The Surprising Power of Slowing Down

In 2001, Harry Lewis, the Dean of Harvard College, wrote a letter to all incoming freshman. He encouraged freshman to “slow down” and change their approach to their upcoming Harvard experience.

It’s not surprising that Harvard welcomes some of the most driven and ambitious students in the nation. However, Lewis encouraged students to rethink the pressure to rush through the curriculum in 3 years and cram their extracurricular schedules with countless, uninspired activities. He advised more flexibility and spontaneity, more time off, greater pursuit of intrinsic passions, and more resilience to setbacks and failures.

The quote below perfectly summarizes the main message.

Lewis states:

“In advising you to think about slowing down and limiting your structured activities, I do not mean to discourage you from high achievement, indeed from the pursuit of extraordinary excellence, in your chosen path. But you are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time, some recreation, some time for solitude, rather than packing your schedule with so many activities that you have no time to think about why you are doing what you are doing.”

After reading this letter, I realized these lessons apply to us non-Harvard attendees. We want success and achievement, but face the same pressures as Harvard freshman:

·        We are under pressure to do more less time.

·        We prioritize shallowness and quantity over depth and quality.

·        We’re always thinking and planning 10 steps ahead, instead of enjoying the present moment.

·        We don’t take time off since it’s is seen as a weakness

·        We succumb to peer pressure and choose activities because others think they are right for us.

·        We ignore our physical and mental health to get more done

The principles in Lewis’s letter are instructive in how to live a better life. These are simple but not easy to implement. We are so caught up in the day-to-day emergencies that we forget the long-term lessons that enable success. The more you implement the ideas in this letter, the better your life.

Below are my thoughts on the most critical lessons from his letter:

1.      For most of our lives, success has required jumping through other people’s hoops. In academics, we had to score a certain level on the SAT, achieve a certain GPA, and complete a specific curriculum plan, with very little freedom to deviate from that plan. In the working world, we have to follow irrelevant rules, obey a culture that suppresses our real desires, or follow orders we don’t agree with. We do these things to achieve what society has decided is successful – graduating from school or staying employed.

However, sustainable success comes when we pursue activities that are intrinsically motivating, not imposed by others. The more we can focus on our passions, the higher our satisfaction. It’s tough to do though because there’s rarely free time just waiting to be used. You must create the time by deliberately thinking about what you do. That requires making choices that may aggravate others around you. It requires being selfish, because if you don’t put your needs in front of others, you’ll never have control of your schedule.

We are often stuck because we focus outwardly on what others want instead of directing our activities based on what we want. Regaining a sense of control is motivating and satisfying. Build a greater sense of control for yourself by focusing on the things that provide lasting, intrinsic pleasure. 

As Lewis stated, “Before you take on too many simultaneous major extracurricular commitments you should at least pause to ask yourself if you are trying to prove to someone either yourself or another, that you are superman or superwoman, and maybe even setting yourself up for failure in that endeavor.”

2.      Instead of enjoying the moment, we ruminate about future worries and upcoming commitments. A better way is to allow yourself the flexibility to choose what you want and make choices on the spot. Not everything has to be part of a master plan. Plus, it’s hard to know what you will enjoy in the future. Stop trying to plan out every last detail. The busy work will always exist. It never ends. Taking a few hours to engage in something away from the drudgery not only makes you better off, you’ll be more effective when you return.

Lewis advised, “Think of your freedom as a choice – on what courses to take, of how to spend your Sunday afternoons, whatever – as a commodity that is precious in and of itself. Don’t construct a schedule for yourself that wastes that freedom. Learn to do constructive things with your time not because you have to…but because you want to.”

We need to embrace the same openness to our schedule. Not everything needs to be optimized.

3.      Play the long game. Quit trying to rush through things just to get to the finish line. The value is in the journey, not the end. As Lewis noted, many Harvard students want to complete their studies in 3 years instead of 4. It’s a rush that’s driven by demand to do more in less time.

Lewis advised otherwise. “There is certainly no reason to think that a life path that may be open to you at the age of 21, say, after three years in college, will be lost if you instead get a year’s more education and graduate at 22.”

There’s value in slowing down and focusing on the quality of your experience, whether that’s reading a book, taking a walk, or having a conversation. There’s intrinsic value in the moment of these activities, not simply finishing them. I’ve personally felt the urge to rush through reading a book, just so I can say I’ve read one more book. But I obviously miss the point of what reading is supposed to mean. Now, if I’m not enjoying the book, I quit that book, find one I do enjoy, and slow down to enjoy it.

4.      Take some time away from your daily work – whether you are at school, at home, or work. Time away can be in different forms – complete days off, long-term sabbaticals, or an hour working on a personal passion. Time away is beneficial if you are struggling with your long-term purpose. It gives you space to think, away from the constant pressures of your typical responsibilities. In addition, it’s hard to imagine that the last incremental hour of any given day is really that productive. It’s likely you get most of your work done in the first 5-6 hours, and the rest of the time is spent unknowingly on irrelevant tasks.

There’s an interesting phenomenon called Parkinson’s Law, which states – “work expands to fill the time allotted.” For example, if you typically work eight-hour days, commit to work one less hour, and I’ll guarantee you will get the same amount of work done in 7 hours. You’re facing diminishing marginal productivity. Your first hour is more productive than the 2nd, which is more productive than the 3rd, etc. By the time you get beyond 8, 9, or 10 hours a day, your productivity becomes severely impaired. Cut off that marginal last hour and redirect it towards something more personal and productive. Not only do you get to work on something valuable, you make Parkinson’s Law work for you by shifting the remaining working hours into a higher productivity state.

5.      Stop expecting perfection. How you interpret failure has a major effect on your well-being. If used constructively, failure is a critical component of feedback that allows you to grow and get better. If used poorly, failure is seen as a personal attack and confirmation of your flaws. If you don’t have setbacks, you aren’t taking enough chances. Playing it safe to avoid failure rarely leads to long-term success and ensures continual regret and “what ifs”.

Lewis reminds us, “You’ve already accomplished a lot just to arrive here, but life is complicated and every failure offers constructive lessons about yourself. Find subjects you are happy studying, and things you are happy doing, even if you are not going to be the best in the world at them.”

You too, have likely accomplished a lot. Enjoy the value of trying new things and just being okay at them.

I recommend reading the entire letter, found here: