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Why hurry? (On umbrellas, trains, and the rest of it)

Note: There are many quotations in this article. If you seek the sources, scroll to the bottom, under the photograph of the spider in the cactus.

What is wrong with hurrying?

It’s counterproductive to whatever you are supposed to be doing right now

Hurrying doesn’t always make things happen faster. Sometimes it has the opposite result.

Hugh McGuire wrote:

Email, of course, is the worst [distractor from attention], because email is where work happens, and even if it’s not the work you should be doing right now it may well be work that’s easier to do than what you are doing now, and that means somehow you end up doing that work instead of whatever you are supposed to be working on now. And only then do you get back to what you should have been focusing on all along.
* * *
There is no beautiful universe on the other side of the email refresh button, and yet it’s the call of that button that keeps pulling me out of the work I am doing, out of reading books I want to read.

In college, I read a book on meditation by Daniel Condron in which he observed: “Hurrying slows you down. Hurried people are terribly inefficient.” Twenty years later, this clever illustration by John Dickerson fell into my hands: We all know what this desire to execute looks like in our own lives. The president is the jumpy man who presses the elevator button a second time, then a third time—with his umbrella. It feels good. It looks like action. But the elevator does not move faster.”

It’s counterproductive to other things that you might like to do or experience

Pressing the elevator button repeatedly means that we are unavailable to do other things. We cannot, for example, look up and speak to the person who is next to us in the elevator.

We need room for “randomness” and “side effects,” Niklas Göke says.

The ice cream parlor you found when you were lost. The old friend you bumped into on the train. The new kind of tea they offered at the cafeteria. But without margin, both in time and energy, there’s no room for any of this. If your schedule, your friends list, your life is too packed with obligations, there’s no space for serendipity to even occur.

“Saying ‘no,'” Göke says, is important not only to avoid toxic situations, and not only to allow room for choice and growth, but to allow space simply for “breathing. Wandering.”

“When we say we’re busy, we’re really saying that we’re caught in an emotional complex where our will is trapped and we’re not free to do things we might wish for ourselves,” Thomas Moore wrote. “If busyness is an emotional complex, then it’s likely that when we are busiest, we are doing least.”

Making ourselves unavailable to do other things that might be more important is a way of constraining our own freedom.

You can’t ever finish

When Alfie Kohn addressed the student body of a prep school, he realized that many of these high school students had already begun “to put aside books that appealed to them so they could prepare for the college boards.” He mused:

What some of them failed to realize was that none of this ends when they finally get to college. It starts all over again: they will scan the catalogue for courses that promise easy A’s, sign up for new extracurriculars to round out their résumés, and react with gratitude rather than outrage when professors tell them exactly what they need to know for exams so they can ignore everything else. They will define themselves as premed, prelaw, prebusiness—the prefix pre- indicating that everything they are doing now is irrelevant except insofar as it contributes to what they will be doing later.

Nor does this mode of existence end at college graduation. The horizon never comes any closer….well into middle age, they will wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and wonder what happened to their lives.

When we calmly inhabit the present moment and give attention to what we are doing, we have a sense of sufficiency. What we are doing now is enough. It will have to be enough. If it is not enough now, it will never be enough.

You will end up valuing busyness itself

When we ignore whether our habits lead to any valuable goal, we end up in the odd place of valuing busyness itself. This was explored in the 2017 research paper “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol.” An Internet video conveys a similar idea.

Or, as Carl Honoré put it: “In our hyped-up, faster-is-better culture, a turbocharged life is still the ultimate trophy on the mantelpiece. When people moan, ‘Oh, I’m so busy, I’m run off my feet, my life is a blur, I haven’t got time for anything,’ what they often mean is, ‘Look at me:  I am hugely important, exciting and energetic.'”

Tim Kreider wrote:

I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Thus, when Americans ask each other “How are you?,” a common answer is, “I’m so busy.” Omid Safi critiques this small talk and offers a different possibility:

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

Friendships may suffer

Tim Kreider observed that

it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

* * *

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

One symptom of this for Kreider was that, when he asked a friend if he wanted to make plans to meet up,

he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

There’s nothing to get out of it

Kierkegaard famously wrote in Either/Or in 1843:

The most ludicrous of all ludicrous things, it seems to me, is to be busy in the world, to be a man who is brisk at his meals and brisk at his work….What, after all, do these busy bustlers achieve? Are they not just like that woman who, in a flurry because the house was on fire, rescued the fire tongs? What more, after all, do they salvage from life’s huge conflagration?’

