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New Slow City: Interview with author William Powers

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“If you’re experiencing stress, overscheduling, or generally find yourself longing for more time and space in your life, you’re probably embedded in the logic of Fast and More.”

By Eartheasy.com Posted Oct 1, 2015

William Powers

Can you imagine downsizing your home to live somewhere 80% smaller than where you live now? How about committing to work 24/7, but here’s the catch, 24/7 means that you work only 24 hours a week for seven months of the year? Sound impossible? Now imagine doing just that in the fastest city in the world, New York City.

William Powers, an international sustainability expert with the World Policy Institute and best-selling author, has come out with a new book, New Slow City, that asks if the modern city dweller can live more simply, with less.

Mr. Powers and his wife chucked most of their stuff, moved into a 340-sq-ft micro apartment in Manhattan, got rid of technology for most of the week, and scaled down to a 2-day work week. He says it’s possible for us all to slow down, live greener and with less — even in big, expensive cities.

We are lucky William has slowed down enough to share his thoughts with Eartheasy regarding the importance of living a simpler life, and what he discovered in his personal quest. Here is our exclusive interview with the author of New Slow City:

EE: To begin with, how would someone recognize they are trapped in the culture of speed?

WP: Gallup recently reported that 70 percent of American employees are either unhappy or disengaged at work. Anxiety levels among adolescents and adults are soaring, even compared to just two decades ago. One out of every four adults in America experiences some form of depression in the course of their lives. In Japan, they have a name for people who die from overworking: karoshi. Could we in the United States be tipping toward becoming a nation of karoshis?

If you’re experiencing stress, overscheduling, or generally find yourself longing for more time and space in your life, you’re probably embedded in the logic of Fast and More. Most of us are.

I, for one, became so stressed by constant work and the pace of city life that — before our Slow Year experiment — I found myself nearly a karoshi. I’m convinced that society must find a new equilibrium between the demands of business, the consumptive habits of society, and our own personal happiness.

EE: What is meant by the term “slow money?”

WP: The Slow Money movement, started in 2008 by Woody Tasch, seeks to catalyze the flow of capital to local food enterprises and organic farms, connecting investors to the places where they live and “bringing money back down to earth.” Through their national gatherings, regional events and local activities, over $40 million has been invested into more than 400 small food enterprises around the United States.

But in a more general sense, I talk about “Slow money” as looking at what author Vicki Robin calls your “joy-to-stuff” ratio, and generally easing out of the work-and-spend treadmill.

EE: You raised the question, “Can only the rich afford to go slow in Manhattan?” Have you found the answer? Can people that live on a low to modest income, go slow?

WP: My wife and I worked hard to make our attempt at Slow in Manhattan financially feasible. My previous year’s workaholism, combined with the strong savings ethic my father instilled in me, generated a nest egg of savings that — along with Melissa’s salary, a careful monthly budget, and living in a small apartment — made our plan doable. We’re not rich, and were able to do it. Also, being “Slow” doesn’t have to mean working significantly less, like I did. Even in the 9 to 5, you can cultivate positive qualities — being receptive, intuitive, patient, reflective, and valuing quality over quantity — instead of the fast qualities so common today: being busy, controlling, impatient, agitated, acquisitive. And with that new Slow perspective, people of whatever income level often find themselves more joyful, creative, and productive and even in a position to focus on the long-term goal of re-skilling, creating different income streams, and otherwise finding more life-work balance and cultivating free time.

EE: What modifications of your lifestyle do you think are the ones that made the biggest difference to contributing to a lasting slower paced life?

WP: There were so many! Here are two:

*Technology fasts”. We tuned off our gadgets for weekends (sometimes for 5-day weekends!), utilizing the “vacation auto-response” on our email. This helped quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on other and the “real” world around us.

*Silent meals”. Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape, and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner. This made our lives feel deeper, richer, more sensual and enjoyable.

EE: You make the statement “Slow is un-American.” Do you believe that can change?

WP: Nineteenth century British essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote that “man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream. Every idle moment is treason.” This is even more the prevailing ethos today. It’s treasonous to ask for something the American labor movement demanded, a century back, when union members hoisted banners reading BREAD AND ROSES. The bread was good wages. And the roses? American workers were demanding time, in the form of shorter working hours. Time to smell the roses.

