Rising to the task of slowing down

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"The pace of life feels morally dangerous to me."

-- Richard Ford, novelist

"Slow" is not a quality I'm used to embracing, nor is it often a realistic option. As a person who runs a round-the-clock Web site and a weekly magazine, I race through each day -- assigning stories, writing stories, editing stories and then assigning more, writing more, editing more. I rush from editorial meetings to business meetings and back again. And though I sometimes manage to disconnect briefly -- to have dinner with my husband or friends -- I'm reliably online late at night and early in the morning.

I realize I have good company in living life at this frenetic pace. In fact, this sort of life is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. Economist Juliet Schor notes that the average U.S. worker in 2006 worked nearly a month more than he or she did in 1969. Of course, the distinction between working and not working has diminished, too. We're expected to be on call at all times -- and we feel guilty about taking a break from our smart phone-driven, perpetual overtime. Salon's Rebecca Traister puts it well: "Now, it often seems, there is no 'gone for the weekend.' There is certainly no 'gone for the night.' Sometimes there's not even a gone on vacation. . . . I don't think the notion that we have to be constantly plugged in is just in our heads: I think it's also in the heads of our superiors, our colleagues, our future employers and our prospective employees." Forget smelling the proverbial roses, we're so busy sprinting from point A to point B -- with our cellphones and Kindles and iPads, e-mailing and texting and Tweeting -- we don't even spot the roses in the first place.

This August, I'm trying to do things differently. I've been inspired in part by Carl Honore's wonderful book In Praise of Slowness. "The problem is that our love of speed, our obsession with doing more and more in less and less time, has gone too far," Honore writes. It's easy to agree with his assessment about the dangers of multitasking. (We had plenty of warning on this front: Publilius Syrus, a Roman philosopher from the first century B.C., said, "To do two things at once is to do neither.") But Honore also documents the negative impact of speed on our relationships, our health, our economy. To reverse this damage, he encourages us to rediscover the off button.

So this month I've turned on an away message on my computer saying I'm checking e-mail infrequently. My friends and colleagues know it's somewhat aspirational -- I'm still checking in the morning and evening, and often in the afternoon. But I'm weaning myself off the constant use. Meanwhile, I'm trying to have real conversations in place of staccato e-mail exchanges. And I've set aside time for lying in the hammock and reading novels, for taking yoga for the first time, for drinking wine from the small vineyard down the street and for eating local corn and tomatoes. I'm trying to do some deep breathing and deep reflecting.

To be sure, not everyone has the luxury of slowing down in this way. Traister's point about the expectations of colleagues remains a reality for many people. And even more prohibitive, millions of Americans -- when they can find jobs in this economy -- don't get paid vacation days or sick leave. A single mother can work two jobs and still find herself unable to rise from poverty -- much less spend time with the people who are important to her. We should be able to do better, as most other countries in the Western industrialized world do. For starters, affordable, high-quality child care would make a real difference in how families -- especially women -- manage time.

It's important that we all get at least some time to take stock. If we are to produce not only our best work, but also our best lives, we need to think hard (but with breaks) about developing a different attitude toward time -- one that moves us toward saner, more whole lives, and a more humane, more caring country.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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