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Life in the slow lane: Slowing down can be the key to achieving success

By Miroslav Tomoski

Illustration by Nicole Tang

There is a mutual sentiment that finds its way into the mind of every working individual on a Sunday night. This common ground is represented by a creeping fear that rises to the surface with the sudden realization that the Monday morning alarm is just hours away from thrusting us out of bed and into the weekly routine. What follows is a fast-paced dance with carefully scheduled steps and a determined climb over what has come to be known as ‘Hump Day,’ in a countdown to the weekend.

A concerted work ethic and a well-deserved rest at the end of the week are solid pillars of the North American culture. Most of us hold a firm belief in the idea that hard work pays off and, more often than not, the payoff is an enjoyable life. Yet even in these cherished off-hours, our thoughts and conversations drift to the coming work week, lingering tasks and the timeless icebreaker that has become a staple of small talk: “What do you do for a living?”

According to the Better Life Index, a comparative study of well-being among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada placed 31st out of 38 countries for time devoted to leisure and personal care. The study finds that in an average work week, Canadians will devote just 14.4 hours to relaxation. The French, who lead in this category, clock the same weekly hours as Canadians and up to 20 hours less than Americans who placed just ahead of their northern neighbours.

Riding on the tail end of the lowest working hours in the world, Canada can hardly be considered an over-worked society. Still, when compared with our international counterparts we are among the least relaxed populations in the developed world. Much of that world revolves around modern conveniences that have not only helped to manage the details of our daily lives and stay connected, but have also made it easier to get lost in those details.

As a result, our days are spent immersed in an environment which can cause our thoughts to stray anxiously back to the office, the news of the day, and far off friends and relatives, which can prevent us from slowing down and stepping back to appreciate everything we've planned so carefully.

Our Mindset Determines Our Reality

Meditation and mindfulness can play an important role in striking a balance between a healthy level of stress (which can prove to be motivational) and a leisurely demeanour (which can help us face challenges with a still mind.)

An important first step is understanding that a mindful perspective is the ultimate goal. Mindfulness, which is a common theme of Eastern religious philosophies, is an attempt to ground ourselves within reality, far more than it is an attempt at achieving spiritual enlightenment. A more mindful outlook can allow us to focus on the present moment and evaluate our thoughts, feelings and the people around us from a rational perspective.

Meditation is a tool we can use to achieve that perspective. It can also be practiced in several forms that don’t require a years-long journey of self-discovery or a retreat into the Himalayan Mountains in pursuit of a fresh start. In its simplest form, meditation is meant to relieve a cluttered mind through focus, which produces a state of awareness for our immediate surroundings.

This state of mindfulness is something that we are not entirely used to in a fast-paced, career-oriented society. A study conducted at Harvard University in 2010, and published in the journal Science, confirmed that nearly half of our lives are spent reminiscing about past events or contemplating future outcomes.

These thoughts, while useful in certain circumstances, can also have a profound effect on our awareness and ability to concentrate on what is right in front of us. They can cause us to get bogged down in a series of 'what ifs' that are ultimately beyond our control.

In this case, the purpose of meditation and mindfulness is not to escape our responsiblies, but to remove ourselves from the kind of speculative thought that can cause unnecessary anxiety. So long as a task can be used as a tool to clear the mind and keep certain thoughts from becoming distractions, it could be considered a form of meditation.

When we choose to immerse ourselves in our surroundings rather than our thoughts, we can transform elements of our daily routine into an opportunity to step away from the stress that can interfere with our ability to think comfortably and return to our challenges with a clearer approach.

For example, imagine asking someone why they sing in the shower? There is no audience and they would likely be embarrassed if they had been overheard at all. The question itself seems silly, if only because the singer might answer with a shrug and say it was a 'spur of the moment thing'. But in the course of that candid performance, the singer's mind was neither engaged by a memory or a plan for the future, but a spontaneous act within a relaxed environment.

Take Time to Eat

Mealtime can also become a chance to slow down and an opportunity to practice mindfulness in a way that improves nutrition as well as experience.

To a foreign observer, North American dining culture can look like a series of high calorie fueling stations designed to deliver food at record speed. Despite the success of the McDonald's franchise around the world, the fast food industry is something that is often associated exclusively with American culture. But even in Canada, the most recognizable franchise is a coffee shop where the employees are timed in order to provide the quickest service.

During regular business hours, meals are consumed on the go as though they were highway pit stops rather than a destination. In fact, slowing down to eat is a concept that is often reserved for a time when reservations are required. Family gatherings, first dates and dinner parties are the rare moments we take to focus on our food.

A survey conducted by Leger Marketing, which tracked the eating habits of Canadians, found that most meal decisions are made an hour beforehand. When it is finally time to eat, 70 percent of Canadians are also watching television, 50 percent browse the internet and nearly a quarter of us work or study while eating.

