Six Ways to Slow Down Smart

How do people accustomed to life in the fast lane handle slower times — and prepare for the next cycle of growth? Grab a cup of decaf and read through this advice.

Can you remember back, say, just 12 months ago, when the "workday" extended well into the evening? When 24-7 wasn't a state of mind, but a literal description of the pace at which you and your colleagues operated? When every business plan proclaimed its commitment to "get big fast" — and when 100% annual growth seemed as natural as 60-day product cycles?

The times, they are a-changin.' Anyone who says they're as busy today as they were a year ago is either lying or filling their days with busy work. Any company that expects to grow at a 100% annual clip is deluding itself (unless, perhaps, it's in the bankruptcy business). Put simply, the business world is slower than it was a year ago — which can be a pretty tough adjustment for people accustomed to running in fast company.

Our advice? Recognize that slowing down is an opportunity, not a punishment — a chance to recharge your batteries, learn new skills, tend to long-overlooked problems, and mend strained relationships. Grab a cup of decaf and read through this advice on how to slow down smart.

David Allen

President and founder
David Allen & Co
Ojai, California

When business slows down, smart people get smarter. They get focused, and they get sane again. Now is the time to handle all the stuff that you swear you won't have time to do when things heat up later. In other words, you've got to operate under the assumption that there is a business cycle.

Step one is simple: Survive. Stop obsessing over the sky-is-falling doom and gloom. Get a grip. The only way to relax is to deal with what your attention is wrapped around. So address the urgent stuff. More to the point, if you're stressed out, overwhelmed, upset, and reactive, you won't be able to focus. And focus is the key to productivity.

Relaxed? Now tie up loose ends on less-urgent matters. Everybody has a big backlog of to-do items. Shake out that list and go after the most strategic items — which ones take the least amount of effort? Is there anything you'll have to do at some point anyway? Now is the time to renegotiate agreements with yourself and other people.

Finally, grow yourself to get ready for the next roll. Like it or not, we usually wait until crunch time to make some of the good decisions in our lives. But a sluggish period is an opportunity to lift up from the runway and get altitude. At 30,000 feet up, learn new skills. Take a class. Read that book you've been dying to read. If nothing else, learn how to type faster. At 40,000 feet, become a better mentor. At 50,000 feet, take your key partners in work and in life and think hard about what matters — and what doesn't matter. What game are you playing?

The economic downturn is forcing a strategic rethink of personal productivity. This is training season. And when you get busy again, you will work on a whole different level — if you train now. In boom times, people go too fast for their own good, and they constantly let things slip. But you can't make excuses — not anymore.

David Allen (david@davidco.com) has spent 20 years helping busy people maximize their personal productivity. As founder of David Allen & Co, a consulting group, and cofounder of Actioneer Inc, a software company that specializes in timesaving tools, Allen has coached hundreds of top executives at blue-chip companies. His online newsletter, "David Allen's Productivity Principles," reports more than 18,000 subscribers. Allen is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 2001).

Ann Bancroft

Explorer and lecturer
yourexpedition
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Slowing down comes naturally when you're hauling a 250-pound sled across Antarctica. From the beginning of our trek, Liv and I were behind schedule by about 12 days. We needed to cross the continent within 100 days, before the winter set in. Pacing was critical; we were always tempted to go faster. And when the wind was right and the conditions safe, we prepared the sails and glided across the ice to make up for lost mileage. Sailing, we could achieve up to 70 miles in a day. Pulling, we could cover 12 miles, at best. We constantly had to rethink our strategy, depending on what card Mother Nature dealt us that day. And the slow days were the most critical days; they were our recouping days. Here's how we survived the long haul.

Take teamwork to the extreme. It's critical to have the right partner and the right rhythm. Liv and I constantly changed roles, depending on the day and our strength. Every hour, we took a 10-minute break from pulling, replenished our supplies, and changed positions so that one person wasn't always leading. On trips like this, you strive to be equal all the time. But the reality is, you're going to have down days, even in the most severe climate.

Take a hike if you can't be humble. Mother Nature dwarfs big egos. Several times, I had to swallow my pride and admit that I couldn't keep up with Liv. Sometimes I needed to slow down or stop, even though she could go another five miles. Other times, I kept going even though I wanted to slow down. You've got to know your limits and your teammates' limits. It comes down to trust and communication — Antarctica is a place that demands total honesty.

