Celebrating Slowness

MCF Intersection

A regular snapshot of the trends, news and research in the world of philanthropy — and its impact on business.


In reaction to hectic, over-scheduled lives burdened by 24-7 technology, a counter movement is emerging: the slow morning.

Proponents spend time—sometimes hours—doing very little in the morning. Rising early, they relish beginning their day in quiet solitude, free of interruptions and deadlines. They say it provides a foundation for productivity, calm and focus that lasts the rest of the day.

“I wake up early so I can do nothing,” says Leslie Harris, a marketing executive in New York.

Some people meditate, plunge into cold water, slowly jump on trampolines or have no plan at all except for avoiding a rush.

Slow-morning enthusiasts range from business leaders to artists to stay-at-home parents. They all say it’s a way to manage stress and find control in anxious, always-connected times.

“Slowness is earning a new appreciation,” says Gabi Lieberman, a director of trends for market-research firm Mintel. The company, which advises clients on consumer behavior and trends, has noted consumers’ desire to “slow it all down” since 2011, but recently detected a new attitude toward the behavior. “We’re not apologizing anymore about it,” Ms. Lieberman says. “It’s being celebrated.”

Part of Chris Danuser’s early-morning routine is meditating in his home office in Maplewood, N.J.

The slowing-down trend is countering another one: consumers’ need for speed, convenience and around-the-clock service, Mintel says. People often exhibit both behaviors, since those who embrace a fast-paced lifestyle need a break from it even more. “The more we try to save time, the more we realize how important it is to savor it,” Ms. Lieberman says.

To be sure, many Americans still view their pre-workday routine as a sprint out the door, and consumer products are mostly marketed that way. Showers are faster with “3-in-1” soaps that wash hair, face and body; coffee pods shorten the effort and wait for caffeine and there are more and more options for breakfast on the go.

Geir Berthelsen, founder of the World Institute of Slowness, a think tank in Norway, says starting the day with intentional slowness helps spark creative thinking. “Business leaders need to take time to forget about time, and that helps them be creative when they arrive at work,” he says. “That’s the goal of doing this before going into the workplace.”

‘If you have too many interruptions you become absent from yourself.’ —Geir Berthelsen, founder, World Institute of Slowness
Mr. Berthelsen advises spending at least 20 minutes before the workday doing nothing. “If you don’t do that, if you wake up stressed that you’re late to work, then the whole day is really destroyed in a way,” he says. Each morning Mr. Berthelsen spends about 25 minutes meditating before sitting down to breakfast with his wife and two children, he says.

Spending time doing nothing gives the brain a break from multitasking and interruptions, especially from technology, Mr. Berthelsen says. “If you have too many interruptions you become absent from yourself,” he says. “Technology isn’t bad, but we have to find ways for it to serve us better—that interruption is probably the biggest loss of productivity.”

More than 60% of consumers say they look at their phone within 15 minutes of waking and check their phones about 52 times a day, according to Deloitte. Some 63% of consumers say they are trying to limit their smartphone use, yet only about half say they’ve succeeded, according to a Deloitte survey released in November.

The peak hour for Calm’s Daily Calm meditation practice—its most popular—is 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., says Michael Acton Smith, Calm’s co-chief executive officer. “I think it is part of a wider movement in Western society around health and wellness and being more conscious of how we live—eating better, sleeping better and starting our days better,” he says.

Before running the meditation startup, Mr. Smith says he used to check his phone as soon as he woke each morning. “Then you’re into the chaos of the day already, and your head is spinning with all these thoughts,” he says. About three years ago he stopped checking his phone until he left home for work. “I love the mornings now, it gives me time to breathe and think and I fill up my notebook with ideas,” he says. “As wonderful as technology is, it’s very healthy to carve out a little bit of time without it.”

Here’s how four individuals spend their slow mornings.

Monica Dangerfield’s wake-up time: 6 a.m.

Before Monica Dangerfield starts her day job, she works on her hobbies, such as selling essential oils. “They’re not money-makers yet,” she says. “But it’s work that I truly enjoy.”

She wakes at 6 a.m. and spends time at her computer in the kitchen, communicating with customers and posting on social media. She also jots down goals for the day. “I find those early-morning hours are so peaceful and calm and my attention isn’t being pulled in a million directions,” says Ms. Dangerfield, who lives in Richmond, Va., and works as a child-development specialist. “This is time that I give to myself, it is my self-care, doing something that I really enjoy.”

To maximize her early-morning hours, Ms. Dangerfield, 39, usually makes oatmeal the night before and heats it up for breakfast. She does the same with coffee, which she makes every few days and keeps in a pot in the refrigerator. She typically works until about 7 a.m., when she hears her 9-year-old or 5-year-old upstairs. “I take a deep breath when those feet come down the steps and say ‘OK, my time is up,’ ” she says.

To wake up early, Ms. Dangerfield adjusted her nighttime routine, which starts after her children go to bed. Realizing that she was unproductive on her computer in the evening, Ms. Dangerfield now spends time cleaning the kitchen or walking on her treadmill for 30 minutes before getting into bed to read. “I leave my phone downstairs so I don’t see it or hear it,” she says. “Then I’m usually lights out by 10 or so.”

