Round-up of 2019 (1): my best books

I love the end of the year, such a great time to reflect on how things have gone, and time to look forward and plan. It’s been quite a challenging year for me in lots of ways, I had major surgery halfway through the year, which had quite a long recovery period – a great opportunity to slow down and take stock (whether you like it or not!). One bonus of spending a lot of the summer on the sofa was I got to read some awesome books! These are not necessarily books that came out in 2019 (although some are), just ones that I discovered and enjoyed this year. Reading is a great ‘slow’ activity, I’d much rather spend a few weeks immersed in a novel than watch a film and have it all over in a couple of hours!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I discovered the awesome American Gothic of Shirley Jackson this year, so atmospheric. The characters really stay with you after the novel is finished (always the sign of a good book). Written in 1962, the story features two sisters (one of whom has not left the house in 6 years) who live in a large, isolated house, and their wheelchair-bound Uncle who lives with them. The rest of their family died tragically, and the novel unravels what happened to them, through the intense relationship between the two sisters. The writing is brilliant, and I’m definitely going to check out more of Jackson’s work.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zuzak

I loved The Book Thief, but this is totally unlike it, but still brilliant. At almost 550 pages, it’s a bit of a doorstopper, and was quite slow to get going, but once it did, I genuinely couldn’t put it down. The story is about six brothers (the Dunbar boys), and their relationship with their father, but also with the land they live on. A beautiful, gentle, and slow book at times, but this wasn’t a negative for me. The ‘bridge’ is both a physical bridge and also a metaphorical one between the boys and each other, and the other characters. Beautiful.

In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore

I’ve already reviewed this book here, the bible of the slow movement. If you’re interested in the idea of slow living and how it can apply to many different areas, such as travel, cities, relationships, work, family, etc, then this is a must-read.

My Struggle (Book 2): A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Knausgaard is a bit like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. I definitely fall into the first category. His 6 book epic fictionalised autobiography features the minutiae of his life, meandering from detail to detail. This volume focuses on his relationship with his wife and their children, and her postnatal depression. The writing is exquisite (if you like this sort of thing), and I can’t wait to read volume 3 in 2020.

Destination Simple by Brooke McAlary

I heard about Brooke through her awesome Slow Your Home podcast, so was keen to read one of her books. If you’re just starting out with slow and simple living, this is a great place to do it. She talks about daily rituals to help you to slow down and live a more intentional life, and also the great concept of ’tilting’ towards things in life that we need to give our attention to, such as family or work, for a while, and then tilting away from them when the busyness dies down. Tilting is a great idea, and helps you to maintain a sense of balance, and prevents overwhelm.

I’m looking forward to more awesome reads in 2020! What was the best book you read in 2019?

10 hacks for a slower, simpler festive season

The silly season is upon us. At this time of year, it is easy to get swept up in consumerism and too much ‘doing’. Here are some hacks to keep things simple and prevent overwhelm this holiday season.

1: Remember your core values

If you’re really clear about your core values in life, i.e. what’s important and what’s not important, it is much easier to keep on track with a slower paced simple lifestyle. For instance, if some kind of minimalism or low-waste lifestyle is important to you, it’s easier not to get caught up in buying too much Stuff. I’ll do a post in the new year about working out what your core values are.

2: Don’t be afraid to say no

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it’s OK to say no to the work Christmas party, just because everyone else is going. JOMO not FOMO! Only say yes to things you really want to attend, to connect with friends and build deeper relationships. If an invitation doesn’t fulfil you or sound like fun, then it’s totally OK to say no.

3: Keep gift-giving simple

As aspiring minimalists, we are doing 4 gifts for Christmas this year for the kids:

You don’t have to stick to this rule if it doesn’t work for you, but it can help to keep to keep things simple and avoid the often mindless excesses of the festive season. Also, if you’re buying fewer gifts per child, you can afford to spend that little bit more on that something special that they really want and that will actually get used.

4: Say yes

Once you’ve said no to invitations you don’t want to attend, definitely say yes to other experiences and connections with friends. Rather than giving gifts to friends and accumulating more Stuff, suggest in-person meet ups or shared experiences.

5: Start early

You know Christmas is coming, and a certain amount of extra ‘doing’ can’t be avoided. Trying to start early to avoid last-minute stress. Planning is your friend, here. You can’t start too early, especially if you want to make your own cards or gifts which can be time-consuming. Allowing plenty of time will keep things low-stress.

