The subtle art of slowing down

When was the last time you tried to be quiet? To sit without distraction, without wanting to pick up your phone, a magazine or flick on the TV. Honestly, silence is a rare virtue today. The world is a noisy, busy place and in our day-to-day, we so often get swept up in a wave of paperwork, public transport and packet sandwiches.

It’s no-one’s fault and there is no-one to blame but we’ve seemingly lost the subtle art of slowing down.

A few weeks ago, my other half commented how fast this year was going. How, like sand through an hourglass, hours were passing by like minutes. Just as he sat at his desk to start his morning, he was up for lunch, then on his way home. Scarily the days we enjoyed, such as holidays or weekends, were disappearing even quicker.

By default, I’m a person who likes to plan, who has to be early and who is always rushing round—even when I’m supposedly off work.

But recently, I got tired of rushing, running and coming home at the end of the day with a fuzzy head and achy feet. I decided to reclaim my evenings and those lovely walks in between meetings. I’m relearning how it feels to be slow and steady. It’s a long process, and some days it’s hard to find the chance to take my time, but there are some things which are helping. If you’ve had enough of the the pull of the 9-5 (or 9-7 as many of us work), here’s a few little tips to help you reclaim your lost minutes.

Listen more

… and I mean really listen.

Many of us will have music on while we’re working or relaxing. It might be your favourite artist or album, but as we’re creatures of habit, we become so familiar with the rise and fall of our most-listened tunes we often miss the nuances that once made them so special.

Music has an unrivalled quality to transport us to a certain time or place. It can evoke emotions too. But it can also be a cruel mistress and play off our need for repetition—how often have you had an earworm while you’re in a client meeting? We listen to certain tracks obsessively because we like to predict what’s coming next. It’s a large part of what makes up the Mere Exposure Theory.

However, factors such as poor quality headphones and speakers can limit the sounds we actually absorb from a song. When we become familiar with listening in a certain way, we only hear the key elements, we forget the depth of the lyrics or the subtle background hums. Because we often listen to music while we’re doing something else too, the track doesn’t actually have our full attention. Although we’re famed for our ability to multi-task as humans, there’s only so much information we can take in in one go, and it can actually be damaging to try and do too many tasks in one go.

There’s a simple way to bust this, and remember what exactly made you fall in love with that song. Listen without distraction. Take some time out of your day, whether it’s when you’ve just woken up and you’re still in bed or at home after a long day, stick on some headphones or decent speakers with your favourite song and sit with your eyes closed.

Let any thoughts come and go but focus your mind on the lyrics, on the instruments, on the volume and the tone of the song. Sing if you’re that way inclined, otherwise just quietly try to decipher every element that makes up that track.

Taking this time out is a good way to refocus your mind, getting rid of all the clutter and instead just focussing on one thing.

Read every word

One of the biggest factors for my change has been reading. Every day, I’m writing for other people and more often than not, skim-reading articles for the information I need. I last read a book three months ago, and that wasn’t reading as I would have defined it when I was a child—under my duvet with a torch well into the night, lost inside the prose of fighting dragons and adventures through strange lands.

Reading, an old love which I’d used as a tool for escape, became a chore—a fact-finding mission for me to locate the sentence I needed as quickly as possible. I forgot how to read for pleasure.

Here’s a little bit of science about reading. When we look at some text, instead of absorbing every word from left to right (or right to left), our eyes bounce over the top of the letters to determine what the context of the sentence is. These are called Saccades.

During this process, we pause on certain areas of text for a minute period of time. This can be on a word which is unfamiliar or where there is a larger amount of whitespace around a letter. These pauses are called fixations and they help us focus our eyes, especially if we’re reading a large passage of text.

If we’re doing this all day long on laptops, phones and tablets, we also have factors like screen-glare to contend with. This dries out our eyes, making us blink more. It’s no wonder we only read about 28% of words on a website.

So how do we separate reading for information versus reading for pleasure and escapism?

Although I love my Kindle, the best way I’ve found to do this is to shun technology all together. Instead, pick up a book. Reading on your phone or laptop opens the gateway to all kind of distractions: a quick check on Twitter there, seeing what’s on Netflix here, while a book has only one purpose. It’s designed for you to read.

We have a habit of feeling the pressures of time-constraints wherever we are today so make sure, if you are going to read, you schedule in some time to do it properly. Instead of watching that 9pm show, record it or catch up on a web player and pick up a book instead.

It doesn’t matter the subject, or how long it takes you to read it, just concentrate on what the words are saying.

Get out your pots and pans

Even if you’re a self-professed, terrible cook, one of the most effective ways to slow down your day is to cook a meal—and no, beans on toast doesn’t count.

Coupled hand-in-hand with our increasingly busy lifestyles, and longer working hours, many of us just need something easy and quick when it comes to dinner time. When we’re getting in from the office post 6pm most evenings, the thought of chopping, dicing, frying and seasoning is a big ask. We’re worn out and our brains are exhausted.

While I was a student, I found a certain joy that came from the process of cooking. Away from my parents, I could make as much mess in the kitchen as I liked to find my flavour combinations for staple dishes. I cooked for my housemates and our friends—and I damn well enjoyed it.

But once real life caught with me, I made constant excuses for not cooking: “I’m too hungry to cook, let’s have beans.”, “I’m tired, let’s have beans”, “I’ve got more work to do, let’s have beans.”—it’s true, for a while I lived off beans…

This is a story I’ve heard from my friends, my co-workers, even some of my clients. We’re too busy to cook so we turn to the microwave.

The process of cooking can actually be a very rewarding one, especially if you’re cooking for others too. It’s one of the best ways to take control of your nutrition, and spend some time learning a new skill (here’s a few more reasons courtesy of the HuffPost).

Most importantly for those of you wanting to slow down your day, cooking takes time. It requires your attention to finely chop, add just the right amount of seasoning and watch that the meat doesn’t burn. It’s a process which means you have to pay attention and focus, but to achieve a personal, rewarding outcome.

“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
Bertrand Russell

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