Could ‘slow living’ make you a better person – or is it another unattainable lifestyle goal?
For so long, many of us have worshipped at the alter of busyness. It has become part of who we are.
‘How are you?’ friends ask. ‘Busy,’ we reply with a smile – because it’s a good thing!
To be busy is to be productive, to be productive is to be successful. We still buy in to the idea that having a jam-packed calendar and flying through life at break-neck speed is a valid marker of how well we are doing.
But a lot of the people who live like this are not actually doing all that well. They are exhausted, overwhelmed, teetering on the brink of total collapse.
The answer is, seemingly, simple. We have to slow down.
Ever since we created a mainstream term for the concept of ‘burnout’, there has been a push-back against the cult of busyness. More people are trying to take their foot of the gas, find more time for themselves, do more self-care, say ‘no’ to more invites.
‘Slow living’ enthusiasts will tell you that life is better when you’re not moving so quickly. They say taking tasks one at a time, never rushing or over-filling your diary, gives you the space to appreciate things as they happen – rather than manically ticking things off your to-do list.
There’s an element of mindfulness to the concept. Slow living is all about being conscious of the here-and-now, making considered decisions about how to spend your time, and enjoying the little things in life.
The slow lifestyle is growing in popularity. There are more than 3.5m posts for #theartofslowliving on Instagram, and there are even entire magazines – Kinfolk and Breathe, for example – dedicated to all things slow.
But it’s more than just a hashtag. For Faye Smith, slow living was less of a conscious choice, and more of a necessity following a series of catastrophic life events.
‘Imagine a Jenga tower of wooden blocks,’ Faye tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Some can be taken away and the tower still stands, until finally foundational pieces are removed and the tower falls. That was my life.’
Faye, a relentlessly active business woman and single mum, began to feel everything crumbling around her when she was in her thirties. Her marriage disintegrated, her former husband passed away and then, tragically, her daughter also died two years later after having a seizure.
‘I forced myself to deal with what grief I felt able to express and struggle on,’ says Faye.
‘I thought life had taken a turn for the better when I became engaged to a man from my church four years ago. When he walked away in March 2019, that Jenga tower finally collapsed.
‘It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The inner strength and resilience on which I had formerly relied, that everyone had come to expect of me, would take me no further.’
In the year that followed, Faye became increasingly unwell, the business that she had worked so hard for was slipping away, and then her beloved father passed away.
At this point, shouldering multiple losses and complex grief, she decided to move to Deal, a seaside town in Kent, for a six-month sabbatical in a therapeutic community.
‘I have truly discovered the power of slow,’ says Faye. ‘I was requested to do nothing for the first month before resuming any work – to give myself time to be, to get in touch with my emotions.
‘Now, I tend to swim, work for three hours, walk or run before lunch, work for three more hours, then walk again, often with my associate and her dog to end my day well.
‘Often I have to pinch myself as I look at the stunning sea and sky, that I get to live peacefully here in this healing place.
Faye says that the transition into slow living has been tough, it was hard to move away from the ‘frenzied life’ she was used to.
‘I live on a fraction of my old earnings,’ she says. ‘I have become car-free for the first time in my adult life, but I truly have enough of everything I need. And more than enough.
‘I have gone from living with what felt like a hornet’s nest buzzing in my head not wanting to get out of bed, to finding the joy and hope in life again. Friends who call me from my old life can tell I am already radically changed.
‘In fact, I have discovered a very different person who has been so covered up by layers of loss, she had become all but invisible.’
People find slow living for so many different reasons, and you don’t have to get to breaking point to realise that you need to take things down a notch.
For those living with chronic illness, slow living can be a lifeline.
Hannah Hoskins has fibromyalgia, and some days she only has the energy to sit up for ten minutes.
‘Slow living for me is very slow,’ says Hannah.
‘I have to plan my to-do lists as no more than three things, and sometimes that includes showering. What brought me to slow living was necessity. My body literally just went “nope” one day.
‘I woke up unable to lift my own duvet off without help, and a year later I got my diagnosis.
