I rarely feel that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m like Wile E. Coyote – constantly racing, but always behind the Road Runners of the world. I dash from home to the school drop-off and on to work. During the day, I juggle meetings and deadlines – coffee in one hand, phone in the other – before sprinting back to zoom through bath time and crash into bed. And I’m exhausted. Sound familiar?
‘When our minds are running at a million miles an hour, our bodies can’t keep up,’ says Dr Libby Weaver, author of Rushing Woman’s Syndrome (Hay House UK). ‘Rushing can make us feel stressed, disrupt our concentration and impact our sleep.’ This rings true – I sometimes suffer bouts of poor shut-eye and feel a little on edge, plus I’m so busy multi-tasking, I get confused helping my 4-year-old, Indy, with her homework.
I see my friends dashing around with the same frenzied look in their eyes. So it’s no surprise that the trend for slowing down is speeding up. There are now millions of ‘how to breathe’ videos on YouTube. The wellness industry is raving about ‘slow fitness’. And slow eating – where you give 100% attention to every mouthful – has been heralded as a useful tool in healthy weight loss.
I know my life is in need of a serious slow-over, so I decide to try a different pace-reducing tactic every day for a week.
Flora, 1, is my wake-up call. Imagine the volume and stamina of a car alarm. At 5.30am. Every day. ‘When we wake earlier than our bodies want to, we can start the day tense, physically and emotionally,’ explains Professor Jason Ellis, author of The One-Week Insomnia Cure (Vermilion). You don’t say! I’m ‘on duty’ from my first second of consciousness, leaping out of bed to shush Flora before she wakes the whole house. But Professor Ellis says I should learn to ease into the day. ‘Focus on just one physical sensation,’ he suggests, explaining that this will keep me more ‘present’. I baulk at the idea, but force myself to try. Instead of rushing Flora downstairs, I sit in her room with her on my lap, concentrating on the feeling of her snuggling into me. I expect squirming and demands to play, but – miracle of miracles – she seems to be feeding off my calm. About 15 minutes later, we make our way to the kitchen for breakfast. And I’ve lost the feeling of panic that normally accompanies me.
My daughters clearly got the slow memo a long time ago, but their disregard for the clock unnerves me: bundling bags, buggy and children out of the house in the morning is the most stressful time of day for me. ‘Rushing may be counter-productive, as it can make it hard to think clearly,’ explains psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, co-author of The Supermum Myth (White Ladder Press). ‘When you start fretting about what’s ahead of you in the day, come back to the present by listening to what’s happening right now,’ she advises.
So instead of shrieking ‘Hurry up, we’ll be late!’, I listen to the whirr of Indy’s electrictoothbrush as I help her clean her teeth. Yes, it feels like a waste of time but, just as with yesterday’s ‘slow lesson’, I discover that focusing on one thing really does anchor me in the here and now, and helps stop my mind jumping ahead, creating to-do lists. Plus, for once I don’t spend 10 minutes looking for my keys, because I can think more clearly about where I dumped them last night! Which means a more relaxing stroll to school. And guess what? We all get where we need to be on time.
Dr. Weaver explains that what often keeps us so busy is over-committing ourselves. As a shameless people-pleaser, I’m definitely guilty of saying yes too often to friends, family and clients. But Dr Weaver suggests I focus on what I’m giving the other person by saying no: ‘The opportunity to develop other resources, personal growth, an expanded view of the world, or a more authentic friendship, for example.’ Sounds cheesy, but it’s surprisingly effective.
I need to buy myself time to build up to an outright no, so when a friend invites me to an art gallery opening, I say, ‘Let me check my calendar,’ then reframe things using Dr Weaver’s tactic. Later, when I feel brave enough to decline, I tell myself I’m giving my friend the chance to invite someone who really wants to go. Moreover, when a colleague asks a question about something unrelated to my work, I reply, diplomatically, ‘Have you tried Google?’ I’m giving her the opportunity to gain new knowledge! As my ‘no muscle’ gains strength, it gradually feels less awkward. Plus, I develop a clearer sense of what I do want to say yes to.
