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The secret to creativity: slow down

Christopher Richards

You'd think promoting counter-urgency in business would be as popular as a 3 am-car-alarm-wake-up-call. Do a news search on "slow and business" and you get nothing but misery, pain and frustration. Don't we associate "slow" with failure, inefficiency and perhaps worse -- laziness?

Speed worship
We love speed. We have speed dating, speed networking and fast food. Microsoft tells us to "Do more, faster." And who would want to argue? When it comes to connectivity or processing speed, I wouldn't.

We want our products to get to market faster. After all, competition is fierce. We'd better be efficient, get there first -- be a winner. How do we do this? We forge ahead. We speed up.

The less time we have, the more we try to cram into it. Time is a non-renewable resource.

The defining realization of time-compression for Carl Honoré, author of "In Praise of Slowness," came when he discovered the one-minute bedtime story for children. Honoré, a self-confessed rushaholic, paused to think about the impact of continual accelerated time. Honoré's book brought an awareness of "slow" to thousands as it flew off shelves. The irony is Honoré still rushes around the world speaking about the benefits of slowing down. He says he is a victim of his own success. But at least he aspires to slowness.

Time poverty
Many of us complain of not having enough time. Civility suffers. Attention spans decrease. Patience vanishes. Mistakes mount.

Efforts to speed up often backfire. If you're like me, you waste hours trying to figure out your latest gadget's instructions written by someone with less mastery of English than a baboon. I really want to save milliseconds promised me by the speed-dial function. I've got plans for that time. A millisecond here, a millisecond there, it adds up.

Seth Godin wrote on his blog recently that inbound customer service agents are rewarded for getting rid of customers fast. An agent who slowed down enough to spend time and respond appropriately to a complex call wouldn't be thought of as successful. Complexity needs time and patience.

And when we can't speed up anymore, we work longer hours. We'll outwork the competition. Brilliant thinking!

James Glick, author of "Faster, The Acceleration of Just About Everything" says time is used as a status symbol. Working long hours is a badge of honor. It shows our commitment. Busy-ness is good. Increasingly, the pressure is on for employees to be seen to come in early and stay late. But are we more effective by working longer hours?

Economist Juliet Schor ("The Overworked American," 1991) calculated that Americans had worked a full month more than they did two decades earlier. New studies show Americans now work 350 hours a year more than their European counterparts. Are those Europeans lazily wasting their time with long vacations and family life?

Question: Where do all these extra hours come from?
Answer: sleep.

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The cost of speed
Studies done on overworked and sleep-deprived doctors showed they had the alertness of people legally drunk. You might think working long hours makes you a hero, but how would you like to be operated on by an exhausted doctor? In 1999, The Institute of Medicine reported 98,000 deaths due to medical errors.

Daniel Dement, sleep researcher and founder of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center and author of the national best seller, "The Promise of Sleep," shows how sleep debt lowers IQ, has long-term health risks and is responsible for 33 percent of traffic-fatigue-related accidents.

Sleeping on the job
Arshad Chowdhury, co-founder of MetroNaps, said fewer people are getting enough sleep. Many are only sleeping four to six hours a night. His company makes the EnergyPod, a space-aged looking chair designed for employee napping. He got the idea when still working in the investment banking industry where he noticed exhausted employees falling asleep at their desks.

When I asked Chowdhury about the difficulty of getting people to slow down enough to nap at work, he said it was a matter of culture. Employees at Procter & Gamble Services in Germany are enthusiastically embracing power napping. The company is pleased with improvements in employee energy and well-being. Miami airport installed EnergyPods so harried travelers can recharge and renew. And mini-hotel rooms are now catching on in major airports around the world, so the previously rushed can be the newly relaxed.

According to Chowdhury, the EnergyPod is more popular with West Coast companies. It may be a matter of openness to new ideas, but there is also a raft of scientific evidence as to the benefits of napping, and the stupefying -- in some cases lethal -- effects of sleep deprivation.

Hospitals and airlines are now leading the way by introducing mandatory napping programs. Clearly some businesses understand the value of coping with speed and benefits of a well-rested workforce.

