I was 22, knee-deep in thesis research on a remote Caribbean island, when late one night a new friend asked a question that struck me: “When do you feel most alive?”
A handful of experiences immediately came to mind: running with fire in my feet. Skiing as the air rushed by me. Taking action quickly. Making things happen — fast. My answer came easily: “I feel most alive when I move fast.”
And for the next eight years, as I navigated a career, relationships, publishing a book and starting a business, it stayed on my mind like a tattoo. Moving fast was what I did, who I was. I didn’t know another way to move through the world — and besides, wasn’t it the best way? As I found out this year, moving slowly can have just as big an impact.
In full disclosure, the first part of my slowdown wasn’t at all on purpose. One morning last spring I woke up to a bright blue sky: only, everything was too bright. After a day of shrugging it off, I was soon ferrying from doctor to doctor and getting dire warnings to avoid looking at any screens and over-exerting my eyes, or risk doing permanent damage. And by screens, they meant computers: my speed-loving lifeblood. So, I dictated anything urgent to my team then settled into my own purgatory: a week straight of listening to every episode of “Scandal.” All my big plans for guesterly — my talks, my meetings, my action — slowed to molasses.
And guess what? It wasn’t that bad (surprise surprise). My business didn’t cease to exist. As my eyes healed, we had to move some timelines out, but…so what? I rescheduled some of my missed meetings and let a few others slip away. As summer started in earnest, I realized for the first time that I could choose to move off the fast lane for a season.
This “slowdown period” is the best thing I could have done — for myself, my team and my business. We’re refreshed and re-energized, and after a year of being in full-tilt crazy fast startup mode, slowing down gave us a chance to look at our product and market with new eyes. Instead of zooming full speed ahead, slowing down for a season let us make the smartest moves (instead of simply the obvious ones).
As we started gearing up for our next growth spurt, I took some time out with a mentor, and did a post mortem on our slowdown season. Here’s what we learned, including why you should take a slow season, when and how to switch to the slow(er) lane and how to get the most out of it.
Slow Down When…
- You need to figure out the right direction. Or maybe you just have a gut feeling that you’re ignoring something important. Our slowdown came a few months after we launched our new software product, when we had enough user feedback and real results to start making educated decisions. Succeeding at business is a game of inches…but only if those inches are going in the right direction. When moving fast, I could only answer the next immediate questions, instead of taking time to figure out what the right questions even were.
- You or your team are physically or mentally beat. Sometimes you can’t slow down when you’re dead tired, hate your business and haven’t been to the gym in weeks, but sometimes you actually can. If you feel mental or physical burnout coming your way, preempt it with a short slowdown. For me, my freak eye infection — which doctors thought was brought on by stress — was a wakeup call.
- Your customers slow down. Maybe your slowdown period coincides with a natural calendar slowdown, say, over a holiday season or summer. Or maybe it lines up with the slow season in your industry. Track what your customers are doing and mimic their cycle.
How to Do It Right
- Set a timeline, including when you’ll ramp back up. For us, the end of summer was a natural timeline. That way, you remember that you are in a slow period — on purpose — but you’re not staying there forever. The timeline can be personal, but I’d recommend anywhere from one to four months (we did about three). That’s how long it takes to get a real breather and also step back in a concrete way. A set milestone in your life or business might serve as a tangible “end” to your slowdown: a child starting school, a new product shipment coming in or a business retreat.
- Decide if your slowdown includes your team. In our case, it worked out well: our team is comprised of independent contractors who were happy to lighten their over-packed schedules for a few weeks. If you have full-time payroll employees, you might decide that you can’t afford for them to slow down, but maybe you leave vacant positions vacant for a few months or encourage people to take their vacations during the slowdown period when they’ll miss fewer important things.
What’s best for your team? Ask them. If it means reduced hours (and reduced pay) for a period, ask if they’d be comfortable with that. If just reading that sounds like something your employees would never go for (you know their schedule, workload and financial situation) then your slowdown might be personal, not company-wide. But make a conscious effort to then delegate tasks to those who aren’t slowing down.
- Don’t announce it to the world. A slowdown doesn’t mean shutting down, or at least not shutting down for more than a week. You still want customers to see your doors as wide open. What you can slow down is outgoing activity: new business development, promotions that bring customers streaming through your door, big infrastructure projects. Instead of stopping regular business, you’re simply taking a step back from growing your business.
Get the Most Out of It
- Create one thing: a high-impact vision. One of the best things about slowing down is that you can really marinate on what your vision for the company is. For us that required stepping back, way back, from the noise of our current day-to-day business. What came to the surface is what we’re now executing on fast and furious this fall (software for a new sales channel and a new location). Those areas weren’t at the top of my to-do list heading into our slow period, but quietly rose to the top as I listened. And most of that “marinating” happened during walks on the beach!
- Slow down for real. Yes, I’m talking to you. Once you decide to slow down for a period, take the time seriously. Shorten it if you have to, but make sure to go on vacation, kick off early on Friday afternoons and actually enjoy the life you’ve created for yourself. For a year straight I didn’t stop working on weekends, but during our slowdown period, I’d close my computer down by noon most Fridays. And I took the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends and didn’t talk about guesterly non-stop. Now I can dive into another chaotic, speedy season of business with the full support of my loved ones.