Slow Living is a way of living your life in a simple and positive fashion. It is about rejecting the noise of the mundane and the distractions that seek to permeate our consciousness. It is about reducing consumption and living in a sustainable way. It is able prioritising our human relationships, our individual aspirations and the collective good of humanity above all else.
This post contains a background of my discovery of the benefits of living slower as well as giving some personal history regarding how I arrived there. I cover what has been working for me and attempt to use this to come to a more coherent worldview.
The definition of Slow Living is not precise, there are others who will attempt to define slow living in a more concrete fashion relating to specific “Do’s and Don’ts”. Instead, this blog will contain my personal thoughts on the topic as I attempt to make it work for me.
The concept of living slower has come to me numerous times over the past several years. I first experienced this as a rejection of responsibilities and of modern life itself. I wanted to run away and to hide in the woods, complete with my very own log cabin. Life isn’t something to be run away from however, it is something that is to be lived in whatever way you see fit. I do not believe there is a best way to live. Just that there are ways.
The modern world we live in is an anxious and depressed one. Rates of mental illness are skyrocketing, particularly amongst the young. Whether this is due to greater awareness or due an actual rise in the rate is neither here nor there. The simple fact that human beings are feeling these ways in ever increasing numbers means that something may need to change.
The western world seems to be beset my an ongoing regime of crisis after crisis if you listen to the continuous news spam. Every day there is a new disaster, both acute and chronic simultaneously. Whether it’s the obesity crisis, the schooling crisis, a focus upon crime or the latest investigation into the impact of social media on vulnerable groups the message seems to be loud and clear. The world is sick.
Against this backdrop of ever present worldly angst I personally found myself in a bad scenario. Due to a bad string of events at work and in my personal life I found myself in the horrific combination of drinking too much alcohol, sleeping too little, offsetting the tiredness with numerous doses of caffeine and completely socially isolated.
I started having anxiety driven heart palpitations which eventually ended with a ride in an ambulance due to a self perceived heart attack. The medical staff over the next few months were lovely. Test after test after test was performed. All negative. Physically, my heart was fine.
So something else must have been wrong with me. I was a jittery mess, unable to concentrate and unable to do my work. I was finding no joy or pleasure in my life. I walked around in a zombiefied state, wake, eat, work, sleep, repeat. At the time I had nothing in life to really look forward too. I simply existed.
Throughout this time I began to notice what I will term modern patterns of behaviour were present. I began to run self directed, N=1, controlled experiments to ascertain the effects of removing these stressors from my life. I was following Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advice in Antifragile - Things That Gain From Disorder to practice via negativa, to remove rather than to add. These modern patterns are all around you, you probably do some of them yourself. Unfortunately from this list many of the items appear to be related to the internet. Unfortunately this is due to it’s nature as a freeform tool, it has the power to be incredible and the power to be a horror.
- Eating food hunched over a desk or glued to a screen (phone, TV or laptop)
- Continuous caffeination, multiple coffees per day for example
- Alcohol to assist in sleep (reset from the caffeine)
- Inability to read longer form material (essays, books)
- Poor diet and lack of exercise
- Eating sugar laden junk food due to a poor emotional state
- Continuous checking of mobile phone for notifications
- Hours of time spent on social media
- Social interactions with friends are predominately online as opposed to in person
- Poor sleep, continuous screen usage up until bed time
- Consumption of outrage driven media
- Watching porn multiple times per day
- Dating consists of hooking up (typically via online apps)
- Buying things for the sake of novelty
So I started to remove things from my life, I started the attempt to strip out some of the most deeply ingrained habits that I had developed for myself over time. I removed all algorithmically driven and in particular image laced social media. No Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. I kept the pure communication apps (though in light of the continuous privacy violations I am unsure how wise an idea this is).
At this point I was reading books such as The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Deep Work by Cal Newport. I was beginning to understand that the continuous influx of distraction and desire to be “online and available” all the time was destroying my work capacity and creativity. I deleted work emails from my phone and started to turn off (and if possible delete) anything that could send a push notification and disrupt me from what I was working on. I wanted to reduce my reactivity and have a degree of control over my life.
Much to my relief I was able to regain some of my concentration using these steps, but I was still feeling worried and anxious. I was having trouble controlling my thoughts and was continually catastrophising to use the relevant language from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I still didn’t like the relationships that I was having with other people, finding it hard to build human connection at a deeper level and instead focussing on superficial relationships. My interactions with women were Tinder hookups for the most part. Not that some of them didn’t want deeper relationships, but I was personally incapable of being who they wanted me to be.