‘As time progressed, I couldn’t continue working at my job in TV and was forced to give up work. The disabled community were the ones who taught me speed and productivity wasn’t everything in life and that I’m just as valuable even when I can’t get everything done.’
Hannah calls herself a ‘hustle culture dropout’, and now she runs courses to help other people with chronic illnesses manage their business without pushing themselves too hard.
‘Slow living saved my life,’ says Hannah.
‘Before, I was running myself into the ground and ultimately I created a vicious cycle that ended up with me living on the sofa for a year.
‘Slow living tells you that productivity isn’t the end goal. That as humans we need to be able to have full lives that aren’t just working 12 hour days (or more). I never thought I would say that, but because my body made me do this I had to rebuild and really look at what my life meant without work.
‘The biggest wake-up call for me was realising I would die with an unfinished to-do list. Realising it’s literally impossible to “do it all” sets you free to decide if you actually want to do all the things you are doing.’
How to adopt slow living in your own life
Both Hannah and Faye have extreme reasons for moving towards slow living, and both of them made drastic life changes to make it happen.
But if your life looks pretty OK from the outside, it can be hard to see how slow living could work for you.
Most of us can’t just up and leave for the coast, or quit our jobs. And for many, the thought of extricating ourselves from the rat-race, although tempting, is also really scary.
Melanie Pledger, the CEO of life coaching company DNA Light Up, says it’s understandable to feel afraid about changing your entire perspective on life, and how you use your time.
‘The trap of attaching self-worth to busyness is extremely common,’ Melanie says. ‘And the fear that arises when considering changing that can be pretty overwhelming. I’ve been one of those people, and have worked with many more.
‘Slow living (or present living, or flow, or joy – call it what you will) comes from a place of choice. Not from a place of action, thinking or doing. It’s a place of choice, which starts with simple curiosity.
‘Our brain is such a wonderfully loyal servant, it will deliver whatever it is we ask of it. The key is in the questions we ask. Here’s a simple example:
‘If I ask “why am I feeling so stressed?” then our brain will automatically come up with a whole list of examples, because it is responding to the word “why” – in the same way as Google works. And, as our brain delivers all these memories, in an instant, then the experience we have is of stress.
‘If instead, I ask, “how would I rather feel?” then we access a whole new wealth of possibilities. In the moment. Right here, right now.’
Hannah says that her tip for anyone looking to try the principles of slow living is to start small.
‘Say “no” to that thing you feel you should do, but actually dread,’ she suggests. ‘Maybe that’s helping out at the kids’ school, or seeing that friend who spends the entire time talking about themselves.
‘When you realise that the world doesn’t end and people don’t hate you if you say no to things, try it again and then just keep going.
‘The more you ask yourself – “is this something I really want to do or am I doing it because I feel I should?” – it becomes a whole lot easier to just stop doing things you don’t enjoy.’
A simple exercise to practice slow living
Let’s not look at changing. Anything. Instead, let’s turn the tables by focusing on validating. Noticing and acknowledging, in curiosity rather than in judgement.
1/ Ask yourself ‘how are you?’ right now. Notice the quick answer that comes up (good, OK, fine thanks, stressed) whatever it is.
2/ Take a deep breath and give yourself a shimmy. Move hips, or shoulders, or hands, or feet – it doesn’t matter. The physical act of movement invites movement in other ways too.
3/ Now ask yourself again, maybe with different words, what’s really going on for you – right here, right now. Answer in this way: first with a number between 1-10 (1 being ‘on the floor’ and 10 being ‘top of the world’) and then (and only then) with a word or a phrase. You may be surprised at what comes up.
The whole point of validation is this – to notice what happens. Without judgement.
Understanding that ‘2 and tired’ is no better or worse than ‘8 and energised’. Just as ‘3 and motivated’ is no better or worse than ‘9 and wiped-out’. It’s about noticing.
Why? Because the second we acknowledge what’s going on for ourselves, we feel heard. Simply using the 1-10 and a word will automatically generate a deep breath and a shimmy. Which will then effect the 1-10 and word, which will then generate another breath…
See what I mean? It’s all about noticing, in the now, what’s really happening. Because from that point, we can do something about it. Little by little, breath by breath.
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