"Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast"

by moridinamael1 min read24th Jan 20187 comments


Skill BuildingScholarship & LearningPractical
Personal Blog

I think it's worthwhile to signal boost bits of wisdom that turn out to be surprisingly useful. Apparently "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast" is a Navy SEAL saying. The meaning is pretty clear. Practice slowly so that the correct motor patterns are ingrained. And perhaps equally importantly, execute "slowly", that is to say, don't rush. Pushing your nervous system to perform faster than it's trained to will simply cause you to fumble what you're doing, and the end result is that your rushed performance is slower than if you had attempted a measured cadence in the first place.

On the rare occaisions that I've worked closely with high performers, be they artists or athletes or academics, I've noticed that they are all slow. The skilled artists never rush through their warmup exercises. The athletes are patient with their bodies. The academics will spend ten minutes on a task that might take me two minutes, because they're doing things like checking for consistency, giving themselves time to think things through and notice irregularities, and perhaps even formatting a table or graph to look nicer even if it's not necessarily ever going to be seen by anyone but themselves. The end result of all this "slowness" at the micro level is acceleration and efficiency at the macro level, and improved overall performance.

Show me somebody who gets things done at an unbelievable pace and I'll show you somebody whose life probably looks unbearably slow when you actually look at what they're doing on a daily basis.

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They also use this saying in the Army, although this is the compressed form. The full saying we used was "Slow is steady, steady is smooth, smooth is fast."

For more context (from the Army perspective), this comes up most heavily in weapon drills and squad movement, particularly where combined: clearing houses; getting out of trucks while under fire; getting out of helicopters while under fire; carrying casualties. The idea is that we need to be able to do several complex tasks at once:

  • Move with the group in a coordinated fashion, often across difficult terrain
  • Keep weapons ready, which includes both presenting a threat to the direction you are responsible for and being mindful of safety
  • Recognize and communicate relevant information (like threats or likely locations for threats)
  • Any other assigned task (like carrying casualties or equipment)
  • All of this needs to keep happening under conditions of sensory bombardment and high stress

The Army particularly stresses getting the first and second down to "muscle memory", which I put in quotes because they use the phrase for anything that needs to be automatic, even non-physical tasks.

Extremely important post in my opinion. The central idea seems true to me. I would like to see if someone has (even anecdotal) evidence for the opposite.

There is a distinction to be made that is easily overlooked: training versus performing. When the Special Forces are performing, obviously they are not going at a slow pace. It takes full speed movements to breach a door, clear a room, secure hostiles, and remove friendlies. None of this goes slow, as the situation does not allow slow.

However, the training does go from a slow speed to performance speed. Another related military mantra is “crawl, walk, run.” Start by focusing on individual steps (slow: this is often accomplished by way of lecture or simulated sandbox training), move to rehearsing at half-speed “walking,” to internalize the movements and build muscle memory, then “run” to push everything up to the speed needed for the mission.

Perhaps a nice illustration of the importance of all of this is to take a combat situation of a squad clearing a building with no knowledge of what’s inside, and then imagine that your only focal point is to watch where each weapon is pointing, start to finish. Without “crawl, walk, run” training, without “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” you would see it repeatedly happening that weapons are sweeping across fellow soldiers, friendlies, even hostiles that are not an imminent threat, with the possibility of unintentionally firing the weapon in the heat of the moment that results in a casualty. Training will explicitly address this issue to help reduce the likeliness of it happening.

Any number of other illustrations could be drawn, from practicing an instrument, penmanship, keyboard speed, defensive driving, even taking your toddler into the public where opportunities for bumps and bruises abound!

My piano teacher told me this about practicing the piano, when I was around 7 years old. I always remembered it, but I never actually have the patience to do it.

Maybe situations that involve (or require) 'hysterical strength' are good counter-examples to this idea.

But those situations also seem like exactly those for which one can't train anyways.

An important lesson. At the same time, it can go both ways, at least, when applied broadly. Maybe the nuance to include is that slowness is for training and for learning. In the moment when you want maximum output right NOW, pushing to the limit will usually out-compete going slowly. So, methodical training, to-the-limit performance

I can think of lots of situations in which "pushing to the limit" has exactly the opposite effect, of producing maximum output, beyond the "micro level". I can't think of any situations that match what you describe. It seems like it really might be generally true that when you want maximum output right NOW, you need to first be relaxed or calm enough to be able to act fluidly ('smoothly').