So I started to look deeper. I read through the works of the Stoics, from Marcus Aurelius to Seneca to Epictetus. I read books on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, I read more philosophy (both ancient and modern) than I can remember. I investigated Buddhism and Yogic traditions. I read books on programming, on art, on craftsmanship and relationships. I read great literature and terrible. I read books on diet and exercise, I followed some of them too. But nothing really seemed to sit properly.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that the attempt to substitute for something else was just masking the underlying problem I was experiencing. Taking my existing life and simply dumping hours of yoga on top of it would not lead me to a healthier overall state. If anything, it seemed to stress me out even more. Now, if I didn’t hit my own self imposed targets for the number of hours of yoga I wanted to do in a week I would begin to feel guilty. If I didn’t hit the perfect diet I’d beat myself up.
My solution wasn’t really a solution at all.
Underlying these behaviours there was still the same anxious, obsessive and prone to addiction based individual as there had always been.
So I started wondering if perhaps it wasn’t just me. Looking around the world and talking to others there appeared to be ever increasing numbers of people who were experiencing the same things. It wasn’t just me who was wondering if something was wrong with them. I started investigating the conditions through which humans had lived for most of their lives. If you are below the age of 30 and live in the western world then the modern area is all that you really know. You don’t have anything to compare it against.
Evolutionary Biology and Psychology are interesting fields, ones that can be capable of great insight as well as ones which can be abused for various racial and pseudoscientific means. Thus, we must take the good with the bad and be actively sceptical when researching it, especially when it seems to fit our preconceived notions of belief a little bit too well.
This led to the potential for more experiments, not be adding things in but by trying to bring my life towards a more naturalistic ideal. The model I had was Henry David Thoreau in Walden more than it was the futurist Ray Kurzweil model. The pursuit of a more simplistic life, less filled with dopamine rushes and ever present deadlines. Less filled with self imposed stress (of the bad kind) and filled with healthy stressors and challenges. I have started working towards a simpler life with all that entails.
I have started sleeping more. A few weeks ago I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker which in page after page of uncompromisingly beautiful evidence illustrated just how badly I was treating my body in my sleep deprived alcohol-caffeine cycle driven lifestyle. Something had to give and I have begun going to bed earlier.
After reading numerous accounts, too many to list, of the benefits of meditation I began to take it seriously, sitting for 30-60 minutes per day of concentration. I am not going to lie, it was incredibly hard in the beginning. It felt like I was contorting my mind into something it was not designed to do. It’s incredible to look back at how much fidgeting I would do at just 10 minutes of stillness. Now, the more I continue to meditate the deeper and easier my states become.
I have begun to eat better, cutting out processed foods and limiting my alcohol. I stuck to an exercise regime for the first time in a long time and I began to get results. My body is building more muscle and I’m losing fat. I’ll need to buy new clothes soon as I’ve dropped a pant size at the waist.
I have tried to work on building the time I’ve spent working on my projects, beginning to track this so that I can ascertain whether I’m dedicating the time towards my projects to achieve my goals. This has been harder than I would have thought, but my inner concentration and willpower to avoid procrastination has been destroyed over time. Years of abusing my concentration.
I have dubbed these combinations of behaviours The Regime as an inner joke to myself and close friends. The joke is that it looks like a brutal miserly regime from the outside, something which the ordinary person might consider deprivation or in the worst cases even torture. But I am becoming happier the more closely I adhere to it. I can sit down and read a few chapters in a book without feeling the urge to check my phone. I can write this essay. I can avoid eating a block of chocolate a day (which I was doing at my most stressed).
Now, for me personally, The Regime is no struggle at all, it’s something that I look forward to each day. I look forward to my meditation as I know it will give me the concentration, focus and stress reduction I need to be happy in my life. I look forward to the increase in sleep and the extra energy I get from a healthy diet and regular exercise. I haven’t turned up hungover to work, stumbling through the day in a long time. Though it is hard, I am even starting to look forward to the limits I am placing on technology. This has been the hardest bit so far. Giving up sugar and alcohol is easy, meditating each day is easy. Giving up mindless internet browsing, well, I haven’t got there yet.
Underpinning The Regime is a simple quote which has always stuck with me;
Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.
