Slow Travel and the Cult of Productivity

While advances in technology promise we can do more, faster, sometimes slowing down is the only way to get anything done. Plus, the views are better.

Eurostar on CTRL
How much are you seeing? (photo by Dave Bushell, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since the first of the year, there has been some talk about the California High-Speed Railproject. I will admit that I’m not even sure what was said about it. However, in the current political and economic climate, I can assume it was something along the lines of, “blah blah budget blah jobs blabbity funding.” The project promises to cut travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 2 hours and 40 minutes. Amid my childlike enthusiasm for the project, however, are some misgivings about our continued obsession with maximized efficiency and productivity.

I know very little about the financial realities of this project and so you should take it with a block of salt when I say, I like this project. I’m a reluctant veteran of public transportation. I commuted by train and bus, in various combinations, for most of my time at college. I also spent six months commuting by car. The big difference is that on public transit, I have the option of reading, working, or napping. All of the above are still frowned upon while driving, though I can attest that not all of my fellow humans seem to observe those restrictions.

The prospect of taking those two to three hours and getting from LA to San Francisco, rather than just from Ventura to Irvine, delights me. I have some very romantic ideas about rail travel, which even two years of regular use could not stamp out of me. If nothing else, the rail system would make Ghirardelli Square and more chocolate than you can shake a wallet at just a day trip away. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? But I suspect there is a less sweet side to this debate and one which I have had to struggle with in my own work.

Projects like this are part of the broad category of “faster is better,” wherein the primary goal of any technology or tool is to let you do a task more easily and faster. This has been the selling point of everything from washing machines to computers. Your regular chores will only take half the time. Insert the picture of someone blissfully relaxing with nary a soiled shirt in sight. The truth has proven to be less lemonade-sipping and hammock-swinging. If that budget projection takes you two hours instead of four, your boss will be only too happy to find something to fill up the free time. “Do more, faster” is all too often applied only to work, with work hours just as long and just as stressful.

What happens, though, when you are your own boss?

The impulse is to be just as demanding, if not more so, and to constantly pursue maximized productivity. I’ve found myself gripped by a kind of manic terror, afraid that I might be wasting my precious time. Afraid that I am not doing as much as I can. But if my goal is to get done all the projects and plans I have in mind, is it true that faster, more intense work is the answer? Is it possible that slower and shorter will give better results?

When I sit down with the intention of spending six hours working, I find I get very little done. I tell myself the story that a long work session will let me really engage with my work, reach a flow state, and finish large sections of projects. What actually happens is that, like a passenger on a train moving too fast to see the passing countryside, I disconnect from the work. I become overwhelmed and even familiar tasks start to loom like Herculean trials. In my zeal to finish everything, right now, I start nothing.

I’ve started breaking my work into smaller chunks. I’ve started to err on the side of small and easy. When in doubt, try to break something into smaller tasks. In planning for the A to Z blog challenge in April, I’ve made myself a list of tasks to be done. For example, one task is to write concept sentences for each post, prior to outlining them. This time, however, I’ve gone further. That task gets broken down into a checklist for each letter. Each one gets ticked off as I write it. I’m no longer looking at sitting down to write concept sentences for 26 posts. I’m looking at just one, the next letter on the list. I know how many I need to do in a day to stay on my personal schedule, but even that stops mattering when I sit down to work. It’s just one sentence. It’s so easy, I do a few without thinking about it. Fifteen minutes later, I can check those letters off my to-do list and move on to something else.

Work becomes painless. Each project might get only ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes of attention at a time. I might come back to it several times in a day or I might move on to other projects I have going at the same time. I’ve slowed down. I’m not looking at an entire project to do today. I don’t have to fill up my whole day with work time, hoping that I will find I’ve gotten something done by the end of the day.

One sentence at a time, one chunk at a time, I can mark my progress and  know that I’ve gotten something done. Slowly. Less efficiently. And also more easily. More happily.

Under three hours to cross the better part of this large state may well be a wonderful thing, when the rail project is completed. I anticipate any number of new efficiency demands to crop up with it. Travel farther for a good job. Arrive to work earlier just because you can. Work on your way there, because you won’t be seeing much out those swiftly-moving windows. Someday, perhaps teleportation will by the commuting technology of choice. Consider, however, that easing off that breakneck pace might be the trick to truly getting something done. Get less done right now and watch your to-do list become your done list. Sometimes slow is the quickest way.

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?

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