End of year burnout is not a good look. Stylist’s editor Susan Riley tries to avoid it by embracing slow living techniques for a week – without taking her foot off the gas
Slow is everything my life is not.
From the minute my alarm quite literally alarms me, to the second I switch it on again 17 hours later, my days are one long Jane Fonda stretch of meeting requests, diary updates, and an unrelenting stream of emails and pinging WhatsApps. I flit between all of these things, trying in vain to tackle them all but finishing none; lurching between harried conversations where I don’t listen with the intention I ought, until a ball of anxiety sits dead in the middle of my chest and my mouth can’t keep up with the sentences my brain wants it to say. I get colds, often. Last week a colleague emailed me to tell me I had my top on inside out. I was rather relieved; sometimes I’m surprised I’ve even remembered to put a top on.
Honestly, I’d really rather not carry on living such a harried existence. It’s not enjoyable and for all the bursting seam-like nature of my life, it can feel somewhat lacking in purpose at times. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
So it’s my heartfelt intention to slow down. I want quality not quantity. The only catch is, I want it quickly. Don’t we all.
It is not a new conundrum, and the slow movement is by no means a new concept. It’s been 14 years since Carl Honoré published In Praise Of Slow – something the Financial Times said was “to the slow movement what Das Kapital is to communism” – in which he acknowledged that we are “living the fast life, instead of the good life,” but that there was a way to avoid burnout: by “getting in touch with your inner tortoise and no longer overloading yourself gratuitously.”
Since then life has got faster still, and our desire to put on the breaks more fervent. The quest to go slow – sometimes used as an acronym: Sustainable, Local, Organic, and Whole – has ironically ramped up, with a flurry of books (Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner; The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim) and podcasts (Hurry Slowly, The Slow Hustle), offering advice on everything from slow food and parenting to fashion and tech. The zeitgeist is most definitely nudging us in the right direction.
Our lifestyle priorities – sustainable, ethically sourced clothing; local, organic food; mindfulness and gratitude – are all deeply embedded in the slow movement, even if they are not conscious decisions to join it. But we can do much more. Or, rather, less. As I set out to discover – not least because, mental health and life enrichment aside – Ferris Bueller once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” And I consider Ferris Bueller to be very wise.
So can you live slowly while still being ridiculously busy? By not turning your life on its head or carving out any extra time because you simply don’t have it? I’m about to find out…
Task one: a slow(er) commute
My aim is to live slowly but realistically – and there’s nothing more realistic than commuting. Although, as someone whose train chugs painfully late into Waterloo most days (hello South West Trains!), I’m not confident it can get any slower. But here goes.
Radio 3’s regular slow radio slot – launched in September – plays ambient sounds like lions and monkeys bedding down at dusk in a zoo to encourage listeners to slip into a more contemplative state of mind. All up for this, I download ‘A walk in the New Forest’, for “calming birdsong and the crunch of leaves”. The tweeting and rustling that ensues is strangely cathartic. I even close my eyes and imagine I’m indulging in a country walk… until my WhatsApp pings. Must. Turn. That. Off.
I choose another. ‘Forgotten sounds’ is a symphony of typewriters, steam engines and looms. SKIP. Nor for me either is ‘A late night trip across Kabukicho, Toyko’s entertainment district’, which leaves me feeling like I’m on a more frenzied commute than my own. Finally I settle for a soothing dose of dripping ice and crunching snow with ‘A visit to a snowy forest near Oslo’. Nature is obviously my slow salvation.
Verdict: Slow radio is like crisp flavours: you need to experiment to discover which ones you can mainline, as some are more bothersome than calming. But it does free me from the shackles of my work email and I feel emboldened to reclaim my commute. Sorry boss.
Task two: conscious uncoupling
Yes, I am in a toxic relationship. I get a little twitchy if I haven’t checked my phone in 20 minutes, leaving me with the tech equivalent of the DTs. Thankfully, slow technology isn’t a digital detox; it’s more about using it for reflection (to communicate, enrich and share) as opposed to distraction (getting caught in a meaningless vortex).
It’s this mindful and intentional approach that Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, advocates in his upcoming book Digital Minimalism, On Living Better With Less Technology (out in Feb). Newport wants us to “aggressively clear away low-value digital noise and optimise your use of the tools that really matter to add the most value to your life”, although he does concede you’ve got to put a lot of hard work in to do it and frankly I don’t have time right now.
I do have time to download phone use tracking app Moment, however, which records my screen time and gives me frightening stat insights (one day I pick up my phone 55 times and spend 16% of life on it). Its Bored & Brilliant alerts also send good intention reminders too, such as telling you to have a photo free day just as you’re about to take your 50th photo. I started strong, using my device for just one hour on day one. However, this soon slips to 2hr 46 on day six, and I finally limp in at just over five hours (I blame slow radio). I definitely need longer on this one and sense a pre-order of Digital Minimalism coming on. Professor, help me.
Task three: brain cleanse
Brooke McAlary, author of Slow and Destination Simple, and co-host of The Slow Home podcast, describes journalling as the most powerful – and portable – way to live slowly due to its brain cleansing ability to add a sense of grounding to your day. McAlary uses it as a tool to manage her anxiety or shape her mornings, and good grief I need both today. Especially with a gin hangover, two kids’ birthday parties and several riveting pieces of life admin. Normally I’d pace around in a dressing gown for a few hours fretting, but not today; not on McAlary’s watch.