Over time I have observed that it isn’t necessarily what I am doing that is important to my happiness and sense of purpose. Instead it is the way I am doing it. The degree of purpose to which I am instilling within my actions.
- Instead of throwing a couple ingredients in a pan and browsing my phone while I cook I instead put on some music and focus upon making something delicious and healthy.
- Instead of eating lunch at my desk I try to get outside or to do some gentle socialisation with co-workers. I try to leave on time each day to avoid burnout.
- Instead of sitting around browsing my phone in the evening (the hardest habit to break so far) I have been trying to get outside to go for longer walks.
Everything that I am doing is now taking longer in an absolute sense. I mean, there is no way around the fact that meditating for 40 minutes will take you 40 minutes. Cooking a homecooked meal will take longer than heating something from out of a packet. You cannot break the laws of physics.
Yet, although these actions take longer in an absolute sense they do not seem to in a subjective sense. I do not feel as though I have less time to do the things I want to. If anything, I have even more time. I am dedicating more time towards achieving my goals than I have in a long time and this time is more productive. Better still, I am more relaxed.
By slowing down I seem to have sped everything up. Slow was actually fast and not in an Orwellian sense.
The rapid pace of technological innovation we experience in our lives has a huge number of benefits. We are never more connected, never more social and have never had so much access to information. But, if you are like me, this pace comes at a huge cost. I need to shepherd my time carefully, to husband it. I need to be more like Donald Knuth on the topic of email; “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”
This is the same conclusion that the excellent author Neal Stephenson came to when he posted his thoughts on Social Media; “I feel that now is the time when I should devote as many of my waking hours as possible to doing what I’m good at, and to minimize time spent reading comment threads and viewing pictures of other people’s cats.” I too am coming to the same conclusion as both Knuth and Stephenson. I want to spend my time devoting my life to what brings me joy and what brings me happiness. I want to remove myself from the muck of continuous stimulation, the dopamine rush from being on top of things and instead embrace the slow burn of the dedicated project.
This does not mean that I am rejecting technology. Far from it. I love technology and it has enabled a huge amount of joy in my life. Instead, it is a recognition that I need to be conscientious of the role that technology and modern artefacts play in my life. Others have come to the same conclusion and founded the Center for Humane Technology whose goal is to “Realign technology with humanity’s best interests”.
I am an individualistically minded person, I believe that no-one can understand my best interests as well as I can. I have a choice about how I choose to spend my time and in particular my limited concentration resources. I can choose to spend this on the mundane and the trivial, sending cat posts to friends (to paraphrase Neal Stephenson above). Or I can choose to dedicate it towards the things in life that I find meaning and value within. I can choose to dedicate it towards offline, in person, relationships and living a life less filled with comparison anxiety.
The concept of Slow Living embodies this completely. It is a meta concept. It takes in a number of related, but separate, threads and attempts to mould them into a more coherent whole. The Slow Food movement emphasises local culinary traditions and the importance of home cooking around the world. The adherents of the Slow Reading style deliberately try to avoid skim reading in order to gain greater appreciation and comprehension of their selected text. The Financial Independence (FIRE) is attempting to reduce their reliance upon salaried work to pursue their true passions in life. When you look around the world there are numerous such green shoots trying to make their way into the world.
But, importantly, no-one individuals owns any particular definition. I am free, as are you, to define it in any way you see fit.
My current working definition (which will undoubtedly change over time) is as follows.
Slow Living is about rejecting the outrage and distraction driven world around us in order to deliberately focus our time upon what I find to be most important to me personally.
I believe that this definition gives me sufficient flexibility whilst also constraining me enough to induce creativity. There is a negative element. I am rejecting the continuous social media driven outrage cycle. I am rejecting the idling away of my time in a sugar, social media, porn, caffeine and alcohol fuelled haze. I am rejecting the continuous influx of dopamine that the world is attempting to shove down my throat.
But, I am also embracing more positive elements. I’m embracing spending time with family, friends and lovers. I am embracing spending time working towards becoming healthier. I am embracing spending time to gain greater comprehension of deep concepts. I want to combine the best of Knuth and Stephenson, to be at the bottom and gain understanding and to hopefully be able to create something truly valuable out of the experience. I want to do this while being healthy, happy and content with my lot in life.
Future articles on this blog will be longer form in nature, the SEO driven nature of the web where even a simple recipe needs to be optimised for Google’s standards is troubling. I am going to focus on producing the best content possible and to make it readable in an accessible fashion.