Saturday 19 October 2019

'I'm just done being so hard on myself' - Irish professionals embracing the 'Slow Movement'

Make 2019 the year you finally slow down and say goodbye to busyness, writes Katie Byrne

Author Caroline Foran believes working for herself makes it easier to achieve a work-life harmony
Author Caroline Foran believes working for herself makes it easier to achieve a work-life harmony
Author Caroline Foran believes working for herself makes it easier to achieve a work-life harmony
The work-life balance
Taking it easy: Start-up entrepreneur Jamie White
Susan Jane White
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

We put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves during the self-improvement craze of early January. The 'New Year, New You' mantra drives us to make dramatic lifestyle changes, but it doesn't take us long to realise that starting a diet, joining a gym, taking up a new hobby, giving up alcohol and getting to inbox zero might be just a tad too ambitious.

Blindsided by the busyness epidemic, we think we need to go faster and take on more at the start of the year. But what if we thought of January as an opportunity to slow down, pare back and take stock? After all, if the year ahead is a marathon, why start with a sprint?

This is the ethos of the 'Slow Movement', a philosophy that has emerged in recent years as the antidote to the hamster wheel of modern life. Carl Honoré, the writer who coined the term in his book, In Praise of Slowness, describes the movement as a "cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better". Life in the slow lane allows us to make meaningful connections, he argues, and invariably leads to "better health, better work, better business, better family life, better exercise, better cuisine and better sex".

The Slow Movement began in Rome in 1986 when the Slow Food Manifesto was positioned as the antithesis to the fast-food industry. Today we have Slow Fashion, Slow Parenting, Slow Travel, Slow Work and even Slow Towns.

Taking it easy: Start-up entrepreneur Jamie White
Taking it easy: Start-up entrepreneur Jamie White

Clonakilty was the first and only town in Ireland to receive Cittaslow (Slow City) status in 2011. The organisation recognises towns where the pace of life is unhurried and, according to former Mayor of Clonakilty Anthony McDermott, the easy-going lifestyle of the seaside town in West Cork aligns perfectly with Cittaslow's values.

"In the cities, people are so busy that they don't even say hello to you anymore," he says. "They're on their phones, running here and running there - and their lives are passing them by. But this is a special town," he adds. "We all look after each other and care for each other."

The Slow Movement has many offshoots but at its heart is the belief that when we slow down, we naturally become more mindful and present to the people, places and things around us. It prioritises quality over quantity, just as it challenges the notion that we must fill every available moment with work.

For psychotherapist Jennifer Barton of MyMind, going slow is about questioning the idea that busy is better. "We're so caught up in this idea that to be successful, you have to be busy," she says. "So we need to ask what it means to be productive: is it efficiency or effectiveness?"

Business psychologist Kerry Cullen of SEVEN - Psychology at Work, agrees. She thinks it's time we looked at our cultural assumptions around downtime and asked, "Why do people feel like they are lazy or undedicated when they're not working?"

Life in the slow lane isn't just about shifting into a lower gear and taking the scenic route, she adds. It's about becoming more mindful and methodical and, thus, more effective. "There used to be a clear sense of the boundaries between 'off' and 'on'," she explains. "The workplace was designed around our natural rhythm: you work for a certain amount of time and then you take a break. The more you have that natural rhythm, the easier it is for your nervous system to decompress and be able to switch off and rest. When you don't take breaks, however, you override your natural rhythm and we call this the 'performance paradox'. People come into a workplace first thing and think, 'I'm just going to keep my head down until I can get out of here.' But the problem is that their performance flattens out. When you're not restoring yourself, you're not as resourceful."

Author Caroline Foran believes working for herself makes it easier to achieve a work-life harmony
Author Caroline Foran believes working for herself makes it easier to achieve a work-life harmony

The other problem, adds Cullen, is that workers aren't taking restorative breaks. "If you take a break and then find yourself wandering over to someone's desk for a work conversation or scrolling through Facebook, that's not going to restore you. If you're sat at your computer, then a restorative break is getting up and going outside for some fresh air. When you properly restore yourself, you have more to give. And then people start to see it, and that gives them permission to do the same."

Setting boundaries is equally important, says Barton, who retrained as a psychotherapist after getting burnt out in the corporate world. "A lot of people find that they are doing the jobs of two people," she says. "And often in management, they'll continue with that until the system breaks and they're forced to do something about it. So it's about being able to say, 'Here's what I can take on, but this project I might have to put on hold until I get someone else.' It's about putting a value on yourself and seeing yourself as a valuable resource and not a robot."

