Working Slow


“Time passes more slowly for the one who keeps moving.”
– Carlo Rovelli, The Order Of Time, p. 38

In running, there’s an approach known as low heart rate training, whereby most of your runs are done at a very relaxed pace. One measures this not by time per mile (e.g. an 8 minute per mile pace) but by heart rate (e.g. keep it under say, 140 bpm), which reflects how hard you’re working to maintain the pace. In general, a well-trained athlete works less hard than a less well-trained athlete to maintain the same running pace. The idea behind low heart rate training is that you go slow enough that the activity never feels taxing. At first, your relaxed pace will feel comically slow and you’ll fight the urge to speed up. (I can go faster!) But over time, you’ll be able to increase your pace while keeping your heart rate low. The phenomenon is amazing in that it demonstrates the adaptability of the body. 

There are a few advantages to working at a slow and relaxed pace in all kinds of work. First, such a pace makes the activity sustainable over time because it doesn’t feel difficult to maintain. Second, when you work slow and relaxed you notice more because you haven’t rushed yourself in having “to get through” or “done with” whatever it is you’re working on: in other words, it puts you into a receptive, flâneuring state of mind, which is a good state to be in. In music, having a slow and relaxed as a mindset is ideal. When I encounter musicians who are in a hurry I wonder: Is their rushing leading to mistakes, sloppy playing, and most alarmingly, to a habitually distracted attention?

A third advantage to working slow and relaxed is that, since it’s sustainable over time, as you stick with it changes to your work will occur. For instance, projects will inch towards completion, despite your slow rate of working, and you’ll discover things that you never could have anticipated, such as the power of accumulated details and steady iteration. You’ll gain confidence that even though today’s work was partial, tomorrow you’ll resume the flow, no problem. Finally, as with low heart rate running, slow and relaxed working makes time seem to slow down–even when there isn’t much time in which to work. When I have, or give myself, a very brief window to make music–ten or twenty minutes, say–this constraint helps me get something done, like an improvisation that’s a keeper. When this happens, I notice that I’m noticing time’s passing differently and wonder about how I’m spending my other working moments. Maybe then, we better optimize working when we take it at slower and more relaxed pace.  

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