Well, they didn’t get it. As Executive Director of the non-profit work-life- balance group Take Back Your Time! John de Graaf put it to me, “We’re working more than we were a generation ago. Without leisure, we’re slaves. This is a freedom fight.”

Time is a renewable resource, but we’re sold the idea it’s scarce. It’s been stolen from overworked single-moms and business executives. And from almost everybody I know.

However, I do believe it is changing. There’s a David-and-Goliath battle underway today all around the globe. People like de Graaf put happiness first. Journalists like Carl Honoré report on how American workers lost the roses. There’s spiking interest in the international Slow Food movement and in decompression activities like Tai Chi, Tantric sex, and Slow Travel. In Austria each year, people gather from all over Europe in the town of Wagrain for the annual conference of the Society for Deceleration of Time, whose members explore pragmatic means of slowing down. In Japan, the Sloth Club advocates a less-hurried and more- harmonious lifestyle, and it has swollen to seven hundred members, part of a trend called the “Latinization of Japan.” Just look at how much Slow Food has grown in the U.S. over the past couple of years.

EE: Can you tell about something that surprised you about your experience of Slow City Living? Was there anything that you thought would be very difficult to adjust to, that proved to be easy? Or anything that you thought would be easy but ended up being very challenging?

WP: I thought it would be hard to scale back to a two-day workweek. But, surprisingly, it was not. Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I spent my Slow Year practicing two principles at the same time: 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle.

The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.

Dutifully, in New Slow City I ‘80/20’ my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential work streams — in international consulting, writing, and speaking — that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to- time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid the Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson’s says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.

Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into two.

This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two-days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, has recently called for a 3-day work week and Google is increasingly experimenting in lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.

Granted, using 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle won’t be ideal for everyone or all the time. This approach is more suited to entrepreneurs and hourly workers able to prioritize their own time and tasks, nailing the most important ones as quickly as possible and thus freeing up time. But almost anyone can create a small sideline work stream and apply these principles; eventually, perhaps, this side income might become one’s main income.

EE: What would you like to see more people doing to slow down the pace, that they can decide to do today, that can make a difference in their own quality of life and to decrease the stress to the planet?

WP: It’s hard to reduce what I learned to a soundbyte. It took much effort to try and stretch a New York minute into an hour, and a great way to discover what I learned is through the new trend of Slow Reading. We’re so distracted by quick Tweets and the barrage of email that we rarely sit with a book on a non-Internet-connected device or better yet the physical book, and simply enjoy it for hours on end. Slow Reading is a radical act in our workaholic era, where economic growth is put before life itself.

The global environmental crisis is in no small part related to our constant doing —consuming, burning fossil fuels, etc.— instead of a benign and joyful being.

EE: There are those that will say if we were all to return to a slower paced life and worked only 20 hours a week, nothing would get done. Doesn’t someone have to work hard in order to make up for those that work less? Could the city still work if everyone were to make a return to the old life?

WP: Labor productivity has increased three-fold since the 1970s. That means we achieve three times as much per hour worked now, and could theoretically work three times less and still have the high quality of life—enormously high in historical terms and equally so compared to how much of the world lives today —that we did in the 70s. But that dividend has not gone toward leisure; instead hours worked has increased significantly in the same period. We might ask: When will we get off our addiction to more speed and stuff, and begin freeing up the space for more nature, more family time, more joy?

EE: Did you find the balance and joy you were looking for?

WP: Absolutely. New Slow City tells exactly that story. And for each of us it starts with creating space to slow down a little and ask the core questions, like: How do we find balance in a world that is changing more quickly than ever before in history? How do we overcome our culture’s ingrained habits of too much clutter, total work, and permanent distraction? And how can we incubate a new culture that’s slower, saner, and fit for the future?

Ed. Note: We at Eartheasy would like to thank William Powers for his generosity in composing these thoughtful replies. What a great interview!

New Slow City is currently available at Amazon here.

You can also visit William Powers’ blog to learn more about New Slow City and his other works.

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