How to Feel Good About Going Slow

My weekends revolve around baking.

Well, baking and running. So really, my weekends revolve around patience.

It wasn’t always this way. I like to go fast. When I was a kid, I’d rather finish my homework or even a test in record time than take the time to check my work. This was rarely an issue, and I still got excellent grades. My mom and my teachers would merely express frustration and suggest that I just go a little slower, so I didn’t make any mistakes. I tell my own daughter the same thing now.

Anyhow, no one really cared if I did A work instead of an A+ work because I just wanted to be done with the thing. But today, there’s more on the line. Today, moving too fast means disappointing people, making costly errors, causing others to pick up my slack, or missing key opportunities. 

While I’m not perfect on this front, I’ve made quite a bit of progress on slowing down and operating more patiently. And I feel really, really good about it.

Becoming a baker and a runner taught me the value—and often the pleasure—of patience.

Neither baking nor running has room for urgency. Try to bake too fast, and not only are you guaranteed to forget a critical ingredient like salt or yeast, but you’ll end up with a messy kitchen and a misshapen final product. And while running with patience might seem like an oxymoron, I’ve found patience really is the key. If I try to run too fast or squeeze too much training into a small window, my impatience is bound to catch up with me.

I started running before I started baking in earnest. And, learning about the ins and outs of training as a runner has made learning the ins and outs of baking so much easier. 

Up until the last few years, baking was not my thing.

It felt too rigid, too easily screwed up. I liked to cook—by feel, by taste, by approximation—but not bake. Yet as I’ve gotten better about doing things with care and patience, the world of baking became less hostile and more welcoming. I was able to worry less about screwing things up and enjoy the process of gathering and weighing ingredients, waiting for them to come together, and embracing the long periods of rest that so often accompany a recipe for bread or pastry.

For me, baking is a practice. 

While I certainly love to eat what I’ve baked, I find that I actually enjoy the practice of baking much more than the consumption of my baked goods. Luckily, there are plenty of people I can share the product of my labor with. 

The philosopher Kieran Setiya divides our activities into two categories: telic and atelic. Telic activities are those that we do for their end product. The purpose of telic activities is to get to the end. But atelic activities are those we do to do them. The purpose of atelic activities is that the process of doing them has value. 

In my book, I give these two types of activities a bit more conventional names: practice and achievement. Telic activities are focused on achievement—be it mundane, utilitarian, or extraordinary. Baking can easily be a telic activity. For instance, I have many fond memories of eating the circular bread loaves that my mother’s mid-90s bread machine churned out when I was young. She’d add the ingredients to the machine in the morning, program it, and, by the time my brother and I were hopping off the afternoon bus,  we’d have fresh bread. Bread machines are a fantastic way to take the work out of baking bread. And, they’re a lovely way to ensure that time or attention never stands between you and a piece of the fresh, warm loaf.

But what I value about baking—especially baking bread—is the process.

I don’t want to take the work out of baking; I want to revel in as many delightful challenges from the work of baking as possible. And that’s what makes it an atelic activity—it’s focused on practice.

For me, the purpose of practice is awareness and groundedness, not improvement—and certainly not perfection. Meditation teacher Sebene Selassie writes that with practice, “we being to distinguish clearly between what we think is happening and what’s actually occurring and meet everything with kindness.” Each time I go to bake a loaf of bread, I need to shed any preconceived notion of what is happening and stay present to what the dough is actually doing. I might notice that today’s dough requires a longer kneading time because the gluten just doesn’t seem to be developing very quickly. Or, maybe I notice the hydration is off and bring it back into balance with a little water or flour. 

A recipe isn’t an algorithm; it’s a system.

Even if I’ve made a recipe 10 or 20 times, I need to pay attention each time I make it because a recipe isn’t an algorithm; it’s a system. It’s a system that connects to the humidity in the air, the temperature of the kitchen, and the force I knead with. And, a bread recipe is a system that has a completely fluid relationship to time.

