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How to Reduce Stress by Doing Less and Doing It Slowly

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” ~Socrates

In April, NPR ran a story titled, “The Slow Internet Movement.” It reported that hipster cities, like Portland, Oregon, are sprouting Internet cafés that only offer dial-up access to the web.

These cafés give customers, “Slow pours and slow Internet. Here, you can order your coffee and spend four hours checking your email, all for $.99 an hour.”

“Wow,” I thought.” That’s just my speed!” (No pun intended.) But the story didn’t just run in April. It ran on April 1st and was NPR’s little April Fools joke at the expense of gullible people like me.

It got me thinking, though. Life would be much less stressful if I embraced the spirit of the Slow Internet Movement. So, here are four tips for slowing down:

1. Double the time you think it will take to complete a task.

How often do you clock in at or under the time you’ve allotted for a task? I rarely do. Take my raised ivy geranium bed. Periodically, the geraniums spill over onto the walkway and I need to cut them back.

Every time I assess the task, I estimate it will take 20 minutes at most. But it always takes at least twice that long. By the time I’m done, due to chronic illness, I’ve used up my energy stores for the day. I’m “trashed” as we call it my household.

Inspired by The Slow Internet Movement, when I tackled the task a few weeks ago, I doubled my 20-minute time estimate. Forty minutes is more than I can handle at one time, so I cut back half the geraniums on Saturday and the other half on Sunday.

Sure, the box looked odd for 24 hours—like half of a buzz cut—but no one seemed to notice. Not only did I spare myself burnout, but I truly enjoyed the activity both times.

2. Consciously perform tasks in slow motion.

Whatever you’re doing at the moment, slow it down by 25 percent, whether it’s thinking, typing on a keyboard, surfing the Internet, completing an errand, or cleaning the house.

This idea was inspired by a discovery I made in the 1990s when driving my ’85 LTD (nicknamed The Big White Boat by my kids). I realized that driving would be relaxing if I moved into the slow lane on the freeway and drove the speed limit.

There was no more worrying about having to pass cars because they were going as slow as I was; no one riding my bumper because it was acceptable to go the speed limit in the far right lane.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work anymore because hardly anyone honors the speed limit even in the slow lane. In addition, traffic has increased to the point that I’d have to constantly dodge cars merging onto the freeway from onramps. So, on those rare occasions when I’m driving on a freeway, I’m back in the middle lane. But while it worked, it was a real find.

Now I’ve taken that “slow lane” mentality and applied it to other tasks by consciously doing them more slowly. But if I’m not vigilant, out of habit, I still find myself moving quickly. And this scurrying around is often for no apparent reason!

When I realize this, I take a deep breath, and repeat the 700 year-old wise words of Lao Tzu: “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”

3. Stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system—sometimes called the involuntary nervous system—regulates many bodily systems without our conscious direction (e.g. the circulatory and respiratory systems). Two of its three branches the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

When the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, it puts us on high alert, sometimes called the “fight-or-flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system is necessary to our survival because it enables us to respond quickly when there’s a threat. When the parasympathetic nervous system is aroused, it produces a feeling of relaxation and calm in the mind and the body.

The two systems work together: as one becomes more active the other becomes less active. But they can get out of balance. Many people live in a constant state of high alert—or sympathetic nervous system arousal—even though there’s no immediate threat.

Three of the recognized causes for this are our fast-paced, never-enough-time-to-do-everything culture; sensory overload (exacerbated by multitasking); and the media’s distorted but relentless suggestion that danger lurks around every corner.

In other words, the parasympathetic nervous system—the system that produces a calm and relaxed state—is underactive. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, we can restore the balance. With that balance restored, we naturally slow down our pace of life.

The following techniques for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system are adapted from Rick Hansen’s excellent book, Buddha’s Brain. You can try these just about anywhere, anytime.

