Hair on Fire Minus One

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Back in my lawyer days, my office was 4 floors below one of the partners I worked with. Problem was, we were in different elevator banks. So every time I needed to be in his office, I’d have to take an elevator to the lobby, cross around to the next bank, then go back up to his floor.

Not a big deal when things weren’t on deadline (lol, like that ever happened), but when we were on a deal, already working insane hours, it became a bit luny. Not because it had to be, because I made it so.

As the deal deadline loomed, I’d start to move faster, task-multier, breath mightier and generally run around like a madman. Thus the “hair on fire” analogy. And an odd thing started happening when I hit that pace. I’d start to forget things on my trips through the elevator system. And, I’d start to miss things in the work I was doing.

By the way, an hour lost, a comma here and a word there on a $100 million deal, apparently all add up. Who knew?

I remember one time having to travel between offices and elevator banks over and over because as I kept going faster, I kept forgetting more.

Then I decided to try another approach. I developed a pretty good sense for what my hair on fire speed was. And I wondered what might happen if I dialed it back just one notch.

So I tried it.


Though I was moving slightly slower, I found myself missing less, making fewer mistakes, having to spend a lot less time on error correction and recovery and traveling between elevator banks far less frequently.

It may seen a bit counterintuitive, but I was actually able to get a higher quality of work done faster and more humanely not by working as fast as I could, but by working just a bit slower than my max-capacity.

At a pace I like to call hair on fire minus one.

Try it out sometime, you just might amaze yourself.

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24 responses

24 responses to “Hair on Fire Minus One”

  1. Eric Hamm says:

    Spot on! I’m so ADHD it’s not even funny and find myself with my hair on fine all the time. Lately I’ve definitely found that dropping it back a notch is so much more efficient.

    My struggle has always been the fact that I just can’t work a slow or even “normal” pace. So when people tell me to slow down I always feel like, “You just don’t understand, if I slow down I get bored and then get nothing done.” I’ve always had 2 speeds, on and off.

    So you’re just suggesting a 3rd speed of 99% on, which is just about perfect for me.

    Thanks for sharing,


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, remarkablogger, Grant Griffiths, Eric Hamm, Cherry Woodburn and others. Cherry Woodburn said: RT @jonathanfields: Hair on Fire Minus One – His point is oh-so-true […]

  3. Wonderful post Jonathan and so very true….the hurryier you go the behinder you get mentality….slow down smell the coffee and you will be more productive…a hard lesson to learn but once learned you can master quickly…
    In gratitude,

  4. Hair On Fire Minus One – ok, that is so totally my new mantra. Brilliant :).

    In my corporate days I was told people knew to move out of the way when they heard me clacking down the corridor in my heels because I was typically going way over the walking speed limit while typing furiously on my blackberry and carrying an ever present boiling hot cup ‘o joe – the contents of which had an amazing propensity to land everywhere but in my mouth due to my incessant multi-tasking.

    There is something addictive about speed that gives you this comfortable illusion that you are actually making “progress” when the truth is… you’re just burning yourself up. What a delightful reminder, Jonathan. Here’s to dialing it back a notch.

  5. Tom Meitner says:

    Interesting, Jonathan! I usually employ this strategy when it feels like a ton of crap is going wrong. My wife tends to be the “hair on fire” type, and when I get like that, I need to pull back for a second so that I can think everything through. I don’t know how many times I tell her, “Well, freaking out about it isn’t going to do anything!” Clearing your mind and working it through a little slower can actually help you move faster, just in a different way. Great story!

  6. So true – I’ve used this phrase a lot in the past, and added … “and dancing to Funky Cole Medina” … just for the visual effect. Now I’m dating myself!

    Thanks for the reminder to “Be like water.”

  7. wilson usman says:

    so it makes sense ha? it’s funny how a small tweak can lead to huge changes and success.

    I’ll have to try it.

  8. Guilty as charged, sometimes…I definitely have those moments when I start running off the rails, and have learned to literally stop, take a deep breath, and shift the focus to being efficient and streamlined, not necessarily fast. Most of the time, it works.

    I think that unfortunately it’s all too easy these days to run at an insane pace, and there’s a myth that multi-tasking works and that doing more is better. It is a constant internal battle, so I like your phrase “hair on fire minus one”. Nice mantra to remember to ease up a bit.

