Home > Articles > Current Ideas and Initiatives

Why Life in the Fast Lane
Fails to Fulfill Us.

It’s time to go with the slow

by Jay Walljasper

Published in the book Less is More (2009)


The alarm rings and you hop out of bed. Another day
is off and running. A quick shower. Wake the kids and
rush them through breakfast so they won’t miss the bus.
Down a cup of coffee. Shovel a bowl of cornflakes. Hurry
out to the car, not forgetting a swift kiss on your partner’s
cheek. Hightail it to the freeway, making a mental note to
grab some takeout Thai on the way home. (The kids’ soccer
practice starts at 6:15 sharp.) Weave back and forth looking
for the fastest lane while the radio deejay barks out the
minutes — 8:33, 8:41, quarter to. Reaching work, you sprint
into the building and leap up the stairs three at a time, arriving
at your desk with seconds to spare. You take a couple
of deep breaths, then remember that the project you didn’t
finish last night must be sent to New York by 10:00. Meanwhile,
you’ve got five voice-mail messages and dozens more
on e-mail, six of them marked urgent.

More and more it feels like our lives have turned into a
grueling race toward a finish line we never reach. No matter
how fast we go, no matter how many comforts we forgo in
order to quicken our pace, there never seems to be enough
time.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. As a kid in the
1960s, I remember hearing that one of the biggest challenges
of the future would be what to do with all our time. Amazing
inventions were going to free up great stretches of our
days for what really matters: friends, family, fun. But just
the opposite has happened. We’ve witnessed a proliferation
of dazzling time-saving innovations — jet travel, personal
computers, Fed Ex, cellphones, microwaves, drive-through
restaurants, home shopping networks, the World Wide
Web — yet the pace of life has been cranked to a level that
would have been unimaginable three decades ago.

Curiously, there has been scant public discussion about
this dramatic speed-up of society. People may complain
about how busy they are, how overloaded modern life has
become, but speed is still viewed as generally positive —
something that will help us all enrich our lives. Journalists,
business leaders, politicians and professors feed our imaginations
with visions of the new world of instantaneous communications
and high-speed travel. Even many activists
who are skeptical of the wonders of modern progress, the
folks who patiently remind us that small is beautiful and less
is more, look on speed as an undeniable asset in achieving a
better society.

Revving up the speed, in fact, is often heralded as the answer
to problems caused by our overly busy lives. Swamped
by the accelerating pace of work? Get a computer that’s
faster. Feel like your life is spinning out of control? Increase
your efficiency by learning to read and write faster. No time
to enjoy life? Purchase any number of products advertised
that promise to help you make meals faster,
exercise faster and finish all your time-consuming errands
faster.

Yet it seems that the faster we go, the farther we fall behind.
Not only in the literal sense of not getting done what
we set out to do, but at a deeper level too. I feel this keenly
in my own life. Like many Americans, I’ve always moved
at a fast clip. I can’t stand small talk, waiting in line or slow
numbers on the dance floor. It has always seemed obvious
to me that the faster I move, the more things I can do and
the more fun and meaning my life will have. But it has gotten
to the point where my days, crammed with all sorts of
activities, feel like an Olympic endurance event: the everyday-
athon. As I race through meals, work, family time, social
encounters and the physical landscape on my way to my
next appointment, I’m beginning to wonder what I’ve been
missing, what pleasures I’ve been in too much of a hurry to
appreciate or even notice.

I hear an invisible stopwatch ticking even when I’m supposed
to be having fun. A few weeks ago, I promised myself
a visit to a favorite used-book store that I hadn’t stopped
in for a while. It was a busy day, of course, and I rushed
through what I was doing and dashed over to the bookshop
fully aware that I would have only a few minutes there before
I needed to be going somewhere else. Heading for the travel
section I bumped — literally — into a friend I hadn’t seen
for at least three months. He was in a hurry too, and we proceeded
to have a hasty conversation without even looking at
one another as we both frantically scanned the bookshelves.
It must have looked highly comical — two talking heads
bobbing up and down the aisle. Finally we each grabbed
a book, raced to the cash register and hollered good- bye
as we sped off in opposite directions. Walking away, I felt
suddenly flat, anticipation of a pleasurable pastime giving
way to dulled disappointment. I had not enjoyed a meaningful
conversation with my friend nor experienced the joy
of browsing, and now I was carrying home a $12.50 book
about London in the 1890s that I wasn’t even sure I wanted.

Experiences like this are making me question the wisdom
of zooming through each day. A full-throttle life seems
to yield little satisfaction other than the sensation of speed
itself. I’ve begun voicing these doubts to friends and have
discovered that many of them share my dis-ease. But it’s still
a tricky topic to bring up in public. Speaking out against
speed can get you lumped in with the Flat Earth Society as
a hopelessly wrongheaded romantic who refuses to face the
facts of modern life. Yet it’s clear that more and more Americans
desperately want to slow down.