Take in the view, the whole view. You're making decisions that affect the whole expedition, not just one day on the ice. So you can't get swept away by the day-to-day struggle. Pull away to rest and reflect on the big picture. Perspective keeps you grounded.

Take fun seriously. It's easy to lose sight of purpose. Slowing down reminds you that the journey is supposed to be fun. We didn't go one day on the ice without laughing, and there were some pretty dark days.

Ann Bancroft (ann@yourexpedition.com) and her teammate, Liv Arnesen, were the first women to cross Antarctica's landmass by foot. The former schoolteachers completed the 1,717 mile, 94-day trek in February 2001. During the expedition, Bancroft called in daily via satellite phone to post messages on a Web site that reached more than three million children worldwide. In 1998, Bancroft helped found yourexpedition, a for-profit venture established to promote the recent trek across Antarctica. For their next project, the explorers are launching Bancroft Arnesen Explore, a set of programs dedicated to promoting women's and young girls' achievements in exploration.

Stewart Brand

Founder and president
The Long Now Foundation
San Francisco, California
Cofounder
Global Business Network
Emeryville, California

For years, the fashion was to sprint, collapse, and then get up and go for it again. It was the do-more-faster age, so people did more faster. But was it better? There wasn't enough time for relaxed thinking. In fact, people were often punished if they let their mind drift. Today, however, you can afford to step back and chase idle thoughts. That's the whole point of downtime: to wander around and pick up anything that arouses your curiosity.

If you don't have to sprint, why would you? What's urgent isn't truly important. The urgent finds you; you have to find the important. So when you're going as fast as you can, there's not much room for choice. Between urgencies, however, you can work on the stuff that you really care about because you can afford to slow down. Importance is not fast. It is slow. It is not superficial. It is deep. And as a result, it's extremely powerful. When important matters go wrong, they undermine everything. When they go right, they sustain everything.

Important work usually means dealing with longer-term issues, and it naturally serves as a slowing frame of reference. Take philanthropy, for example. It's not only good for the sake of helping others. It's how fast, smart people with their fast, smart money slow down smart. The things that you're interested in, concerned about, and active in will outlast your next job. Ultimately, they will become a part of your life. So giving back is exactly what we should be doing with some of our time, mind, and remaining money. We should be investing in the slow, civilization-building infrastructure stuff: education for everybody, the safekeeping of the natural environment, and the generational scale of families, regions, and industries.

It's also a smart time to check in with your gut feeling. If it feels good, go for it. I'm impressed by the people who got fired and are cruising into the world with what's left of their money. Instead of scrambling for their next job, they're hitchhiking around Europe. They will be refreshed when they dive back into work. By stepping back, you get a sense of your role within the larger story.

Stewart Brand (sb@gbn.com), a new-economy consultant and thought leader, is helping build the world's slowest computer in an effort to promote long-term responsibility. The computer, funded by the Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to advancing "slower, better" thinking, will keep time for the next 10,000 years. Brand also devotes his time to the Global Business Network, a worldwide learning community that explores global futures and business strategy for multinationals. Brand is the founding editor of the original Whole Earth Catalog and the author of several books, including How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (Viking, 1994).

Joe Grimaldi

President and CEO
Mullen
Wenham, Massachusetts

I once took a Skip Barber race-car-driving class. I don't race cars, but I walked away from the course with an extremely useful insight: You've got to slow down to go fast. Racing is all about the turns. You must know when to brake on the turns, so you can maintain control, and when to accelerate out of the turns, so you can go full speed on the straightaway. It's all about pacing. Right now, we're taking a pit stop to get prepared for the long stretch.

I obsess about one thing today: talent. Do we have the best team in place to come out of the turn rapidly? Do we have the best person for every single job within the company? Now is the time to upgrade talent. Even companies that have gone through layoffs are hiring people through the backdoor, because finding truly outstanding people is difficult. We will turn rapidly if we have the right talent working together in an energized environment.

So how do you stay charged up in tough times? You must have a clear vision of your company's purpose in life. I'm not talking about some lofty, far-flung cause. I'm talking about culture. Right now is a good time to invest in your culture, because talented people aren't just looking for stability; they're looking for a sensibility. Having a cause means making your people think your company is worth their time and their energy. A cause keeps people focused, especially if senior managers carry that cause through the organization and live it themselves. Still, despite your best efforts, passion will only come from about 70% of the organization, at best. The others will never get it.

