Some things can’t be rushed. We know this. The maturation of a wine, the build of a three hour NFL game or a five day test match towards its denouement, the germination and development of ideas, the growth of a forest or the development of a child. But today’s world seems to have been gaining speed exponentially; the faster things get, the faster we better get to keep up, to push ahead… on, on, on, accelerating into a distance and a future arriving so fast the blur as it approaches us blinds us to its intricacies, to the details that give things meaning.
No sooner have we consumed or grasped a new thing or idea we discard it in favour of the next new thing, the shiny and attractive and salient. Salience does not always equate to importance nor relevance, and so we plough on, as fast as we can, trying to avoid the the lazers of distraction that bombard our senses like driving rain blinding us in a storm. Even our experience of forced solitude and easier access to reflective space generated by society’s response to the Covid19 pandemic doesn’t mean we will actually slow down and take advantage of it. We remain in danger of a bounce-back that catapults our lives back into warpspeed.
And yet I think a lot about slow time and slow space. Many cultures and professions build it in as a ritual. The topping out at the completion of a building, the bus parade of the championship-winning sports team, the ritual some organisations have of taking time off once a contract has been delivered. The idea of the ‘off season’ in sports recognises that the ability of sports stars to compete at the highest level, and of fans’ budgets to stretch year-round, are compromised without it. Religion offers periods of reflection in most cultures; prayer and meditation are common rituals and many indigenous cultures have traditions of vision quests and solo retreats.
We can’t work at high intensity without corresponding periods of low intensity work. We need rest and recovery and we need it within the workplace too, as we can’t – and shouldn’t – solely rely on our weekends and evenings for that. If that is the expectation, we never leave work. We are simply using our non-work time to recover and recharge just so we can go at it full bore for another ten hours tomorrow. To make matters worse, in such scenarios our recovery time impairs our ability to bring our high energy and best selves to our non-work relationships and commitments too.
How do we – how can we – ensure that our work specifically and our lives more generally operate at appropriate rhythms, waxing and waning with a healthy balance between them? One thing is for sure. To keep at full speed is to run through the fog towards an invisible, distant cliff; the problem is, we can’t know how far ahead it is, whether there are any barriers in the way, nor how high it is or what lies at the bottom. Trying to work at an increasing pace, while the world around us has virtually stopped for periods of the last year, is a profoundly weird juxtaposition to live with.
Sometime, for those lucky enough to be working during the last 15 months, things will need to slow down. As I’ve done a lot of work with the NHS over recent months, I’ve seen the crisis response intensify the work of those responding to Covid, whether in the NHS or local government or the local charity sector. When things do start to ease in terms of the Covid-driven demand on services, there needs to be time for people to breathe, to recuperate, to reflect, to make sense of the changing world.
While things need to slow down, my worry is that they won’t. We’ll be straight into the need to pick up the pieces of society that have broken in the meantime, from postponed surgeries and backlogs of operations to child protection and domestic violence cases to evictions, homelessness and unemployment, not to mention the anticipated surge in mental health cases.
We need humanity to prevail in so many ways. To ensure that the human cost is recognised, marked, appreciated. To look optimistically to the future. But not at the behest of economists, finance teams and those championing greater productivity. We pay a high price for pursuing more! more! more! at any cost. To paraphrase the well worn Lincoln quote, given six hours to chop down a wood he’d spend the first four sharpening his axe. We need to seek this same balance.
The post-Covid equivalent of this isn’t finally escaping to Malaga or the Canaries but embedding recuperation and the need to work at different speeds at different times into the routine of our day-to-day. The need to alternate our rhythms of life and work between the fast and the slow is a very human one. As our context fluctuates so to do these rhythms, if we let them. Responding to deadlines, our energy levels, business needs, the seasons, family commitments and so on.
We ignore these natural variations at our cost. Time to introduce some dreamspace into our days, perhaps?