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How to Slow Down in Life

Science-based tips to slow down and enjoy life a bit more.

Key points

  • In the modern world, we are encouraged to be busy, to multitask, and to be as productive as humanly possible.
  • When our minds are speeding, our performance and effectiveness get slower or weaker.
  • Taking a moment to consider something more deeply may help us act with greater clarity, momentum, and impact.
Source: Kalen Emsley/Unsplash
Source: Kalen Emsley/Unsplash

Do you feel like you're constantly running on the treadmill of life? Not quite sure how to take a break or stop feeling like you always have to be "doing" something? It's not always easy to slow down, but it turns out that slowing down is exactly what we need to boost our well-being. (Not sure of your current level of well-being? Take the quiz here.) Slowing down is not only good for our well-being, but it can also help us feel less stressed while accomplishing more.

You've probably heard of the idea of "slowing down." But what does it mean, exactly? It doesn't have to mean that we literally do things slower—although we might walk slower or give ourselves more time to make a decision or cook a meal. But when people talk about slowing down, they're often referring to the idea that we cram too many unimportant things into each day.

​For example, when our minds are speeding, our performance and effectiveness get slower or weaker. It's not "being slow" that we're seeking necessarily. It's the feeling that we have time to do the things that matter. We can handle our daily tasks, we don't feel stressed, and we feel like we have the time to rest, be present, and enjoy the good things in life.

Why We Always Go So Fast

In the modern world, we are encouraged to be busy, to multitask, and to be as productive as humanly possible. Most of us probably feel the pressure to perform—or at least look like we're performing—even if that means masking exhaustion with caffeine and sugar. But this feeling of "time urgency"—or the sense that we don't have enough time—actually leads us to perform worse (Friend, 1982). Faster does not equal better. And being busier does not mean we are more productive.

We might also struggle to slow down in the right ways—ways that actually help us achieve the feeling of slowing down, which is what we're really after. For example, we often turn to our smartphones to relax but instead of soothing us and slowing down our thoughts, they hijack our attention, speed us up, and generally make us feel even more frazzled.

So how do we slow down—our racing thoughts, our overactive stress response system, and our bodies? Here are some science-based strategies to try:

1. Take Intentional Pauses

It's thought that taking intentional pauses can lead to better outcomes. More specifically, taking a moment to consider something more deeply may help us to act with greater clarity, momentum, and impact (Cashman, 2012).

Support for this idea comes from research with students. It turns out that when teachers pause after asking a question and after receiving a response, it improves students' use of language and logic (Rowe, 1986). This suggests that if we, too, give ourselves a bit more time to think through the questions we encounter in life, we can likely come up with better answers. Pausing, instead of rushing along, can help our brains work better.

2. Explore Mindfulness Meditation

When our brain is constantly running over a to-do list, worrying about what the future holds, or ruminating on the past, it doesn't really matter how slow our body is moving because our minds are racing! That's why clearing our thoughts with mindfulness meditation can be helpful.

​A recent meta-analysis showed that mindfulness-based therapy can result in improvements in both anxiety and depression (Khoury et al., 2013). Keep in mind that mindfulness isn't helpful for everyone (Krick & Felfe, 2019), so if you're not finding it helpful—for example, if it's leading to worsening of thoughts or emotions—don't force it. Other techniques can be just as helpful if not more helpful for slowing down.

3. Spend Less Time on Your Phone

We often feel frazzled and need a break from our busy day, so what do we do? We pick up our phones. We're scrolling through social media, the news, or shopping websites. But all these activities do is make our heads even fuller as we consume huge amounts of information in a tiny amount of time. That's the opposite of slowing down.

To start, it would do us some good to spend less time on our phones. But, interestingly, it also matters a lot how we spend time on our phones. Are we stimulating our brain with information or anger? Or are we using our phones to relax and recuperate?

4. Find a Quiet Space

Spaces with lots of noise, intensity, and movement can activate stress systems and overwhelm the body (Ulrich & Parsons, 1992). That's why to slow down, we may need a break from the city with its bustling crowds and honking cars. Being in a more mellow, quiet, and low-intensity environment can counteract our high-alert bodily responses and help us feel a greater sense of slowness.

5. ​Slow Down Your Mind

Sometimes when we get the feeling that life is too hectic, it's hectic because of what's going on in our heads. Maybe we're worrying about worst-case scenarios or running over what we'll say to our coworker tomorrow. Sometimes we just need to short-circuit our thoughts. One effective strategy to aid this process can be daily journaling—we get those thoughts out of our heads and onto paper. We might also go for a run or take a cold shower (Mourot et al., 2008)—two techniques that can help our brains switch gears and get unstuck.

A version of this post is also published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

More from Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.
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