  9. A great term to keep in mind as we go from pillar to post, scurrying around trying to ‘get it done.’

    For me, the online to-do list is one that ignites the fire. Before the Internet (yes, I’m old enough to recall what it was like), we were content to push through life at a slower pace. But in my experience, the online life is one of constant additions to my list of scheduled tasks.

    Dialing it down a notch is a great idea.

  10. Hi, Jonathan. Of course I resonate with this post. 🙂 Well put. I especially like the use of the phrase “task-multier”

    If it’s alright with you, I’d like to share my multitasking exercise I put on my site this week, so that your readers can assess the cost:

  11. chieko says:

    Here’s another text-analysis by a creative-writing pupil.

    Most elevators go up and down at a dreary fixed speed, coldly indifferent to the people in a hurry or in distress.

    The frustration we feel while waiting for the elevator to arrive, or the fear we experience when it gets stuck between the floors… are almost SYMBOLIC of WORKING IN A CORPORATION.


    And in our lives, TIME is another system that we have to ride inside, whether we are freelancers or employees.

    So the combination of both the corporate system and the lack of time is DOUBLY STRESSFUL, like hair on fire!

    Of course, when we come out of the elevator (or corporation), we are freed from that stress and frustration.

    But then, we’ve got to use our own legs to climb up and down the stairs! Well, that’ll keep us fit. But we still have to ride on TIME!

  12. Jonathan,
    Oh man, do I relate to this! I spent many years as a business and corporate litigator, and so hair on fire moments were a way of life to meet filing deadlines. This is great advice and it really works! I call it “shifting to a lower gear.” Brilliant!

  13. Jennifer says:

    Absolutely! I find that when I’m at “hair on fire” pace, I’m more likely to be spinning my wheels. So I take a deep breath, and drop it into a lower gear. 🙂

  14. Something I learned from the bits of LEAN/6 Sigma reading I’ve done is that when you pace the input to match the output (instead of the intuitive, but wrong, method of making more input to make more output) *you increase both.*

    Now, when I get in a hurry, I try to picture how much I know I can get done, instead of how much I *wish* I could get done. Aim for that. Voila! I do more than I expected.

  15. I am surprised to see absolutely NO mention of Michael Jackson in this post or in the comments. Haha!

    OK, but seriously, yes, exactly, why not bring it down a notch or two for maximum effectiveness?
    A dear friend of mine, the filmmaker Rob Reilly, had a great way of putting it: “If we’re all running the same race, let’s slow down!” And I think we are.
    Of course, jumping up onto a ginormous (OMG, that’s a real world!) soapbox to make such an announcement is gonna be tough (besides, who would make the announcement? President Hu? Haha!) so, I guess the best thing for all of us is just to focus on our own strongest game and pace ourselves accordingly.
    Cheers and thanks, Jonathan, and excellent comments, everybody!


  16. As an Artist I am told to get in the Zone (no time period) for best work and then live in a world with time restrictions…it’s tough to sort it out sometimes.I think slowing down would help you think outside the box and use your instincts more.

  17. I work so much at the computer that the way I relate to this is my typing speed-to-typo ratio. The faster I type the more errors I make. So even though it feels too slow, I actually type faster by typing slower and more accurately. Because taking time to correct mistakes makes the post or the email or the comment take up to four times as long as it should.

    Slowing down really is faster. Like, whoa… (Keanu Reeves voice)

  18. Kurt Swann says:


    Reminds me of what John Wooden used to tell his players . . . “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

    Good post!


  19. In my case, writing down notes and an organizer are big help in getting me through deadlines and stressful situation.

  20. Anne Wayman says:

    Yep, slowing down to speed up… more or less. Thanks!

  21. […] you want, offers tips to small business owners and also writes amazingly inspiring articles. In “Hair On Fire Minus One“ he suggests we slow down, even just one gear. Jonathan tested this theory when he was a […]

  22. Guy Farmer says:

    Great post Jonathan. It’s amazing how many leaders run around with their hair on fire and then wonder what they did all day when they get home. Like you, I’ve found it useful to dial things back a bit and, even more relaxingly, to focus on one thing at a time, do it well and then move on to the next.

  23. […] have time for this!” Oddly, however, I’m not rushing around like my hair’s on fire (not even “Hair on Fire, Minus One” as Jonathan Fields put it). If you were to observe me, you’d see pretty much the same pace I […]