Modern life has so many choices, it seems, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to experience all life has to offer, from entertainment and social engagements to kids’ after-school activities.
In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz contends that all this seemingly wonderful choice actually decreases our happiness. Though the “official dogma” of modern life is that more choice is better, Schwartz has found that having too many choices makes us far less happy than when we have fewer. Rather than feel empowered, he explains, we feel paralyzed. Additionally, Schwartz says, more choice leads to raised expectations, which inevitably leads to disappointment, whether it’s a vacation, a movie or a new pair of shoes.
Being tired and stressed can also take a toll on our health and our relationships, and more of us are seeking simplicity and the calm it can bring. As more people have resisted the breakneck speed of contemporary life, a number of movements have sprung up to encourage slowness. Slow Food, Slow Cities, and mindfulness movements are helping people slow down. Yet many of us are still struggling.
If you’re feeling the strain of living too fast, or are just overwhelmed by the holiday rush, here are some ideas to help you slow down and enjoy your life more in the coming year.
Fear of missing out can motivate us to say yes to everything, from social events to afterschool activities for our kids. We don’t want little Johnny to miss the chance to become an accomplished violinist, star soccer player, chess champion, or fluent in Mandarin, so we find ourselves shuttling kids between numerous activities. The result? Very little downtime for kids and their parents or quality time together as a family.
Kids and grownups benefit from unstructured time. Studies have shown that free play helps kids feel happier and more in control, and actually makes them smarter. Neuroscience has shown us that our brains function better when we let them rest. Knowing this can empower you to turn down another social invitation or volunteer opportunity—or take that vacation you’ve been delaying. Though it often seems that work can’t wait, numerous studies have shown that regular vacations and breaks during the workday actually make us more productive. That time away is important: prioritize your health and allow yourself to rejuvenate.
Connect with Nature
Enjoying the great outdoors is an especially beneficial way to enjoy your downtime. Studies have shown that time spent in nature greatly enhances both physical and mental health. Feeling overwhelmed by a too-full schedule can spike our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone associated with a range of health problems, from cardiovascular disease to depression. In contrast, time spent in natural surroundings has been shown to lower levels of cortisol. That relaxed feeling you have when you stop to watch a beautiful sunset? Chalk it up to plummeting stress hormones.
Walking aimlessly in the woods or your neighborhood, or just spending some time in the dirt can help your body and mind relax and recharge. Make a commitment to get your family outdoors regularly, whether it’s kicking a ball together in the park, biking, or just going for a leisurely stroll.
Do One Thing at a Time
We’ve been trained to prize efficiency and multitask to get as much done in as little time as possible. The problem? We’re so distracted that we don’t even notice we’re doing something enjoyable! Whether it’s reading with kids or eating a meal, if you’re trying to do two —or more!—things at once, you’re likely diminishing both experiences. MRIs of subjects doing multiple tasks simultaneously show they’re actually less, not more productive.
What should you do instead? Pay attention to the task at hand, whether it’s looking at your child when they tell you about their day or savoring the flavors of your food. Put down the mail, or the phone, or your computer, and be in the moment. This is the beginning of cultivating a mindset that can help slow down your life.
Don’t Let Tech Take Over
There’s no doubt all the information at our fingertips has some very tangible benefits. We can get the latest news, find answers to medical questions, check the weather forecast, and catch up with old friends every minute of the day.
But particularly with the advent of smartphones, it’s easy to be plugged in all the time. Parents can now read their work email at the park with their kids, and many people sleep next to their phones, hearing every text and email coming in. Besides disturbed sleep and extra electromagnetic radiation, incessant connection means we’re constantly distracted and never getting that badly needed downtime.
Former Google Design Ethicist and Product Philosopher Tristan Harris recently launched the advocacy group Time Well Spent to campaign for “technology designed to enhance our humanity” rather than enslave us. Tired of the ways tech designers have schemed to keep our eyes on screens, Harris is developing a designers’ code of conduct akin to the Hippocratic oath that would encourage designers to carefully consider the impact of their designs on human experience.
Harris aims to create technology that respects our time, our brains, and our lives. He likens our use of technology to other addictive activities, like gambling and eating sugar, and asks designers to give us healthier choices than we currently have. Instead of notifications that constantly ding and interrupt us, he hopes to see apps that make it easier for us to concentrate on one task at a time or unplug altogether. One day our phones might chide us when we’ve checked them too often or refreshed our email inbox thirty times in the last hour.
While we wait for designers to create technology more aligned with our humanity, Harris offers some simple ways we can prevent our tech from controlling us, like only allowing useful icons on a phone’s home screen, (like those for maps or contacts), but not ones likely to suck us in and suck up our time, (like Facebook or email). He encourages users to be mindful of compulsive checking and to only interact with their technology intentionally. Harris himself keeps a post-it note on his laptop that reads, “Do not open without intention.”
Less tech time could mean more time in your life for something other than another video of a swimming cat or a status update from a “friend.” Use that free time to pet a real animal or get together for an in-real-life visit with an actual friend!
Will You Slow Down This Year?
It’s easy to be ruled by your to-do list and the demands of a daily schedule, but taking some time to prioritize what’s most important to you, whether it’s your health or quality time with family and friends, can help bring your daily life more in line with what you value. Remind yourself often to consult not only your to-do list, but also your want-to-do list. Let go of what isn’t important and savor what is, whether that’s building a snowman with your kids, luxuriating in a bath, or just sitting quietly and letting your brain relax for a few minutes.
Enjoy a slower New Year!