Slow and steady: Sometimes, we accomplish more by doing less

For as long as I can remember, I have been trying to catch up.

I was the youngest of four girls, so I was never as wily, fast or smart as my big sisters. I started first grade at 5, so I always felt like I was emotionally behind my classmates. I was a type B person at heart, but I could never move quickly or efficiently enough to satisfy my type A family.

A long-undiagnosed case of ADHD made it hard to get things done on time. I saw projects as giant, indefinable glaciers of endless tasks, rather than clearly prioritized stepping stones to a final destination.

The disorder also made me misread time: Surely, eight hours was enough time to study for three tests, read “War and Peace” and create a diorama illustrating the Big Bang theory, right? So I procrastinated — and then I REALLY had to rush to get done on time. Consequently, I’ve always felt I needed to speed up.

I had to go faster, faster, faster to get as much done as other people seemed to accomplish so effortlessly. I always had that anxious feeling in the back of my throat — that nagging ache that I was behind and I needed to hurry. There was only one problem with rushing: It didn’t really help. Aesop was right: Hare-brained races would leave me exhausted and lagging, while my hard-shelled friends continued inching steadily and unflinchingly toward their goals.

Haste really does make waste. We miss important details when we rush. We drop things, fall down stairs, burn dinner, blurt out the wrong thing, get in fender benders. This state of constant hurry-up-ism, of frantic rushing, is exhausting, and it seems to lead to nowhere.

Yet we live in a world that seems to expect sprinting versus plodding. We have apps, pings, planners and calendars that seem to exist for one reason: They tell us to hurry up. Get this appointment done, because you have another one right after it. Don’t be late. Have you accomplished the three things on your priority list today?

But a few months ago, I ran across a list of coping hints for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I was especially shocked by one of them, as it didn’t tell me how to be faster, more focused and more productive. It said to stop, take a big breath and do nothing.

It reminded me that we are not machines, programmed to work faster and faster at the push of a button. We are human beings, and sometimes we need a break. Sometimes, we need to stop trying to drink from the fire hose of information and stimuli blasting toward us. We need to close our eyes, rest and be still. One of the most effective ways to center and recalibrate is to do nothing, to simply be.

So I’ve started doing this. I have a sticky note by my workstation that contains the word “Critical” and an outline of two dog paws. It’s my reminder to take a “critical pause,” before I hurl myself into the next frenzy.

I’ve started drawing turtles and stop signs in my planner, and — on occasion — I’ve marked off big chunks of time and labeled them: “Shameless wastrel practice.”

I’ve learned that when I’m making a pie, I’m not participating in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. It doesn’t need to be done in 30 minutes or else I’m disqualified. I don’t need to tear open every cupboard and dirty every bowl in the cupboard because I’m cooking as if 20 hired men are sitting around the table and yelling for food. In fact, I get a lot better results when I’m not rushing so quickly that I accidentally use salt instead of sugar.

There’s something very Zen and meditative in doing each simple task mindfully, deliberately and precisely. I still have a long way to go. My brain is still wired to absorb every detail at once; I will always struggle to a certain degree with feeling overwhelmed.

But I no longer believe more is always more, and I will not be afraid to stop, breathe and do nothing. We all need that — now and Zen.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.