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Slowing Down, Living Large

Jodi told me last week that she only really likes to do one major thing per day. I write about this, knowing the privilege that comes with this kind of thinking. I even have to remind myself that we both worked hard for more than 30 years for the opportunity to be a little freer at this end of things. But still, when she said it, I bristled. One activity per day? These are the words of old people. Or unmotivated people. Or lazy/scared people. Or people who can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get stuff done. All of those images raced through my head, before I faced the truth: I feel the same way.

In fact, Jodi’s statement came on a day when I had already thought several times that I had too many to-dos on my calendar that week. From a haircut, to consulting meetings, to a dentist appointment, to coffee with friends, my planner was beginning to look like it did when I was working. I felt the stress rising in me even before Jodi made her comment, but I still went immediately to the thought that I would be a bad person if I only engaged in one event per day. Still, the conversation stayed with me and it wasn’t long before I realized why. After 40 years of working, having too much to do—more on my daily to-do list than was ever, ever possible—had become the norm. In fact, I wore it like a badge of honor. Somehow, I had allowed the busyness of my life to become the thing that gave it meaning.

It’s so hard to change the way we live, though, because “busy” and “productive” are the criteria by which we are judged and by which we judge ourselves.

This wasn’t an entirely new concept to me, either. When I was 10 or 11, our local newspaper carried an advice column for kids. If you wrote a good enough letter, it got published. I guess even then, I was hungry to be published, so I quickly crafted a letter about how many activities I had going on in my life and how stressful it was keeping track of all of them. I signed it “Busy Girl.” I can’t remember the advice the columnist gave me, but I can clearly recall my feeling of pride that I had so much going on in my life. Obviously, I carried this hubris throughout my career.

What I’m realizing now is that it actually makes sense to only do one or two activities a day, with presence, and then to spend the rest of our time reading, or enjoying our people, or taking a walk, or being creative. But so few of us have ever lived that way that it almost sounds absurd. Our culture isn’t designed for us to move slowly, and capitalistic competition urges us to keep going as quickly and efficiently as possible. Resting is considered self-indulgent. And yet, I wonder what our worlds might look like if we were all just a tiny bit more decadent with our time.

Probably the thing that has struck me most about these thoughts is the fact that I have so totally rejected the idea of doing less. I know that’s what we’re supposed to do in retirement, but I am fully aware that I was connecting slowing down with being less able. Intellectually, I know that being capable of doing 10 things in a day (albeit not that well) doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even in our pandemic Zoom worlds, I knew that I was less effective and less connected in each successive meeting when my day was filled with them.

It’s so hard to change the way we live, though, because “busy” and “productive” are the criteria by which we are judged and by which we judge ourselves. If we as individuals were to stop, it would mean something to us personally, but the rest of the world would go right on, rolling its eyes at our inability to keep up. At least that’s how it feels when we’re sitting at our desks with piles of paperwork and unanswered emails in front of us.

I think there is another way to live, though, and I’m hoping I can learn the ropes of it in this new iteration of my life. If nothing else, I’m understanding now that just because it’s how things are done, it doesn’t mean it’s good for me or those in my life. I feel guilty when the words self-indulgent are spoken, and I immediately liken it to living small. But that’s an old habit and an old story. I’m thinking now that slowing down and doing less is the opposite of small, and the true path to life in its largest form.


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