“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” – Lao Tzu
It is difficult to be mindful when your mind is racing a mile a minute, when your emotions feel chaotic, or when your heart is racing out of control. All of these experiences share a common element… they are all happening quickly. You are much more likely to make careless mistakes, overlook important facts, and make interpersonal blunders when your internal state of affairs is hurried and out of control. Sometimes you may not even be aware of how “fast” you are really moving until someone close to you points it out. This is often a sure sign that you are being decidedly unmindful.
The first step toward slowing down and becoming more mindful is noticing that you are rushing. Perhaps the awareness that you need to slow down comes from feeling your heart racing, noticing yourself making clumsy errors, or feeling strangely detached from yourself. Do you notice your knee bouncing up and down as you hurriedly struggle to complete tasks? While your desire to get things done can certainly be a great strength, it is important to recognize that for many of us (myself included!), this desire to “get it done” often results in unnecessary oversights or errors. When this happens, it ends up taking more time to actually complete the task.
How to Slow Down & Become Mindful
4 Simple Tips for Slowing Down:
Double the Time You Think it Will Take to Complete a Task
How often do you actually finish a task or project in precisely the amount of time that you set aside for yourself? For many people, this rarely happens. When you allow yourself more time by planning accordingly, you provide yourself with more psychological “space” to go about your work in a more methodical and mindful way.
When you feel rushed to complete a task during the one day, week, or month that you set aside, there may be a sense of urgency that results in you rushing through important steps, cutting corners, or making careless mistakes. Simply giving yourself more space to “breathe” (without procrastinating) is a way to set the stage for going about your work with greater mindfulness.
Consciously Perform Tasks in Slow Motion
This might sound silly, but forcing yourself to physically move more slowly is an easy way to flex your willpower muscle. Research suggests that willpower can be actively strengthened through engaging in tasks more slowly and in different ways than we are used to doing them. For example, brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand actually boosts willpower over time.
Observe yourself in this moment with mindful awareness. Whatever you are “doing,” slow it down by at least 25%. If you are hurriedly reading along, slow down. In your knee is bouncing up and down, bring your awareness to it and allow it to calm down. If you are tapping your fingers on the table, notice this and allow them to relax. Physically slow yourself down and allow your thoughts and emotions to slow down as well.
Stimulate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
Your autonomic nervous system serves the function of regulating many of your bodily systems and functions without your conscious awareness (e.g., your heart beats without you telling it to do so, you continue to breathe while you are asleep). Two of its three branches are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When your sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, it activates your bodily processes for “fight or flight.” This serves an incredibly useful adaptive function. Have you ever started to change lanes while driving only to see a car nearby and feel a sudden and powerful bodily rush of adrenaline? This prepares you to take swift action. In contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is aroused, it activates a mental and physical experience of calm and relaxation.
These two systems are designed to work together in harmony. When they get out of balance, it may be experienced as being in a constant state of hypervigilance (i.e., a heightened state of reactivity and watchfulness for danger/threats). One (of several) explanations for this is that speedily moving about your day without a grounded sense of mindfulness can result in mental and physiological overactivity… everything is moving too fast.
When the sympathetic nervous system is overly aroused in this way, the parasympathetic nervous system has little opportunity to kick in and provide its balance of calm and relaxation. The good news is that you can actively stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to regain a mindful balance of calm and alertness.
Techniques for Stimulating the Parasympathetic Nervous System:
- Slow and deep breaths from your diaphragm… place your hand on your lower abdomen and allow it to noticeably rise and fall with each deep belly breath.
- Combined diaphragm breathing with active mindfulness. Bring your full mindful awareness to your bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions as you take slow and deep breaths.
- Safe place visualization exercise(s). Be sure to make your visualization as vivid as possible, imagining as much richness and detail of your safe and calming place as possible.
- Lightly run one or two fingers over your lips. This might sound odd, but parasympathetic fibers are spread throughout your lips, so when you gently touch them (and take slow and deep breaths), you are activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Multitasking can be useful sometimes. The trick is to notice the times when multitasking is resulting in you unnecessarily speeding up and making mistakes and when it is actually helping you get things done in a productive and efficient manner. If you are a big proponent of multitasking, challenge yourself to spend one entire day with no multitasking whatsoever. In the words of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, “When reading, only read. When eating, only eat. When thinking, only think.”
If you find that multitasking seems to result in a sense of being “overstimulated,” then consider the benefits that engaging with your tasks and relationships with others with greater mindfulness may have. If your attention often feels scattered, this is a sign that you may benefit from less multitasking as well. Doing one thing at a time provides an opportunity to be more mindful and connected to the present moment. Allow each thing that you do to be worthy of your full attention. If you are doing something “boring” then use this as an opportunity to be mindful of your boredom… relate to that experience with greater openness, curiosity, and acceptance.
What differences might you notice in your own life if you made the choice to slow down? When we go through the day in a frantic and frazzled state of urgency, we often miss out on important, special, or beautiful parts of our lives. People who are close to us may feel disconnected from us when we are rushing around trying to get things done. Why not try an experiment with yourself to see what life might feel like if you took the pressure off “getting things done” and simply enjoyed things just as they are? Slow down and appreciate the present moment more… you may experience an ironic twist that you end up getting more done in the end.
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Bernhard, T. (2011, September 13). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201111/slowing-down-good-health/4-tips-slowing-down-reduce-stress
Featured image: Life in the Slow Lane by InAweofGod’sCreation / CC BY 2.0