5 Healthy Ways to Immediately Slow Down Your Life

Woman leaning her head back, eyes closed, with a peaceful look.
Photo: David Sacks/Getty Images

Is it any wonder the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown our sense of time out of whack? We’ve been forced to “slow down” whether we wanted to our not — barely leaving our homes, canceling social engagements — but at the same time, our minds are moving faster than ever. We’re processing huge amounts of information and dealing with enormous upheaval, flicking between health and politics and work and relationships at a phenomenal rate. Life has gone into overdrive even as it has ground to a halt.

“We need to be clear about what we mean by ‘slow’ and ‘fast’,” says Noel Bell, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the U.K. Council for Psychotherapy. “Fast is a synonym for intensity and overworking. Similarly, ‘slow’ does not necessarily have to mean working at a slow pace but rather at a pace that is more comfortable and which can mirror a healthy work/life balance.”

It means living at a pace that won’t lead to burnout, which causes overwhelming and prolonged exhaustion, feelings of detachment from your job, and even physical issues like headaches and stomach problems. It’s a growing problem, too: Last year, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” So if you feel like you’re on a treadmill that never stops — and also it’s rocking from side to side — burnout may be to blame.

“We know when we are moving, too quickly when we are off-balance. The so-called ‘slow philosophy’ is best summed up by achieving balance and harmony,” Bell says. “We can seek to live at what musicians call ‘tempo giusto’ — the right speed.” It’s a speed that helps you feel more balanced and focus on more things.

You can start figuring out that speed today. Here’s how:

Recognize the problem with context switching

One study found most people average only three minutes on any given job before switching to something else — and just two minutes on a digital tool before moving on.

And although we pride ourselves on being able to multitask, we’re not as successful at it as we might think. A 2018 study by the University of Michigan found that even when we’re working on two or more activities at the same time, on a cognitive level, that’s not really what’s happening. What looks like multitasking is really our brain is actually switching repeatedly between tasks ― and performance on all of them suffers.

A Stanford University study suggests that multitaskers have lower attention spans than those who prefer to complete one task at a time. In other words, you can’t do your best work when your attention is scattered across a dozen open apps, multiple conversations, and a long to-do list.

With this in mind, slowing down — and completing one task at a time, without switching our focus every few minutes — may be more natural and beneficial for us, and also more productive.

“As humans, we evolved in a very different world than we live in now,” says the psychologist Maya Altman, head of clinical care at Modern Health. “We may not be used to the pace that everything moves at now, which can stress our minds and our bodies. We are certainly seeing manifestations of this quick pace in high levels of burnout and stress.”

Focus on what doing absolutely nothing feels like

Speed is a relative concept, so there’s no “right” or “wrong” pace of life. A pace that one person finds overwhelming may feel fine for someone else. “There are going to be individual differences in the pace and speed we feel comfortable and like operating at,” Altman says. The key is determining if you’re currently moving at too fast a space for you.

And you can do it right after you finish this story.

“One of my favorites is a simple deep breathing exercise where I carve out time to focus on my deep breathing,” Altman says. “Pay attention to how you’re feeling in those moments when you pause — do you find that you are ready to get up and continue, or do you notice that you really need to slow down more?”

Interrupt impulsive behaviors

On average, we check our phones 96 times a day — which is around once every 10 minutes. This doesn’t just mean we struggle to switch off; technology tends to overload our brains, depleting us of our ability to relax and live in the moment. Being more aware of your actions, such as scrolling social media, and taking steps to be more deliberate can help you find a more contemplative way of living.

It can be easier said than done, but research suggests a good way to do this is to retrain yourself over time. Larry Rosen, a psychologist from Cal State Dominguez Hills, suggests gradually reducing your reliance on your phone rather than attempting to banish it from your day entirely. Just check in less often — every 20 minutes, then every 30, and so on. Over time, you’ll be less inclined to jump on the notifications you receive.

And find creative substitutes for the things you usually use your phone for. The more we rely on our devices, the harder it can be to break from them, so think about small changes you can make, like using an alarm clock instead of your phone.

Now cancel 20% of your plans

We can’t do as much as we think we can in a day. Lots of us fall prey to the “planning fallacy,” a cognitive bias in which we fail to accurately predict how much time we need to complete a task. In one study, students working on a project estimated they would finish it 30 days earlier than they actually did.

To find your speed, committing to fewer things mentally and physically is important. When we feel rushed on a project, we’re more likely to make mistakes. When we WhatsApp over dinner in the evening, we’re less likely to enjoy our food. And when we’re firing off a quick email over coffee with a friend, we’re not making the most of our time with them.

Under-scheduling doesn’t necessarily force you to go slower. It allows you to focus more of your attention on what matters most. And it allows you to find the right speed of life.

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