And according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor,
these are not isolated cases. Author of the 1991 best-seller
The Overworked American, Schor says her research shows
that “millions of Americans are beginning to live a different
kind of life, where they are trading money for time. I
believe that this is one of the most important trends going
on in America.” Fed up with what compressed schedules are
doing to their lives, many Americans want to move out of
the fast lane; 28 percent in one study said that they have
recently made voluntary changes that resulted in earning
less money. These people tend to be more highly educated
and younger than the US workforce as a whole, although
they are being joined by other people who are involuntarily
trading paychecks for time off through layoffs and underemployment.

People want to slow down because they feel that their
lives are spinning out of control, which is ironic because
speed has always been promoted as way to help us achieve
mastery over the world. “The major cause in the speed-up
of life is not technology, but economics,” says Schor. “The
nature of work has changed now that bosses are demanding
longer hours of work.” After a long workweek, the rest of our
life becomes a rat race, during which we have little choice
but to hurry from activity to activity, with one eye always on
the clock. Home-cooked meals give way to frozen pizzas,
and Sundays turn into a hectic whirlwind of errands.

Yet there is a small but growing chorus of social critics,
Schor among them, who dare to say that faster is not always
better and that we must pay attention to the psychological,
environmental and political consequences of our constantly
accelerating world. Environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin
was one of the first to raise questions about the desirability
of speed in his 1987 book Time Wars.

We have quickened the pace of life only to become
less patient. We have become more organized but
less spontaneous, less joyful. We are better prepared
to act on the future but less able to enjoy the present
and reflect on the past.

As the tempo of modern life has continued to
accelerate, we have come to feel increasingly out of
touch with the biological rhythms of the planet, unable
to experience a close connection with the natural
environment. The human time world is no longer
joined to the incoming and outgoing tides, the rising
and setting sun, and the changing seasons. Instead,
humanity has created an artificial time environment
punctuated by mechanical contrivances and electronic
impulses.

Rifkin closed his book with an eloquent call for a new social
movement to improve the quality of life and defend the
environment, a movement of people from all walks of life
gathering under the “Slow Is Beautiful” banner. Perhaps appropriately,
progress in forging such a movement has moved
forward very slowly in the decades since Time Wars was published,
while the pace of modern life has revved up considerably,
thanks to breakthroughs in technology and new
economic demands imposed by the globalizing economy.

Is Slow Really Beautiful?
The prominent German environmental thinker Wolfgang
Sachs believes we need an aesthetic of slowness
and offers his own ideas about what form it would take.
“Medium speeds will be considered an accomplishment,
something well done,” he says. “And when you see someone
going fast, you shrug your shoulders, saying, ‘What’s
the point?’

“A society that lives in the fast lane can never be a sustainable
society,” Sachs said in his report. “In a fast-paced
world we put a lot of energy into arrivals and departures and
less into the experience itself. Raising kids, making friends,
creating art all run counter to the demand for speed. There
is growing recognition that faster speeds are not just a natural
fact of the universe. It’s an issue for public attention.
What has not been discussed before now is: What kind of
speed do we want?”

Jogi Panghaal, a designer who works with community
groups in India, defines the issue as not simply whether
speed is good or bad, but whether the world of the future
will allow a variety of speeds. He worries that a monoculture
of speed in which the whole world is expected to move
at the same pace will develop globally.

Sachs and Panghaal raise the question of whether we
will have any choice in determining the tempo of our lives
or will we all be dragged along by the furious push of a technologically
charged society. When I hear friends complain
that their lives move too fast, they’re not talking about a
wholesale rejection of speed so much as a wish that they
could spend more of their time involved in slow, contemplative
activities. One can love the revved-up beat of dance
music, the fast-breaking action on the basketball court or
the thrill of roller-coaster rides without wanting to live one’s
life at that pace. A balanced life, with intervals of creative
frenzy giving way to relaxed tranquility, is what people
crave. Yet the pressures of work, the demands of technology
and the expectations of a fast-action society make this goal
increasingly difficult to achieve.

Ezio Manzini, director of the Domus Academy design
institute in Milan, sees hope for a more balanced approach
to speed springing from the same source that fuels the acceleration
of our lives: modern mastery of all that stands in
our way. “This is the first time in history in which people
think they can design their lives,” he said.

In an age of technological marvels, we’ve come to expect
that solutions will be found to help us overcome our problems.
So if the problem now appears to be too many things
coming at us too fast, we’ll naturally begin looking for ways
to slow down. Humans may not have opted for slowness in
the past, but they have also never had to contend with constantly
soaring speeds not only diminishing the quality of
life, but also endangering the future of the planet.

