We live in a world of accelerated pace where we value speed and efficiency more than reflection and learning. At least this was the case until the global pandemic hit and suddenly everything came to a halt. Locked inside, for the first time in a long time, we had plenty of time to reflect and rediscover the art of slowing down.
Now that the pandemic is over we are speeding up again and getting back to our old habits. Living in big and busy cities is only reinforcing our focus on speed. In fact, research has shown that the size of a city is positively correlated to the walking speed of pedestrians. In other words in big cities people tend to walk fast, if not run, while in smaller towns and villages people walk at a much slower pace.
This is a natural psychological response to the overstimulation people feel in busy, highly-dense environments. The busier things get, the more we accelerate, and the more we accelerate, the busier things get. It becomes a downward spiral. We increasingly get trapped in a never-ending race against time, as if almost we are trying to escape from our environment and from each other.
The art of slowing down
When I first started dancing I was completely caught up in the fast-paced rhythm of the city I was living in, London. I would go to my dance class, learn a new move, try to repeat it fast and then go to the next one without spending too much time thinking about it.
Instead of slowing down and internalising the details of the moves I would just rush through them in my effort to get the most out my class. Needless to say that I wasn’t really learning much and my dance partners were not particularly happy with my clumsiness.
You cannot really learn by going fast through the learning process and not paying attention to the details. This is not how the human mind works. In fact, the opposite is true, you need to take your time to learn and sweat the small stuff. By slowing down you start noticing the small details that usually remain hidden.
Most of the times, the secret to effective dancing lies in the details.
Why we value speeding and efficiency
The industrial revolutions of the past 200 years have significantly shaped our perception of what it means to be human. As we found ways to scale production and become more efficient we went a step too far, and somehow saw ourselves as cogs in a bigger machine. This is captured in the iconic image of Charlie Chaplin shallowed by a factory machine in his 1936 movie “Modern Times”.
But our understanding of the world has now evolved. We now know that the world is not a big machine where everything is pre-determined but rather a complex and highly unpredictable system. Organisations that want to have a competitive advantage in the 21st century focus more on innovation, creativity, and increasing value through ingenuity. This is a paradigm shift from the industrial mindset of the early 1900’s, where the focus was on the optimisation of processes and speed of execution.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to escape the pull of the industrial mindset we grew up with, especially when living in large metropolitan areas.
We learn how to be good in running and being efficient but less good in slowing down and reflecting. After all, who has time to slow down when everything moves so fast?
Kanban – Going slower to move faster
For many years, people have mistakenly thought that performance comes through multi-tasking, and cramming as much as possible in the shortest time available. However, we now know very well that this is the road to ineffectiveness, bad quality, and poor results.
Research from the American Psychological Association has shown that multitasking takes as much as 40% more time than focusing on one task at a time.
The simple approach of limiting the amount of work in progress is counterintuitive at first. But this is at the heart of one of the most popular lean approaches, Kanban, which companies use to manage and improve the workflow of human work systems. In Kanban teams use Work in Progress Limits in order to limit the amount of work at any given stage. This has been proven to reduce multi-tasking and limit task-switching, helping increase both team and individual focus and workflow.
The first Kanban system was developed by Taiichi Ohno for Toyota automotive in Japan in the 1940’s. Many decades later, in 2004, David J. Anderson was the first to apply the concept to software development and knowledge work.
Fundamentally, Kanban is about going faster and have less disruptions by doing less work at any one time while continuously learning and improving.
The art of learning
Dancing Salsa has taught me the art of slowing down, paying attention to the details, and finding my flow.
However, many novice dancers fall into the industrial mindset trap. They are trying to rush through learning in order to get the most out of their money and time investment. But in dancing, as with many other arts, you cannot absorb new knowledge and learn by cutting corners. To reach the mastery level required you have to take your time, observe and appreciate. Learning is a human process that needs to take its course to allow our brains create new neural connections.
In the past, I had fallen in the same trap, until I realised that the secret of dancing was to actually take the time to break down the moves. It was to allow myself to understand their sequence in space and time before executing them in real-time.
How slowing down can accelerate your learning process
When I slowed down a number of interesting things happened.
First, I could break down the exact level of tension I had to apply to my partner’s hands in a much easier way. Some partners put too much pressure on their partner’s arms and bodies in their attempt to dance fast. They think that more power equals more control but of course this is not true. There is a sweet spot of tension that gives the right signal at the right time to your partner and it takes practice to figure it out.
Second, I could understand the sequence and timing of the moves much better. Instead of rushing ahead of rhythm or skipping sections I learned how to surrender to the rhythm. The polyrhythmic nature of Cuban music demands you to slow down and actively listen to the intersection of rhythms. If you don’t learn how to adapt and follow the ever-changing rhythm you will never find your flow. What matters is not speed but relative speed.
Third and most importantly I could identify easier the hidden little secrets that make everything effortless when moving at pace. I could understand how a single move was comprised of a large number of micro-moves that they all fell together like pieces of a puzzle. When we only focus on the whole we oversimplify and maintain superficial knowledge of the moves.
I have now stopped putting pressure on myself to pick up moves instantaneously and perform them at the same evening.
Escaping the speed trap
As we become drained by our busy lives we find ourselves with less and less patience. We get stuck in bottlenecks, trying to find shortcuts and getting fixated on quick results. Furthermore, we try to cram as many activities in our schedules as possible to “make the most” of our days.
But there is a hidden wisdom in slowing down our pace of learning. We allow our brains to calm down, focus more, and appreciate the details and nuances that deepen our learning.
It is time to let go of the industrial mindset that dominated our lives for so long and experience life at a more human pace.