If Slow Living Isn't Your Thing, Try Slower Living
Fall—a cascade of burnt orange leaves, cozy sweaters, and stews. Sounds like a beautiful image, alongside what people call "slow living," or taking your time through life, never rushing, and simply being.
But what if you have a demanding job and plenty of responsibilities? You might scorn slow living as mere fantasy. And then, what if you are Type A and/or highly impatient, like me? I was raised in one of the most competitive cultures in the world, and then I also was born with a natural propensity for overachievement. My head has always protested against slow living as "not for me!"
Until I realized, I have always been doing it in some sense. And as my life and vision evolved, I have been actively using slower living to benefit myself—and my work, too.
Why some people struggle with "slowing down."
Slowing down can feel difficult for so many people because they struggle with creating the time, energy, and headspace for it. And when they do? The next objection is something like: "But I don't know how to slow down. What do I do on my breaks? Work more?"
It's really about rejiggering your pace in some parts of your life and adding some more color, purpose, and joy into it. Because life isn't just about the work you do—you are more than that.
One issue is that slow living has been lumped into an amorphous mass with plenty of dangerous platitudes. These include "just let go of everything," which involves a lot of cognitive Photoshop and lying to yourself; "you don't need to control anything," which is impossible when you have responsibilities, old trauma, or leadership roles; or "be chill, don't be difficult," which is challenging when you're expected to forgive blatant rudeness or shoddy incompetence.
News flash: You don't need to do any of that, and that's not the only way slower living can look. It can also look like spending more time doing the things you love or reconnecting with the things you've dropped as life's obligations have piled up. Even if you call that weekly hike, that fortnightly focaccia baking stint, or monthly get-together with friends an "exercise to get out of my head," "experimentation," and "socializing," if you feel recharged after that and love how the time just flies by in a good way, then you're already doing some version of slower living. You just gotta do it more intentionally this time. After all, you already know how good you feel after that.
How to embrace slower living:
Consider what you already love doing.
There are the things we've always loved doing, where time just flies by, and we're completely wrapped up in it. We feel energized, purposeful, and content after that—and it definitely doesn't feel like a waste of time, or as though life was dragging by.
Perhaps these are things you used to enjoy but have become disconnected from as obligations and life piled up.
So a good prompt would be, what did you love doing as a child?
It could be a similar activity, like running or reading. Or it could be something that you can evolve to fit who you are now. For instance, if you enjoyed collecting cards or stamps, and researching information about cars or plants, then you could apply this methodical and knowledge-hungry mind to the things you're presently curious about.
And then, think about the things you already do that feel good but have you uttering I wish I could do this longer, if only I had more time.
Maybe some of these activities have an annoying energy-sapping component. For instance, someone might love to entertain but hate cleaning up. Another might feel that burdensome ache on their shoulders literally at the thought of having to coordinate the time when everyone is available. If this is the case, can you outsource the annoying task?
Try seasonal slower living.
Nature's wisdom is that we start to slow down during fall, resting in the winter, while we start to feel reinvigorated during spring, crescendoing in the summer. It makes sense, then, that we can plan bouts of slower living accordingly.
Another way is to book in designated vacation/break slots in your calendar, so you know you have that much-needed recharge. (Of course, it's also about learning to practice taking care of your brain all year round so that when you're on break, you're not spending your time worrying and lost in your head.)
Defining slower living seasons could also come in the form of "peak time" and "coasting time"—this way, we get clear on when resting or going with the flow is perfectly beneficial and build up our reserves for the time when we need to go full steam ahead.
Master your time.
If you took a short five-minute break every half an hour, a three-hour drive could easily morph to five hours. This is because five minutes isn't just five minutes; it's the breaking of momentum and then having to restart that. In the same way, switching between too many tasks and locations is an invisible way you hemorrhage your time.
One way to get around this is to chunk similar types of tasks or activities together—with tiny breaks in between, of course. You will reclaim so much time back, meaning you'll be able to indulge in your favorite activities for longer.
Another question you can ask yourself is what are your time "black holes," when they're likely to happen, and what are the knock-on consequences? For instance, strategizing about work after dinner at 10 p.m. means you'll sleep at 2 a.m. and then miss out on your morning workout. Which will lead you to feel disappointed and anxious all day, and the cycle repeats. The 8 p.m. Netflix binge might lead to the same vicious cycle.
This doesn't mean "stop strategizing" or "stop Netflixing," but it's about building those activities into more conducive time slots during the day to better master your time.
Recognize the difference between excellence and imaginary unproductive perfectionism.
I remember having a conversation with an incredibly gifted web developer, furious about how clean and beautiful the code he wrote was, as compared to his competitors'. Visually, it was a work of art, but most people, we don't even know how to access code, much less care about it.
I tell this story because there comes a point where "even better" has a disproportionately large cost on your energy, time, and peace of mind. Even more so when only you can see and care about the better version. While it's important to aspire to excellence in some parts of our lives, when perfectionism spills over to all parts of our lives, it shoots you in the foot.
As it is, we only have 24 hours in a day and about four hours of peak productive time. When we overtax ourselves, every day we run on reserve battery mode. Accumulate this, and it's compound interest on sleep, energy, and health debt that you don't want to pay.
Something's gotta give. When you're frantically trying to meet impossible standards in everything, you won't have that focus and zest for creating excellence in the parts of your life that matter. Everything suffers. And the people you wanted to make happy by being perfect (e.g., by overgiving or fussing over details) end up unhappy.
That's unproductive imaginary perfectionism because, in practice, nothing ends up perfect. In contrast, when we learn to streamline our standards for most areas of our lives, we can then be artisanal in what matters.
So let's get realistic. Which areas of your life would you like to create "good enough" standards, and then which one to two areas would you like to be artisanal in? When you can renegotiate this distinction, you can make more space in your life for those periods of slowness.
Use slower living as a reset.
For some, it can be helpful to essentially "microdose" slower living in our everyday lives.
Here's when slower living takes the form of that reset button, important especially when we feel our energy has (naturally) been drained from prolonged focus. Hitting that reset button helps us get our higher brain online, reclaiming control from the inevitable hijack by our fear centers. We respond to what's going on around us, rather than react. We're able to look beyond the short term and make wiser decisions that benefit our future while taking care of ourselves in the present moment.
That reset is essentially what I call "spending time to buy time."
In between tasks, it could be instituting 10-minute windows, deep breathing, or walking to brew a cup of tea. That way, you are literally showing your brain and body that you are transitioning between tasks or people so you clear off the energetic debris of the last thing you did and go forward with a cleaner slate.
Longer breaks can mean a short 10-minute walk after lunch, which also does wonders for your gut; that short stroll to the café to grab your favorite espresso; or a 30-minute workout class.
These daily resets might feel easier as you're starting out on thoughtfully incorporating slower living into your life, or if you simply have a short attention span.
The bottom line.
Many of us wait for a vacation before we decide to take it slower—and even then we become busy in our heads or filling up our days with activities.
The truth is, learning to take breaks takes practice. And it's not just about learning to engage in slow living just because someone else says it's good. It's about having the space and time to engage fully with life and the people who matter while recharging you for all the work that you do.
Perpetua Neo is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.