This is the simple observation that life is something we live, not something we can extract something else from. Moving faster, even to the point of panic, does not facilitate our getting more of a thing that isn’t there to be gotten at all.

It’s a game that isn’t authentically yours

Nassim Nicholas Taleb recalls receiving “life-changing advice” from Jean-Olivier Tedesco that was “applicable, wise, and empirically valid.” While they were students in Paris, Tedesco stopped him from running for the subway and said, “I don’t run for trains.” Taleb says, “I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it!”

Taleb extends this observation to make a larger point: As we fulfill steps toward a goal, we feel more in control in each moment when that goal is one that we chose for ourselves and not one that was preset for us. “You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself,” he writes. “It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.” Life is full of unpredictable events, but “you always control what you do; so make this your end.”

If you set up your own goal and your own game to reach it, it’s likely that you’ll choose a game that involves less hurrying.

It interferes with moral judgments

Susan Sontag explained:

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

Hurrying may make you more aggressive

When we are playing a game that demands rapid responses, we do not allocate extra time for unexpected occurrences, and we may perceive them as interruptions or threats. We may respond in haste, rather than seeking to understand them and responding with thought, compassion, and grace.

Hurrying may be a form of panic, which Kent Russell describes as “an emotional state in which what was once background noise suddenly overwhelms everything else in one’s head.”

An introduction to The Book of Five Rings explains:

He [the Zen-trained martial artist] truly acts only in response to aggression. He does not seek it out. When made, his responses are non-resistant and non-violent. He is a man of peace, content to paint his paintings, arrange his flowers, and practice his swordsmanship, in all ways constantly refining his technique.

When called upon to act, he simply acts. When he paints, he paints. When he uses his sword, he simply uses his sword. When he is pushed, he does not push back. He lets whatever it is go right past him. His response is purely defensive. It is also decisive.

It causes exhaustion and doesn’t give you a way to recharge

Brené Brown imagines a “dig-deep button” that enables “pushing through when we’re exhausted and overwhelmed, and when there’s too much to do and too little time for self-care.” Her acronym “DIG” refers to people who get

Deliberate in their thoughts and behaviors through prayer, meditation or simply setting their intentions;

Inspired to make new and different choices;

Going. They take action.

You can’t contemplate if you’re hurrying

Patricia Hampl tells this story:

“Can you say,” I once inquired of a sixty-year-old cloistered nun who had lived (vibrantly, it seemed) from the age of nineteen in her monastery cell, “what the core of contemplative life is?”

“Leisure,” she said, without hesitation, her china blue eyes cheerfully steady on me. I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn’t see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Contemplation allows you to experience and interpret the world in different ways. If you always hurry, you miss those observations, activities and insights.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:

Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy…or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.

* * *

The ‘battle’ is not really against the self, but against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention.

* * *

People who suffer from attentional disorders, who cannot keep their minds from wandering, always feel left out of the flow of life. They are at the mercy of whatever stray stimulus happens to flash by. To be distracted against one’s will is the surest sign that one is not in control. Yet it is amazing how little effort most people make to improve control of their attention. If reading a book seems too difficult, instead of sharpening concentration we tend to set it aside and instead turn on the television…

It prevents you from telling your stories

Sam Keen writes:

Ultimately, our addiction to speed cannot be solved by Prozac. Yet there is good news: we are bio-mythic animals, and when myths change we change with them. But what is required of us is nothing less than conversion to a worldview that runs counter to that of homo economicus.

Speed is the essence of profane time. Sacred time is polymorphous, a many-splendored thing. It produces a calmer nervous system, a more harmonious balance between waking and dreaming life. It weaves past, present, and future (memory, awareness, and hope) into a coherent narrative.

Emptiness and silence, too, plays a role. There is such a thing as “blank art.” Craig Dworkin, author of No Medium, explains different meanings of blankness to an interviewer.

There are silences in churches that are fraught with emotional meaning, like a moment of silence. There is silent prayer, there is silence when people are bored, or simply when nobody’s there. Context makes us imagine a moment of silence in different, affective ways.

It reduces your happiness

“Of all the emotions,” Alan Downs writes, “joy is the one that requires that you be fully present in the moment. When you aren’t fully present, you can’t feel joy.” Nikki Stern said that attention increases joy and perhaps certain kinds of intelligence: “The novelty of what we’re seeing more carefully has been shown to excite the dopamine neurons and increase gray matter density in the brain.”

The novelist Alex Carr wrote:

“Nothing for Comfort,” he said, in the maddeningly unhurried manner that Harry had come to understand was the hallmark of any island transaction, and that Harry found all the more irksome because he knew it was in fact a far superior method of encountering the world than his own.

