Interview Carl Honoré, ambassador for the Slow Movement

Sloyu interviews Carl Honoré, an award-winning journalist, author and TED speaker. He is also a globetrotting ambassador for the Slow Movement. The Wall Street Journal called him “an in-demand spokesman on slowness.”

His books, In Praise of Slow and Under Pressure (Slow parenting) have been translated into more than 30 languages and have landed on bestseller lists in many countries. Published in 2013, Carl’s latest book is called The Slow Fix. It explores how to solve problems in every walk of life, from business and politics to health and relationships, without falling for short-term, superficial quick fixes.

Foto Carl Honoré

Interview with Carl Honoré

Is there a Before and After in your life concerning Slow life? What made you change?

Absolutely, yes.

I have definitely changed – there is for me a very clear Before and After. Before I was always trying to do more and more things in less and less time. I was all about speed and quantity. I felt hurried all the time. Now I approach each thing seeking to do it as well as possible instead of as fast as possible. This has made a big change in the way I feel about time: I no longer feel a slave to it. I feel like I have enough time for things and I never feel rushed (even though I have an exciting, full life). This is not a paradox. It’s about finding the right equilibrium and not being obsessively neurotic about time.

My wake-up call came when I found myself toying with the idea of buying a collection of one-minute bedtime stories – Snow White in 60 seconds! – to read to my son. Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all. That’s why I began investigating the possibility of slowing down.

It is not easy to slow down in a society that seems to reward and appreciate the speed. What tends to be the most important obstacles that we have to negotiate for lower speed and increase the quality of our lives?

It is not easy to slow down.

There are lots of reasons we go fast. Partly because speed is fun, sexy, an adrenaline rush. It’s like a drug and we have become addicted. Partly it’s greed: the world is a giant smorgasbord of things to do, consume, experience and we want to have it all. The problem is that having it all is a recipe for hurrying it all. Partly it’s our own mortality: we want to cram in as much living as possible for the final deadline of all. Partly it’s the modern workplace, which puts pressure on us to work faster and longer. Partly it’s technology: we’re surrounded by gadgets that permit and encourage us to do everything faster and faster. Partly it’s fear: dashing around in a constant state of distraction is a good way to avoid the deeper, unresolved questions that we all have hidden inside. Partly it’s our neurotic relationship with time: we are so afraid of wasting it that we rush to fill any unscheduled time with activity. Also, there is now such a powerful taboo against slowing down, that even when we can feel in our bones that putting on the brakes would be good for us, we find it hard to do. We’re afraid that others will mock or shun us.

But it is possible to decelerate. No man is an island and when we start slowing down we have to take account of the impact on people around us. That involves warning friends and colleagues, explaining why your are going to do less, unplug your technology more, and ask for more time for work assignments. I was afraid at first that this was going to alienate people, and initially some were skeptical. But very soon people began to understand that they could no longer reach me 24 hours a day; that I wasn’t going to say Yes to every social and work offer; that I might like a bit more time for a job. What I found is that people around me, after a time of watching me slow down, began to implement similar changes in their own lives.

The important thing to remember here is that most of us are trying to do too much. A first step to slowing down is to do less – to prioritize the things that are important and let everything else go. When you do less, you don’t feel so much pressure to go fast.

Explaining why you are going to slow down is essential. Together we all need to tackle the taboo against slowness. If you make the case the Slow means better, people understand – and are more willing to accept your deceleration than if you just slowed down without explaining.

And it is so worth the effort to slow down. Slowing down takes away the constant stress about timekeeping. It allows us to rest and recharge our bodies and minds. It improves our diet and the environment we live in. And it strengthens our relationships and communities.

Slowing down brings an inner calm. This is good for mental health but also for thinking more creatively. It also gives you time and space to reflect deeply and ask the bigger questions: Who am I? What is my role in the world? And that brings a greater depth and meaning to life. It also creates a more cohesive society where people are interested in the welfare of others.

