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By Carl Honoré

The Big Chill
All over the world, harried people are calling for a time-out

Carl Honoré is the author of In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (HarperCollins, 2004), recently released in Japanese by Sony Magazines

Every parent knows that children like bedtime stories read at a gentle, meandering pace. But I used to be too fast, too hectic, too hurried to slow down with Dr. Seuss.

Instead, I whizzed through The Cat in the Hat, skipping a line here, a paragraph there, sometimes a whole page. Things got so rushed I even considered buying a book of one-minute bedtime stories.

And that’s when the alarm bells started ringing. Thankfully, I never bought the 60-second fables. Instead, I began investigating the possibility of slowing down in a world addicted to speed. What I discovered is that right across the globe, from Japan to North America to Europe, people are finding ways to put on the brakes.

These days, many of us are stuck in fast forward. We work fast, talk fast, think fast, eat fast, make love fast. We speed-read, speed-walk, speed-dial and speed-date. We have forgotten how to slow down—and we pay a heavy price for it.

In the industrial world, we now sleep 90 minutes less a night than a century ago, and stress-related illnesses are soaring. Who among us has enough time for family, friends or community? In our haste, we struggle to relax, to take pleasure from things, to enjoy the moment.

The solution is simple: Slow down a little.

Consider the workplace. In contrast with the US, working hours have been falling steadily in Europe. The result is a quality of life—how does six weeks’ annual vacation sound?—that Americans can only dream about. Even in Japan, the home of karoshi (death from overwork), working hours are down and leisure is no longer a dirty word. Membership in the Sloth Club, which runs a laidback café in Tokyo, is surging.

Working less can mean working more efficiently, too. Often derided as lazy vacation-junkies, the French are actually more productive per hour than are both Americans and Japanese. Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden all work relatively short hours, yet their economies rank among the most competitive in the world.

Leading companies see the writing on the wall. SAS, a software giant based in North Carolina, combines a 35-hour work-week with generous vacation benefits. The payoff: robust profits and a regular place in the Top 10 of Fortune’s Best Companies To Work For.

Slowing down on the job can pay dividends, too. Research suggests that taking time-outs during the day makes workers more lively and creative. That is why companies are setting aside quiet places where staff can chill out or even take a nap. At Oracle’s office in Tokyo there is a sound-proofed meditation room with soft lighting and a wooden floor bordered by smooth pebbles and objets d’art.

To guard against burnout and data overload, companies, even in the fastest industries around, are imposing speed limits on the information superhighway. Some, such as software heavyweight Veritas, have introduced email-free days. A senior executive at IBM now signs off every email with this rallying cry: “Read your mail just twice each day. Recapture your life’s time and relearn to dream. Join the slow email movement!”

Jon Siegel

Beyond the workplace, many are taking a slower approach to food, and eating better as a result. Look at the rise of farmers’ markets and cooking classes, or the renaissance of handmade bread, cheese and beer. The Italian-based Slow Food movement, which stands for everything fast food does not, now has 100,000 members in 50 countries, including Japan.

Slowing down can also work wonders in the bedroom. We all laughed when Sting raved about romping Tantric-style for hours on end, but now couples all over the world are flocking to workshops to learn the art of unhurried love-making. Italy even has a Slow Sex movement.

Millions more are tuning their bodies and minds with slower exercise (think yoga, tai chi and SuperSlow weightlifting) and slower forms of medicine (think reiki, acupuncture and herbalism).

There is also a growing backlash against the trend for overloading children. Kids need unscheduled free time to recharge, to learn how to think creatively and how to socialize. To send the message that less is more, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shrunk the section devoted to extracurricular activities on its application form. In a similar vein, Harvard now sends its freshmen a letter extolling the virtues of doing less and relaxing more. The title of the letter: “Slow Down.”
Of course, you can take this deceleration thing too far. Slower is not always better. Too much slowness is just as bad as too much speed. What we really need is balance—an understanding that sometimes fast is good, but that sometimes slow is good, too.

Do we lose anything by slowing down? Much less than we think. Some may need to work—and thus earn—less, but that seems a small price to pay for the pleasure that comes from living life rather than rushing through it.

Slowing down has made me more relaxed, energetic and able to enjoy each moment of my day.

Bedtime stories are certainly a lot more fun when you don’t speed-read them.

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