So far, Ms. Dangerfield has stuck to her ritual for nine months. On days when she can’t have an hour or two of solitude, her energy feels low and her stress level is high. “I feel like I’m too rushed,” she says.

Matt D’Amour’s wake-up time: 6 a.m.

To keep his mornings serene, Matt D’Amour prepares for them. In a ritual he calls “unpack, repack” Mr. D’Amour, a director of sales and marketing in Madison, Wis., spends an hour or more after work readying the following day’s clothes, breakfast and lunch. “I prepare every single night so that I can start the day with as much ease and grace as possible,” says Mr. D’Amour, 37.

He wakes up around 6 a.m. and drinks water with the lemon juice he presses every three days. Then he does a 20-minute “gratitude meditation,” which can range from being grateful for being able to get out of bed that morning to having food in the refrigerator. A glass of celery juice, which Mr. D’Amour also makes, follows.

Then he pursues what he calls “cold-water therapy,” which can include a plunge in the lake near his apartment or, if the lake is frozen, a cold shower. He tries to stay in cold water for one or two minutes, focusing on breathing exercises rather than how he feels. “You build up a tolerance,” he says.

Breathing through the discomfort of feeling cold boosts his energy and improves his skin tone and stress management all day, Mr. D’Amour says. “There are moments when I’m in a business setting and I need to make decisions, and I can revert back to breathing through uncomfortable situations,” he says. “You breathe into it as opposed to trying to escape.”

Typically three to five times a week Mr. D’Amour heads to the gym by about 7:30 a.m. for an hourlong workout. He follows that with breakfast, usually vegetables and eggs, which he has prepared the night before.

Mr. D’Amour aims to start work around 9:30. “And then it’s game time,” he says.

Genevieve Aronson’s wake-up time: 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Genevieve Aronson, 38, gets up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The communications executive relishes the unhurried, uninterrupted hours her morning routine allows. “I have that freedom to do what I need to do at my own pace,” she says. “I know some people think I’m crazy, but it works for me.”

Ms. Aronson, who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., started this schedule a year ago when she had trouble staying asleep with a long to-do list on her mind. “I thought, let me just bang out two things and I’ll go to bed,” she says. “I never went to bed.”

After turning off her alarm, Ms. Aronson heads downstairs, opens her laptop, and digs into her work email. “Anything I can do to get myself ahead, I will do then,” she says, including preparing presentations and catching up on work-related reading. “I feel like I do my best work at this time because it’s quiet and I can put 100% of my attention to it.”

When she finds a good stopping point, she exercises with a half-hour workout video, loads some laundry in the washing machine and does other light housework. “That’s the great freedom of it,” says Ms. Aronson, who says she moves from task to task at a leisurely pace. “I literally just do what I need to do or want to do.”

The activities haven’t disturbed her sleeping husband or daughter, who is in first grade. “It’s not like I’m vacuuming,” she says. Around 6 a.m., Ms. Aronson starts making her daughter’s lunch; by 6:30 the family is awake.

Ms. Aronson, who doesn’t drink coffee or any other caffeine, says she is motivated to wake up so early because of how much these hours energize her. She typically goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. and sleeps until 6:30 or 7 a.m. on weekends, Mondays and Fridays. “This probably isn’t long-term,” she says. “No one is making me do it, but I enjoy it because I have time for myself and I’m doing things on my own terms.”

Chris Danuser’s wake-up time: 5:30 a.m.

Chris Danuser doesn’t consider himself a morning person. To rise at 5:30 a.m. during the week, he sets the alarm on his phone and leaves it in the bathroom overnight, forcing him quickly out of bed for fear of waking his wife. “That first thought of the day is not about me, it’s about keeping things cool at home,” he says.

Mr. Danuser, a 51-year-old filmmaker and real-estate agent, dresses and heads to his office, which is on the top floor of his Maplewood, N.J., home. There he sits on the couch and meditates for 20 minutes.

By about 6:15 a.m., he is in the kitchen making matcha tea or coffee with blended butter and oil. Preparing either drink involves several steps requiring about 10 minutes, which he appreciates. “It’s very deliberate, you’re not just pushing a button,” he says.

After finishing his morning brew, he does some light stretches, yoga or a rhythmic bounce on a trampoline in the basement. By 7 a.m., Mr. Danuser’s wife, 17-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are up and ready for breakfast, which he helps prepare. “They never try to join me,” he says of his early-morning routine. “They accept it as part of ‘Dad.’ ”

Mr. Danuser’s days lately are filled with meetings, fundraising and fast-approaching deadlines for a pilot he has written and will produce. Methodical, slow-paced mornings ease his anxiety and frustration and bring focus and organization to his unpredictable days, he says.

Mr. Danuser started rising early about two years ago. “I was 49 and realized I can’t be disorganized and have a lack of focus all my life,” he says. “I figured out that waking up early and having a deliberate morning pattern is something I can control—the control that I capture in the morning sustains me through the whole day.”