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“I feel like when I’m not working, I’m wasting time,” a friend told me recently.
Like me, she’s been struggling with the guilty feeling that we should be making more productive use of our time.
We’re not alone in this. In fast-paced Singapore, being busy and productive is a sign that you’re doing something right. If you aren’t tired from all the work that you’ve been doing, as the assumption goes, then you haven’t been doing enough.
This isn’t a particularly new issue — our dedication to work has sparked conversations about burnout, especially in the healthcare industry ever since the start of Covid.
Singapore has consistently been ranked among the top most overworked cities in the world and it comes as no surprise that many Singaporeans struggle with work-life balance and mental health issues — leading to debates over the Great Resignation or whether or not we should be subscribing to the tang ping or ‘lying down’ movement.
While there’s many terms to describe this phenomenon, such as “workaholic nation” and “hustle culture”, the fact remains that this mindset and lifestyle can be incredibly harmful.
And it takes a lot of courage to say no to it.
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When three-time Grand Slam winner and World tennis No. 1 Ashleigh Barty announced her retirement this week, everyone was shocked by the news. At the top of her game, this seemed like an odd time for the 25-year-old Australian to bow out.
Yet, she spoke with conviction about her decision, saying that she no longer had the “physical drive, the emotional want”, and had “nothing to give anymore”.
It was time for her to “chase other dreams, and put the racquets down,” as she explained in an emotional post on her Instagram.
It’s a familiar sentiment to us — after all, we’ve experienced it. It’s just that perhaps we don’t have the drive (or the opportunity) to break out of the path that we are on or at least to learn how to slow it down.
Working is hard ; resting is harder
Let’s talk about this scientifically.
When we’re busy, we tend to get stressed. Our bodies have a natural response to stress that helps us in certain circumstances — the so-called “fight-or-flight” response.
But the human body is not meant to be in a constant state of stress — and experiencing chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, even heart attacks.
So what can we do about it?
Well, we could take Barty as our example, and make the conscious decision to slow down.
In 2014, 18-year-old Barty took a hiatus from tennis, saying that she wanted to “experience life as a normal teenaged girl”. By then, she had already been playing on the WTA circuit for four years, having turned pro in 2010.
But slowing down helped her speed up, so to speak: When she returned to tennis in 2016, she won the first doubles tournament that she played.
From then on, she continued to rise in the ranks, before reaching her current No. 1 spot. Her choice to slow down and step away from the game of tennis, had not hindered her from making a triumphant return.
Slowing down can often be the solution to our stresses in life — after all, the issue here is that we’re often pushing ourselves to work harder, work faster, or just work more.
We’ve become used to pushing ourselves at full speed to get ahead, and so the first step to correcting that would be to hit the proverbial brakes, and slow down before we get into trouble.
Yet, for many of us, it isn’t that easy.
Dealing with guilt and imposter syndrome
Speaking for myself — last year as a student, I felt like I was constantly running out of time.
It started with planning a school event in March — no big deal, I told myself, since I didn’t have any other plans. Next thing I knew, school had started, and I was juggling my academic responsibilities with leadership roles and a part-time job.
“This is fine — I can make it work,” I told myself. “I’ll make up for the lost sleep during my next break.”
But that next break never seemed to come.
Instead, my responsibilities and commitments only seemed to increase, and eventually completely overwhelmed me.
This situation might be familiar to you. After all, it isn’t unique for students to be overwhelmed balancing studies, co-curricular activities and a social life; or for working adults to experience burnout when juggling careers and personal lives.
Here’s the thing, though. I knew that I was struggling.
In my head, I knew that I wasn’t just running out of time — I was actually out of time, and compromising on my sleep and other healthy lifestyle habits to make up for it.
I knew that my constant unhappiness and bad temper was the result of me feeling extremely stressed and burnt out.
Despite this, I could never bring myself to take the steps to actually slow down.
I had justifications in my head for why I couldn’t — my responsibilities were more important, it’d only be another few weeks, and the pay-off would be greater than the sacrifice in the end. Slowing down was not an option for me.
There are several reasons why people feel like they can’t slow down. For some, there’s a sense of pride attached to the busyness, and for others, it’s about the fear of missing out, or being left behind.
These are all valid fears and concerns and they mirror the thoughts that the people around me have about slowing down.
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Slowing down can be risky, or stressful in itself, and yet it is necessary.
And what if we choose not to slow down? Well, I didn’t, and over time I began to experience painful headaches, nausea, and other stress-related ailments. When I refused to let up on the pressure that I put on myself, these conditions only increased in intensity, causing me near-constant physical misery.
When I wouldn’t make the choice to slow down, my body forced me to shut down instead.
Getting used to slowing down
Slowing down is not giving up — it’s not about ceasing all activity, but instead reducing the way that we rush about to complete things, and finding new tasks to fit into our schedule.
Slowing down can be as simple as cutting back on our screen time (a struggle for many of us), or as complex as re-assessing our lifestyle, and evaluating what activities are actually beneficial to us, and what is costing us unneeded stress.
It’s about taking definitive action towards living a more slow-paced and mindful life — one in which we can prioritise our own happiness and well-being.
If you’re looking to slow down your life, here’s three simple tips to help get you started:
1. Do nothing for a while
Doing nothing can seem like a taboo thought, especially if you are used to leading a busy life. However, moments of doing nothing might actually help you rejuvenate. Studies have found that being bored has benefits, including making us more creative, and increasing productivity. So if you feel like you’ve hit a stumbling block lately, try doing nothing!
2. Figure out what you actually need
When leading a hectic lifestyle, it’s easy to get too caught up with the nitty-gritty details of how to get things done, to the point that we forget why we need them. If you’re thinking about slowing down your life, take the time to reflect on your daily routine to identify what activities are necessary to you, and what are superfluous. It’s also a good way to separate your needs from your wants, and identify how different actions affect how you live.
3. Go offline for a few hours each day
This is pretty standard advice for anybody looking to improve their lifestyle — but for a good reason. Phone usage has been found to affect us in a variety of negative ways, including decreasing our attention span. If you’ve been having trouble focusing lately, it might do you some good to step away from your devices, and find other ways to while away your time such as taking a walk and appreciating nature, or making meaningful connections with family and friends
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Do note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to slowing down.
We all lead such wildly different lives that there’s no set way of slowing down that would work for all of us.
Experiment to find out what works for you — and remember that it is only when you slow down that you can focus and truly see the things that matter most!
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