  • Breathing from your diaphragm stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing down your breathing. If you put your hand on your stomach and it rises up and down slightly as you breathe, you know you’re diaphragm breathing. (This is why it’s sometimes called abdominal breathing.)
  • You can combine this with mindfulness—the practice of calmly resting your attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. If your sympathetic nervous system is in a constant state of arousal, mindfulness helps restore the proper balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems by increasing the activity of the latter. This creates a feeling of calm and relaxation.
  • Peaceful imagery stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, so imagine yourself in a peaceful place like a mountain stream, a forest, a secluded beach. You can engage all your senses in this imagery—sights, sounds, the feel of the breeze on your face.
  • A favorite of mine: Touch your lips with one or two fingers. Parasympathetic fibers are spread throughout your lips so touching them stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. I was skeptical of this until I tried it. Now it’s my “go to” practice for immediately calming my mind and body. Once I’m calm, I slow down naturally.

4. No multitasking. (Okay, okay: less multitasking.)

Korean Zen master Seung Sahn liked to tell his students, “When reading, only read. When eating, only eat. When thinking, only think.” To us, this means, no multitasking! I’ve discovered that it’s hard to break the multitasking habit; sometimes it feels like an addiction.

Mindfulness practice helps because unless I consciously pay attention to the present moment, I can find myself engaged in multiple tasks without even realizing it. Here are a few “multi-tasks” I’ve caught myself performing recently: surfing web while talking on the phone; writing while trying to follow a movie in TV; composing an email while listening to an audio book and eating a piece of toast.

Too much sensory input exacerbates my symptoms, so I’m working hard o  “no multitasking.” Call me a recovering multitasker. I’ve discovered that it takes a lot of discipline to break the habit, so much in fact, that sometimes I have to be content with “less multitasking.” But it’s a start.

These four tips are in the spirit of the Slow-Internet-Movement-that-wasn’t. I just hope that, in reading through them, you allotted twice the time you estimated it would take…

Photo by alexdecarvalho

Avatar of Toni Bernhard

About Toni Bernhard

Toni is the author of the Nautilus Gold Medal winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. She can be found online at www.howtobesick.com

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  • http://www.geniuspioneer.com Genius Pioneer

    Because human is a complete system not only composed of mind and body, but also includes heart and spirit; every human can satisfy their needs only by satisfy their whole composition as a human. If you are relaxing your mind and body, there should also be a way to get relaxed in terms of heart and spirit.

    Qur’an says:”For indeed in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.”

    The number of posts that mention relaxation ways of minds and bodies will increase, but no one truly can satisfy human with this kinds of posts. Because these posts are not mentioning the only mayday-point and relying-point of human: The God. So these posts will always be deficient.

    The only point in creation of human is remembrance of Allah through everything.

  • http://unclutteredsoul.com Cary

    Hi Toni, Sometimes life is moving so fast I miss the opportunity to live it. No one to blame but myself. I think I could definitely benefit from a slower pace, yet friends and family would say that if I moved any slower I’d be going backwards. Everyone at their own speed I suppose. I’m going to start today by stimulating my parasympathetic nervous system. I’m going to go kiss my wife.

  • Fiona Lundy

    Beautifully put Toni.

    I’m working with a company at the moment and a few people are really starting to integrate some of these practices… It makes a massive difference and I find myself often talk about these things. They are so simple (yet challenging because it’s the opposite of what most people seem to do) but put these things into practice because they have a brilliant impact!

    Even though many people would like their human body to act like a machine we’ve built … we’re just not machines … we’re incredible works of biochemical art that need care and attention daily. Not just once a year on vacation. I hope your article encourages even just one person to try these things … because they’ll benefit far more than they ever imagined.

    I didn’t know about the parasympathetic nervous system and lips … very interesting!

    Thank you for posting!

  • http://losing-civ.blogspot.com Sarai

    Thanks for this post! 

    I implemented this in my life a few months ago – slowed down when doing everything and actually had more time to generate the motivation and discipline to finish. I think the biggest problem is that, while I am loving my new way of life, other people tend to get frustrated that I’m not always up for dashing hither and tither to keep up with them. I love it, though – it has had to many other benefits… like improving my self-esteem! Now I know that it’s not that I am useless at cooking – I just need some time to think about what to cook, maybe get inspiration from a few recipes (at leisure) and take my time chopping and preparing – not to mention allowing the food long enough to actually cook.

    Now, I’m going to say something really controversial but it begs to be said anyway… if you’re up for removing multi-tasking – get rid of your smart phones. I’ve never owned one, even though I am a complete technophile, because I have seen what it does to people’s minds and lives. I still use a phone that has basic functionality only. Take it or leave it, but it adds hours to your life. :) What other tips to do you guys have? I’m sure everyone has some that I might find controversial, but let’s get to sharing!!

