Summer is that time of year when many of us take breaks from our jobs and school to regroup and relax. Vacations are time to slow our pace, calm our minds, and take a much-needed respite from the otherwise fast pace of life and its responsibilities. Many of us lament the dramatic contrast between our vacations and the faster pace of our work lives, but are generally remiss to change because of feelings of career vulnerability or weakness that we fear it could project. However it is increasingly clear that our personal and professional lives stand to benefit from change that eases these mounting pressures and strains. It is time to embrace “slow work.”
The reasons that today’s pace of work feels “fast” are fairly familiar. For one, many organizations face constant pressure to adapt to rapidly evolving market pressures, societal changes, and political pressures, and these pressures are increasingly passed to a gradually reduced workforce. To make matters worse, we face a flurry of information hitting from multiple angles (work, home, extended family, & friends) and through an increasing array of social networking and email platforms. This information onslaught competes for our rapidly diminishing attention spans. Third, it is normal to feel – despite this constant flurry of information that we are processing – that we are failing at staying in command of all of the work we need to do.
Many of us recognize that constantly reacting to immediate demands distracts us from focusing on long-term goals and aspirations — and yet, we often feel starved for time to do so. Today’s quick wins are undermining tomorrow’s performance.
So how do we reverse this situation, or at least begin to shift the balance? Existing research has demonstrated how some basic aspects of the work environment can improve one’s ability to be creative on the jobs; these include the freedom to make decisions about one’s work; encouragement from leaders; and striking a healthy balance between challenging or interesting work on the one hand and extraordinary workload pressures on the other hand.
UC Davis professors Kimberly Elsbach and Andrew Hargadon have suggested that we find ways to balance our workday activities with a mix of “mindful” (cognitively demanding) and “mindless” (cognitively facile) activities. Giving the mind a rest from high-stakes responsibilities and strategically doing simple (but necessary) administrative or hands-on tasks give us freedom to take control of our schedules and maintain momentum with less cognitive strain.
Similarly, our work here at DEGW helps organizations design work environments and practices that give people more flexibility and resources for varying their routines and making choices about how to effectively do their work with greater degrees of freedom.
More broadly, the philosophy of “slow work” challenges the unsustainable practice of doing everything as fast as possible and offers an alternative workplace framework for energizing people and helping people better align their personal and professional priorities. It urges us to punctuate our routines in ways that might initially appear to compromise productivity but actually enhance long-term creativity.
What follows are a handful of practical ways that one can begin to “work slow” in order to more strongly grip short-term demands and feel some creative energy to inspire us for the long-term.
1) Make more time for yourself within your daily work routine. It is easy to let meetings consume schedules, but when was the last time you scheduled uninterrupted time for yourself? A strategy for accomplishing this is to block chunks of time on your work calendar for focusing on concentrative tasks or any other necessary tasks that seem to slip from your reach. Doing so signals to others that you are serious about accomplishing specific goals and are therefore prioritizing the tasks needed to accomplish them.
2) Vary your routine. Consider taking your laptop to a quiet area of your building or to another building on your campus. Casual seating areas are incorporated into many contemporary work settings to give people space to think. Taking the time to walk to a different corner of the building or campus provides exercise but also increases the likelihood that you will encounter a colleague that you may not have seen in a while. Such interactions strengthen professional relationships and provide fresh perspectives and insights.
3) Look for a way to “break out” of the office. If you schedule concentrative time for yourself, consider taking your work offsite to give yourself a radically different experience that could spark some inspiration. If you work in a large city, take advantage of the myriad of public spaces such as parks and plazas that are accommodating to workers with plentiful seating and free wi-fi. DEGW’s BREAKOUT! study in New York City was an effort to reclaim public spaces throughout the city and demonstrate how they provide people with an alternative to an office work setting. The milieu of a public setting can positively change your perspective and help you put things in broader context.
4) Consider “coworking” with others for a day. A Brooklyn-based start-up company called Loosecubes facilitates connections between people looking for space in which to camp out for a day or two and organizations that have space to share. This model connects like-minded people looking for creative inspiration through a mix of different work experiences. Organizations are also finding that this model of welcoming outsiders into their communities brings fresh perspectives to their people.
Each of these different ways of working consumes more time because they require conscious efforts to vary existing routines. In other words, they slow us down. But these changes reward us with more time to absorb and process information, which strengthens our long-term professional performance. Consequently, slow work and the freedoms afforded by it provide more flexibility to align personal and professional goals and responsibilities.
Peter Bacevice is a Senior Consultant at the New York office of DEGW, part of AECOM. He works with organizations on developing strategies for creating effective work and learning environments. He holds a PhD in Education from the University of Michigan.