Slowing down allows us to be more efficient. We make fewer mistakes and better decisions. It also gives us greater pleasure. We live our lives instead of rushing through them. We are able to take real pleasure from things. As Mae West famously said: “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.”

You don’t have to quit your job, move to the country and grow organic carrots to join the Slow movment. You can be Slow anywhere because Slow is a state of mind. It is a like changing a chip inside your head.

Today’s society is characterized by the abundance of information and stimuli through new technologies: Internet, social networks, the mobile… I know that you like technology and that you are active on the Internet through your website, Facebook, Twitter account and instagram. How can we use new technologies in a proper way? What are your recommendations regarding the new technologies?

People often assume that as a proponent of the Slow movement I should be against new technology. They think that slowing down, putting your life in balance, means throwing away the gadgets. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. I am no Luddite. I love technology and own all the latest high-tech goodies. To me, being able to tap the Web or speak and write to anyone anytime anywhere is exhilarating. By freeing us from the constraints of time and space, mobile communication can help us seize the moment.

But we have to use the gadgets wisely. Otherwise they start to backfire on us. They become our masters and we come their slaves.

Being always connected takes a heavy toll: it eats into our private time, it keeps us distracted so that we think less well, and it tires us out. Even high-tech companies are sending that same message: Hewlett-Packard with its warning that the constant electronic interruptions cause our IQ to fall 10 points, or twice the effect of smoking marijuana. When we stay plugged in too long, technology designed to bring us together ends up driving us apart because we become unable to give our full attention to the people we are actually with in the real world. If we use the Net intelligently, it can enrich our lives with information and social connections. If you become addicted to it, it can overwhelm us.

Human beings need moments of silence and solitude – to rest and recharge; to think deeply and creatively; to look inside and confront the big questions: Who am I? How do I fit into the world? What is the meaning of life? You cannot daydream or reflect when your mind is constantly wondering if you have a new whatsapp message or if it’s time for a fresh tweet.

Being “always on” also makes it hard to stop and stare, to smell the proverbial roses. We miss the details, the fine grain of the world around us when our eyes are glued to a screen. We lose the joy of discovering things on our own, or by chance, when we stick to routes prescribed by a GPS download. When travel involves firing off a stream of texts, tweets and audio-video footage to friends and family back home, we never completely immerse ourselves in a new place

The truth is that communicating more does not always mean communicating better. In playgrounds across the world, you see parents using phones while spending “quality time” with their children. Surveys suggest that a fifth of us now interrupt sex to read an email or answer a call. Is that seizing the moment, or wasting it?

We need to strike a balance with technology. That means finding the discipline and imagination to use it more judiciously. To switch on when it can bring us together and enrich our lives. But to switch off when old-fashioned, face-to-face communication – or even just a little of silence – is called for.

Here are some tips:

1. Set aside some time every day when you switch off all gadgets. No exceptions. And no backsliding.

2. To neutralise the anxiety we feel about switching off, tell your friends and colleagues that you will not be available 24 hours a day so that they can work around your new tech schedule.

3. Schedule some outdoor activity every day and leave the smartphone behind. Nature acts as a soothing balm.

4. Keep a diary or a running count of your screen usage for a week. Often seeing in black and white how much time we pour into technology is enough to make us scale back.

5. Experiment with leaving home without a phone charger. That way you are forced to use the phone more sparingly to avoid running out of power.

6. Set aside half an hour of screen free time before bed and after waking up. This will give you the time and space to shift out of roadrunner mode and into a more healthy rhythm.

7. Ringfence slots during the day when you switch off the gadgets.

8. Switch off your notifications (Instagram, Whatsapp, etc). That way you decide when you see an update rather than being constantly distracted.

9. Build some slow, tech-free activity into your day – something like yoga, meditation, gardening, reading, cooking, whatever takes your fancy.

Carl Honore with umbrella for Happiness & Its Causes 2013

I know that your job requires that you travel frequently. How do you manage that this does not affect your personal life? Is frequent travel compatible with a slow life?

