In my piano service business, I worked many seven-day weeks, and some fourteen- to sixteen-hour days. Once, when I had a particularly long day ahead of me, I decided I would put all my effort into deliberately working slowly. Working this way might sound counterproductive, but I couldn’t get a day off, so going slowly for at least one day seemed rather appealing.
I was to start with a concert preparation on a grand piano for the local symphony. I was to prepare the soloist’s piano in the morning, along with a second piano that would be used in the orchestra. Afterward I had service work that extended over two states, and then I had to return to the concert hall to check the two pianos once again. The workload was about two and a half times the amount that was considered a full day’s schedule in the trade.
Slow Down You're Going Too Fast!
When I started on the first piano, I put all my effort into being slow. I opened my toolbox very slowly. I took out each tool one at a time. I placed each tool neatly in position. When I began setting up the piano, I performed each process individually, deliberately trying to work slowly.
Trying to work slowly creates funny feelings. At first, your internal dialogue is howling at you to get going and pick up the pace. It screams at you, “We’ll never get this done! You are wasting time!” It reminds you of the whole day’s worth of work you have to get done.
You can feel anxiety starting to build and emotions floating up to the surface. However, your ego quickly loses ground to the simplicity of doing one thing at a time and doing it slowly, on purpose. Your ego has no space in which to build stress and work up internal chatter. You can work slowly only if you do it deliberately. Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment.
After I finished the first instrument, I went through the process of packing up my tools with meticulous care, just to walk ten feet away and unpack them slowly, one at a time, to start on the second piano. Rushing had become so much of a habit that I was amazed at the amount of concentration it took to work slowly on purpose.
I took off my watch so I wouldn’t be tempted to look at the time and let that influence my pace. I told myself, “I am doing this for me and for my health, both physical and mental. I have a cell phone, and, if need be, I can call whomever and tell them I am running late...”
Taking The Time to Take Your Time
I began to realize how wonderful I felt. No nervous stomach, no anticipation of getting through the day, and no tight muscles in my shoulders and neck. Just this relaxed, peaceful, what-a-nice-day-it-is feeling. Anything you can do in a rushed state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down.
When I finished the second piano, I very slowly put away my tools one by one, with my attention on every detail. I continued my effort at slowing down as I walked to my truck a block away. I walked very slowly, paying attention to each step.
When I got into the truck, its clock radio came on with the turn of my key, and I was dumbfounded. So little time had passed compared to what I had usually spent on the same job in the past that I was sure the clock was incorrect.
Keep in mind that I had just repeated a job that I had done for many years. I had set up these pianos together perhaps five or six times a week, so I had a very real concept of the time involved in the project. I pulled my watch out of my pocket. It agreed with the clock radio: I had cut over 40 percent off the usual time. I had tried to work as slowly as possible, and I had been sure I was running an hour late. Yet I had either worked faster (which didn’t seem possible, given my attention to slowness) or slowed time down (an interesting thought, but few would buy it).
Either way, I was sufficiently motivated to press on with the experiment throughout the remainder of the day. I got so far ahead of schedule that I was afforded the luxury of a civilized meal in a nice restaurant, instead of my usual sandwich in the truck or no lunch at all.
I have repeated these results consistently every time I have worked at being slow and deliberate. I have used this technique in everything from cleaning up the dishes after dinner to monotonous tasks of piano restoration. The only thing that foils me is those times when I find myself drifting between working with slowness and succumbing to the feeling that I must get a task done quickly.
One Step at at Time; One Moment at a Time
When I decided to work at slowness during that particularly long day, I didn’t tell myself I would do it for the whole day, even though that was the goal. I would say to myself, “Let’s just see if I can slowly take out my tools to prepare the first piano.” When I had completed that, I would say, “Let’s just see if I can tune the middle section of the piano slowly,” and so forth. I simplified the whole process by breaking it down into small sections that required me to focus for short periods of time.
An exercise I use to start my day in this mindset is brushing my teeth slowly. Brushing your teeth slowly demands that you pay attention and forces you into the present moment. It is a very practical training exercise for teaching present-moment awareness. When juxtaposed against a stressful, overscheduled day, it gives the experience of what it feels like to slow down and be fully present in an activity.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, CA. ©2012 by Thomas M. Sterner.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life
by Thomas M. Sterner.
In those times when we want to acquire a new skill or face a formidable challenge we hope to overcome, what we need most are patience, focus, and discipline, traits that seem elusive or difficult to maintain. In this enticing and practical book, Thomas Sterner demonstrates how to learn skills for any aspect of life, from golfing to business to parenting, by learning to love the process.
About the Author
Thomas M. Sterner has studied Eastern and Western philosophy and modern sports psychology and trained as a concert pianist. For more than twenty-five years, he served as the chief concert piano technician for a major performing arts center. He prepared and maintained the concert grand piano for hundreds of world-renowned (and demanding) musicians and symphony conductors, and his typical workday required constant interaction with highly disciplined and focused artists. He would perform delicate procedures often hundreds of times per piano with little or no room for costly errors. Being disciplined and focused were his key to survival, and became his joy. At the same time, he operated a piano remanufacturing facility, rebuilding vintage pianos to factory-new condition. Visit his website www.thepracticingmind.com