The Speed Trap

Why it’s so hard to slow down—and why we can’t wait any longer


| March-April 1997



The alarm rings and you hop out of bed. Another day is off and running. A quick shower. Wake the kids and rush them through breakfast so they won’t miss the bus. Down a cup of coffee. Shovel a bowl of cornflakes. Hurry out to the car, not forgetting a swift kiss on your partner’s cheek. Hightail it to the freeway, making a mental note to grab some takeout Thai on the way home. (The kids’ soccer practice starts at 6:15 sharp.) Weave back and forth looking for the fastest lane while the radio deejay barks out the minutes—8:33, 8:41, quarter to. Reaching work, you sprint into the building and leap up the stairs three at a time, arriving at your desk with seconds to spare. You take a couple of deep breaths, then remember that the project you didn’t finish last night must be faxed to New York by 10:00. Meanwhile, you’ve got five voice-mail messages and seven more on e-mail, two of them marked urgent.

More and more it feels like our lives have turned into a grueling race toward a finish line we never reach. No matter how fast we go, no matter how many comforts we forgo in order to quicken our pace, there never seems to be enough time.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. As a kid in the 1960s I remember hearing that one of the biggest challenges of the future would be what to do with all our time. Amazing inventions were going to free up great stretches of our days for what really matters: friends, family, fun. But just the opposite has happened. We’ve witnessed a proliferation of dazzling time-saving innovations—jet travel, personal computers, Fed Ex, cell phones, microwaves, drive-through restaurants, home shopping networks, the World Wide Web—and yet the pace of life has been cranked to a level that would have been unimaginable three decades ago.

Curiously, there has been scant public discussion about this dramatic speed-up of society. People may complain about how busy they are and how overloaded modern life has become, but speed is still viewed as generally positive—something that will help us all enrich our lives. Journalists, business leaders, politicians, and professors feed our imaginations with visions of the new world of instantaneous communications and high-speed travel. Even many activists who are skeptical of the wonders of modern progress, the folks who patiently remind us that small is beautiful and less is more, look on speed as an undeniable asset in achieving a better society. Four-hundred-mile-an-hour trains, they assure us, will curtail pollution, and modem links across the planet will promote human rights.

Revving up the speed, in fact, is often heralded as the answer to problems caused by our overly busy lives. Swamped by the accelerating pace of work? Get a computer that's faster. Feel like your life is spinning out of control? Increase your efficiency by learning to read and write faster. No time to enjoy life? Purchase any number of products advertised on television that promise to help you make meals faster, exercise faster, and finish all your time-consuming errands faster.

Experiences like this are making me question the wisdom of zooming through each day. A full-throttle life seems to yield little satisfaction other than the sensation of speed itself. I’ve begun voicing these doubts to friends and have discovered that many of them share my dis-ease. But it’s still a tricky topic to bring up in public. Speaking out against speed can get you lumped in with the Flat Earth Society as a hopelessly wrongheaded romantic who refuses to face the facts of modern life. Yet it’s clear that more and more Americans desperately want to slow down. A surprising number of people I know have cut back to part-time work in their jobs or quit altogether in order to work for themselves, raise kids, go back to school, or find some other way to lead a more meaningful, less hurried life—even though it means getting by on significantly less income. And according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor, these are not isolated cases.