These eating habits are made possible by the wide availability of technology which allows for increased productivity and access to information. They are advancements that we consider as having a net benefit to our lives, but that ease of access rarely allows us the time to consider the costs. In essence, the Leger survey shows that Canadians can use technology to find a place to eat, but are ultimately focused on something other than the food.

It also offers a huge contrast to our leaders in leisure, the French, who enjoy an uninterrupted dining culture and lower rate of obesity according to OECD statistics.

In a feature on French eating habits, the British newspaper The Guardian noted that, “A graph plotting meal times produced by Eurostat [the statistical office of the European Union] is almost flat for Sweden, Finland, Slovenia and Britain; all the way through the day people feed on various snacks, at no particular time. The same graph for France rises to three spectacular spikes, morning, noon and night.”

In French culture, food is a part of a social experience. It is a time to slow down and focus on the moment at hand, the meal on the table and the people around it. In essence, a day in France is scheduled around meals, where in North America meals are scheduled around daily events.

When we set time aside to eat with others we can shift the focus of the day around periods of rest that also allow us to pay closer attention to what we eat.

This close association of food with culture has even had international implications. The use of pesticides and GMOs have been the cause of trade disputes between the United States, Canada and the European Union for years as a result of Europe's routine rejection of their use.

Surveys conducted by the European Commission have found that food regulation is one of the only areas in which Europeans oppose bioengineering. Even when certain practices are approved by government health agencies and can lower the cost of putting a meal on the table, citizens of the EU tend to reject GMOs because, despite the controversial science behind these regulations, the real barrier is in the prominant role that food plays in daily life.

Find a Good Night’s Sleep That Suits You

According to British neuroscientist Russell Foster, the average person spends 32 years asleep. For most adults, sleep is a much welcomed part of the day. But for something that takes up such a large part of life, it is ordinarily viewed as a dark gap in the day. Many of us leap from bed with plenty to do and little time to consider the benefits that sleep can offer as a personal investment. As Foster points out in his Edenborough TED talk, “Our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely advanced by a night of sleep.”

So much about sleep itself seems out of our control. Fixed work schedules don’t always allow for us to choose our sleep routines. Much of the world around us is constructed around a restful night and busy day, and despite periodic jolts of caffeine, the biological clock inevitably takes over.

However, it’s important to understand that there are aspects of sleep that we can control. The first step is understanding that there are a variety of sleep routines that go beyond our common understanding of a single block of continuous sleep.

Perhaps the most famous variation is the bimodal sleep cycle, widely practiced in Central American and Mediterranean countries. Commonly known by its Spanish name, the siesta sleep cycle is divided into two periods of sleep throughout the day; a short sleep period in the afternoon and a longer sleep period at night. This cycle was originally adopted in warmer climates to allow for a respite from the hot mid-day sun. In cultures that don’t normally observe a break in the middle of the day, this cycle can be difficult to adopt, but research has shown that a different bimodal sleep cycle was once an historical norm.

After 16 years of study into the history of sleep, Professor Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech discovered that our historical sleep patterns were far more complicated than we assume. Through the examination of historical texts, including personal journal entries, Ekirch found that a unique bimodal sleep cycle was practiced regularly before the invention of the light bulb. This pattern was broken up into two four-hour blocks of sleep with a two-hour period of wakefulness in between.

Though it may sound like modern day insomia, this kind of sleep has been proven to improve mental health by offering a period in between sleep to contemplate our dreams as well as the daily events and obligations which would ordinarily prevent us from drifting off in the first place. That period of waking thought before sleep is commonly known as sleep-onset insomnia and can be the result of too much caffeine, a change in routine or even a stressful day.

Luckily, there are a number of breathing techniques which can be used to relax your mind before sleep and even help you adjust to jetlag once fully adopted. One such technique is a practice commonly used in yoga known as 4-7-8 and promoted by physician and author Dr. Andrew Weil.

To try this technique, place the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth at the roof of the mouth. Inhale calmly through the nose and count to four. Hold on to that breath to the count of seven and exhale through the mouth ensuring that the tongue remains in place throughout the process. Dr. Weil recommends that the technique be practiced with no more than four breath cycles twice a day. The full effects usually take four to six weeks to kick in.

As with meditation and a more mindful perspective, it can be difficult to adopt if only because it’s hard to know what a more mindful approach to life looks like. A weekly routine has the potential to be a healthy part of an organized life if that routine also allows us to slow down when necessary. Awareness of environment, the people around us, the food we eat and the time we spend on ourselves, could keep a routine from becoming a habit, while the stress relief and good night’s rest it can provide should soften the sound of that Monday morning alarm.