productivity will feel like. Notice it, feel it, journal about it. While it may feel weird at first, your body is tuning into the world around you in a new way.

Redirect your attention.
Slowing down doesn’t mean spacing out; it means intentionally giving your mind space to make new connections. Go for a walk outside and let yourself walk extra slow; take a moment to meditate and watch your breath go in and out; read a book, but let your mind linger on the words or concepts. According to Gloria Marks in her new book Attention Span, we actually have four different types of attention. By moving away from a state of hyper focused, task-based attention, you have the mental capacity to not only regenerate your mental energy but also make more creative connections.

By practicing Slow Productivity, we tap into our full potential. We become more efficient–not by working harder or faster–but by being smarter and by prioritizing the tasks that move you forward in meaningful ways; we become more thoughtful and connected to the people and places around us; and ultimately, we become a better version of ourselves. And who knows? By slowing down, maybe we will actually get to our destination faster–and enjoy the journey more too.