6: Keep things simple on the big day

Rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses or going all-out for excess which can lead to feeling burnt-out and depleted, keep things as simple as possible. You don’t have to cook a seven course meal with different wine matched to each course to have a great Christmas. A nice yet simple meal done well will allow you less time in the kitchen and more time to connect with family and to relax.

7: Make time for family traditions and rituals

Apparently in Iceland, it is a tradition on Christmas Eve to give books to loved ones, and then to spend the rest of the night reading in bed eating chocolate! We like to have a walk on Christmas Day, after our lunch, and have had some memorable ones – one year we walked across Ditchling Beacon (the highest point in Sussex) in a howling gale whilst playing “What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf”. Perhaps you make the same Christmas muffins every year for breakfast, or play the same festive music while you make your own decorations. Create your own family traditions, creating memories and connection.

8: Try a little mindfulness

Times when we’re completely present become future memories, so however crazy things get, try to come back to the current moment, perhaps using the breath as an anchor. Feel your feet on the ground, and be truly present with whatever you’re doing, be it unwrapping a gift or cooking the Christmas lunch. Even just a few deep breaths will help to centre you, and will prevent overwhelm.

9: Come back to your ‘why’

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, come back to your ‘why’, the reason you’re doing it. If you’re in tune with your core values, and know what your intention is for the festive season (perhaps to rest, or connection with loved ones), then coming back to that can help to ground you and allow you to recognise when things are getting too much.

10: Get some perspective

Remember, Christmas is only one day of the year. Come back to what’s important, forget everything else and you’ll have a great time.

How do you keep things simple around the festive season?

How Buddhism is compatible with slow, minimalist living

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a Twitter chat about minimalism, and the topic of Buddhism came up, and how it fits with a slower, more simple way of life. [if you’re interested in all things minimalism, this Twitter chat takes place every 2 weeks, follow #minschat, I’m @slow_blog]

Firstly – a bit of background on Buddhism. There are many strands of Buddhism, but they all have in common a desire to simplify life and let go of attachments (to people, ‘unskilful’ behaviours, and also views). Whilst it is not essential to Buddhism to subscribe to any sort of minimalist ethos (or vice versa!), they are definitely compatible. Minimalism can be defined as simply living with less – fewer financial expenses, less pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, and in valuing experiences over things. Mindfulness (which is a key part of Buddhist practice) just means bringing our full attention to whatever we are doing or feeling right now, in this very moment – tuning into our inner world of experience. Studies show that when we bring our full attention or mindfulness to our experiences, we remember them better in the long term. This does not mean that minimalists are hedonists or adrenaline junkies, but that they are capable of being satisfied and enjoying the simple things in life, just by noticing them – a drop of rain upon a leaf, the ducks in the local park, the clouds floating by in the sky.

Only having what we really need also fits with the Buddhist ethos of simplicity and contentment – we are not grasping or craving for more all the time (as our increasingly consumer-society would like us to). As we become more proficient at mindfulness, at noticing what is happening as it arises and passes away, we can recognise our desire to buy another book on Amazon, or to buy the latest fashion item (or whatever it happens to be). We can simply notice it arising and moving on. We don’t have to scratch that itch.

Anthony Ongaro talks about this on his blog “Break the Twitch“. In his TED Talk, he talks about the ‘twitch’ of online behaviour, how many apps are built along similar lines to gambling, giving us a dopamine-hit each time we click, and how through re-training our habits we can mould our behaviour so that it is more in line with our core values. In Buddhism, this would mean recognising that we are at the mercy of greed (or attachment, craving), hatred (or aversion or avoidance of pain or discomfort) and delusion (about the true nature of reality), that this is our ‘animal’ nature. But Buddhist practice gives us the tools to override this ‘twitch’ through firstly noticing what is happening, by bringing awareness to it.

Buddhist ethical principles also fit with many of the simpler lifestyle choices people are increasingly making, such as living zero waste or low waste, not buying fast fashion which exploits low-paid workers abroad. All Buddhists try to adhere to the principle of ‘doing no harm’, which can in its broad interpretation can mean treading lightly on the earth, and being an ethical consumer.

