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Slowing Down: The Not-So-Secret Way to Work Smarter, Not Harder
March 25, 2021
We live in a culture where text pings and Slack dings have become the all-day soundtrack to our lives. The endless stream of notifications tells us more things we need to cram into our already-packed to-do list. And when we keep hearing “time is money,” it’s no wonder we’re all running around trying to come up with ways on how to hack the system and how to be more productive. We believe if we just move fast enough, we can achieve it all.
Unfortunately, studies show that’s not the case. And that running full speed day in and day out can not only make us less productive but have serious impacts on our health. Here we’ll take a closer look at the detriment of speed, how slowing down can actually increase personal productivity, and five ways to insert more slowness into your days.
The Problem With Busy and Fast
When you’re frantically typing away on your keyboard trying to make your deadline, a few things are happening that could end up costing you more time. You might be skipping a step (like more thorough research or editing), you’re liable to make more mistakes in your haste, and your anxiety and stress levels are surging making it harder to concentrate.
When we’re rushing, we can also be lured into doing many things at once. And by now, most of us know the myth of multitasking. And it’s important to note here that ‘multitasking’ is actually a misnomer, as our brains lack the neural structure to actually do two or more things at the same time (1).
Studies have looked at the effect of multitasking on behavior and the brain by analyzing “switch costs.” These are the reductions in our accuracy or speed that happen when we’re switching between tasks. What did they find? When task-switching, we tend to take longer to complete a task and when we do finish, it usually contains more errors than if we had stuck to just one thing (2).
Aside from affecting the quality of your work, whizzing through tasks and life can also lead you to waste time running in the wrong direction. And this might be the most critical consequence of haste. Without space and time to reflect on your work and life, you can end up spending a lot of time doing the wrong things.
How Slowing Down Can Boost Your Productivity
When you’re caught in the whirl of speed, it can be hard to slow down (we get it). This is where a little science to back up the practice of slowness might help. Here are a few ways down-shifting can boost your productivity, the quality of your relationships, and overall well-being.
You’ll make fewer mistakes.
Speed can create the illusion of getting ahead, but when you take a step back, you’ll probably see that you’re falling behind. Slowing down can help you avoid those everyday typos, remember the important meeting, and generally help you do a more thorough job in the first place so you don’t have to circle back to fix your mistakes. It’s also theorized that mistakes can slow you down even further via a phenomenon known as a post-error slowing (3).
It can help keep your stress in check.
Rushing can lead to everything from burnout and exhaustion to overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety. All of these can wreak havoc on your immune system. Slowing down can help you manage these and keep them at healthy levels (4).
You can think more clearly (and prioritize better).
When you’re whizzing around, it can be hard to think critically about what you’re doing (and if you should be doing it in the first place) let alone clearly. Studies show that even a mild amount of stress can significantly impair your brain function. And the clearer thinking that can result from slowing down can help reduce wasted time (5).
You’ll become a better listener.
Think about the last time you were rushing. How much did it affect your ability to listen? Probably significantly. It’s nearly impossible to do active, empathetic listening when you’re running around. By slowing down you can not only learn more, but studies suggest that it also improves our relationships by allowing our conversation partner to feel more heard and understood (6).
5 Tips To Help You Slow Down (and Be More Productive)
Many activities that help you slow down offer many other brain and body benefits as well. And when you’re moving slow enough to be in the present moment, you may notice that you enjoy the experience more. Here are five science-backed tips to increase your productivity (and creativity) by slowing down.
Start an early morning routine.
Decision fatigue—the stress you feel by the endless amount of decisions you have to make every day—is a real thing (7). And it happens to all of us, regardless of how strong we are. By creating an early morning routine, you can avoid wasting energy on little decisions, like what you should eat for breakfast, and save that brainpower for when you need it most. Research also suggests that routines can help make you more creative and productive (8).
Go for a walk.
Since walking is a form of exercise, it can help bring blood to your brain and boost your cognitive function (9). It also helps our brains engage in a kind of light focus which studies suggest encourages creative thinking (10).
Schedule time to do nothing (literally).
Taking time to simply relax on your couch or watch the birds can not only help you slow down physically, but studies suggest it could also help boost your creativity. New York Times article “The Case for Doing Nothing,” makes a compelling case, backed by research, on the benefits of idle time. It also reminds us that, due to neuroplasticity, our busyness can wire our brains for more busyness, making it even harder to slow down.
Practice meditation and mindfulness.
From improving focus to reducing cognitive decline, the list of research-backed benefits of meditation seems to grow daily (11)(12). And one of the simplest benefits could be one of the most powerful: slowing down. Focused attention meditation and other types of meditation with a single focus, can help slow your breathing and bring you into the present moment where you can think and act more clearly.
While you might think working the longest hours will win you the productivity badge, science suggests otherwise. Logging longer hours could actually lead to stress and burnout, as well as lead to poorer performance and disengagement from work (13). An ideal time to stop? When you know exactly what you need to do next, but decide to leave it until tomorrow. Studies suggest this approach may also help prompt your subconscious mind to work through your work problems in the meantime (14).
New York Times writer and author of “We Learn Nothing,” Tom Krieder, may have summed up in a sentence why we all should be slowing down.
“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” – Tom Kreider, “The ‘Busy’ Trap”
Though you may not feel like you’re getting as much down when you’re moving at a slower pace, significant research suggests that, in fact, you are. Your more thoughtful, deliberate steps forward are helping you to conserve mental energy, make fewer errors, and allows you to think more clearly about the direction you want to be going.
Learn about the Multi costs of Multitasking by the National Institute of Health here.
Read an article by Edita Paljac et al about the New perspectives on human multitasking in Psychological Research here.
Read Study Explains Why Mistakes Slow Us Down, But Not Necessarily for the Better by New York University here.
Read Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry by the National Institute of Health here.
Read Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function by the National Institute of Health here.
Read The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions in the International Journal of Listening here.
Read Understanding Decision Fatigue in Healthline here.
Read Routinization, work characteristics and their relationships with creative and proactive behaviors in The Institutional Repository of the University of Konstanz here.
Read Why Do I Think Better after I Exercise by Justin Rhodes in Scientific American here.
Read Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking in American Psychological Association here.
Read How Meditation Can Help You Focus in Columbia University here.
Read Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement here.
Read The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies by Sarah Green Carmichael in the Harvard Business Review here.
Read The Incubation Effect: Hatching a Solution? In the Centre for the Mind here.
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