For others, the solution lies in restructuring the way they work, with flexible hours and four-day weeks. Cullen describes it as a "cultural shift" and she says workplaces are now much more open to non-traditional work arrangements. There seems to be a collective agreement that the way we work is broken, which has paved the way for some radical ideas about the future of the workplace. One such idea is the four-day week for five days' pay. Irish trade union Fórsa believes that the move, which would be facilitated by advances in technology, would lead to greater productivity and happier, healthier employees, as do a number of unions and political parties around the world.

It's a step in the right direction but we ought to remember that compulsive busyness isn't just a symptom of overwork, or the consequence of an always-on culture that allows us to check work emails from under our duvets.

Stress is at epidemic levels, according to public health organisations, and while our focus has narrowed on work-related stress, it's worth considering the other pressures that might be wearing us down. The pressure to succeed. The pressure to look good. The pressure to have status-signalling homes, high-achieving children and quirky social media identities.

It's also important to remember that going slow means different things to different people. Take Caroline Foran, author of Owning It: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety, who was in her 20s when she walked away from a fast-paced job and tried to get a grip on the anxiety that was slowly creeping up on her.

Foran now works as a freelance lifestyle writer and, while work can still get overwhelming, she says she has cultivated a slower and more meaningful lifestyle through "working less but working more efficiently". "The busy times are busy but, overall, in general, my life is much quieter now," she explains. "I spend lots of time alone and I really enjoy that, as I am an introvert, and people take energy from me, so I charge up at home; and then when I do socialise, I can really enjoy it without it being a drain.

"I no longer make myself feel bad if things are quiet," she adds, "and I let myself sleep in a little. I'm just done being so hard on myself."

Start-up entrepreneur and founder of the Fresh Resolutions conference Jamie White has come to a similar realisation. There are still days when he eats his lunch at his desk, but he knows the pitfalls of the busyness trap.

"I have very high aspirations for myself," he admits, "but when I get myself tied up in work, I find myself working really inefficiently. However, when I take a step back, I get more done. If you don't look after yourself in terms of how you eat, how you sleep and how you de-stress, you won't have the energy to realise whatever potential you have in you. You won't have the clarity of thought to make the right decisions."

As for the elusive work-life balance, he much prefers the concept of work-life harmony: "A lot of people talk about work-life balance but I think it's much more important to find work that is aligned with your life. By that, I mean taking a bit of time to think, 'What is it that I actually want to do with myself?' In that case, the more a person works, the more it adds to their life, as opposed to pulling them away from their life."

For cookbook author Susan Jane White, a zero-tolerance approach to digital distractions has helped her carve out more time for meaningful pursuits. The mother-of-two has deleted all the apps on her smartphone save for Instagram ("It's more important to my career than a website") and there's no email on her phone either. White is available over email, social media and telephone during her working hours of 9am-noon. After that, she disconnects entirely by putting her phone on 'silent'. "This means I can unplug and listen to my head, my children or my direct environment," she says. "Even in the dentist's waiting room, I no longer have the distraction of apps, social media and email. I zone out, and celebrate this freedom. And as a result, I feel calmer, more accessible to those around me, and definitely more patient."

The accelerating pace of modern life is challenging, but these people are proof that we can put the brakes on and find some space for the things that truly matter. So instead of 'out with the old and in with the new', why not make January a time for 'out with the fast and in with the slow'?


Slow down: How to reclaim your life

Do a time audit: Before you charge into the new year, think about how you can plan your time more efficiently. A 'time audit' will identify gaps in your schedule and help eliminate time-wasters like social media, television and meetings about meetings.

Go deeper: Try to understand what's driving your compulsive busyness. "You have to ask, 'Why am I doing this?'" says Jennifer Barton. "Is it for self-validation? Is it to please your partner or your boss? If you have pressure words like 'should' and 'could' and 'need', then you have to get back to giving yourself a choice: 'Do I want to do this?'"

Prioritise breaks: Just as athletes map in recovery days at the start of the week, workers need to plan their breaks at the start of the day. Regular breaks make us more productive - and we're much more likely to take breaks when they're planned into our schedule.

Start small: If you're always rushing, why not commit to doing just one thing slowly and mindfully every day? Whether it's slow eating, reading or walking, this one keystone habit will deliver far-reaching benefits.

Do one thing at a time: We might feel like we're being more productive when we multi-task but studies show that it actually makes us less effective. Choose uninterrupted single-tasking instead and you'll soon notice the difference.

Take up a slow hobby: Pastimes like gardening, knitting, Tai Chi and Yin yoga will calm the body and help the mind slow down.

Listen to your body: If you're feeling 'tired but wired', it's probably because your mind is telling you to hurry up while your body is begging you to slow down. When we tune into our bodies, we become more alert to the signals that we need to take a break.

Strategically unplug: When we're always on, we are always at the mercy of others. In order to slow down the frenetic pace of modern life, we need to digitally disconnect from time to time.

Take the slow lane - both literally and figuratively. Is all that stress and anxiety really worth a few extra minutes?

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