Why It’s Sometimes Faster to Slow Down

By Steve McKee

They say slowing down is a sign of maturity. The older I get, the more I believe it.

When someone is prepping for a marathon, most training schedules call for a long, slow run about once a week. Many runners, however, can’t quell their competitive juices and instead make it a long, not-so-slow run. That works well until they inevitably injure their bodies from overuse, learning the hard way (as I did) that a long, slow run is meant to be just that.

Driving on Germany’s autobahn at any speed you want is exhilarating, but it comes at the cost of potentially losing control. I learned that the hard way, too. Listening to podcasts at 1.5 speed enables you to get through more of them, but you won’t comprehend as much. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to accept.

There are many more lessons we all learn about the downsides of speed as we go through life. If you run at the swimming pool, you’ll get whistled by the lifeguard. If you eat too fast, you’ll get indigestion. Proposing on the first date is not a good idea (that’s one I never tried, fortunately).

Despite all that, in business it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because things can go increasingly faster, they should go increasingly faster. That’s when it’s helpful to remind ourselves that slowing down isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, in fact, the wait is the point.

Do you want deep dish or a Hot Pocket?

Going out for deep dish pizza in Chicago? Expect to hang around for forty-five minutes or more until your pie arrives. Sure, you can microwave a Hot Pocket in a little more than 45 seconds at the convenience store, but the culinary experience will be far from the same (not to mention the damage it will cause to the roof of your mouth).

Designing a new logo? You may be brilliant enough to solve the challenge in your head during the initial briefing meeting. But you’d be foolish to present it immediately—unless you’re OK with your work being seen as a Hot Pocket rather than deep dish.

On the web, the “labor illusion effect” says that with respect to complex searches on sites that deal with things like travel, dating or financial services, users tend to better trust results for which they have to wait a bit. There’s a point of declining return, of course, but people instinctively know that good things take time. Moore’s Law implies the benefits of the ever-increasing speed of computer processing capability, but it doesn’t apply to everything.

Take restaurant delivery services. Often when we order something online, we want it to be delivered as soon as possible. But if you’ve ever scheduled an order at 9:00 a.m. to arrive at noon, getting it faster isn’t better, and the fresher the food the more disappointing (and sometimes disgusting) it can be. In most cases, delivering earlier than promised scores extra points; when it’s a meal, if it’s not right on time it’s not right at all. Same with bus schedules. Or airline departures. Or the punchline of a joke. “Timing is everything” doesn’t always mean “sooner is better.”

Know when to tap the brakes

One place my firm has seen this principle manifest itself is in the transition of young companies from the startup phase to the first stages of maturity. In the early days, startups tend to believe that nothing they do is fast enough, and breaking things along the way is accepted as part of the ride. As these companies mature, however, one of the management challenges is slowing things down to a more disciplined pace. The sales team will almost always say things are moving too slowly, but the production and customer service teams will beg to differ. The art of leadership is knowing where to keep the pedal to the metal and where to tap the brakes.

To everything there is a season. Some tasks should be completed as quickly as possible; other things are meant to take time. Sometimes you have no choice but to act fast; at other times it’s better to slowly deliberate.

Speed can kill as well as thrill. Kids grow fast, but so does cancer. In life, maturity can’t help but slow us down. The same is true in business. Late is never good, but early ain’t always great.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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