March 16, 2015


University classes, at both of the places I went to school, started at ten minutes past the hour. While the official schedules listed classes as 9-11am or 2-4pm, the official start time was always 9:10am or 2:10pm, rather than directly on the hour. The rationale behind this was that the ten minute buffer would allow students to leave their previous class and walk over to their next one without being late.

At a small university like Georgetown, walking across campus in ten minutes was mostly doable. At a sprawling, urban campus like that of the University of Toronto, you’d be lucky if you’d make it to your next class if you sprinted.

I was never in a rush to get to class at either school. Part of this was because I understood that the stress of rushing to class meant I wasn’t fully aware and engaged in those first few minutes anyways, but mostly it was because I made it a point to never schedule back-to-back classes so I wouldn’t be beholden to that magic ten-minute buffer.

Not much has changed in the decade since I last went to school: I am a self-professed, and deliberate, slow-walker. When I am walking to a destination, I amble; I take the time to feel the sidewalk against the soles of my shoes and listen to the sounds of the people brushing by me as I stroll. While much of my walking is flânerie, with no purpose or destination, even when I have to get somewhere, I am hardly ever rushing to get there.

Some of that comes from my tendency to always leave early and build in lots of buffer time to any commute; much of it comes from the fact that walking, for me, is exploration and not transportation. Even when I am expressly going somewhere, my saunter down the street is an opportunity to observe and process and think and explore.

I am a slow-walker — I can, of course, keep pace with the fast-walkers in my life if I must — and while this often infuriates some of the people I know, I do it deliberately, and joyfully.

Sidewalk rage, then, is not something I understand. (I don’t get road rage when I drive either, as I am more than happy to follow the pace of traffic around me.) Apart from painfully slow website loading times — even then, my impatience is more borne of befuddlement rather than frustration — very few slow” things bother me. Instead, my pace of life is generally leisurely and unhurried; I am most stressed when factors force me to be rushed or hurried and I am forced to break my decelerated demeanor. (In fact, my word of the year, breathe, was mostly chosen because external factors have made me feel so frantic that I needed to remind myself to breathe and slow down for my own health.)

I was fascinated by a recent article by Chelsea Wald in Nautilus that looked at the evolutionary nature of impatience:

Once upon a time, cognitive scientists tell us, patience and impatience had an evolutionary purpose. They constituted a yin and yang balance, a finely tuned internal timer that tells when we’ve waited too long for something and should move on. When that timer went buzz, it was time to stop foraging at an unproductive patch or abandon a failing hunt.

But that good thing is gone. The fast pace of society has thrown our internal timer out of balance. It creates expectations that can’t be rewarded fast enough—or rewarded at all. When things move more slowly than we expect, our internal timer even plays tricks on us, stretching out the wait, summoning anger out of proportion to the delay.

Rage may sabotage our internal timer. Our experience of time is subjective—it can fly by in a flash, or it can drag out seemingly forever. And strong emotions affect our sense of time most of all, explains Claudia Hammond in her 2012 book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. Just as Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that there is no such thing as absolute time, neither is there an absolute mechanism for measuring time in the brain,” she writes.

Time stretches when we are frightened or anxious, Hammond explains. An arachnophobe overestimates the time spent in a room with a spider; a fearful novice skydiver, the time spent hurtling to Earth. People in car accidents report watching events unfold in slow motion. But it’s not because our brains speed up in those situations. Time warps because our experiences are so intense. Every moment when we are under threat seems new and vivid. That physiological survival mechanism amplifies our awareness and packs more memories than usual into a short time interval. Our brains are tricked into thinking more time has passed.

It made me wonder, a little, whether I missed the evolutionary trait that should have driven my impatience. Does my slow-walking (slow-living?) mean that I would have been a casualty of natural selection millennia ago?

Perhaps it just means that I enjoy the journey more than the destination, something that Wald continues to expound upon in the piece:

Can we stave off the slowness rage and revive patience? It’s possible. But we need to find a way to reset our internal timers and unwarp time. We can try willpower to push back our feelings, but that only goes so far. All you have to do is watch chimps in lab experiments. When waiting for delayed rewards, even by their own choice, Rosati says, they do things like exhibit negative vocalizations. They scratch, which is a sign of stress for primates, and they maybe bang the wall, sort of a temper tantrum.” Those chimps are your brain on waiting.

Research has shown meditation and mindfulness—a practice of focusing on the present—helps with impatience, although it’s not entirely clear why. It could be meditators are better able to cope with the emotional fallout of impatience because they’re more used to it.

However, says DeSteno, regular meditation practice isn’t something impatient people are likely to practice. He suggests fighting emotion with emotion. He has found that gratitude is a mental shortcut to more patience. In one study, he found that people who did a short writing exercise about something for which they were grateful were more willing to forego smaller rewards now for bigger rewards later. Counting your blessings—even if they have nothing to do with the delay at hand—may remind you of the value of being a member of a cooperative human society and the importance of not being a jerk,” DeSteno says.

Whatever the reason for my unhurried pace of life, I’m happy that I am this way. I need more than ten minutes to walk from class to class, and that’s okay; you’re welcome to push right by me if you’re in a rush.