Walking slowly is a new principle I’ve adopted in my life and, along with it, other necessary revisions: attempting to be more “in the moment” even if the moment is not especially fascinating; refusing to let a competitive attitude bleed into every task I set about doing; fighting the urge to constantly be doing something “productive” in the traditional sense of productivity as capital. I would like to find my way back to ease, a concept once known in early childhood that has long since left me.
Oftentimes, it seems as though acting slowly is against my every element, what I’ve been trained to be: high-achieving, highly functional, a blitz. At a school like the University of Michigan, slowing down seems to run counter to a characteristically “good” student, one that has long been cashing in on their ability to concentrate, to apply a given skillset, to get the job done. To want it.
I love being busy, I’ll say to my relatives at holiday dinners when they ask about my life in Ann Arbor. I do love being busy, that much is true, but what hides behind that statement is the unattractive admittance of: I love being busy because then I don’t have time to think all those anxious thoughts, the ones that shroud the day with second guesses and third guesses and a strain running across my chest, below my breastbone right where I can’t reach it.
When I go for runs, I can’t physically slow down. I would rather run out of gas at mile three than make it four more miles at a slower, more sustainable pace. This is just one example of a facet of my life that needs, at the very least, further examination. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently bad about running three miles at a quick pace, but there is nothing good that can come from only ever running quickly.
Just the other day, on a particularly pitiful bus ride home, I drummed up this thought, a plan, if you will: My biggest accomplishment will be overcoming myself. I imagine this involves unlearning much of what I’ve long thought to be true, misconceptions that have to do with rushing as a means of keeping discomfort at bay.
Moving quickly, then, is a fearful response to time — it is being scared of it. Moving quickly, say, walking fast to your morning classes even though a slower pace would still make it on time, is to admit that you are driven by the fear of loss. Or, I should say, already having lost. I have spent too much of my life operating under the assumption of already having lost the competition with my own timeline, of having been outsmarted by it.
I suppose the mistake was to think I was competing with my own timeline in the first place, and not something more symbiotic, something kinder. Slowing down requires that we confront why we were going so fast in the first place, a mental journey that may or may not be surprising in its revelations.
Time, as an institution, is often terrifying. It is also often paradoxical — moments with loved ones become shortened, and the lecture on cell structures last days. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity offers an explanation: Our experience of time is relative to our frame of reference, i.e. whether we are with a loved one or reviewing, for the third time that week and under the harsh fluorescent lights of a dusty library, cell structures.
In late-stage capitalism, and in a Western society that values the economy of productivity more than true presence and serenity, it’s easy to become swept up in the promise for reward, metered by career updates on LinkedIn and entire seasons dedicated to securing coveted internships.
Scholars refer to the phenomenon of a hurried life as “time urgency.” The phrase describes “an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency … in which a person feels chronically short of time, and so tends to perform every task faster and to get flustered when encountering delay.” Time urgency can look like tapping your foot impatiently at the person next in line: They’re taking too long, you say to yourself, and then realize you don’t have anywhere to be. You’re in a rush — but for what? The terrible thrill of traffic?
How could we, under the feverish culture of productivity, ever truly enjoy our lives? How could we, in the middle of an evening with someone we really love, stop worrying about when they will leave? How could we, on the Thursday of vacation, stop wistfully imagining the Sunday plane ride home? The Sunday plane ride when you say, over your tanned shoulder to your mother in seat 14F, that went by so fast. And she responds, Yes, it did. And don’t forget you have to unpack your suitcase right when we get home.
How can we do it? Here are a few ideas:
Declutter your calendar. Is going on that date something you’re actually excited about, or does it feel more like an obligation? Or do you just feel bored? Do you really have to listen to someone say for the third time that month, over too-expensive coffee, Wow, (insert major here), I could never do that, that’s honestly so impressive. As if they would ever choose it for themselves.
In the mornings, really savor your coffee or tea, or the sight of the milk blooming as it is being poured in your cup — hot coffee is never as unpleasant as when it’s being gulped down, and milk is never as unappreciated as when nobody watches it bloom.
Lay down on your bed, eyes closed, and listen to the songs you like. Music not as background noise, but as the primary experience.
Stop multitasking. As much as you might want to think, doing multiple tasks at once won’t invite precision.
Really listen to people when they talk to you. And listen to listen, not to respond. Sometimes your contribution in conversation isn’t what you say, but what you offer as a presence — a listening ear, a kind heart.
Turn off your phone more often. You don’t need to read the news chyrons right at the top of the hour, the ones that say: “After Mass Cancellations, Southwest Expects Flights to Normalize This Week,” or that “Gasoline-powered Lawn Mowers, Leaf Blowers to be Banned Under New California Law,” or that “Reese Witherspoon is Making These Sarah Jessica Parker-Approved Clogs Fall’s Next It-Shoe.”
Spend time with those you love, especially if they make you clutch your stomach from genuine laughter and lend you books with notes hidden in them. And when you’re done reading the books, write notes back, ones that could say, you really are my best friend. Also I love you. Telling someone you love them is a sure way to stretch a moment, to spill a smile and a kiss to seal it.
These are just a few suggestions — plenty more live on the websites of Healthline and Forbes, the latter of which has an article ironically titled “The Fastest Way to be More Productive is to Slow Down.” It is Forbes, after all. It should come as no surprise that even the premises of slowing down have been commodified by the business magazines.
Slowing down is taking your time, but allowing it for others, too. Slowing down is not rushing their decisions, or worse yet, their very lives. Slowing down is saying, I’ll still be here. Slowing down is empathy, both for others and for yourself. Slowing down will take practice and awareness of one’s own tendencies, a reversal of what we’ve been taught — which will be initially unfamiliar until it isn’t.
Slowing down requires that we take notice of what is around us, the habits of the world, its paces, which asks that we become a better, or dare I say happier, person. Allow yourself to indulge in the moment, the exact way the leaves are falling down from a central tree in a courtyard, the hammering taps of a friend on a computer sitting opposite you. The fact that this moment is irreplaceable. And it’s all so precious it could make you cry.