Decelerate or die

America is a country that doesn't know where it is going but is determined to set a speed record getting there.

Laurence J. Peter

I've got 911 on speed dial.

Doug Coupland


I hope you read this essay really, really fast because it’s going to have a lot of really great insights and hot tips about the nature of speed and acceleration, insights that will help you get more done and really achieve more every day and be more efficient and effective and faster and get everything done in half the time so that you can go faster which of course will allow you to go even faster. By the time you’re done reading these words, you’ll be moving at light speed or maybe warp speed and you’ll be hyper-efficient; you’ll be dual-tasking, triple-tasking and omni-tasking, maximizing and optimizing across every dimension of your experience. You’ll save so much time you won’t even know what to do with it all. You’ll learn how to speed read, speed exercise, speed meditate, speed eat, speed date, speed love and speed live. And it’ll all be over before you know it.

But surely I jest.

Because, in fact, this is precisely my point: today’s love affair with speed and acceleration has become an all-consuming, dangerous and profoundly unhealthy addiction. The pursuit of speed is killing our bodies, our life experience, our culture and quite possibly, the biosphere itself.

Of course, many pundits have noted our culture’s obsession with speed and its many pathological consequences. But the warning bears repeating because our condition only seems to be getting worse. Driven by technology run amok, we overclock our brains, our bodies and our relationships with the world, driving ourselves insane in a manic, suicidal quest to somehow get it all done. Many of us are literally addicted to stress hormones and their stimulating effects. Cortisol and adrenaline are great drugs, but once you’re addicted, it’s hard to quit.

In cybernetic terms, we’ve gotten ourselves wrapped around the axle of life, locked in a positive feedback spiral. From the moment we wake up in the morning, we pour gas on the fire of our accelerating lives. More effort breeds more effort and increasing speed drives us into a ever-tightening knot of stress, exhaustion, depression and anhedonia (the inability to feel genuine pleasure). In complex and dynamic systems, such processes tend to end badly. Positive feedback cycles usually end in catastrophe, unless they’re regulated by some external dampener.

It never used to be this way, of course. Our Paleolithic ancestors lived with almost no sense of speed or acceleration. Predators, wildfires and neighboring tribes might have inspired occasional bursts of fast overland movement, but in general, there would have been little sense of urgency. When you’re in the middle of a vast expanse of natural habitat, why hurry? Only a fool or madman would ever propose speed-hunting or speed-gathering. The entire art of survival was based on psychophysical integration with the natural cycles of land, plants and animals. Going faster would only mean falling out of synchrony with the very knowledge that you’d need to stay alive. In other words, a relentless quest for speed would make you stupid and in turn, dead.

In contrast, we moderns take speed for granted. Technology and marketing push us harder and harder each day. Advertising tells us that speed is a necessity. But even more ominously, our compulsion seems driven by a sense of scarcity and impending doom. The economy feels like a house of cards and the biosphere may well be near collapse. Our free ride of habitat exploitation is almost over and pretty soon there isn’t going to be much left. It’s going to be a mad scramble for the last of the fresh water, the last of the natural food and the last of quiet, natural places to live. We are terrified of the future, so we speed up. Collapse feels imminent, so we’d better get our share while we can.

To make matters worse, we drive our mania with a zero-sum culture of competitive games. We teach our children win-lose contests almost from birth and in turn, these contests become models for human relationship. Capitalism pits one person against another, one company against another. We compete to get into college and we compete for jobs. We fight for an edge and a market share. And of course, if we can go just a little bit faster than the next guy, we gain an advantage. Is it any wonder that comps, racing, bracketed tournaments and speed records now dominate the world of the body? Competitive athletics is simply a reflection of the way we’ve chosen to relate to one another. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Of course, most of us are at least dimly aware that time-outs, retreats, vacations and a slower pace of living would do us all some good. And while we often talk this talk, we often fail to walk the walk. Maybe later, we say. We’ll slow down later when we have the time. So perhaps we need a shock to our system. Perhaps a series of personal, organizational or cultural catastrophes will convince us to live slower and saner. Injury, illness and broken relationships can often be wake-up calls to decelerate. But in the meantime, here’s a set of reminders and recommendations for temporal sanity:

Restore contrast in your life: Feel the rhythm between periods of striving and periods of contemplation. Deepen the contrast with concentrated effort and authentic relaxation.

Trust the body and the biosphere: Turn off the fear-based media hysterics. We face enormous challenges to be sure, but there is no need for desperate hoarding. Our bodies and societies are resilient and adaptive.

Give up on compulsive competition: You don’t have to beat everyone at everything. Try cooperation and conversation for a change.

Meditate: The very act of sitting quietly in one place, doing a non goal-directed activity for a few minutes every day, takes us out of the habit stream of frenzied striving. Deceleration increases mindfulness.

Slow down to feel more: More than anything else, we need to feel what we’re doing. As we slow down, we become more sensitive and intelligent. Our bodies absorb more information from habitat and other people. We feel more nuance and see more relationships between elements. In other words, we begin to appreciate the world in a more holistic, systemic and ecological way.

Of course, deceleration is both a personal and a cultural challenge. When you're addicted to speed, slow downs seem boring and anxiety-provoking. We feel threatened by the prospect. But remember, no matter how threatened you feel, there's nothing to be afraid of. Slowing down won't kill you. In fact, it might just be the secret to a powerful and fulfilling life.