Slow is Smooth, and Smooth is Fast

by | May 3, 2023

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” There’s debate about the origin of this phrase. I don’t know if it’s originally from the Navy SEALs, Vince Lombardi, or someone else — but I love it.

My new year’s resolution in 2014 was…no rushing. No rushing to the airport, no rushing to eat a meal, no rushing to respond to a text, no rushing to resolve a conflict, no rushing to meet a friend. No rushing at all. If I was late, I was late — and I could make different choices the next time to change how I showed up in the world. It was transformative for my life, and I’ve made efforts to maintain that ethos in the years since.

At its core, the expression “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” is about not rushing into doing the wrong things. It’s about the power of strategic thinking and deliberate action. When we take the time to slow down, ground ourselves in goals, challenge our own assumptions, and think well past our first good idea, we make better upfront decisions, which lead to greater efficiency and speed of execution downstream.

Ten years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find a single job description in the social impact sector that didn’t say: bias toward action.

Generally, a bias towards action is great – nobody wants to get stuck in analysis paralysis or passivity. But the bias toward action should come after getting the strategy right. How about “bias toward strategic and intentional action”?

The Slow: Getting strategy right

I would rather spend two weeks thinking about the best action to take and one day taking it; than spend one day thinking about the best action to take and two weeks taking it, only to realize that it wasn’t the best action to take and sink more time into adjustments or start over entirely.

Fast and slow are contextual. In a neighborhood, 25mph is too fast, and 15mph is appropriately slow. On a highway, 100mph is too fast, and 25mph is dangerously slow. You are the arbiter of your own speedometer. You know what your fast feels like: mindless, blurry, lacking discipline, frenetic.

So ask yourself: What does slow feel like? It could mean giving yourself one hour instead of one second; one week instead of one day; or one year instead of one month to be sure you’re thinking clearly.

When we rush, we make mistakes, miss important details, and waste time and energy on activities that don’t actually move us forward.

Long to-do lists aren’t an indication of your importance or impact. They’re more likely an indication of poor prioritization, poor delegation, and poor collaboration. And you can’t prioritize, delegate, or collaborate effectively if you don’t know your strategic direction. Stay slow until you do.

The Smooth: Everyone rowing together

Slow is smooth because slow allows you to get your thinking, direction and strategy straight, and once you do, you can communicate it to others. That’s when you really need to settle into the smooth.

I think of the smooth part of “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” in terms of rowing. Picture eight rowers in a sleek eight-person boat, propelling forward, each of their oars in perfect harmony with the others. Some argue that crew is the ultimate team sport because the only chance of winning is to be perfectly in sync, to the millisecond. If the crew is out of sync, they’ll veer off course, lose an oar, fight amongst themselves, take on water, waste their physical exertion, and lose. They may cross the finish line eventually, but they didn’t get there fast, and they didn’t get there first.

When the crew works as one, the boat flies over the water.

And that’s when smooth becomes fast.

The Fast: Flying over the water

When smooth becomes fast, you can feel it. You know where you’re headed. Distractions aren’t tempting. There’s no friction. You’re flying over the water.

If we agree that fast and slow are both contextual and subjective, moving fast could mean developing and launching a pro bono initiative in two months that you thought might take a year, or finishing a survey in a 1-hour work block that you’ve been putting off for months. It could mean sending the perfect two-line email in two minutes to a potential partner that changes your business trajectory for the next two years.

Speed isn’t a goal unto itself. We seek speed – we want to be fast – because we are ambitious about achieving impact. Moving work forward ‘at speed,’ backed by the right strategy, moves the needle on a greater volume of work in the same or less time.

And that feels good.

When you get it right, slow is smooth, smooth is fast, and the fast is not frenetic.

At Matterlab, whenever we feel like we’re moving too fast in a frenetic way, we know we need to slow down, to speed up. What does moving too fast feel like for you, and what can you do today to slow down, to speed up?

Do you have a great strategic plan in place, but you’re so busy with the frenetic day-to-day that you can’t seem to center on the strategic work? Matterlab leads strategic communications for organizations rolling out new strategic plans. Reach out here to learn more.

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