Enforced Slowing Down

I haven’t been posting quite as regularly as I’d have liked on here recently…I had major surgery 6 weeks ago, which, whilst obviously presenting its own challenges, has been a good exercise in Enforced Slowing Down. I’ve not been able to walk very far very comfortably, so have spent a ton of time on the sofa. I’m definitely one of life’s “do-ers”, so sitting still for too long isn’t my natural state of being. Whilst also discovering I’ve got an incredibly low boredom threshold, I’ve also had the time and space to get back into some much-neglected hobbies.

Rebecca of the Minimalism, My Way blog recently posted about her return to hobbies. She writes that hobbies make us who we are, and if we don’t make time for them, we aren’t making time for ourselves. Slowing down and simplifying our lives should, in theory, free up time and space for the things that we love, rather than those things that we have to do.

But what stops us from doing those things? Often we allow other stuff to fill the time – TV, chores, etc. Perhaps we feel guilty for indulging ourselves in seemingly frivolous pursuits with no end goal in sight, something that wasn’t on our to-do list. However, if we find the time for hobbies, we can actually improve our health – lowering heart rate and stress levels.

During my ongoing recovery period, I’ve read a ton of books (including Pride and Prejuduice, which I had always meant to read but never quite got around to). I’ve picked up a couple of crochet and knitting projects which had fallen by the wayside, and now I’m a bit more mobile have sat at the sewing machine and started a new project there. I also love photography, but haven’t been able to get out for many walks yet, hopefully that is coming soon.

How do you like to spend your hobby-time? Can you allow yourself that time just for you and an activity you love?

Book Review: In Praise of Slow – How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (by Carl Honore)

This is the book that started it all, that coined the term the “Slow Movement”. Prior to that, there had been the Slow Food movement in Italy spreading out to other places, and other groups attempting to slow down particular facets of their lives. Carl Honore does a great job of pulling all of those slow strands together, showing us what slow living is, and also what it is not.

In an expanded version of his popular TED talk, Honore challenges the common assumption that faster is better. He argues that every person and activity has its own “tempo giusto” or inherent speed. When we take the time to cook our food from scratch, with seasonal ingredients, for instance, and enjoy it with family or friends, it not only tastes better but also has the potential to become a happy memory, an experience worth having. This does not necessarily mean slaving away for hours in the kitchen, slow cooking everything; it is possible to quickly cook a slow meal. The main ingredients for it to be “slow food” are respect for the environment in producing the ingredients, taste and community.

The book covers the reaches of the Slow Movement from sex and relationships, slow cities, exercise, alternative medicine and parenting. Whatever the context, the ethos is the same: faster is not necessarily better. Honore does not disregard the fast, he himself plays ice hockey, a fairly fast-paced sport. What he does point out is that one cannot live life at that pace all of the time, there must be balance. Choosing a slower pace does not mean moving at the speed of a snail, but rather bringing some intentionality to what we are doing, and taking the time to enjoy it.

The sections on slow parenting, home education and reducing working hours really spoke to me. I have only ever worked part time since having my daughter almost 14yrs ago, a choice that was not that common among my (almost exclusively female) colleagues. I often felt like a square peg, but knew deep down that I valued being at home more than increasing my salary, so much so that after I had my son 5yrs ago, I gave up working and started home educating. This afforded us a much slower pace of life, and whilst I had never been one for over – scheduling kids’ activities, we could now really live at our own pace, finding delight in those activities we chose to participate in.

Living a slow, intentional life can at times feel like swimming against the tide. I enjoyed reading about the various worldwide groups that are choosing to life differently: the Sloth Club and the Society for the Deceleration of Time, as well as the various worldwide Slow Food groups.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.

Too busy? 5 easy ways to step off the treadmill

Start saying NO

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper linked not feeling able to say no with feelings of being too busy. Saying yes to things we don’t really want to do can leave us feeling resentful, angry and depleted. And an inability to say no ends up with us taking on too much both at work and in our personal lives, leading to feelings of being unable to get off life’s treadmill, and eventually burnout.

Writer and entrepreneur James Altucher devised the 5/25 formula for what we should say yes to. He advises writing a list of the top 25 things that you want to do in life, from writing a novel to travelling to India. Then cream off the top 5, and never look at the bottom 20 again. Focus your efforts on these 5 things, and say yes to anything that relates to them, saying no to everything else.

However, whilst this might be useful for keeping you focused on your goals, I personally prefer saying no in accordance with your core values. It might take time to work out exactly what these are, but once you have a sense of what’s really important to you, saying no to things that aren’t a good fit becomes easier. Taking time to reflect on the qualities you value, both in yourself and others, will help you to clarify when you should be saying yes, and also will give you permission to say no. For instance, if you value integrity, then saying yes when you mean no goes against that and will leave you feeling dissatisfied and resentful.