  • Toni Bernhard

    Hi Sarai. 

    Thanks for reading my piece. I’m so glad to learn that you started doing this on your own! And I agree with you that it’s hard to slow down in a world with smart phones!

    Warmest wishes,
    Toni

  • Toni Bernhard

    Hi Fiona,

    I love that you say our bodies aren’t just machines. Yes! They’re complex: both strong and delicate.

    I hope you’ve tried the finger on your lips. I just gently move my fingers back and forth on them. It calms me right down.

    Warmest wishes to you,
    Toni

  • Toni Bernhard

    Hi Cary,

    All right! I hope that by the time you read my reply, you’ve already shared that kiss!

    Warmly,
    Toni

  • Toni Bernhard

    Hi Genius,

    Thanks for reading my post. I like to keep my heart open to everyone’s beliefs and spiritual paths. I think that, at the highest level, they all meet.

    My best to you,
    Toni

  • Anonymous

    Regarding your fourth point, I am reminded of a quote from Jim Elliot: “Wherever you go, be all there.”

  • Marylouise

    I love the idea of mono-tasking! Though I must confess that I read this blog while I was eating lunch. I rarely sit down at a table and eat a meal. Most of the time it’s in front of a tv or computer screen. Breaking this habit would be HUGE for me. I just watched Matt Cutt’s TED talk on trying a new thing for 30 days and I think I’ll try eating as a mono-task for the next 30 days. Wish me luck!

  • linnaeab

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with slowing down. I hope your post is read by millions, so that people can return to enjoying their lives more!Decades ago, there was an expression: stop the world I want to get off! People called life “the rat race”. However, the life in the US has sped up more and more. It goes unnoticed, unless one steps outside the jet stream of Western civilization!When I moved to Southern CA from Indonesia, I first rode buses if I had to get somewhere I couldn’t walk.When I eventually bought a car, I noticed that when I drove, my whole body was buzzing inside. It sounds funny to people here, but after meditating for months at a time, living in rural India and other slow places, anything faster than walking is fast! Being sensitive (born with this) and aware (from meditation) I could feel the actual effect of speed on my body.It seemed as if everyone in southern CA was addicted to the buzz, but were not aware of it. As more electronic inventions made people’s lives “easier” and “more connected” the buzz increased. Although I chose not to have a cell phone, not to have a TV, not to go over 65 mph, to use the internet only to write friends and learn more from spiritual teachers, my body was buzzing at a higher uncomfortable frequency because it is all around us.Over the next 13 years, my body adjusted to the speed, but at the cost of irritability and grumpiness.3 months ago I lost my job. It was a blessing in disguise. The first week my body felt like it had been hit by a train. No longer commuting on a fast freeway to a job where people create stress, my mind did not need to cover up the deep exhaustion. Sleep took over the healing process.The next week my body felt like it had been hit by a Mack truck (improvement).There was long list of house repairs and garden maintenance waiting. There had been no time to do it while working so many hours. I did them, one at a time, enjoying each part of the task. I could balance the “work” (that I enjoy) with reading, walking in nature, and just looking around me appreciating the peaceful beauty of a moment. It didn’t matter if everything got done, and yet it did in it’s own time.I only drive once every 2 weeks.My body isn’t buzzing. Irritability is extinct! Grumpiness is gone.I feel myself again.Free!Yipee!!!!!The lesson: I am looking for work that I can walk or bike to (feeling the wind on my face), with people who have consciously jumped off the jet stream way of life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mbsherbon Melissa Bishop Sherbon

    I thoroughly enjoyed that post! I must admit, the TV is on, and I just put in the laundry…but I am am also a recovering multi-tasker! Thee was a time I’d have had 5 things going on!

    While reading this, I discovered that I unconsciously do something to calm myself…the lip touch. As a person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I always feel on edge. Always worried and hyped. I have found so much comfort in mindfulness and simply slowing down. I never realized I touch my lips through out the day. Guess that was my body’s way of saying “Hey! Relax!”

