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  • Writer's pictureCrystin Rice

What's Your Idle Speed?

My first car was an old Toyota. It was built in the pre-computerized days of rubber bumpers and hand-crank windows.

That old Toyota was a bit quirky. It really didn't like the summer heat, and mechanics couldn't figure out why it overheated when sitting at stop lights in the summer. My dad decided to help me "hack" the engine, which involved removing the choke valve in the summer, increasing the rate of coolant that could flow through the engine and thus keeping it cooler. That hack worked the summer. We had to put the valve back in every fall, though, or the engine wouldn't put off enough heat to warm up the cabin. I loved working on that old car with my dad and learning these little tricks.

One thing that stood out from our time under the car's hood was the day he decided we should increase the idle speed. There was a ball chain that ran from the gas pedal to the throttle. To make the car idle at a higher rate, you just shortened the chain. He had me sit in the driver's seat while he pulled the chain from the other side. The engine revved, and my foot wasn't even on the accelerator. That little trick just delighted me for some reason, and I was fascinated by how simple it was to adjust the way your engine ran.

My car wasn't the only thing that I noticed could run at different idle speeds. Although I lived in a large city of 2+ million people, I used to drive that car to see extended family in rural areas of the state. Have you ever noticed the way QuickTrip cashiers in a large city get you through the line with blazing speed, often helping multiple customers at the same time? I'm pretty sure they have 4 arms! That doesn't happen in rural towns. The person in front of you is already engaged in a long conversation with the cashier about their neighbor a mile down the road, and you're going to be hanging out behind them for a while before they start to chat with you about where you're from and what you do in your spare time. You'll probably walk away with their favorite tips on how to grow tomatoes.

People - and communities - just operate at different idle speeds.

How fast does your engine tend to run?

It's helpful to be able to adjust the idle speed of a car when necessary. If it's set too low, your engine sputters and fizzles out. If it's set too high, you run the engine harder than it really needs, which uses up resources and wears it out faster. Somewhere in between the two there's a balance that keeps it running just right.

Like that old Toyota, we need to be able to adjust our idle speeds to match the changing conditions around us. If we don't idle high enough, we lose our ability to be alert and respond to situations as they happen. If we idle too high, we use up all of our resources internally and don't get very far. Sometimes we need to rev it up to get through a particularly busy and stressful time, yet we can cause damage to both our physical and mental health when we leave our idle speed set too high for long periods.

How can you adjust your idle speed?

If you feel a need to slow it down, consider what you're chasing...or running from. Are you chasing achievement and success while trying to outrun potential failure? Are you pursuing happiness but find it ironically is to the detriment of your mental health? What would happen if you loosen the chain a bit and allow yourself to take in the beauty and fulfilling moments of the drive?

If motivation is hard right now, finding things that bring you joy can help you get moving again. Is there a fun project that might rev your engine just a bit? A chance to pour into others by volunteering? When a car sits stationary, parts don't get lubricated as well and start to lock up. Then when you do try to run the car, it requires a lot more effort and wear. The more you run it, the better it performs.

Think you might need a tune-up?

A therapist can work with you to determine what roadblocks are getting in your way and help you reset your GPS toward the destination you choose.

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