Fri, May 23, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Lowering the tempo

Skipping lunch, working late and checking e-mails at home are now the norm for many of us — but can lowering the tempo actually make one more productive?

By Sally O’Reilly  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Ever thought that going “slow” at work could help you get more done? No? Me neither.

We live in a hectic, 24/7 society, full of power-walking workaholics, where Madonna sleeps with a BlackBerry under her pillow and slowing down is for losers.

One recent survey by the consumer research firm OTX found that many of us use high-tech gadgets to get 31 hours of work out of a 24-hour day — surely no mean feat.

And with smarter phones in the pipeline, we may be able to add another couple of hours to that total. Achieving this might include driving with a Bluetooth earpiece so we can have a conference call while keeping one ear on the radio — and checking the satnav as we go.

So what could be less relevant to the working day than the “slow” movement? This came into being in Italy 20 years ago when fast-food chain McDonald’s tried to introduce Big Macs to the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. From this notion sprang the wider “slow” movement, which now includes slow travel, slow shopping and even slow design. But slow working? I don’t think so. Call me old-fashioned, but that used to be called “going on strike.”

In the UK, workers put in the longest hours in Europe, eat the most ready meals and even drink faster than our neighbors. “Full on” is the way they like it. What’s more, the average British boss is unlikely to warm to employees who suddenly start taking two hours for lunch. However, according to the experts, we’re not talking laziness here, but strategies for survival.

“Slow is very important in psychology in general,” said Gail Kinman, a reader in occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. “It gives you time for recovery from stress. Slowing down means you have time to let your body and mind get back to the baseline.”

“If you don’t, there is more wear and tear on your cardiovascular system. And eventually, not taking time to do this will have a negative effect on your immune system. Your long-term health may be at risk and you’re more likely to burn out early. We see this in football managers and stock exchange dealers,” she said.

What’s more, chasing around yelling “I need this yesterday!” isn’t even very efficient. We need to pace ourselves and give ourselves time to think clearly. A study carried out at the University of Michigan has found that because the human brain needs time to shift gears between tasks, we need to do one thing at a time.

The more switching back and forth we do — between, say, talking on the phone, scanning e-mail and thinking about the next meeting — the less impressive our performance will be. And high performance, not long hours, is what employers are looking for.

Kinman points out that the “24/7” philosophy is partly self-inflicted. Just because supermarkets are open 24 hours a day doesn’t mean we have to Google in the wee hours.

“A lot is the pressure we put on ourselves,” she said. “In the past you would write a letter, get it typed up then post it. When you had a reply, a few days later, you would think about it before responding.

“Now we expect ourselves to be in constant communication with others. You need to ask yourself: What do I expect of other people? And what do they expect of me? If you want a nice, long career, get into some good habits now,” she said.

Crikey. I decide that — for the purposes of this article — I will put in one day of slow working. But can I really break with my default style of getting things done? That involves logging on to my e-mails at 6am, tapping away at my PC till my 10-minute lunch break, then zapping through the afternoon powered by caffeine and carbohydrates.

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