I’m getting better at life in the slow lane, except at work. I can’t take my foot off the pedal because my reputation (and pay packet) depends on me getting things done. My day consists of dashing between meetings and trying to hit deadlines, with my head spinning. But research shows that manically multi-tasking isn’t always productive. The scientists call it ‘switching costs’: every time you change tasks, your brain has to reorient itself. In fact, employee productivity software DeskTime suggests the ideal get-stuff-done ratio is 52 minutes of work (apparently, our optimum period of concentration), followed by 17 minutes of rest.
The thought of peppering my day with lengthy breaks makes me panic – how will I get stuff done? But in the name of research, I set a timer and concentrate on one project for 52 minutes… and make great progress. I confess, I struggle with 17 minutes of pure downtime, so I make a cup of tea and chat to colleagues for five minutes, then complete mindless (but essential) admin for around 10 minutes. No one is more surprised than I am when I manage to tick off more to-dos than usual. The change in tempo throughout the day must have helped give me a mental refresh and edged my work/life balance in the right direction.
According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, men enjoy almost five hours more me-time per week than women. I’m not surprised – I barely get 10 minutes in the shower. But relaxation is crucial. ‘The more time we allow our body to rest, out of the “fight-or-flight” stress response, the better,’ says Dr Weaver. In fact, research suggests that chronic stress may contribute to health issues, including high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, obesity and addiction problems.
Serious stuff. So just how do I find this magical self-care time? Dr Weaver explains that I need to ask for help. It feels wrong to get my husband to take the girls to the playground just so I can take a bath, apply a face mask, shave my legs and read a novel in peace. But he agrees without batting an eyelid. I give myself a mental high-five when I’m soaking in the warm water, feeling the worries of the week melting away. Later, Indy thinks it’s hilarious that I’ve had an afternoon bath, and even decides to have one herself straight after dinner – without the usual ‘It’s not my bedtime’ delaying tactics. An unexpected win-win!
Usually, I need a weekend to recover from my weekend – it’s all play-dates, birthday parties, swimming lessons and homework. But Dr Andrew says that rather than a frantic schedule of back-to-back activities, children appreciate the quality of time and attention you give them – even if it’s just 10 minutes. ‘Simply hang out together and show that you’re in tune with them by verbally observing what they’re doing,’ she explains. ‘Your kids will get the message they’re important because they’re getting your undivided attention. Plus, not having to orchestrate every moment is calming for you and confidence-building for them, because you’re responding to them.’
I try it while my daughters play with Lego – I confess I feel bored observing things such as, ‘You picked up the red brick.’ But as Flora climbs on me and Indy describes the zoo she’s constructing, I do notice that they’re more engaged with me because they have my full attention. For once, I feel I’m OK at this mum stuff.
Professor Ellis recommends mentally putting the day to bed before physically doing so, to help stop that dizzying whirl of worry, so I can get to sleep. His tip is to write three lists: ‘What you’ve done today, what you have to do tomorrow, and what you’ve put in place to deal with tomorrow. This will leave you feeling more in control, which can help with falling – and staying – asleep.’ To my surprise, it only takes around 20 minutes of scribbling to empty my brain, and I nod off about 10 minutes afterwards. A decent sleep makes me feel ready to deal with whatever the new day throws at me – slowly, of course.
Instead of taking a speedy shower in the morning, I now have a more mindful beauty routine and treat myself to a 20-minute bath with Kind Natured Soothing Bath Soak Sea Salt & Bergamot £4.99/499 points (200g), when the kids have gone to bed.
On days my husband does the early shift with Flora, I set my Lumie Sunrise Alarm*, £59.99/5,999 points, to start my morning at a gradual pace.
To remind myself that I don’t have to be constantly busy, I pop one of the Bach Rescue Liquid Melts*, £8.49/849 points (28-pack), on my tongue, then sit and do nothing until it dissolves. Simple, but surprisingly effective.