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The Abundance of Slowness
Learning to value smart work over hard work requires a paradigm shift, but pays dividends
“Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.” – Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework
In March of 2011, I was in the depths of burnout. I had been working 80+ hour weeks at least twice a month since the previous fall. My design studio, Metagramme, had an ongoing project that grew beyond all reckoning, swallowed the majority of our billable time, and crippled our ability to pursue new work.
I developed vision trouble. Distant objects refused to snap into focus and reading became difficult. Stress-induced bald spots cropped up in my beard. My relentless schedule created tension on the home front. Something had to give.
I bought a better monitor. I delegated more (I hired Jason, my first full-time designer around this time — poor guy didn’t know what he was in for). I made a half-hearted attempt at afternoon power naps. My eyesight improved, but the stress and exhaustion persisted. These efforts were really just Band-Aids on a gaping wound. As soon as time opened up and things slowed down, the hours were magically filled with other things. My motivation for working long hours wasn’t creative exuberance. I was driven by a superhero complex — a burden of responsibility that we shouldn’t have shouldered. I had said yes so often that I’d developed a warped sense of what I was truly responsible for. I was driven by fear of failure and an addiction to work.
Let’s say you work in a high-level management position for a monthly or weekly publication. You’ve been with the company for years and have lived through several waves of growing pains. Over time you’ve said yes to more and more responsibilities, even if it seemed many of them were not sustainable. You became responsible for the output of one or two additional departments. You added more content, more platforms, more offices. Granted, in the world of time-sensitive content and late-breaking news the occasional frenetic day is unavoidable. But for years, this has been your norm. And when you finally break down and scale back, a host of new tasks floods in the gap. Family ties weaken and friendships fall by the wayside. The weight of the world is on your shoulders, and if you don’t stand under it the entire operation might collapse. You’re in crisis mode even on a good day.
Does this situation sound familiar? When a friend asks how you’re doing, is your default answer some version of “busy”? Do you feel a touch of pride when “complaining” about the busyness of your schedule to a friend? Do you dream about an easier life, but feel victimized by a slave-driving boss or company culture? (Here’s a hint: You’re not a victim. You’ve merely said yes to the wrong things.) In the U.S., we’re trained to think that successful people are busy. If our schedules aren’t chock-full, we’re unimportant. We run around like chickens with their heads cut off, as my great-grandmother used to say. People who take long vacations or even long lunch breaks are viewed as lazy or untrustworthy. We’ve all heard about the inevitable burnout that occurs when people work too much. But we quickly forget these cautionary tales and rationalize our habits, because we’re afraid of what our lives will look like if we slow down and pay attention. Deep down, many of us wonder if we’re wasting our time on things of little consequence. So we keep skittering along the surface at a feverish pace, avoiding the mirror of introspection.
Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.
– Tim Kreider
At Metagramme, the problem wasn’t cruel or unreasonable clients. They were actually kind and generous for the most part. I had no one to blame but myself. It was time to man up in a major way. One of the glaring issues I faced was a total lack of boundaries. No phone call was too late to answer, no email too early. My lack of boundaries came from fear. Fear of what would happen if I said no more often. Fear of missing deadlines or disappointing customers. I was also afraid of allowing quiet reflection and creative diversions into the work day. I was punching the clock like any hourly employee. The story I told myself was that slowness and emptiness were the same thing. I could not have been more wrong. I’ve found recently that when the time is used well, slowness can actually be one of the most profound sources of abundance.
When fear rules our lives, even the most amazing callings can be downgraded to careers. On the trajectory of fear careers wane through the grey purgatory of jobs, and jobs break down in quivering heaps at the fiery gates of slavery.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to settle for anything less than a life’s calling. And I’m sick and tired of seeing beloved clients, colleagues and friends settle for less.
Your calling doesn’t have to be your day job. If it’s possible for you to blend the two, then fantastic — go for it with all of your might. There is honor in working a day job you don’t love, as long as it allows you the time and space to pursue your soul’s work on the side. But there is no honor and no love in fear.
By accepting the status quo of long hours and trying to play the hero, I compartmentalized my studio’s creativity into the box of client work. I didn’t think of running a business as a creative endeavor. It didn’t occur to me how vital it was to carve out time for rest, play and personal creative pursuits. I was running a sweatshop, but I wasn’t really in charge. My fear ruled the roost. It wasn’t long before our work started to suffer. Design solutions began to look and feel the same.
By early 2012 I’d had enough. I was dreading coming to work each day in the business I’d created. There’s something really screwed up about that. So with the help of business coach and mentor Peleg Top, I started to make some drastic changes.
Before his work as a business coach, Peleg ran a successful design firm in LA. He once told me that in the 18 years he owned Top Design he never encountered a true design emergency. That simple truth resonated deeply with me. At Peleg’s firm, they weren’t saving lives or fighting wars. It was a service firm and they lived accordingly. His team was in the office from 9–6 Monday through Thursdayand 9–2 on Fridays. They set realistic expectations for their clients and met deadlines. The business thrived. But they didn’t answer the phone at night and were unavailable on weekends. Peleg’s team had clear boundaries, made them known, and their clients were happy. They worked when they were rested and present. The quality of their output spoke for itself.
“Sounds lovely,” you might say, “but that kind of lifestyle just wouldn’t fly with my boss/company/clients/fill-in-the-blank.” Perhaps you’re right. At times working late is indeed necessary. Sometimes you create a problem and need to fix it on your own dime or after hours. Sometimes you commit to a task that requires learning new tools. Being a responsible grown-up occasionally requires a sacrifice of time. And on the positive side, sometimes entrepreneurs work on their businesses after hours out of love, rather than straining toward an overly-optimistic deadline out of fear. I’ve been there, I’ve put in the hours and I’ll do it again. But not unless I’m motivated by love.