The effect of speed on creativity
We're conditioned to go fast. In school, children are taught to come up with the right answer fast. There's little time for discovery and developing a more leisurely and creative approach. Children are expected to know "how" but not necessarily "why." The rush is on to get through the material. I have a friend who teaches MBA courses at a prestigious university. He laments the students' desire only for tools. They have no time to be curious: to play with ideas and to find out why.

According to an article in a recent Economist ("The race is not always to the richest," December 8 – 14, 2007), educational performance of U.S. children is poor by world standards. Our reading performance doesn't even make it into the top 12 OECD countries. And only Mexico is behind us on math performance. Finland is number one in science education. What's the Finnish secret? The schools hire well qualified teachers -- and here is the counter-intuitive part -- they slow down and spend plenty of time with the students.

Sir Ken Robinson, author, creativity expert and educational guru, says that our education system is still a nineteenth century model. Then, the workforce wasn't expected to be smart. It was expected to be efficient and obey. And the only options were to "do more, faster." In the early twentieth century, workers were subjected to time and motion studies. Every movement was timed. Soon this sort of dehumanizing work was taken over by technology. But our education system is still playing catch up.

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Slow creativity
Creativity, innovation and adaptation drive our economy. Robinson says that creativity will become as essential to our future as literacy is today, and he is pushing for creativity to be taken seriously in education.

Innovation and creativity are not the same things. My definition of innovation is an improvement (or an alternative to) something in existence. Robinson's definition of creativity is simply those ideas that have value.

There is a lot of talk in business about creativity. Sadly, most of it is just talk. Creativity is a process that takes time. New ideas, new ventures, new ways of thinking don't happen in a flash of inspiration, but they more readily surface after a period of incubation.

The slow zone

The life cycle of organizations, people, businesses and products have predictable stages. Each stage is in conflict with other stages. Let's use a business as our example.

Our founder gets a vague idea, a gut feeling or intuition. Once the "half-baked" idea surfaces, she mulls it over. This stage is necessarily purposeless. It's more about discovery than goal orientation. The idea may even be forgotten, but there are underlying processes going on all the time.

Guy Claxton, author of "Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less," coined the term Undermind for this intuitive way of slow knowing. He contrasts this with what he calls D-mode -- deliberate-mode. Remember that sort of thinking you were praised for in school? Of course, D-mode is necessary, but not here, and not yet. 

Incubating ideas is similar to how a writer might go through several drafts before really knowing what he wants to write about. An artist may make multiple sketches before deciding on which direction to take a painting. It's the process that gives birth to the new.

Once the business is born, then management by the seat of the pants is the name of the game. Everything is in flux. Our founder may hire people who thrive in a chaotic environment. Roles have not yet been defined. Everything speeds up. New ideas are welcome. The business is still malleable.

As the business succeeds, professional managers get hired and systems are put in place. Now the focus is on speed, efficiency and productivity. There is little tolerance for anything that can't be measured. Everything is results-driven. If time is not allotted to the "slow zone" then the company starts to look inward and becomes a rigid, rule-based organization detached from a dynamic marketplace. By now the creative talent needing a flexible environment has left. The company goes into decline and eventually dies.

Slow seeing
Yogi Berra once opined that you can observe a lot by just watching. Nobel laureate, Szent-Gyorgyi said that discovery consists of seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one has thought. Slowing down gives us the opportunity to see more clearly what we otherwise miss.

But in business, slow is not for sissies. Slow is counter-intuitive. And where speed and efficiency are articles of faith, slow is heretical. Einstein spent a lot of time staring out of the window from his Princeton office. He dreamed of riding on a moonbeam.

The future is uncertain. Our world is dynamic, and it is our thinking that will make or break us. Taking the time to slow down can help us be more creative, see opportunities, avoid mistakes and be more productive.

Slow is not lazy, although it might look like it. Ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote most of his latest book while soaking in the bathtub. By the way, I have tested this slow and productive method and I recommend it.

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Christopher Richards is a marketing consultant. He writes humor at SlowDownNow.org, the "almost" serious antidote to workaholism. Read full bio.