Yes, I think travel is compatible with a Slow life. But only if you do it with a Slow spirit! Which is what I do.

That means I limit my travel and say No to many invitations. I book enough time on the trip so I do not have to rush. I take time to get to know the local culture and people as much as possible. I never travel without a novel to read, my running shoes (jogging is a great way to explore a place) and a notebook for jotting down ideas. Lately I’ve discovered the joys of painting and have just invested in a portable set of watercolours and a sketching pad that I plan to take with me on future trips. All of this is very slowing.

Plus, airplanes are the last place on earth where you can escape phones and WiFi. I use those long hours to daydream, reflect, read and recharge my batteries. Good slow, in other words!

Also, when I return home from travel I don’t hit the ground running. If I have been on the road, once I am back I’ll take a few days off. When I am at home, I don’t work evenings or weekends ever. I generally work 10 – 6 and have breaks and lunch. Every day of the week I have breakfast and dinner with my family and often I come home early two days of the week to be with my kids.

Do you meditate or practice mindfulness? Do you think that practice some form of meditation is important when adopting a Slow life style?

Yes, I think it is essential. It doesn’t have to be formal meditation or a mindfulness class. But we all need moments when we unplug, slow down and let our minds empty. This lowers stress, enhances calm and sharpens concentration. It boosts our creativity and efficiency. It can also make us happier.

I try to find a time every day when I sit in a quiet space and just breathe. It might be an empty room at the office, my bedroom, a church in the centre of town. Anywhere that allows me to step off the crazy treadmill and reconnect with myself in peace.

Can we all – without an exception – adopt a Slow life style?… Or is it impossible for people with certain jobs or with difficult family circumstances? For example, the CEO of a big company, sales people that are always on the move, single parents with a demanding job…

Clearly some people have jobs or family circumstances that make it harder, sometimes much harder, to slow down. But I do think it is possible for everyone.

Sometimes it starts with a very small step: turning off your phone for an hour in the day; eating lunch away from your computer; taking just a few more minutes to think about a decision at work; reading a bedtime story without skipping lines and paragraphs and pages.

What is your opinion about the methods we use to educate our children? What would you change in our educational systems to create slower and more conscious human beings?

I think we are doing it all wrong. We treat children like products and project instead as people. We’ve turned childhood into a race to perfection.

Many countries have turned classrooms into conveyor belts where children are stuffed with academic learning and then tested over and over again. We find it hard to sit back and just let them be. We prefer to structure, monitor and measure everything they do as though childrearing were the same as product-development. Instead of setting them loose in the park, we enrol them in organized sports or herd them into entertainment complexes to play under the watchful eye of trained staff and CCTV cameras. Even just messing about at a friend’s house has been re-branded as a “play-date.” And this is backfiring on kids in so many ways. We are now raising the fattest generation of children the world has ever seen. Athletic kids are also suffering from serious injuries in record numbers because we have professionalized youth sports.

Children who are under pressure to be perfect can end up less creative. They do not have the time or the space to explore the world on their own terms, to learn to take risks and make mistakes. They do not learn to think for themselves. They just do what they are told. They also don’t learn to look inside themselves to work out who they are because they are so busy trying to be what we want them to be. They can also suffer from more stress and exhaustion. And they don’t learn how to use time, or how to fill time on their own – so they get bored more easily.

Children who have had every moment of their lives micromanaged, organized, supervised and scheduled by adults will later find it hard to stand on their own two feet. In other words they never grow up. That is why university students are suffering mental health problems in record numbers. These days you also hear professors tell of 19-year-olds handing over the mobile phone in the middle of interviews with the words: “Why don’t you sort this out with my mum?”

