Slowing Down

slow down

It’s the third or fourth week of the school year, and already I’m hearing teachers and leaders, not to mention the kids, talk about what a hectic week they’ve had or how much there is to do and how they feel like they need more time to get it all done. I’m right there with them! Some weeks it feels like my To Do list just keeps growing no matter how many items I cross off when complete. What might be some assumptions or beliefs fueling our sense of urgency?

One common assumption, I believe, is the notion that having a lot to do in a short amount of time means we’re important. Important people don’t have time to waste. And how can we show how important we are? By running around, rushing and hustling every task. Busy busy busy, hurry hurry hurry! We have Express Lane check-outs, Fast Trak toll booths, Same Day delivery… everything is now! I want it now! Speed is rewarded and its value reinforced our whole lives. We put time limits on tests, switch internet carriers for a faster connection, and check-in to flights 23 hours in advance to save time at the airport. The slow cookers of yesteryear are the instant pots of today.

This same sense of urgency, paradoxically, pushes us to keep moving always with our sights on the next thing, so much so that we forget to experience the “now” we desire so much.

Wanting it now, getting it down now, is not the same thing as experiencing our life right now. What am I seeing right now? What smells inform my memories of this moment, what sounds impact my mood? In order to fully experience life in the present, we have to slow down.

Learning to slow down, to pause before we act or react, to simply do nothing for a moment but to take it all in, is no small skill to master. Slowing down, according to Dr. Tchiki Davis of the Berkeley Well-Being Institute, is “about teaching ourselves how to turn off the body’s stress response, create the life we really want, and act intentionally and with purpose.” Tuning into our stress responses and developing ways to act with intention towards our greater purpose is a key desired outcome of many of my coaching sessions with clients. There’s a lot of research showing the medical benefits on our cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being when we stop, pause, or slow down our normal fast-paced behavior and thoughts. These benefits include:

  • Becoming better decision-makers: Taking the time to more slowly crank the wheel of our thoughts allows us to integrate more data sources, perspectives, or intention into our decision-making process before we draw conclusions. This helps us take actions that are more aligned with our purpose.
  • Becoming more creative: Creativity thrives on boredom. When our minds wander, when we listlessly poke about the house for something to do, when we just take a walk for fifteen minutes with no agenda, we open up space for our creative juices to flow.
  • Becoming less stressed or anxious: Responding to our body’s signs that we’re stressed—our aching backs, our racing hearts, our quick tempers—helps ease this tension. Pausing to reset our breaths with a 3-minute breathing meditation regulates our central nervous system and improves our emotional and physical health.

Slowing down my language and speech patterns is something I’m learning to help me create some space for thought, creativity, and stress-reduction. Here I suppose my coaching training and practice helps me a great deal, for as coaches we know the value of pausing before we respond to a client or pose a question. For example, I have been known to interrupt others when they’re still speaking; I am eager to make immediate connections and often start talking over them. I am learning to hold myself back, to listen with greater intention to their words, and instead of jumping in with how my thoughts connect to theirs, to just pause and let their words settle in to the space between us before I try to fill it up with my own. I’m noticing that when I do this, new ideas bloom in that space created, ideas that are more essential to the other person and deeply connective rather than superficially so.

Another habit I’m trying to learn is to take a long slow breath before I answer the phone, especially when a loved one is calling when I’m in the middle of a task or challenge. Sometimes I answer a loving call by blurting out my stress at them, like an emotional vomitorium. This does neither of us any good. A couple deep breaths before I answer a call affords me a few minutes of basking in the peaceful easy feelings the mere sound of a loved voice creates inside me, moments that are well worth it, even insofar as my productivity goes. Talking to a loved one on a five-minute call is like a meditation for my heart and mind. It allows me to reset and recharge so that my next hour or more of work can be effective.

There was a girl in my high school, Valerie we’ll call her, popular and rich like all those mean girls in the movies. She was way too cool to be friends with me, but I carry with me one very specific image of her in my mind that has for decades been a source of inspiration and awe for me. Class was in session, the bell had rung, and everyone had scrambled into rooms and the teachers had shut their doors. In the empty hallway, I was coming from the office with a pass back into class, and still I was hurrying to get there before I missed anything important. I turned the corner, and there down the corridor coming slowly, ever so methodically towards me, was Valerie. Slowly she walked, backpack slung over one shoulder, her straight auburn hair hanging perfectly down the other, gently swaying as she walked, her Keds® sneakers making not a sound as she moved seemingly weightlessly through the halls. Valerie Kelling was always late to class; she never hurried and never rushed, and nobody seemed to care. Was it because she was a straight A student in all Honors classes, captain of the tennis team and lead in the school plays? I don’t know. Maybe the only time she felt like she had control over her life was during her slow indifferent walks through empty halls when she was late to class.

I often wonder if Valerie ever learned how to hurry for others, ever developed a sense of urgency, a desire to do more faster. A huge part of me hopes she never did.