A Taxonomy of Slowness
You’re on a car camping trip with some friends. After a long night of sitting around the fire and looking at the beautiful stars, the morning light filters into your tent and wakes you up slowly. You’re well-rested and your hair smells like a campfire, and it’s time to make breakfast. You and your friends eat and clean up together. Now it’s time for everyone to break camp and head home. You shove your sleeping bag back into its sack, pack up your tent, and look around in the grass to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
Then you see that none of your friends are even close to finished. You didn’t particularly hurry, so why were you the first one to finish? You load up your car and decide to walk around the campsites to see what’s happening.
Just not working
Sarah is playing chess on her phone. She wins her game, puts her phone in her pocket, and thinks for a minute. Is she going to start packing up? No, she decides to call her mom to catch up. Whether she’s procrastinating or just enjoying the slow pace of life, it’s going to be a while before she’s ready to leave.
I can’t start yet
Sarah’s boyfriend Dave wanders over to you and grins. “Sarah’s on the phone again… we’re never going to get out of here.”
You look at him, and then over at their tent, and then back at him. “Oh,” he says. “I’m waiting for her to get off the phone. I can’t take down the tent until she packs up her clothes. Might as well wait before I pack anything up myself.”
Does Dave really believe there’s nothing he can do? Has he considered getting started anyway, or asking Sarah to get off the phone, or just packing her things up himself?
Analysis paralysis/yak shaving/tool obsession
You continue on your tour, and see your friend Paul sitting in front of his tent with his laptop out. He’s got his headphones in and he’s typing furiously.
“Hey Paul, what are you up to?” He looks up and takes one headphone out.
“Oh, well, I started to pack up, and then I thought that it would be nice if I could pack up my tent even smaller. You know, I never really learned how to pack up a tent – I just figured it out for myself. There might be much better ways to do it that I never learned about!”
“So you were watching a video on how to pack a tent?”
“Oh, no. I opened a few tabs with those videos. But I realized that I didn’t want to watch one video and then forget how to do it, so I started taking notes. But then I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find the notes again next time, so I started reading blog posts and watching videos on different note organization methods.”
You leave, quickly, before you have to hear him try to pronounce zettelkasten.
Energetically doing the wrong things
At the next campsite, Jamie is vigorously shaking out her car’s floor mats. You ask her why.
“I went to a productivity retreat once, and the success guru there told me that the first step to succeed in anything is to visualize yourself having already succeeded. When I pictured myself leaving the campsite, my car was clean. So I decided to clean my car before packing up.”
“But you could leave even if your car wasn’t clean, right?”
“Oh, I guess that’s true.”
It seems like Jamie is productive by some definition, but if all she cares about is driving home, she definitely doesn’t need to clean her car right now.
Ashley’s campsite is next, but she’s not there. You pull up a chair and wait for her. That cool morning air, you notice, is turning into a hot afternoon, and you think about traffic beginning to coagulate on the highways home.
Ashley walks up to you and passes right by without saying a word. She goes to the picnic table where you all had breakfast, picks up a trashbag, and turns around back in your direction.
You had completely forgotten, but she’s right. You need to take all your trash to the dumpster at the end of the road before you break camp. You feel bad for not helping out.
“Ashley, why didn’t you ask for help?”
“Oh, I just figured I’d do it myself. You know how slow our friends are, if they have to do anything besides pack up their own things we’ll never get out of here.”
She continues on her way, crunching gravel underfoot. You’re grateful that she’s cleaning up for everyone, but you can’t help wondering what if would take for her to actually rely on someone else to help.
Doing the right things, but slowly
The last campsite you visit is Matt. He’s facing away from you, and is in the middle of pulling the poles out of his tent, so you just watch him. He pulls the tent pole another foot out of the sleeve, and then pauses. He tilts his head to the side, thinking. Then he moves his hand, painstakingly, and pulls the tent pole even further out.
Why is he moving so slowly? Maybe he’s unsure whether he’s doing it right, so he needs to consciously reflect on every step. Maybe he feels at peace in that deliberative energy. Maybe he’s really just not in a hurry. What would make him go faster?
As you walk back to your car you start thinking. You finished first, but was it really a competition? Your sleeping bag is going to be really wrinkled next time, and actually you might have put your clean clothes and dirty laundry in the same section of your backpack… Oh, it would be good to take out some snacks for the drive home, did you put those somewhere organized or just jam them into some other bag?
What you did isn’t perfect, but you’re finished. It’s time to go home.