    Thank you so much for this post… I shared it with everyone I know!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mbsherbon Melissa Bishop Sherbon

    I thoroughly enjoyed that post! I must admit, the TV is on, and I just put in the laundry…but I am am also a recovering multi-tasker! Thee was a time I’d have had 5 things going on!

    While reading this, I discovered that I unconsciously do something to calm myself…the lip touch. As a person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I always feel on edge. Always worried and hyped. I have found so much comfort in mindfulness and simply slowing down. I never realized I touch my lips through out the day. Guess that was my body’s way of saying “Hey! Relax!”

    Thank you so much for this post… I shared it with everyone I know!

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  • Toni Bernhard

    I love that! A new take on “Wherever you go, there you are.” Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Warmly, 
    Toni

  • http://www.wiseatwork.net Susie @ WiseAtWork

    Hi Toni.

    I really enjoyed your section about the parasympathetic nervous system and will be incorporating the lip touch into my life!  I can see it being a powerful gesture when I am attending an intense meeting, working under deadline, or surrounded by many in a tight crowd — many applications. And how lovely that the finger-lip connection can be calming.

    Thank you so much. Many blessings to you.

  • Toni Bernhard

    HI Marylouise. I love that term mono-tasking. It’s VERY hard to break the multi-tasking habit. You don’t realize how hard until you try. That’s how it was for me anyway. Thanks for reading my piece.

    Warmly,
    Toni

  • Toni Bernhard

    Thanks for reading and sharing your story here. You’ve been very disciplined about implementing the themes in my piece and it’s paying off!

    Warmest wishes,
    Toni

  • Toni Bernhard

    It’s nice to meet another recovering multi-tasker. I can be doing it and not even realize it, it’s such an ingrained habit! I’m so glad that you discovered the lip touching on your own. And thanks for sharing the article with others!

    Warmest wishes,
    Toni

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  • http://big-zen.blogspot.com/ Big Zen

    Thanks for this great post. It reminds me of a Zen story when a student asked his master the very difficult question, ‘what is Zen?’ and he simply replied, ‘Zen is doing one thing at a time’. I love the idea of the dial-up internet cafe. :)

  • Toni Bernhard

    Thanks so much for the comment, Big Zen. I love that: Zen is doing one thing at a time!

    Warmest wishes,
    Toni 

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  • http://twitter.com/troywray Troy Wray

    First visit to the site, prompted by a friends tweet. I’m sure somewhere on this site there will be a mention of Carl Honore’s book “In praise of slow” – if not, they have a website too, not sure if hot links are allowed so i’ll just put http://www.inpraiseofslow.com.
    I’m very conscious of the constant stress of feeling I have to do more, get more done and it’s very hard to slow down, relax and take my time. So I appreciated this post :-)
    edit: and finding the site :-)

  • Toni Bernhard

    Hi Troy,

    Thanks for the book reference. I’ll have a look. I’m so glad you appreciated my piece. Thanks for reading and commenting. Warmest wishes, Toni

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  • http://mindfulproductivity.net/shop/ Be / mindfulproductivity

    I think we have all become so used to multi tasking and the feeling of doing more that we forget that sometimes we do less when we do many things at once – or we do them with less quality. 

    Its about catching yourself multi tasking and then weeding it down to doing one with focus then moving onto the next task.  Quite often we end up getting as much – if not more – done!

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  • http://www.mobuherbals.com/ herbalist

    True indeed. I really believe that one can do a lot of things without getting really stressed. It is about time management and also stress management. I am so guilty in that multi-tasking part because I myself is a workaholic freak. My body reacts differently when I am stressed because I tend to have insomnia. I’m a nocturnal freak and tend to finish things at dawn. I know this is crazy, but yeah, I’m trying to slow down the pace of my life now. I do some yoga and all other natural ways to keep myself healthy. This time, I have to do it or else, I have to suffer the consequences. :(

  • AC

    Such simple and good wisdom. Thanks a lot for sharing. Lots of love to you. :)

  • http://Www.health247online.com/ Health online

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Hollistic Massage

    The best way to reduce stress is simple… massage therapy. Anyone that has regular massage therapy will tell you that they do not get stressed, or get stressed way less than what they do before they started massage therapy. A relaxing massage can soothe the body and the mind and leave you revitalized and stress free.

    http://www.holisticmassageraleigh.com