The recipe might say to let the dough rise for an hour, but it will also given a visual description of when the dough is actually ready for the next step. So, for instance, it doesn’t matter if an hour has passed if the dough hasn’t doubled. I need to pay attention to how it’s reacting on that day, at that temperature, with that recipe, and at this humidity. What is it supposed to look like or feel like when it’s ready for the next step? Is it there yet? How about now? 

There are plenty of ways that a loaf of bread can go wrong. And most of them are preventable if I’m paying attention. And, as Selassie points out, not only do I need to pay attention, but I need to be kind. If I get ticked off or frustrated by my dough because it’s not doing what I think it’s supposed to be doing, it doesn’t do any good. Nor does it help if I start unkindly blaming myself. The kind way to respond is with curiosity. Why is this happening? What could I try to fix it?

Writing of meditation as a practice, Selassie explains that “meditation helps us identify and unwind our conditioned fear, anxiety, and reactivity.” That’s what baking does for me, too. And as I identify and unwind my fear, anxiety, and reactivity—patterns I’ve internalized over a lifetime—I’m able to let go of urgency. I am more patient. 

Baking is the perfect opportunity for me to practice patience, attention, and care.

And patience, attention, and care do not come naturally to me. Or rather, they are ways of being I learned weren’t valuable early in life. Baking allows me not only to practice but to find enjoyment in these ways of being. To find satisfaction and pleasure in kneading the bread long enough so that it “windowpanes” or baking it long enough to produce that lovely hollow sound when I knock on the bottom of it.

The practice of baking gives me a way to experience time differently. Instead of ruminating on the past or future, watching the clock, or marveling at how quickly the last year went by,

Baking tethers me to the experience of time as present. Each minute that passes is felt as gluten developing in my hands or observed as yeast producing tiny bubbles. I am present as I sit reading on the couch in between steps or folding the laundry while the air is perfumed by what’s happening in the oven. Time becomes embodied and sensory.

Modernity made time disembodied.

The clock synced our lives to a machine rather than the sun or the seasons. Time became utilitarian rather than experiential. Time became something we could sell for an hourly wage or project fee. With every new advance in time-telling precision, we became further and further detached from our visceral, sensory experience of time.

Time, in a very real way, has gotten away from us.

Or, maybe, we’ve gotten away from time.

What’s the harm? we may wonder. Perhaps this is an adaptation to the built world that is productive, even evolutionary. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether that adaptation really serves us or whether it serves existing systems of harm and exploitation. Or as L. M. Sacasas put it, “In innumerable ways we bend ourselves to fit the pattern of a techno-economic order that exists for its own sake and not for ours.” We created clocks to use as tools—and now the tool uses us.

The urgency of clock time shapes our societies. It complicates our creativity. It disconnects us from our most precious values and relationships. 

Urgency doesn’t only exist at the borders of our attention—the emergencies, the sparks of imagination, the rush jobs. No, we weave urgency into the fabric of how we structure work and life. If things feel especially urgent to you right now, you’re not alone. Maybe you’ve been daydreaming about several work projects, and now it feels like you have to do them all right now. Or maybe two weeks ago, it felt like you had plenty of time before that next deadline. But now that deadline is here, and it’s urgent. Or maybe that’s the attitude your client or employer is bringing into your work.

It can feel like life and work will never be anything other than urgent.

While I’d like to be able to wave a magic spatula and remove that sense of urgency for you, I can’t. Many of us face legitimate urgency—bills need to be paid, deadlines need to be met, kids need to be cared for. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a way for you to practice letting go of urgency. Maybe there’s a way for you to practice experiencing time in a way that doesn’t have to be packed with value, usefulness, or even meaning. 

Baking reminds me that it doesn’t matter whether the clock says it’s been an hour or two. If the dough hasn’t doubled, it’s not time for the next step. The dough doesn’t care what other activities I hoped to accomplish during the day. It doesn’t care that I’ve allotted a certain amount of clock time to the task of baking. The dough is on Bread Time. And as the baker, so am I.