How to Hasten Slowly
All these ideas are fine, but how do we even think about the
enormous undertaking of slowing down a world that’s been
on a spiral of growing acceleration for more than a century
and a half? Especially when the captains of the global economy
dictate that speed is an essential ingredient of tomorrow’s
prosperity? How do we begin to apply the brakes in
our lives when the world around us seems to be stomping
on the gas pedal?

The city of Amsterdam itself seems to offer one answer.
More than almost any city in the world, Amsterdam has
consciously curtailed the speed of traffic, creating a delightful
urban environment in which a bike rolling past at 15
miles an hour seems speedy. Strolling the narrow streets for
just a few minutes, you encounter all sorts of shops, restaurants,
nightclubs, parks, public squares, banks and movie
theaters — an impressive array of shopping and entertainment
that would take at least an hour’s worth of driving and
parking to reach in most American cities. You’re moving
slower than in a car but experiencing much more.

Amsterdam’s efforts have been widely imitated around
the world by advocates of traffic calming, a burgeoning
popular movement that seeks to improve safety and environmental
quality by reducing the speed of cars. The spread
of traffic-calming techniques like speed bumps throughout
Europe, Australia and now North America provides a sterling
example of how a grassroots movement can bring about
the slowing down of society.

This idea of calming could be taken out of the streets and
into workplaces, government and civic organizations. It’s
true that transnational corporations wield near autocratic
authority in today’s global economy, but a spirited worldwide
campaign for shorter work hours, more vacation and
a less intense work pace might crystallize worker discontent
into a potent political force that would undermine that
power. Juliet Schor contends that additional leisure time,
not further economic growth, will be the chief political
goal of the coming age. (We’ve already seen the start, with
women’s groups and labor unions leading a successful campaign
for family leave policies in American workplaces.)

But before any political movement can take hold, people
need to begin thinking differently about speed and how
important it really is. For 150 years we’ve been told (and
believed) that the future will inevitably be faster than the
present and that this is the best way to broaden human happiness.
And speed has brought major improvements to our
world. But in taking advantage of its possibilities, we have
become blind to its drawbacks. While the acceleration of
life that started with the first steam locomotive didn’t crush
our bones, it may have crushed our spirits. Our lives have
grown so hurried and so hectic that we often don’t take in
the thrill of a sunset, the amusement of watching a youngster
toddle down the sidewalk or the good fortune of bumping
into a friend at a bookstore. We can regain the joy of
those things without giving up the World Wide Web, ambulance
service and airline flights to Amsterdam. Rather
than accept that the world offers just one speed, we have the
privilege, as Ezio Manzini says, of “designing” our lives.

Wolfgang Sachs says, “It’s a struggle for me to slow down, as
it is with many people. But the key is to be able to dedicate
yourself to the proper rhythm, geared to what you are doing,
whether you are playing with a child, writing a paper or
talking to friends.” One thing that keeps his life from whirling
out of control is walking to work each day. Those strolls
offer him 20 minutes each morning and evening when he’s
out of reach of the rushing insistence of the modern world.

Juliet Schor has slowed the pace of her life by setting firm
limits on when she works. “My work time is limited by my
childcare hours. I don’t work on weekends. My life outside
of work has also been simplified. I rarely drive a car. I ride
my bike. I just don’t do all the things that make me crazy.
And my husband, who is from India and has a much calmer
approach to life, has been instrumental in helping me slow
down. He has taught me to just do one thing at a time.”

We all have a chance to slow down. Maybe not at work
or in raising kids, but someplace in our lives. It might be
turning off the rapid-fire imagery of television and taking
a stroll through the neighborhood. It might be scaling back
the household budget and spending Saturdays fishing or
gardening instead of shopping. It might be clearing a spot
on your daily calendar for meditation, prayer or just daydreaming.
It might be simply deciding to do less and not
squeezing in a trip to the bookstore when you don’t have
time for a relaxing visit.

That’s how I’ve started the “Slow Is Beautiful” revolution
in my own life — right in the kitchen, scaling back my busy
schedule to find more time for cooking good meals and
then sitting down to enjoy them in a festive, unrushed way
with my wife, son and friends. Even cleaning up after dinner
can offer a lesson in the pleasures of slowness, as I learned
a while back when our dishwasher went on the fritz. Before
that, I had always just tossed dirty dishes into the machine
as fast as possible and hurriedly wiped the counters so that I
could get on to more worthwhile activities. But when I was
forced to wash dishes by hand, I discovered that although it
took longer I had way more fun; I’d put some jazz or blues
on the stereo and sing along, or just daydream as I stacked
dishes and glasses on the drying rack. What had been 5 or
10 minutes of drudgery, filling the dishwasher and desperately
wishing I was doing something else, turned into 15 or
20 minutes of relaxation. Our dishwasher is fixed now, but I
still put on some music and load the dishwasher more slowly,
letting my mind wander playfully.