To Save Time, Go Slow!
Pilot to ground control: “I’m lost . . . but I’m making record time!”
Posted September 25, 2014
There are many expressions that support the paradoxical claim that to go fast, it’s best to go slow. One of my favorite comes from the 12-step model of addiction recovery—which goes: “Failing to plan, we plan to fail.” For in the hurry to progress with something as quickly as possible, it’s all too easy to rush through, cut short, or skip altogether some aspect essential to its successful completion. It’s almost always best to organize your thoughts—or set out your tools—before you embark on a project. Perhaps, “think, then act” ought to be everyone’s mantra.
A complementary expression: “Ready, aim, fire” also advises us to “get set” before initiating an activity to which we’ve committed ourselves. For consider the reverse alternative: “Fire, ready, aim.” It should be obvious that indulging in such precipitous behavior virtually guarantees that you’ll make far more mistakes than if you first took careful aim, scanning the horizon of viable alternatives before deciding how to “zero in” on your target.
To adapt yet another expression, when you act unthinkingly you’re likely to end up placing “the cart before the horse,” such that what you assumed you were putting into motion is hardly able to move at all. One of the principal ways to save time, then, is by not focusing so much on speed but on accuracy. By doing so it’s almost assured that you’ll make fewer mistakes. The task is unlikely to require a “do over,” for you’ll have done it right (or good enough) the first time. And very few things are more frustrating than having to re-begin a task from scratch because you didn’t take the time to think it through originally.
Any journey you begin, whether physical or mental, profits from first taking pains to ensure you’re starting out on the right foot—or direction. And here I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite cartoons (though where it appeared I no longer recall). In it a pilot is calling ground control, excitedly delivering the message that he’s lost . . . but making record time (!). And, unquestionably, it’s infinitely better to go 500 miles an hour in the right direction than 1500 in the wrong. Beyond that, going fast is too often associated with acting impulsively. And overall, impulsivity carries much greater risks than it does rewards..
Which reminds me of yet another expression: “Look before you leap.” Preliminarily exploring your probable destination is essential if you’re not to end up in a ditch from which it might be difficult, or impossible, to extricate yourself. Being prudent requires caution and contemplation, holding back to reflect on the possibly negative (if not disastrous) consequences of your prospective behavior. And such vigilant circumspection can save you a tremendous amount of time—and frustration—in the long run.
Here’s a brief run-down of the personal disadvantages of quick:
- You can work yourself sick. By putting pressure on yourself to complete something and working for extended periods of time—while short-changing yourself on sleep and rest—you can literally exhaust your immune system, making yourself especially vulnerable to catching any “flu-ish” thing that’s going around.
- You can give yourself a headache. Endeavoring to get three or four hours of work done in two necessitates working at a speed leading to such heightened stress levels that the result is often a tension headache—of your own (frenetic) creation.
- You can burn yourself out. Similar to the above, by single-mindedly trying to accomplish more in less time, by disregarding your natural rhythms, by not balancing work with play, you’re likely to end up “running on fumes.” And sooner or later, you’re likely to be worn down and out, with nothing more to give to what once you enthusiastically undertook “on all cylinders.”
- You can make serious mistakes that will come back to haunt you. Overly focusing on getting through something (possibly with breakneck speed) or restlessly rushing toward closure (perhaps to move onto your next project!), you can pretty much count on making substantially more errors than if you’d tackled your project more methodically. In consequence, you’ll probably be required either to start your present undertaking anew, or spend a good deal of extra time repairing your (quite avoidable) mistakes.
And here are three concrete examples of how trying to get something handled speedily can backfire:
- Forcing your computer to do operations at a speed it’s not up to. And this is where your computer will definitely have the last word. For if you’re too fast for it, it will freeze or in some way “disobey” your commands. Whenever you ask it to do something it’s not yet ready for, it will demonstrate—to your great frustration—that it has a “mind” of its own. Ironically, making yourself go slower with it will enable you to go faster.
- Telling someone something they’re not yet ready to hear. Timing is crucial if your communication is to have the impact or influence you desire. When you make haste to tell someone what you think they really need to know, or impulsively confront them to get something off your chest, in your not considering the time or place, or state of mind and mood of the other person, your words are likely to do more harm than good. They might be ill-considered, run headlong into th other's defenses, or offend them beyond anything you imagined. As a psychologist, I’ve learned to be exceedingly careful not to “get ahead” of the person I’m working with. For if my suggestion or interpretation is not well-timed (i.e., premature), the intervention will either be lost on them or lead to a negative reaction.
Breaking rules, or even laws, to “make time.”Have you ever, for instance, taken liberties on the highway to get somewhere in time because you started out late (probably because you tried to get too much done beforehand!). As a result, did you ever end up getting a fine, or in an accident, or been distressingly cussed out by another driver who didn’t much appreciate your (expediently) cutting him off? Finally—especially if you ended up wasting an entire day in Traffic School—was it really worth it?
As Benjamin Franklin (non-edited) classically opined: “Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.” So consider that what’s optimal isn’t to do something fast, but to do it right. Lou Carlozo, in a post entitled “Closing the Deal: If You Want to Go Fast, You Better Go Slow” (in Sales, 11/08/13), chooses this quote from Dr. William Ury (a master in the “art and science of brokering agreements”):
"There are a lot of deals struck that look fine in the beginning, but a deal is to be judged by whether it is implemented well. And to do that, it has to be set up well. You have to take that time up front."
Similarly, Stowe Boyd, in a post with an extremely similar title, “You Have to Go Slow to Go Fast,” compares such deliberative pacing to the martial arts, and then—fascinatingly!—to the new “science of slow”:
"There is a saying in martial arts: you have to go slow to go fast. It means something different from what it sounds like. The idea is that you have to be relaxed — untense [my emphasis]—to move as quickly as you are capable of.
"There is a similar angle to the newly in vogue “slow science,” which . . . require[s] time, or better, time over time. By “time over time” I mean that a researcher needs to think about a problem for a while, in a certain way, and then return to the problem later, and approach it from a different angle. And perhaps with added insight from a collaborator.
"We . . . need time to think . . . to digest . . . to understand each other, especially when fostering . . . dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot . . . tell you what our science means, [or] what it will be good for, because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time."
I’ll close this piece by citing a recent post reporting on a brain study with monkeys that gives new meaning to the dictum “haste makes waste.” The author, David Salisbury, referring to a study published in the journal Neuron (2012) by Neuroscience Professors Jeff Schall and Richard Heitz at Vanderbilt University, comments on the inevitable tradeoff between speed and accuracy. In brief, this experiment discovered that the brains of monkeys “actually switche[d] into a special mode” that led them to make more errors when they learned that rewards were contingent on decisions based not on accuracy but speed.
So I think the case is clear. Though there may be situations in which a quick response really is more important than accuracy (and maybe even necessary for survival), it’s generally wise to devote the extra time needed to get things done right rather than hurry yourself and make mistakes that end up seriously compromising the final outcome.
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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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