When William Powers moved into a 340-square-foot apartment in Greenwich Village with his wife, what he found in tiny living quarters was not confinement, but freedom. He worked less, made the city’s parks, cafés and rooftops his living room, and slowed life to a leisurely pace few still remember to seek. Powers presents New Slow City, his book on this year-long experiment in leisurely living, at 6 pm on Thursday, Oct. 15, at Collected Works.
You have a quote at the end of your first chapter that says “You build strength not through taking the easy path, but by facing what you most fear.” What was it you feared so much about moving to Manhattan?
We did have a large house in Queens, like 1,900 square feet, and a big garden in the back. And also just the familiarity of it; we’d been there three and a half years. Living in the very heart of Manhattan is somewhat intimidating in terms of the speed and the kind of ethos of more is better. So in some ways, I think it was just the scissor-like jaws of the Manhattan skyline, which you can see from our hill in Queens, always reminded me of some of the things that I feel most uncomfortable with about the culture, like this constant growth obsession with competition and status and ego and everything, which is very typical of the city. So I was wondering, maybe fearing, what it would be like to be in the middle of that without this retreat that we kind of had out in Queens.
You mention this idea that we’re all prone to tying our sense of self-worth to the work that we do and how many hours we’ve worked. What were some of the ways you found to work around that when you scaled your life back to working 20 hours a week?
It is called the b-word, like ‘I’m so busy.’ That’s just the most socially acceptable badge to have in this culture…I applied the 80/20 principle: you get 80 percent of your results from 20 percent of the time you invest in something. I felt that to be incredibly true. I was wasting 80 percent of my time on just 20 percent of the results, so that idea of figuring out what are the key things and replicating that profile.
So what’s next for you? You’re now living in Bolivia and built this super energy- efficient home, right?
Yeah, we built this—it’s still minimalist, it’s 800 square feet inside, adobe, like here in Santa Fe, but double adobe, so the thermal mass means there’s no heating or cooling system. All the adobes were made on our land right there, so there’s no transport cost or anything like that, or carbon, and then we have a blackwater system for all of our sewage, which goes through several filters, and the graywater goes to like a composting system…And we’re bringing students down. I teach at NYU, and bring students down, teaching them about a lot of this stuff. I’m continuing to write. My wife does consulting with UN Women, but a lot of our time around these ideas we’ve been talking about, like how do we have more leisure time, more time with our kids?