“I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life,” E. Stanley Jones said. He added that worry made him feel distanced from his authentic being: “To live by worry is to live against Reality.”

It prevents you from helping others

Psychological researchers Darley and Batson asked seminarians to prepare and present a brief talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Malcolm Gladwell described the research:

“Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. * * * ‘It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior,’ Darley and Batson concluded.  ‘Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.’  The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush.  Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help.  Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped.”

Wayne Teasdale told a similar anecdote about an everyday life experience.

Two of these three monks were Benedictine, and one was a Trappist. I know all three very well; one told me the story because it had so disturbed him. They were walking to their car from the hotel where the sessions of the Parliament were held. As they walked, the Trappist was presenting an idea about service to the homeless, expanding on the talk they had just participated in, while the other two listened. As they got deeply into their discussion, a street person lying prostrate on the pavement began to call to them. Two of them continued the conversation, taking no notice of the man, even though it was impossible to miss his presence.

Teasdale’s point is that the youngest monk “wanted to do something, at least to talk to the poor soul, but he didn’t know how to approach him,” and “realized that he’d never received any teaching in his monastery about the demands of compassion, how to move from theory to action.” But another possible takeaway from this story is that the older monks, who presumably could have thought of a concrete action, made themselves unavailable to help because they were too busy talking.

Some studies have found that “you are much more likely to be generous when you are near a bakery sending out the delicious smell of freshly baked bread rather than ‘a neutral-smelling dry goods store,'” Raymond Tallis said. Being in touch with our senses is part of being unhurried.

Spider in cactus. Superior, Colorado. Oct. 22, 2018.


“Why can’t we read anymore? Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains?” Hugh McGuire. Medium. Apr 22, 2015.

Daniel Condron. Superconscious Meditation:  Kundalini and the Understanding of the Whole Mind. Windyville, Missouri:  SOM Publishing, 1998. p. 58.

“The Hardest Job in the World.” John Dickerson. The Atlantic. May 2018.

“Why you really should say ‘no’ more often.” Niklas Göke. Medium. Feb. 2, 2019.

Thomas Moore. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p. 6.

Alfie Kohn. Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. pp. 204-205.

Carl Honoré. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. p. 49.

“The ‘Busy’ Trap.” Tim Kreider. New York Times Opinionator. June 30, 2012.

“The Disease of Being Busy.” Omid Safi. On Being. Nov. 6, 2014.

“Kierkegaard on escaping the cult of busyness.” Karl Aho and C. Stephen Evans. IAI News. Oct. 4, 2018.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007. p. 297.

Susan Sontag. At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. Quoted by Maria Popova. “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, what it means to be a moral human being, and her advice to writers.” Brain Pickings. March 30, 2015.

“The Disaster Tourist.” Kent Russell. Highline. Jan. 25, 2018.

Introduction by Nihon Services Corporation to Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. (1645) Translation and commentary by Nihon Services Corporation (Bradford J. Brown, Yuko Kashiwagi, William H. Barrett, and Eisuke Sasagawa). New York: Bantam, 1982. p. xxx.

Brené Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

Patricia Hampl. Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime. Orlando, Fl.: Harcourt, 2006.  p. 9.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. pp. 33, 40, 211.

Sam Keen. In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred. New York: Harmony Books, 2010. pp. 39-40.

“The joy (and irritation) of blank art.” Eugenia Williamson, interviewing Craig Dworkin. Boston Globe. Feb. 10, 2013.

Alan Downs. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. (Second Edition) Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012.

Nikki Stern. Hope in Small Doses: Reasonable Happiness in Unreasonable Times. Humanist Press, 2012.

Alex Carr. The Prince of Bagram Prison. New York: Random House, 2008. p. 55.

E. Stanley Jones, quoted in Treasury of Courage and Confidence, ed. Norman Vincent Peale. Indiana: Warner Press, 1970, 1974. p 110.

Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000. pp. 164-165.

Wayne Teasdale.  A Monk in the World:  Cultivating a Spiritual Life.  Novato, Calif.:  New World Library, 2002.  p. 124.

Raymond Tallis. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, UK: Acumen, 2011. p. 53. His footnote: “This is one of many examples discussed in Appiah, Experiments in Ethics. For an excellent critical account, see Turner, “Ethics Made Easy”.


Novelist of matters surreal and magical. Studied philosophy and journalism. Worked in technology and finance. Knows about UX design and life coaching. Helps people write their books. Ask. Don't be shy. Author of TEN PAST NOON, BAD FIRE, PAINTING DRAGONS, and ENKIDU IS DEAD AND NOT DEAD.

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