I write a one-page stream of consciousness of what I’m thinking and feeling at that moment, and what I’m most worried about. Then I read it, reflect and make a list of everything I have to do today to alleviate those worries and the order I need to do them in. If I could print emojis, they’d be of the party streamer variety. Journaling is quick and effective; a literal brain dump that leaves you with clarity and composure as opposed to dressing gown-ed panic.
Task four: daily spring clean
A phrase used by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus – aka The Minimalists, often the No1 wellbeing podcast on Apple – that I liked when researching slow living was “intentionality”. Or as they describe it, “the removal of the excess so we can make room for what’s important”. Today I’m translating this literally and decluttering. Previously I’ve only done this in the form of a mammoth five-binbags-to-the-charity-shop spring clean, but McAlary says that decluttering is a cycle we need to do again and again.
On her podcast she experiments getting down to 496 personal items (the average household has 2,000), and recommends moving a few items out each day in order to achieve it. Start with clothes, she says, and when in doubt remind yourself that you’re ‘keeping enough’. As I leave the house I recycle a book I know I’ll never read and bin an old hoodie with paint splatters. The next day I put a blouse I’ve never worn into the charity shop, ‘removing excess’ as I go. It’s never dawned on me to purge items gradually like this and there’s something very manageable and freeing about this bite-sized approach. Obviously you can’t do it every day or you’ll have no belongings left, but for a month every year I’m definitely game.
Take five: confiture and cook
While cookbooks are often about speedy shortcuts, a new wave of gastronomic tomes are reversing that trend. Gill Meller’s newly released Time is about making time to cook “to establish gentler, healthier rhythms in the way we live”. Ella Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken (out in January) was created as an antidote to an overwhelming world. Then there’s Gizzi Erskine’s latest offering Slow: Food Worth Taking Time Over, devised specifically to savour the art of cooking in a time-sapped world. I want to do just that, but I’m struggling.
Erskine’s Venetian duck ragu takes 2 hours 20; the steak and kidney pudding 6 hours 15. But it’s Sunday night and I’m pooped. All I can muster is a rhubarb and blood orange jam, done in 30 minutes and marvellously only involving orange, rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice. It’s all terribly quaint and simple; I feel such a purist, I even wear an apron.
Verdict: Making bubbly, gooey jam is a very mindful, simple pleasure. Because who makes jam when they’re in a rush? Actually who makes jam full stop? Well me now, apparently. Steak and kidney pudding, you’re up next. Kitchen catharsis is definitely where it’s at.
Task six: making it work (or not)
Fields Millburn and Nicodemus say the opposite of meditation is excess thinking, but that we have a finite amount of time, skill and energy so we have to be deliberate with the resources we have. This is particularly true of our working weeks which, like a G&T, could always do with being a lot longer.
In How To Not Always Be Working (out this month and “for anyone looking to show up to their life”), author Marlee Grace recommends writing a ‘This is my work list’ to identify what working is to you; then a ‘What is not my work list’; then go further still and write what one hour of not working looks like, and then five hours… How are the lists different? What are the grey areas?
My first list (emails, public speaking, interviewing, pitching) is very different to my second (yoga, snowboarding, drinking gin) but there are overlaps (reading, watching films, travel). Which of my grey areas do I want to remain grey? And does it actually matter?
Verdict: This exercise didn’t have me living slower but it made me contemplate how I spend my precious time. From now on I’m going to clearly segregate ‘work tasks’ from ‘free time’, make a conscious decision about which one I’m indulging in and fully commit, rather than languishing between the two. McAlary calls it tilting: “Work-life balance is a myth. Instead of struggling, tilt. When you’re at work, tilt all the way into work and be 100% present.”
Task seven: the art of slow
My final slow day is to get out there and experience it in action. First up is slow looking; a concept being nurtured by the Tate Modern for their upcoming Pierre Bonnard: The Colour Of Memory exhibition (23 January – 6 May 2019). Their Slow Looking Tours aren’t until March but I’m getting a taster session from Tate conservator Annette King, who takes me through Bonnard’s painting Coffee and The Bowl Of Milk in minute detail, analysing his techniques and scrutinising the context in which they were painted.
At 15 minutes it’s the longest I have looked at a painting. Including the ones hanging in my house. Next is a breathwork session at meditation drop-in studio Re:Mind (remindstudio.com). Conscious breathing is, thankfully, very in right now and 30 minutes of deep breathing exercises later, I am physically tingling, so freshly oxygenated is my body.
Verdict: Ironically, taking the time to do these sessions resulted in me working late. But they did prove a point: I am rushing through life; motoring through activities without stopping to contemplate or discuss, and never taking time to just stop and breathe. Which I’m kicking myself for. Breathing deeply fires neurons in our brains, and relaxes us. It’s like I’ve had a free internal spa all this time that I’ve just not used.
Can you live slooooowly?
Yes. Kind of. My week was no less stressful, or busy. But it was more conscious, and it revealed a lot of things I want to change. Also, you can’t rush it. “Slow living is slow by name and slow by nature,” says McAlary. “It’s not a shift that will happen quickly, so start small and focus on being consistent instead of impressive.” She recommends first figuring out your why: “Slow living is all about creating time and space and energy for the things that matter most to us in life, so ask yourself what you stand to gain.”
Then find small moments of slow in your day, whether that’s going screen-free, single tasking, deep breathing or – like me – practising five minutes of mindfulness while changing my bed sheets. Yes really. I tell you, that Ferris Bueller’s on to something.