Quick, Quick, Slow: Tips From Carl Honoré

His book IN PRAISE OF SLOW was a global BESTSELLER. Now Slow Movement advocate CARL HONORÉ advises companies how to promote work/life balance for greater productivity …

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When Carl Honoré gave a TedTalk about his book In Praise of Slow in 2005 (2.5m views and counting) he talked about speed-reading his four-year-old son The Cat in The Hat and how he knew something was askew in his life as a harried journalist and father of two, when he found his eye drawn to an ad for 60-second bedtime stories. Now Benjamin is 19 and started his degree at Bristol University last month. “I am feeling a bit sad, a bit tearful,” says Honoré, when we speak. “The days of the bedtime stories are long gone. But I still read to my 15-year-old, Susannah, or rather we read to each other. This summer it was Animal Farm. I had forgotten the virtuoso genius of Orwell, and it was interesting to read it again at 48, with a different perspective.”

Ah yes, 48. Or thereabouts. Working 20-25 years now, you have put in the hours and may own or lead a business or professional practice. You may have wholeheartedly embraced technology but secretly struggled with the relentlessly accelerating, always-on effect it has on your life. Busyness may have become your “badge of honour” as Honoré calls it, your way of telling yourself – and possibly others – you are on top of your game and “alive in the world”? But frankly, you’re exhausted.

You might need a refresher in the principles of Slow, says Honoré. “People in their 40s and 50s experienced the biggest shift in terms of adopting new technology. We know what it was like to have a free-range childhood, and teenage years – it’s in our collective folk memory. “We came to new technology relatively late in our lives, so in a funny way, we are the most addicted and yet struggle the most with being marinated in a culture of speed, because we remember another way. We see ourselves and our peers experiencing stress-related illness, on the brink of burnout or not being able to sustain a relationship. It worries us but we are not sure what to do about it. We ran on a philosophy of slow down and you’re roadkill. It’s hardwired into a generation. When recession bit this time around, our reflex was to again work harder, longer, faster.” But there is so much to be gained, as he can attest, by resisting the urge to put the pedal to the metal. “We know that we’ll eat better, work better, exercise better and live better if we slow down. And we will be a better friend, employee, boss and (he grimaces slightly at the memory of the 60-second bedtime story) a better parent.”

Research has shown that time pressure leads to tunnel vision and that people think more creatively when they are calm, unhurried, free from stress and distractions. “Slow Thinking is intuitive and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs. Your best ideas seldom come when you are juggling emails, rushing to meet a deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you’re walking the dog or soaking in the bath.” Of course, Slow Thinking can be pointless without the rigours of Fast Thinking. “You have to harness the ideas that bubble up from the subconscious — and often you must do so quickly. Einstein appreciated the need to marry the two modes of thought: ‘Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination’.”

In the workplaces he visits, he finds, the greatest tension exists between baby boomers and millennials and it can cause a chasm of misunderstanding. “Millenials don’t want to be crazy busy. They want a healthy soul, not a pension pot. They often want time to do good; they want a four-day week. The 50something boss says to herself: ‘I worked 70 hours a week in my 20s and 30s, I lost my marriage, I’m two stone overweight – why shouldn’t they go through what I went through?’ The same boss is sceptical about reduced working hours, working from home, even work/life balance. If they can’t find it, why should anyone else have it? So yes, there’s a bitterness there.”

While Honoré and I agree we both dislike the habitual dramatisation of busyness some of our generation indulge in (snore), we do admit to feeling sandwiched not just between the needs of parents and children, but between 20somethings who are not performing a two-step of adopting to the new while holding onto the old, as we are, and those in their 60s, embracing Third Acts with vigour and energy but doing it in a sensible, life-enhancing, slow-in-the-broader-sense-of the-word way. Honoré, now writing a book on ageing and ageism says “it’s interesting to see the aims of these two groups aligning: they have more in common than first appears.”

Learn a lesson from this, cranky 40- and 50somethings, he says. “Stillness is terrifying to some. Stop. Listen to the voice inside, really listen. And make incremental change to introduce Slow into your life. Your family will benefit too. Children can also be infected by what he calls the “virus of hurry”. He gets emails from adolescents hovering on the edge of burnout. “I seriously advise parents cut down on organised extra-curricular activities and allow kids space and time to dream and do nothing. I know that elite universities like Harvard are sending letters to schools and parents saying, basically, yes, your kids are over-achievers, sure, but they lack spark and don’t know how to dream.” Honoré is working with a tech company on a new app for slow messaging called Jack. “Send a message and it arrives instantly but the sender determines when the recipient can open it. So it teaches delayed gratification and reminds us how there is a joy in waiting.”

In the same way, savour your life, he says. “Start to see your life through the lens of Slow. So you are busy, sure but there are hours of the week where you can pull a slow lever: do yoga, meditation, cook. Or do nothing. Potter.” The simplest and most effective measure, he says, is literally within your grasp. Turn off all notifications on your smartphone. It’s not as if you won’t check your emails, texts and WhatsApps, but you won’t be electronically hen-pecked. By not responding to messages late at night or early in the morning, you’ll send a message that you are no longer available 24 hours a day.
Honoré he says really does walk the walk. He’s careful not to overschedule, to allow plenty of time for thinking. Productivity has increased. He has a glass of wine with his wife every evening: they both download the day before dinner. He now has time for family and friends. And time to read to his daughter. Slowly.

Sarah McDonnell

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