The Abundance of Slowness

Learning to value smart work over hard work requires a paradigm shift, but pays dividends

By Matt Steel
Photo: Jordan Chapell
13 December 2012

In March of 2011, I was in the depths of burnout. I’d been working 70-plus 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. A deadly fusion of my identity and my work was the root cause. I had forgotten – maybe never even learned – that who I am and what I do are distinct.

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

Let’s say you work in a high-level management position for a news organization. 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 weren’t 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 US, we’re trained to think successful people are busy. If our schedules aren’t chock-full, we’re unimportant. We run around like chickens with their heads cut off. 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 workday. I was punching the clock like any hourly employee. The story I told myself was that slowness and emptiness were the same. I could not have been more wrong.

When fear rules our lives, even the most satisfying callings can downgrade to careers. On the trajectory of fear, careers wane through the gray 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 of seeing beloved clients, friends and family members settle for less.

Your calling doesn’t have to be your day job. If it’s possible to blend the two, fantastic – go for it with all of your might. There’s 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 little love and no honor in a life run by 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. 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. How broken is 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 he never encountered a true design emergency in the 18 years he owned Top Design. 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 Thursday, and 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.” You might be 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 involves 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 is achievable if you don’t try. You could even make it fun. Make a game of it, and challenge your entire office to get involved! Just for one 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 I could/should remove from my life. He responded 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 what draws your energy, the good and the bad. Sit still and simply notice your breath for five minutes if you feel 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 six pm, or earlier if you can. 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.
Meetings can be fertile ground for collaboration, but more often than not they’re 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.
When it’s time to focus, switch your phone to Do Not Disturb, turn it face down and don’t touch it till you’re ready for a break. Create an atmosphere of minimal distractions. Stay offline unless your work’s context is a web browser or you truly need to do some research. Do your important work first, and answer emails later. Be proactive, not reactive. And for crying out loud, stay the hell away from social media 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. Of course, most of us can’t go out to lunch every day, but you can certainly read a book, take a walk, sit outside and call a friend – anything to change your environment and unplug for a bit. 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 answer 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.
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 dominance in your life! Most unnecessary pain in the world can be traced back to fear. Fear loves to masquerade as prudence, wisdom or moral outrage. Fear is the shuddering force behind most human aggression. Fear wears many faces. It lies and lurks. So how can we fight it? First, by facing it long enough to understand it. Sometimes, merely sitting with and regarding fear is the only solvent we need to wash it away. Second, by filling our lives with love, fear loses the space it needs to gain purchase. Third, by hunting it with ruthless abandon. Hate fear 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’s the worst thing that can happen? Is the worst result really so bad? List all the things that scare you, write them out on paper, then crumple it up and recycle it. Burn it if you’re feeling zealous.

Have courage. Slow down. Your life hangs in the balance.

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 ultimately 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.

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I’ve learned that when I make intelligent use of the time I’m given, slowness can actually be one of the most profound sources of abundance. The dread and heaviness I once felt are but a memory. I’m more excited than ever to arrive at work each morning. The quality and variety of my work have grown from strictly graphic design to a holistic brand design and writing practice that marries word and image. This growth would’ve been impossible without regular white space for reflecting, dreaming and planning.

I spend time with my family. I have a life. I never work nights or weekends unless desire or integrity compel me. At Steel Brothers, we get things done on time but we rarely rush. Our business is 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, life is good. Things are nice and slow, and I’m at peace with that.

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For more on the topic of smart versus hard work and the culture of busyness, I recommend:

We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
Rework by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, also by Fried & Heinemeier Hansson