Slowing down can actually help you speed up! How? By enabling you to focus and unlocking the foundations of your knowledge domain.



In today’s world, there seems to be much usage of words like “rapid”, “change”, “quick”, “speed”, “fast”, “instant”, “agile”, “responsive”, etc.

I have noticed that, when the meanings of these words get mixed in with emotions and thought process of work, they can lead to a feeling of being hurried or harried, of rushing, of deadlines, of insufficient time. The word “deadline” itself seems kind of scary, carrying the connotation of “dead”!

Because we feel that there isn’t enough time, often quite rightly, we are forced to go fast and rush. That in turn can lead to a feeling of pressure. That we’re trying to work quickly, but there isn’t enough time, so we are stretched or pressured.

However, I have found that when I am actually going fast – delivering lots of work rapidly and on-time, I don’t feel hurried or harried at all. In fact, I feel quite calm, relaxed and that there’s time, and I don’t feel too pressured or stretched.

So what does it really mean to be rapid, agile, responsive, fast?

Firstly, I have found that when you put pressure on yourself, you arc up, your body becomes stiff, your breathing becomes shallower. It becomes more difficult to focus, and you start to have your focus split or fragmented between a lot of different things. This loss of focus, in turn, leads to a loss of productivity and a loss of sustainable productive energy. So, while I can pump out work in a panic for a short period of time, over a longer period, it becomes unsustainable.

Secondly, I have found that the fragmentation of focus can lead to a dismantling of the ability to properly understand a problem and a problem-space. That is, because insufficient time has been spent on discovering and then solidly grasping of the foundations of a structure of knowledge, your ability to work at the higher levels of that structure becomes slow, repetitive, inefficient and tedious. You have to repetitively go through multiple iterations of the same problem before identifying the root of it, when you could have discovered the root right from the start, if you thoroughly understood the foundations of what you’re working with.

My solutions?

Firstly, rather than taking on that hurred, pressured mind-set and body language, I have found it generally better, at almost any cost, to relax and take on a cooler disposition and demeanor.

Secondly, I try to reduce the number of elements that I focus on at any one time. For example, instead of trying to deliver an entire three page report all at once, I focus on just writing one really good paragraph. Or, instead of trying to deliver multiple screens of an application, I just focus on one screen, or on one link between two screens. Or, instead of trying to deliver an entire module of code, I just focus on one or two individual functions.

Or, instead of trying to speed-read an entire chapter of a book, I spend a long time reading the first couple of pages, so that I get a very firm grasp of the foundation that the chapter rests on. In this last case, I have found that reading a book this way often leads to mentally “unlocking” the conceptual framework of the book, such that I then understand the contents so well that speed-reading actually works!

When you deliver that small amount of work, you may get a small dopamine kick. You feel a sense of achievement. You might even reward yourself with a treat! (Say, a tasty snack, or drink, or a short break.)

Because you’re reducing your focus to one element at a time, you’re able to deliver more rapidly and responsively. You can deliver a small part rapidly, then another one.

I believe this is the real spirit of many of the ideas of “agile”, “iteration”, etc. It’s not a spirit of pressure, rushing, panic, etc., but rather, of slowing down, identifying one or two things that you can break off and focus on. Those things being small enough that you can deliver them, learn from them, and then decide on your next step as appropriate.


Life doesn’t always go to plan. How might we think about plans in a way that keeps us motivated and moving forward?


Have you ever had one of those “face-palm” moments in life, where it suddenly hit you that you had made a less-than-optimal decision? If you had known more, you might have made a different decision, or no decision at all!

The frustrating thing is, now you do know! Now you can see that X and Y are necessary, in order to achieve Z. But at the time you made the decision, you weren’t aware of this.

The problem is, at the time, you didn’t have the information or awareness to know what the problem with your decision was going to be, whereas now you do know. And I think this reveals something about how work gets done and things get achieved in time, which is: not everything happens in the order that we think it will happen.

We may have a model of the world in our minds, which is sequential and tied to certain dates and times, kind of like a flowchart. For example:


A leads to B leads to C and D, D leads to E and F, and E and F lead to G.

The way things actually work out, often is quite different. For example:


A leads to B. B seems like it will lead to C, but actually ends up leading all the way to Z. And it’s only when we get to Z that we then see the whole alphabet, and that the process involves all 26 letters, not just the 6 or 7 we started out with!

We can’t really change the fact that reality often doesn’t go to plan. However, we can offer ourselves some mental consolation and self-forgivenness.