Children need to learn gradually to cope with risk, fear and failure. If you wrap them in cotton wool, they grow up thinking the world owes them a free and easy ride. Discovering that life is harder than that can come as a huge shock if it comes all once. That is one reason that university students are going to pieces in record numbers around the world. After a childhood spent in a gilded cage placed a pedestal, they emerge from the family home unable to handle the rough and tumble of real life.

Children have less time to devote to free, unstructured play. This is a real problem because such play is essential for their healthy development. It knocks their brains into shape, teaching them how to think creatively, how to invent, how to get along with their peers and how to makes sense of the world and their place in it. Real play is also the best stress-buster out there.

The umbilical cord even remains intact after graduation. To recruit college graduates, blue-chip companies such as Merrill Lynch have started sending out “parent packs” or holding open-house days when Mum and Dad can vet their offices. Parents are even turning up at job interviews to help negotiate salary and vacation packages.

I think we’re also in danger of squeezing out the simple, soaring joy of being a child.

What would I change in schools?

I would build education on the understanding that children learn better when they take charge of their own learning. When they are permitted to explore the world at their own pace. When they are allowed to learn things when they are ready to learn them, rather than when the system decides they should learn them. Some of the richest learning cannot be measured by exams or graphs or charts. It leaves room for a bit of healthy competition but does not turn schooling into a winner-take-all race to the finish line. It allows children plenty of time outside the classroom to rest, reflect and process what they have learned in school. A school should aim to develop all aspects of a child’s character rather than narrowly focussing on measurable academic achievement. To create rounded citizens rather than exam-passing robots. To avoid centralized bureaucratic control and return the power to individual schools to decide what is best for their children.

There are two dangers with bringing “Slow” into education. The first is that it might not give enough of a challenge to the very intelligent children; the second is that it might not deliver enough structure and pressure for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But I think that if you devise a Slow education system properly, you can avoid both of these dangers and cater well to all children.

Imagine that you are the president of the USA. What would be your first decision to slow down the country?

What a thought!

I would introduce statutory paid vacations for all Americans. The US is the only developed nation that does not have this right legally enshrined.

I would also ban Drive-Thrus for anyone who doesn’t qualify for a disabled parking permit. There are Drive-Thru restaurants, cafes, banks, supermarkets. If Americans got out of their cars and walked more, they =would be more Slow. In a good way.

Your last book, “The Slow Fix”, is full of examples of organizations and companies that are applying a slow approach. You say that the slow movement is gaining strength in business and society. Can you give us some examples of big companies that are using a slow approach?

Yes, absolutely.

Atos, a French global IT services and consulting company with 70,000 employees in 42 countries, is running a “zero email program.” which means email will only be used when essential. Otherwise staffers are expected to communicate by telephone or in person.

Volkswagen has tweaked its Blackberry servers so staff can no longer send or receive email outside working hours in Germany.

Empower Public Relations, a 25-employee Chicago-based PR firm, cut the smartphone cord created a BlackBerry Blackout Policy, which prohibits staff from answering calls or emails from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekdays and from Friday night to Monday morning.

Boston Consulting Group has also experimented with getting staff to switch off their gadgets.

All examples of big companies putting speed limits on the information superhighway.

What are your future projects?… and when you will come over to Spain or Latin America?

The Slow Fix has just come out so I have no plans for now to write another book. I always take a long time between books to work out what I want to write about and how. Very slow process!

In the meantime, I’m giving talks about Slow around the world and making radio and TV shows on the same theme. I’m also now giving workshops on Slow Parenting. My plan is to create other more general workshops on slowing down but I need to find the right partner to work with on this. I am also looking into creating a global prize for people who are putting the Slow philosophy into action. Might call them the Good Slow Awards.

Lots of invitations to speak in Spain and Latin America this year and hoping to confirm some soon. I will be back. Promise!

Thank you very much for your time, Carl! I was a great pleasure to interview you.

Carl Honoré

Interesting links:
The Slow Fix, book written by Carl Honoré
Carl Honoré´s website and blog
Official Facebook page of Carl Honoré
Twitter account of Carl Honoré

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