In our country, hustle is king. Since its beginnings, the U.S. has been a place where people are praised for working harder, longer, and faster to accomplish our goals and achieve the “American Dream.” It’s in our DNA. It’s no wonder we’ve ended up a society that prides itself on busyness. The person who stays late often gets the promotion. We’re constantly packing more into our schedules, and efficiency is the ultimate measure of what’s working.
While the pandemic has certainly taught us what it looks like to slow down, it’s hard to shake the mindset of productivity and efficiency. In recent years it seems culture has become more aware of the need for mindfulness to counteract our productivity. We’re tired of the stress and the burnout.
The Business of Slowing Down
One place this is clearly evident is in app sales. Ironically, productivity apps and mindfulness apps are almost functioning as competitors in the current climate. The demand and revenue for both industries is high.
“The mindfulness and wellness industry is growing fast with over $1 billion in revenues in 2015 (according to IBISWorld), over 1,000 mindfulness apps in the app store and over $50 million in revenues for just one popular app called Headspace, valued at $250 million at the start of 2017,” wrote Samira Far for Inc.com in 2017. “Altassian, an Australian software company, acquired Trello for $425 million earlier this year. Trello, focused on teamwork and productivity, launched as a standalone company in 2014 and currently has around 19 million users.”
According to techcrunch.com, the top 10 meditation apps, including Headspace and Calm, brought in $195 million in 2019, which was up 52 percent from the year before.We are more aware than ever of the need for mindfulness in our lives and that efficiency isn’t always the best measure of value.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
In the most recent episode of the Real Hope podcast, I sat down with my friend and country music star Tracy Lawrence. He helps organize a turkey fry and concert every November to benefit Nashville Rescue Mission and serve the homeless communityHe says he’s experienced this truth first hand. Since the Mission:Possible Turkey Fry began in 2006, people have encouraged Tracy to make the event bigger, move faster and serve more people. But Tracy says we would lose something if we did that.
“I felt like one of the biggest things that made this [event] special was the pace of it,” he says. “It’s really a fellowship, once you get everything rolling after that first batch of turkeys. It really calms down and everybody just kind of hangs out and socializes.”
If the event were bigger and more “efficient,” the ability to truly connect with people and spend time getting to know them would be lost.
“I think it’s very important to humble ourselves,” Tracy shares in our conversation. “I think that’s what Jesus wants us to do — to put ourselves in the lesser man’s situation and try to make them feel as special and important as we can.”
The Value of Inefficiency
In many areas of our lives, we tend to value efficiency over most other measures of success — how much can we get done in the shortest amount of time? Sometimes this is beneficial, but not always. In fact, sometimes it’s a detriment.
“Efficiency as a threat, I think, appears in a number of ways,” says Edward Tenner, author of The Efficiency Paradox. “If we try to do everything efficiently, then we are turning off the power of serendipity, which relies on our taking a wrong turn occasionally or picking up a book that we hadn’t expected.”
This is clear in examples of technology, in which algorithms learn from experience to predict outcomes and solve problems. The problem is the removal of critical thinking and chance. Tenner says this happens, for example, when people use a navigation app like Waze, and it makes the occasional but significant blunder.
“If they keep their awareness of where they are, if they keep their common sense, and if they keep trust in their common sense, then they can get the most of the program while avoiding those little disasters,” he says.
We can’t go on auto-pilot. Another example of efficiency being a detriment is in a learning setting.
“There is a lot about education that can be improved by what is called desirable difficulty,” Tanner says. “That means that somebody who is taking notes on a lecture, for example, will learn more if they have to paraphrase the lecturer in longhand than if they can type verbatim on some device with a keyboard. When you are forced to write, when you have that constraint of writing, when you can’t write everything down verbatim, then you are forced to digest for yourself and understand better the major questions of the lecturer.”
Efficiency doesn’t often leave room for creativity, connection and or critical thinking. In fact, a slower pace is actually biologically beneficial for our bodies and minds.
“Slowing down lowers stress and blood pressure, enhances decision making and other cognitive functions, and restores emotional equilibrium,” writes Susan Avery Stewart, Ph.D. for Psychology Today.
It’s not easy, but practicing mindfulness and being present is important for our wellbeing and how well we love others. After all, think about how you feel when you’re eating a meal with someone and they are looking at their phone the whole time. It’s becoming rarer every day to give someone or something your undivided attention — but that makes it all the more meaningful when we do. Being present with someone is a rare but significant gift you can give. It’s a testament to their worth and value as a human being. It shows them they matter — that they’re important.
One person who exhibited this characteristic well is none other than the late Fred Rogers, host of the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whether he was on screen or off, Mister Rogers developed a reputation for being disarmingly intentional with every person he met. He looked people in the eye. He asked questions with earnest curiosity to children and adults alike and truly listened to the responses.
In an article for The Atlantic, now-therapist Adelia Moore remembers her experience on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” when she showed Fred some quilts, wall hangings and stuffed animals she had made for friends and family.
“He lingered over a picture of me with my great-grandmother, saying, ‘She must have been so proud to have a great-granddaughter named after her.’ I showed him how to sew a tail on a stuffed rabbit I was making for my son’s fifth birthday, and how to make a toy called a button spinner. ‘I like the things you make,’ he said. I felt a warm glow from his attention.”
Adelia goes on to connect his ability to be totally engaged to fulfilling our human need for attunement and connection, which she now uses to inform her therapy sessions with parents.
“When parents pay attention to their children as Mister Rogers did—with genuine curiosity—they tend to focus more on what is happening between them and their children, and less on their own stresses and to-do lists. If they can establish a pattern of responsiveness, they can do what Mister Rogers did with his sweater, shoes, and song, and build up the sense of security that kids need to thrive.”
His ability to break down walls with his slow-paced, others-focused demeanor was remarkable and continues to be marveled at by society after his passing. In a culture where productivity and individuality are part of our DNA, his genuine interest in people was unusual and astounding to many. But as a believer, Mister Rogers was simply taking his cues from Jesus.
The Original Example of Mindfulness
Jesus’ focus on simply spending time with people — especially people who were not typically accepted during his time on earth — was perplexing to many. He was never in a hurry. He stopped to talk to a woman who touched his robe in the hopes of being healed. He welcomed children when others saw them as interruptions. He washed his disciples’ feet. He encouraged his disciples to be present and soak up time with Him while they could:
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
Matt. 26:6-12 (ESV)
Jesus was and is the ultimate example of what it looks like to slow down and prioritize what matters in the moment.
It was qualities like these that made Jesus unusual. People took notice. He disrupted the status quo and that made people uncomfortable — even angry. While we’re certainly not Jesus, we can read about His demeanor in the Word of God and reflect it in our own lives. It might make people uncomfortable or frustrated (especially when it negatively impacts efficiency or productivity) but when we put people first, the impact is eternal.