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Beyond efficiency

The mantra is ‘Don’t work harder, work smarter’ … but is success really to be found in greater productivity?

“We hear all the time about slowing down and mostly it’s couched in the idea of working more efficiently,” says film producer, author, wife and grandmother Sumner Burstyn. “We feel if we can just implement more efficient systems and be more efficient with our time it will free up our time and we can slow down. It seems to me that this idea is inherently anti-human. We’re not machines. We’re not meant to be efficient. We’re meant to meander and double back on things. Ideas and innovation do not come out of efficiency.”

Sumner (who dropped her first name, Barbara, when she turned 50) is no slouch. She has four adult daughters and almost four grandchildren. Her most recent film, the critically acclaimed This Way of Life, which follows horse-whisperer and philosopher Peter Ottley Karena and his family, won a jury prize at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, the two top documentary awards in New Zealand and was up for an Oscar. Her documentary One Man, One Cow, One Planet has won numerous awards and screened in multiple countries. Sumner is also an award-winning journalist who’s been widely published in New Zealand and elsewhere, including the UK’s Independent on Sunday, Australian Harpers Bazaar and American website Dissident Voice (www.dissidentvoice.org). An independent film producer, Sumner works with her cinematographer husband Tom Burstyn in their company Cloud South Films. Their new documentary, A Kind of Love, will be completed in the new year. 

So how does someone who has achieved so much also cultivate slow? “It has to start with understanding that in life you will ‘never get it done’ and being happy understanding that,” she says. “I’m trying to accept that I will never ‘get it done’. I’m trying to concentrate myself in my creative work and not in the systems that support my work. I’m attempting to create unstructured space in my life – to allow the space for creative ideas to blossom.” Watch how small children play, she suggests. “They focus intently on one thing, and then switch that deep attention to another thing easily. They don’t complete tasks in efficient ways – they explore them.”

Sumner believes that imagination has been relegated to second-class status; we’ve ingested the idea of efficiency to such an extent that we’ve started inculcating it into even the smallest children with ‘educational’ goal-based toys. “The child has to narrow its perceptions and functioning to achieve the goal or reward that is embedded in the toy. It amounts to early robotic training and is the opposite of how our imaginations flourish. It is the opposite of living more slowly,” she says. “In video games all the imagining has been done for you – whole worlds created for the player who just has to interact in specific ways to win or reach the goal.

“We are no different as older adults. We’ve been living and working in this goal-based way for so long the very idea of slowing down confuses us. “We are inherently suspicious of free time. It’s not efficient. It’s not good use of time. Rambling people, those with free time, are a threat to society, to the industrial system we’ve all ended up being part of. To slow down you need to ‘free time’ from the constraints of efficiency.” Slow living is about making sense of the world in ways other than money: making do and cutting your cloth to suit. “We belong to a generation of boomers who are surrounded by all outer vestiges of a successful life – the bach, the boat and the overseas holidays,” says Sumner. “It’s about giving up being bothered by the idea that people out there might have all manner of things you can’t afford. When we holiday we get together with our kids and their children and enjoy hanging out together.”

Apart from her daughters and husband, Sumner says she only has two close girlfriends, one who lives in the same town and another overseas. “We’re in almost daily contact and share many aspects of our lives. As with other aspects of slow, allowing myself to give up the idea of ‘keeping up’ with everybody has been incredibly liberating,” she says.

Try to find spaces – starting with moments. Between each chore, whether it’s packing the lunches or starting the dishes, take a deep breath and acknowledge one stage is done and you’re about to start another. On a weekly level, have minimal activities on a Sunday to allow the body and mind to rest in preparation for the next seven days – Laurie Foon, founder of Starfish 

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