What we’re ultimately striving for here is a joyful harmony between work, rest, and play. And you won’t know if harmony can be achieved if you don’t try. You could even make it fun. Make a game of it, and challenge your entire office to get involved! This week, I invite you to try nine things:
1. Slow down
Someone once said “the trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” When we slow down, priorities become clear. I once asked Peleg which activities could/should be removed from my life. His response was that I was asking the wrong question. If you’re busier than you’d like to be, don’t try to curate your life. First, slow down. Focus on the here and now. Get present. Pay attention to where your energy is drawn, the good and the bad. Sit still and simply notice your breath for five minutes if you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. Healthy priorities will naturally reveal themselves and your life will start to curate itself.
2. Stop trying to be a hero
Commit to a schedule you can sustain and tasks you can complete without killing yourself. No one will go into cardiac arrest if you turn down a project.
3. Go home
Leave the office by 6 pm, or earlier if possible. Have dinner with family or friends, relax and get a good night’s sleep. You’ll feel refreshed and focused when you arrive at work in the morning.
4. Minimize meetings
Sometimes meetings are wonderful and necessary, but more often than not they are straight-up time wasters. Respectfully ask coworkers or your boss if there might be a more efficient way to make decisions. Offer suggestions. Get creative!
5. Go dark
Switch your mobile phone to airplane mode. This will temporarily disable incoming calls (they’ll go straight to voicemail), GPS, and internet access. For me, this is hard. But we have to acknowledge that our communication addictions aren’t making us happy or productive. Create an atmosphere of minimal distractions. Stay offline unless you truly need to do some research. Do your important work first and answer emails later. Be proactive, not reactive (I’m still working on this one). And for crying out loud, stay the hell away from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter unless you’re taking an intentional break. The comment your cousin made about a former coworker’s dog’s sweater vest can wait.
6. Leave your desk for lunch
Let’s face it: eating lunch at your desk is just sad. Read a book, take a walk, visit a museum — anything to change your environment and unplug for a bit. This is a good time for airplane mode. Sometimes I’ll write a few lines of poetry or just have a good long stare at nothing in particular. The change of scenery is refreshing, and I’m ready to tackle the afternoon’s work when I return to my desk.
7. Give up on multitasking
Others have said it, and I’ll throw my hat in the ring too: multitasking isn’t sexy. It’s inefficient. You might be able to go broad when juggling several tasks at once but you can’t go deep. People who claim to be gifted multitaskers are lying, either to themselves or to you. Instead of spreading yourself thin, set aside large chunks of time to focus on one task at a time. Let coworkers know you’re unavailable. If they give you crap for it, who cares. They’ll stop when they see the results.
8. Say no
When deciding how to respond to a request, ask yourself if saying yes would be driven by love or fear. If the answer is the latter, politely say no and suggest an alternative. This is another opportunity to get creative.
9. Hunt your fear
To paraphrase Peleg, fears are stories we tell ourselves about futures that don’t exist. We cannot defeat fear until we recognize it and name it. Fear is inevitable, but beware of fear gaining power in your life! Most unnecessary pain in the world can be traced back to fear. Fear loves to masquerade as prudence, wisdom, power, or moral outrage. Fear wears many faces. It lies, it lurks. So how can we fight it? First, by facing it long enough to understand it. Second, by filling our lives with love so that fear can no longer gain purchase. Third, by hunting it. Fear must be hunted with ruthless abandon. Hate it as one of the few things in existence that deserve your unmitigated contempt. The more you look for fear’s shadowy tracks, the quicker you’ll become at catching it before it takes control. When faced with a tough decision at work and you detect fear on the rise, ask yourself: what am I really afraid of? What is the worst possible outcome? Is the worst outcome really so bad? List all of the things that scare you, write them out on paper, then crumple up that paper and recycle it. Burn it if you’re feeling zealous.
Have courage. Your life depends on it.
Try these nine things for one week. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you accomplish and how much beautiful, free, slow time you have on your hands. Conversely, if you find that promoting smart work over hard work in your place of work is truly untenable then it’s probably time for you to move on. Sometimes giving up is the bravest, kindest thing you can do. It might be the wake-up call that company needs.
From our experience, I can say that my team and I are more excited than ever to arrive at work each morning. The quality and variety of our design work has grown. We spend time with our families. We have lives. We close the shop at 2 on Fridays. We get things done on time. Our business is growing at a sustainable pace. We’re far from perfect, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
So how am I doing these days? If the fullness of my beard is any indication, then life is good. Things are nice and slow, and I’m at peace with that.
For more on the topic of smart work vs. hard work and the culture of busyness, I recommend:
When I wrote this essay in 2012, I had no idea it would resonate with thousands of people and be republished in print and on the web. Quite by accident I touched on some deep, pervasive problems in our society. The lessons that were very fresh for me at the time continue to shape my life and bless new readers. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to enrich so many people’s lives.
Much has changed in my life since 2012. In 2013, I closed Metagramme and joined three other partners to form a creative firm called Grain. After two and a half years at Grain, it became clear that the other partners and I had fundamentally different dreams and philosophies. I had no viable choice but to take my own advice and walk away. I then freelanced for a year and ran a Kickstarter campaign to (unsuccessfully) fund a new collectible edition of Thoreau’s Walden. Now, I’m serving as the creative director at Parisleaf, a branding agency that is believing more and more in the abundance of slowness. I am enjoying this new opportunity to help colleagues and clients solve an array of graphic design non-emergencies.