There are no shortcuts, we say. And yet we try to take them all the time, and then act surprised when we get lost.
I scramble eggs for lunch almost every day. I cut up asparagus or zucchini. I warm a frozen salmon patty. Maybe I open a can of black beans. Sometimes I squeeze in a lemon. Sometimes I chop up a few chili peppers.
I wish I could say I savor the process. The truth is that — more often than not – I try to get through it as fast as possible.
When the eggs are finished, I dump them in a bowl and eat them. I come back to the stove, and notice that I’ve made a huge mess. Stems litter the butcher block. Trails of egg yolk crisscross the countertops. The stove is covered in food that didn’t make it into my bowl. And then I sigh and clean it up. Hurriedly.
Haste makes waste is an English phrase that nobody under the age of 60 even knows. In Japanese, there is a similar phrase: “Isogaba, maware.”
“Isogu” means to rush. “Maware” is a command. It means, “Go around in circles.” If I were to attempt a translation it would be: “Rushing will get you nowhere, fast.”
Imagine a crossing guard standing between you and a place you want to go. He sees you running and yells, “Walk!” You don’t want to walk. You want to be there right now. But you can’t run past him. So you decide to run around the block, looking for another way in.
Maybe you find a gap in the fence. You get down on your belly and crawl. You probably get dirty. Maybe you rip your sweatshirt. But you do get through. Maybe you notice that it would have been faster to just walk. Or maybe you congratulate yourself on outwitting the crossing guard. Either way, you are still dirty and your shirt is still ripped.
Sometimes people get in our way. Trying to blow past them is probably more pain than it’s worth. Other times, the only thing that gets in our way is our own impatience. “Isogaba, maware” is the recognition that when you rush, you trip yourself up.
It strikes me as a pretty annoying recognition. I want to finish things immediately. I don’t want to take it slow. I don’t want to take my time. I want to chop my life into a thousand little pieces that are digested as soon as I put them in my mouth.
But it just doesn’t work that way. Things take as long as they take. Perversely, I find that the more quickly I want things to go, the slower they seem to.
This proverb works on two levels. For one, it works on the level of clock time. It’s possible that rushing through things takes more seconds and minutes than if you settled into it. Perhaps more importantly, however, it works on the level of psychological time. Seconds and minutes are measurements that never change. The way we experience them, however, varies wildly. Some activities fly by; others don’t. “Isogaba, maware,” points to why. When you approach a task just wanting it to be done, it doesn’t matter how many times your watch ticks; it will seem to take forever.
But what’s the alternative? We all have so many things to do that there seems to be no choice but to rush through them. You’ve got to make breakfast, then you’ve got to catch the bus, then you’ve got to go to this meeting and submit that report and teach that class and grade those papers and pay that bill and do whatever else it is you need to do. Life is busy. It’s natural to think that we have to rush to dig ourselves out of our inboxes.
If a wise fairy fluttered around your head all day, this is when she would remind you, “Isogaba, maware.” It’s at least possible that we aren’t buried beneath what we have to do. It’s at least possible that we are buried beneath our frustration with having to do it.
Is slowing down the secret to productivity? I don’t know. Maybe if you allow yourself to give your full attention to the task in front of you, you will complete it faster. Maybe you won’t.
It’s more likely that this is about quality. If you don’t waste half of your mental energy wishing you were doing something else, you will have more to devote to the task at hand.
And maybe you won’t. The only way to know is to find out for yourself.
I rush through things all of the time. I think that it’s bad for me, but it’s hard to stop. Sometimes I hear the crossing guard’s whistle. “Isogaba, maware!” He says. “Rushing will make it worse!” Sometimes I slow down. Most of the time I don’t.
I think I feel better about myself when I do, though.
Chad Frisk works as an English teacher for international students in the Seattle area. His first book, Direct Translation Impossible: Tales from the Land of the Rising Sun, was published in October of 2014. He writes regularly about his own shortcomings at nobodyelsewillpublishme.com.