Swap FOMO for JOMO

One of the reasons people say yes to too much is because of a Fear Of Missing Out, which can cause us to say yes to invitations to events we don’t really want to attend, or end up scrolling through social media to see what everyone else is up to.

Instead of worrying about what they’re missing out on, many people are now consciously choosing to stay in and doing activities they really enjoy, perhaps alone or with a special person, rather than saying yes to drinks after work with people they don’t really like.

Be more mindful

Taking a few minutes to just focus on the breath at the start and end of each day can help to ground you, and help you to feel less scattered when there are lots of competing demands. Bring some mindfulness into your everyday life by really being present. Instead of checking Facebook on your phone when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, you could try feeling the ground beneath your feet, the sensations of the cup in your hand, the noise of the kettle as it meets your ears. Being more present, instead of spending the whole time worrying about the future, or the past, can help create more space in your day. Once you start believing that self-care is important, and a priority, you can start allowing more of it into your life.

And maybe experiment with doing nothing – turn off the phone, put your book away and just sit. See what happens, even if you can only manage a minute. You will see that you are never really ‘doing nothing’, there is always something going on – the breath, the thoughts. 

Take a nap

One way to recharge your batteries if you’re feeling stressed is to take a nap. Backed by neuroscience, taking a nap can improve your concentration, memory and creativity. Instead of fighting the 3pm slump with another coffee or the sense that you’re in combat with your body’s needs, try downing tools and setting your alarm for 20 minutes.

If you’re at work, and think that having a nap just isn’t practical, some employers are even installing “nap rooms” into the workplace, recognising the benefits of a few Zs on productivity and creativity.

Swap your to-do list for a done-list

Whilst some people like to list every small thing they need to do each day, others find this crippling. Apparently 41% of items on to-do lists never get done. Perhaps the answer is paring back your to-do list down to the bare essentials, say three things, or even one thing, that you really must get done. Or turn things upside-down and create a Done list, listing your daily accomplishments (which creates a sense of mastery). This can actually increase productivity by fuelling your motivation, rather than by crushing it by seeing all the things you’ve yet to achieve.

Slow and Simple Experiment: Doing Nothing

Over the past month, I’ve been making a concerted effort to Do Nothing for at least fifteen minutes each day. Ever since reading In Praise of Wasting Time, I have recognised the value of empty space in the day. Doing nothing allows a few moments to pause, to slow down and tune into our inner world a little more. It allows for creative insights to emerge, often solutions to problems we’ve been mulling over will present themselves after a few minutes of space and down time.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Most of us have it drummed into us that being “idle” is a bad thing, that we should be busy being productive, that good old Protestant work ethic. With doing nothing comes a certain amount of guilt about wasting time, the “shoulds” come thick and fast: I should be washing up, I should be preparing for that meeting, I should be getting on with my to-do list…

It is rather difficult to actually do nothing at all, we are always thinking, looking, hearing and so on. I have built Doing Nothing time into my day by linking it to something I do every morning – having my morning coffee. Whilst this may not strictly be doing nothing (I am drinking coffee, after all), this serves as a mental reminder for me – OK, here’s my coffee, it’s time to Do Nothing. I sit in the same chair each time, focusing on bodily sensations as they come and go, the smell and taste of my coffee, and noticing any thoughts as they arise (trying not to get caught up in the story behind those thoughts).

Sounds a bit like meditation, doesn’t it? And it is the same, although in a much less formal way. I am not closing my eyes or focusing on my breath, or trying to cultivate positive emotions as in meditation. I am simply sitting drinking coffee.

The challenge comes once you start to notice boredom or the urge to reach for your phone / book / something to look at. If you can step into the gap between feeling and acting, if you simply watch those urges, they dissipate, and you can sink into it, into the being-mode, rather than the doing-mode. And that spaciousness can spill over into other moments in the day.

At the end of one month, I am definitely going to try to carry on with this new habit. It has opened up a sense of much more space in my day, and even a few minutes of down time bolsters my energy levels and resources for the rest of the day.

Weekend Reads on Doing Nothing

Five reasons why we should all learn how to do nothing

How doing nothing helps you get more done

The case for doing nothing