We can remember how much we didn’t know at the time. Give that memory space. And give ourselves “permission in retrospect” to have not known everything. “I didn’t know, we didn’t know”. And because that time has already passed, we can’t go back in a time-machine and make it any different (at least, not until Elon Musk gets round to time-travel!)

So, in a sense, there wasn’t necessarily ever a problem. The project did go “according to plan”, but it was just a different plan than we had originally understood! Perhaps a larger plan, perhaps smaller. But it is a plan, and there is a structure to it. We simply need to maintain our awareness of the change, adapt to it and move with it.

As you go through this kind of change many times, over the course of a career, you develop mental processes and tools for working in this way. Rather than our plans becoming like a large structure, say a tower made of stones, which can’t bend or move, our plans become more like a ship, which can be steered in one direction, then steered in another, moored and unmoored, or taken to a warehouse, dis-assembled and re-assembled.

So a change in plan isn’t a catastrophe. It’s valuable information that we can use to steer the “ship” of our work and make new discoveries along the way!


Does your schedule work for you? Here I present the “modular schedule” – a way of introducing flexibility and adaptability while preserving consistency and regularity.


Open your calendar. Maybe it’s a physical calendar on your desk. Maybe it’s a virtual calendar on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Have a look at the grid. You can see days of the week and times of the day. And the calendar tool enables you to easily create appointments and meetings and reminders. And those can easily be made to recur, so that, for example, every Wednesday at the same time, you attend an exercise class, or every Friday night at this time, you meet this person.

Using these tools can help you to structure your time and introduce some consistency and regularity, which helps you to get into productive rhythms, predict your free time and balance various priorities.

However, using such tools may also introduce a fair amount of rigidity. For example, you might have exercise on Wednesday night, but you start to feel very sick on Wednesday afternoon, forcing you to skip exercise. Or you have to miss your regular appointment on Friday night, because you realise you’ll be away on a trip, and won’t be back in time. Or you miss some other appointment because something comes up, e.g. a lengthy tax return.

A calendar with regular events occurring every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
A standard calendar features consistency and regularity, but might it also be rigid and inflexible?

Is there a way to schedule that gives us some structure, but also some flexibility?

Recently I’ve been partially experimenting with what I’ll call a “modular schedule“. Rather than scheduling specific dates and times for an event, I’ll just specify a duration (and optionally, a location) and make the event a moveable “module”.

Say it’s exercise – e.g. weight training. I decide on a place that I’ll do that, the gym. I know where that place is and how long it will take to get there. I know what activities I’ll be doing and what equipment I’ll need. And I can time-box it to, say, 1.5 hours (including travel time). So there is a sense of regularity and expectation in the event.

But because I’m not pinning it down to a time and date, the event can be moved and changed. So if I’m too sick to exercise on Wednesday, that module is still there, and it can be moved to the next day or two days later. I can take a moment on Thursday to pause, and think, “well, I’m feeling well now, and I’ve got 3 hours free, what can I do?”. And then it’s easy to slot in that 1.5-hour module exercise.

Two modules – a 1-hour exercise module and a 15-minute coffee with Jill module
Example of a modular schedule. Two modules – time-boxed, but also moveable.

By using this method, it can become easier to change and adapt your schedule on-the-fly, because you have a small set of recurring activities in mind, along with how long they’ll take (and where you’ll do them), but because you haven’t locked yourself into a time (and perhaps place, if it can be done anywhere), then you can move those activities around. You can cancel, re-order, manipulate, move them around, just like chess pieces on a board.

Another advantage of this technique is that it can enable you to allocate time more strategically. So if there’s a particularly good moment to do something, you can wait until that moment. For example, perhaps its a sunny day and the weather is nice and warm, and you think, “that’s a perfect time to walk the dog”. So you can take move your “walking the dog” module to that time. Or maybe it’s rainy, cold and miserable outside, so now is the perfect time to go to the library or the cafe, open your laptop, and get some work done. You’re making more efficient use of your time, because you’re choosing moments or contexts which will fit the best with the activities you’re performing.

So you won’t find yourself, for example, working hard on your laptop while it’s beautiful and sunny outside and you feel like exercise. Or you won’t find yourself trying to walk the dog when it’s rainy and cold outside.

So that’s the “modular schedule”. Give it a try!

PS. It will be interesting to see if software tools come out in the future, that facilitate more flexible modes of arranging time. But if you internalise this technique, add it to your mental toolbox, it can be pretty easy to start automatically making certain activities more modular, without even needing to refer to a physical or digital calendar.