At a snail's pace

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now that the holiday rush is over, we can all slow down.

Or not.

Americans need their speed. As author / actress Carrie Fisher once said: "Instant gratification takes too long." Just look at the popularity of fast food and dashboard dining, action movies, overscheduling ourselves and our kids, running instead of walking for exercise, fast lanes and express lanes, instant messaging, multimedia, and speed dating.

And multi-tasking, of course. A recent poll, commissioned by the new magazine Scientific American Mind, found that 90 percent of us multi-task. What's depressing is that six out of 10 of the people surveyed said they felt like they were getting less done.

That may be true. The article, in the current issue of Mind, concluded that multi-tasking doesn't work very well, unless you're doing something routine like walking and chewing gum.

"When you switch from task to task, your brain has to apply new rules [every time]," explains Mariette DiChristina, the executive editor of the magazine. "Sometimes it's fastest and better to do things one at a time."

Ever since the Industrial Revolution a couple of centuries ago, our lives have been speeding up. But in the last 15 years, the onslaught of technology and the pace of our lives have taken a quantum leap forward. We now have to make a conscious decision to slow down.

"You can't really do that if you're driving down the road with a cell phone and an MP3 player," says Sarah Reed, a 24-year-old Pilates instructor who lives in Bolton Hill. She remembers fondly entertaining herself for hours as a little girl with a box of 64 crayons.

Reed says she was considering graduate school to study architecture, but instead decided to stay in the slow lane, "so I can have the time to make the home I want to." (She recently got engaged.)

"I don't need to be rushed through my life," she adds, wise beyond her years.

Dr. Barry Gordon, a Johns Hopkins professor of neurology and cognitive science, has found in his research that "it's not just an option, but a necessity to slow down. We're compromising real thinking for speed."

Even as a child, he knew that boredom could be a good thing, he says. That's when some of the most important mental work gets done. He's begun to choose deliberate respites from his busy schedule.

"I now set aside 15 minutes a day just to think about things," he says. "The selling point for slowing down is that it helps you speed up."

Make haste slowly. Haven't we heard that before?

It's just so hard to do.

Which may explain why a little book published last spring called In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (Harper-SanFrancisco, $24.95), by Canadian journalist Carl Honore, is now in its ninth printing and has been translated into 14 languages. Honore says he wants to find a balance between fast and slow, not eliminate speed altogether.

Part of the book's appeal is that it's a kinder, gentler version of the simplicity movement of the '90s. It doesn't demand much beyond enjoying home-cooked meals with people you love, giving children more unstructured play time, working shorter hours, indulging in leisurely lovemaking, reading for pleasure, unplugging from technology every once in awhile and so on. You don't have to give up anything you don't want to.

Not surprisingly, now that Honore is a best-selling author, he's busier than ever with interviews and book signings. But since his epiphany that slow is the new fast, he has simplified his life by eliminating tennis and cutting back on television. (He still plays hockey, a sport that has more than its share of frenetic speed.) He's stopped wearing a watch and started meditating.

"As a society we've gotten stuck in fast forward," says Honore. "[Speed] can be difficult to give up; it's like a drug. But there's a collective awakening that slowness has its place. It's getting into the zeitgeist, which is heartening. The time seems right because it gives people the courage to act on something they already felt."

Dr. Daniela Meshkat, who practices in Howard County, describes her life before she read the book with one word. "Crazy."

"I just couldn't stand that lifestyle anymore," the 37-year-old obstetrician / gynecologist says. "I read about the book and it struck my fancy." (She ended up buying it on the Internet because local bookstores were sold out.)

Meshkat hasn't made huge lifestyle changes since then. She just doesn't fill up her schedule with as many things as she used to. She tries to cook more, something she loves doing. (Cooking is one of the activities that Honore recommends to combat "time sickness" -- along with such slow-lane pursuits as reading, gardening and knitting.)

The author has labeled what he calls "a hunger for slowness" the Slow Movement.

It's not organized. There's no Web site, no central clearinghouse.

And while Honore sees the slow philosophy as a worldwide uprising, in the United States, at least, it's more like pockets of resistance.

In the last few years, mainstream America has embraced slowing-down techniques imported from the Far East such as meditation, massage therapy, tai chi, and yoga. But in this country, they tend to morph into a speeded-up version. Power yoga comes to mind.

The Italian-based Slow Food campaign, which has some 60,000 members throughout the world, has never caught on in any meaningful way in the United States. We like our Big Macs.

Putting Family First is a grassroots movement combating overscheduled, frantic lives with family time and family activities. Unfortunately, it hasn't spread much beyond its founding city of Wayzata, Minn.

In the last few decades, Europeans have made the decision to work fewer hours and lead more balanced lives. Americans haven't. According to the International Labor Organization, we now work about nine weeks more a year (counting longer workdays and shorter paid vacations) than Western Europeans.

Jerome Segal is a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and the author of Graceful Simplicity: The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream (University of California Press, 2003). He's also a co-founder of Take Back Your Time Day, a sort of Earth Day for the time stressed. The first one, held on Oct. 24, 2003, involved some 200 communities the U.S. and Canada. (Last year's, the founders say, was overshadowed by the election.)

"In the '50s, people used to theorize [that ]by the end of the century there would be an excess of leisure," Segal says. "Instead, we're overstressed and more harried. Hopefully, we can find a way of putting this issue of time on the national agenda."

Slow it all down

Here are five tips from Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness, to help you decelerate:

Leave holes in your schedule rather than striving to fill every moment with activity. Easing the pressure on your time will help you to slow down.

Set aside a time of day to turn off all the technology that keeps us buzzing -- phones, computers, pagers, e-mail, television, radio. Use the break to sit quietly somewhere, alone with your thoughts. Or try meditating.

Make time for at least one hobby that slows you down, such as reading, painting, gardening or yoga.

Eat supper at the table instead of balancing it on your lap it in front of the TV.

Always monitor your speed. If you're doing something more quickly than you need to, simply out of habit, then take a deep breath and slow down.

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