In 2007, I lived for a season in an off-grid permaculture cabin in North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through a lush forest, and I befriended the eclectic neighbors – organic farmers, biofuel brewers, and eco-developers. I discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life and wrote about it in my memoir Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.
Alas, the book triggered angry questions. “It’s easy,” one Twelve by Twelve reader wrote, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?” This question was the genesis of my new book: New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City.
I received, in fact, a hundred variations of this question after lectures and on radio interviews, and always answered by saying I was living 12 x 12 values… but in Queens, New York, the home to which I returned after my time in the cabin.
But as each year passed, the reader’s doubt increasingly became my own. Overwork, material clutter, and the lack of contact with nature – “civilization,” in short – brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually, I too doubted it was possible to live 12 x 12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.
Not so fast. As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City. I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12 x 12 – about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature, and living simply – and somehow make it work in the real-world context of marriage and two careers.
In an attempt to do this, Melissa and I embarked on an experiment. We sold or gave away 80 percent of our stuff, left our 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and moved into a tiny rental: a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment” – roughly two 12 x 12s – in downtown Manhattan.
Melissa and I approached our thimble of an apartment through the ideas of philosopher Thomas Merton, who called his stark monk’s chambers “the four walls of my new freedom”. We stowed a minimal kit of kitchenware, toiletries, clothing, and books as if equipping a houseboat’s trim hull. It was a refreshing purge; the apartment seems to expand with each tweak.
We began to feel our well-being rise in proportion to what’s been shed. A slim metal table in the kitchen welcomes the cutting board; jackets laze on his-and-her hooks; sandals snuggle in their micro shoe apartment beside the door.
Beyond this minimalist freedom, I discovered that being “Slow” is not at all Luddite. Slow means cultivating positive qualities – receptive, intuitive, reflective – instead of the fast qualities so common today: busy, agitated, acquisitive.
I began living and working smarter instead of faster. Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I spent my Slow Year practicing two principles at the same time: 80/20 and Hodgkinson’s Principle.
The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.
Dutifully, I 80/20ed my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential workstreams – consulting, writing, speaking – that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.
Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into just two.
This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two- days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, recently called for a 3-day work week, and Google is increasingly experimenting with lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.
Melissa and I discovered other Slow City tools in our year-long experiment.
- Urban sanctuaries: We began spending more and more time in natural and reflective places right in Manhattan, like Central Park’s Ramble and the tip of Pier 45.
- “Living at the third story”: I discovered I only need half my attention on the street level. As the rest of my focus rises up, I notice nut-brown oak branches and green leaves fluttering with white butterflies. An off-turquoise sky. Stretchy clouds. Ciao stress.
- Technology fastin: We “fasted” from our gadgets for stints, disabling our phones and setting email to vacation mode. This helped the quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on each other.
- Silent meals. Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d sometimes eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape, and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner.
Though not everyone can live in this way, all of us can ask: What’s my twelve by twelve? We can find the elusive contours of enough and live there.
Enough is the sweet spot between too little and too much. Does it start with each of us creating space to slow down a little and ask the core questions, like: How do we find balance in a world that is changing more quickly than ever before in history? And how can we incubate a New Slow City that’s saner now and fit for the future?
William Powers is author of New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, which is published this week.