The reality is that I can't guarantee anybody else's job any more than I can guarantee my own. We're all in the same situation. We're all dealing with challenges, but I'm nowhere near the verge of slitting my wrists. In fact, I've never felt more calm and assured of what I'm doing.

Joe Grimaldi (joe.grimaldi@mullen.com) joined Mullen in 1982 as the director of client services. With billings of $620 million today, Mullen was recently ranked the 31st-largest agency in the United States by Ad Age. Before joining Mullen, Grimaldi was a management supervisor at Hill Holiday. In 1975, he began his advertising career as a media planner at Benton & Bowles.

Patrick Lencioni

Founder and president
The Table Group Inc.
Emeryville, California

There are three groups of people in today's economy: the people who got laid off and are forced to slow down, the people who are employed and choose to slow down, and the people who are employed and are too frenetic to slow down. And frankly, between the former and the latter, the jobless are far better off mentally than the frantic folks spinning their wheels in companies. The people who know how to get a grip now will get ahead later, when the economy turns around.

Sanity is smart. So for the employed, here's my advice: Jump off the adrenaline bandwagon and get yourself and your organization healthy again. For starters, spend time investing in training and development. You can't afford not to. When things get crazy again, you will turn your attention to more urgent matters. It's also a great time to hold an off-site and delve into some high-level strategic planning.

There are also stupid ways to slow down. In the off-season, sometimes the most results-oriented companies fear that their employees are going to screw around, because they have less work, and so they start to overmanage their employees' work hours. Bad idea. Rather, companies should encourage flexibility so that people can relax. Along those lines, managers should work people smarter, not harder. Times are tough; don't make them tougher for people. Another thing to avoid is delusional optimism. Don't expect the economy to turn on a dime. Don't take financial risks. And don't encourage employees to stay if they don't want to stay.

In the end, the art of slowing down smart is about one thing: confidence.

Patrick Lencioni (pat@tablegroup.com) founded the Table Group Inc., a management-consulting firm that specializes in organization and executive development, in 1997. Previously, he was the vice president of organization development and communication at Sybase. Lencioni is the author of The Five Temptations of a CEO: A Leadership Fable (Jossey-Bass, 1998) and Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: The Four Disciplines at the Heart of Making Any Organization World Class (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Beth Sawi

Executive vice president and chief administrative officer
Charles Schwab & Co.
San Francisco, California

During the past couple of years, all we could do was react. How do we get enough servers? How do we get enough service representatives? How do we provide the service that our clients deserve? Schwab was scrambling to respond to the frenzy of speculative trading.

Now we can say, "Wait a minute. What's working and what's not? Where are we offering value? Where do we need to improve? What services are no longer relevant to our clients? What challenges demand our attention three months, six months, two years down the road?" It's a good time for every company to reconnect its bearings — to be thoughtful and proactive. Most creative breakthroughs happen when you break for reflection.

For Schwab, slowing down starts with building customer relationships. We want to leverage our foray into the investment-advice business, because we want to provide more value to our clients than simply taking the next trade. Although our branches have been offering advice for the past two years, that kind of service takes time. Namely, you have to sit down with a client and make sure it happens. And working in a frenzied climate, we didn't necessarily have the time to let our clients know about our other services. In quieter times, however, we are reaching out more than ever to our clients and talking to them about their portfolios, their potential diversification strategies, and their financial objectives.

We're thinking harder about the way to run good business. For one thing, we're trying to get more synergy between different business units, so we can offer better service to our clients. We're also more focused on cost effectiveness. The truth is, when speed is paramount, you don't necessarily build processes for efficiency. There's a lot of duplication of efforts. So ask yourself, If I were going to completely redesign a process, what would I do differently? My bet is that most companies have a highly touted "best practice" of the past three years that could use serious tuning.

Think about it.

Beth Sawi oversaw the launch of Schwab.com in 1995, as the executive vice president of electronic brokerage at the time. Today, the company executes 81% of its trades online, accounting for nearly one out of every five electronic trades in the financial-services industry. Sawi, who joined the company in 1982, took a year-long sabbatical in Italy three years ago to write her book, Coming Up for Air: How to Build a Balanced Life in a Workaholic World (Hyperion Books, 2000).

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