The same is true of any of my professional endeavors. While there is certainly a need for synchronicity and due dates, most of my work happens outside of preset timeframes. My work happens on my morning run, while reading a novel, or while talking with Sean as we drive to the grocery store. I hate to admit it, but my mom and teachers were right all along. I don’t do my best work when I’m trying to move fast. The longer I’ve been in business, the more apparent it is just how slowly things move. The longer I’ve been alive, the more apparent it is that things take their own time.

There is little sense in trying to predict or control how long something will take. Yeast produces the gas that makes the dough rise at a pace dependent on outside circumstances. Sometimes a 10,000-word essay takes less time than a 2,000-word article. Sometimes a 5-mile run feels great at 9:00 per mile—and sometimes, it’s an absolute slog at 12:00 per mile. We make good decisions in an instant. But, “bad” decisions can be analyzed, researched, and carefully considered for months. 

What happens if we start to let go of presuppositions about time altogether?

Could we measure progress, growth, and experience with alternative metrics? What happens if we let go of measuring altogether? How does measuring or not measuring the use of our time transform what we believe to be valuable?

Ben Franklin said, “Time is money.” But what else could time be? What if time were practice? Connection? Care? Love? How does redefining time outside of a financial equation change our perception of it? How does it change the way we plan or our expectations of how time is spent?

We create so much heartache with how we expect our projects or goals to unfold in time.

We might even feel shame when we don’t accomplish everything others accomplish in the same timeframe. Our expectations create urgency. And urgency distorts our desire—so that we often take action that is harmful to ourselves and others. With a few important exceptions, urgency just doesn’t need to be a variable in most projects or decisions.

If I bring urgency to kneading a loaf of bread or letting the dough rise, I accomplish nothing more than if I bring patience and attentiveness. In fact, there’s a good chance that urgency will cause me to produce something inedible! My time, then, is not money. It’s not even food.

Urgency robs me of both the pleasure of the process and the result of my diligence.

Urgency might feel like the natural state of things. But it’s not. We’ve learned to cram as much as we can into shorter and shorter periods of time—the whole productivity industry is based on this capitalism-inspired desire. To break the habit, we not only have to practice doing things differently but reexamine the stories and assumptions that have formed the habit.

“Time is money,” is one of those stories. Assuming that there is always a problem to be fixed is another. Still another might how productivity becomes embedded in our sense of self-worth or even identity. Now is better than later, and faster is better than slower. Our culture is teeming with stories about urgency, time, and productivity. What happens when we start to let them go? 

Could we start to recognize that plans, projects, ideas, opportunities, and problems unfold on their own time?

Could we learn that slow and indeterminate—rather than urgent—is the natural state of things? And what expectations would we need to let go of as we do?

Indigenous cultures and economies are not based on clock time but, instead, the time of bodies, seasons, plants, and animals. Urgency isn’t a natural state for the body—the way I feel urgency is an unpleasant sensation. It feels more like anxiety than it feels like pleasure. Urgency doesn’t belong in my body, just like it doesn’t belong in the bread.

I watch and poke the dough to know when it’s time to move on with my recipe. If part of the project is letting go of urgency and even our expectations around how long something should take, then the other part of the project might be discerning the cues we can use to know when to move on or take the next step. 

As we unlearn embodied urgency, can we relearn what readiness feels like?

Looks like? Tastes like? Sounds like?

At this time of year, I not only think about my plans for the next year but what I’ve learned about the process of planning over the past year. I’m always trying to hone my approach to planning, especially for my business. This year, after experimenting with different ways to use my time, I’m noticing how much I’ve practiced letting things marinate—or maybe ferment is the better word—and how much more comfortable waiting has become. I like that. 

I didn’t plan to spend most of the year away from business as usual, but I discovered that was what I needed. Even as this new year begins and I’m dipping my toes back into teaching and speaking, I plan to be patient, never giving into false urgency.

For now, I’ll keep baking and practice noticing the passage of time—however quickly or slowly it may be—with all of my senses. I’ll trust that, just as the yeast is doing its thing to help me produce a loaf of bread, the way I spend my time today and tomorrow is doing its thing to help me produce remarkable and sustainable work

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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