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  • Writer's pictureMichael Pietrzak

This is Why You Can’t Slow Down

By Mike Pietrzak

“I need to rest, but I feel guilty taking a break... Every time I stop “doing”, I feel this unease and within a couple minutes I’m back to something productive. Even when my workday is officially done I walk around the house looking for things to do, trying to cross just one more task off my to-do list. I go to bed feeling like I haven’t spent any time out of work mode—haven’t had any “me time”. I feel low-key anxious all the time.”

Sound familiar?

You feel a desperate need to stop doing, but hear a nagging voice in your head guilting you to keep doing.

How Guilt Keeps us From Slowing Down

The best definition of guilt I’ve heard is that it exists when there is a conflict between our needs and others’ needs.

We know we need rest. But the kids or partner needs something from you. Or there’s a deadline at work. Maybe you have a subconscious need to impress others.

When we put others’ needs on hold we feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. It’s often so uncomfortable that, rather than sit with it, we kick our own needs to the curb.

This is especially problematic when we face maladaptive guilt, which is guilt over things we can’t control, like the way someone feels, or that your company is laying off colleagues.

Why is Slowing Down so Difficult?

Guilt is an insidious beast that shamelessly demands that we serve masters besides our own needs. Externally these might be:

  • The fence that’s falling over in the backyard.

  • That terrible noise the car’s making.

  • The clients who are getting cranky because you have yet to deliver what you promised.

  • The toddler who’s got a fever and isn’t sleeping through the night.

But I’ve found that the more difficult opponents are always the internal ones. Here are some of the classic mental causes of busyness:

1. Workweek mentality

In my case, ten years of conditioning told me that the hours between 9AM and 5PM, Monday to Friday (more like 8AM to 7PM!) are for working only. Who decided this? There’s overwhelming science that this is not a healthy life rhythm, that we need regular breaks, that the optimal work week is 35 hours, and that it’s impossible to sustain quality focus for more than two hours.

2. A belief that our work = our worth

As my own coach likes to say about work and self-worth, “you’ve linked two things that just don’t belong together.” When we tie our self-worth to our productivity, we set ourselves up for constant self-loathing because we will always want more than we have, and will always fall short of our goals.

3. Weird childhood programming

When I was 10 my family moved to Taiwan for my dad’s job. I remember standing at my grandma’s front door the day before we left, her telling me something like, “you’re the oldest, you’re the man of the house now. You need to take care of your mom.” That’s a messed up thing to tell a child, but still I became hyper-vigilant about anything that needed to be attended to, and took responsibility for everyone, all the time. I’m still unlearning this one.

4. We are busy as a way to avoid unpleasant feelings

Try this: sit still in a room alone with your eyes closed. Don’t meditate; that’s cheating. I’m willing to bet that after 30 seconds you start to squirm. Why? Without fail, when our minds are not occupied with “doing,” unresolved emotions, anxieties, or traumas come up: your boss’s insult, your feeling like a failure, the bullying you got in 3rd grade. If you want to truly rest, you need to face these unpleasantries and take time to resolve them.

5. The Entrepreneur Trap

From personal experience and my work as a coach, I’ve noticed that entrepreneurs, more than any other group, struggle with slowing down, because we believe our business stops working when we do. As long as you continue to be a business “operator”—someone who wears all the hats—then you will continue to be stretched to the limit and feel the need to answer emails during your daughter’s soccer practice. Instead, work to become a business owner by delegating as much as possible to a competent team. See Lesson 4, here.

If we are to build a healthy, sane world, we need healthy, sane people who understand that rest is productive. Or better yet, that productivity is not the purpose of existence.

We need to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.

Feeling overwhelmed and have trouble slowing down? Book a conversation with me and we’ll get to the root of it.

How do you “Force” Yourself to Slow Down?

Start by seeing the unhealthy language in this question, and bring some self-compassion to bear. “Forcing” yourself to do anything always leads to more anxiety and burnout. Can you come at this with a different energy?

The question itself, “why can’t I slow down”, points directly at the problem: we tell ourselves that change is hard.

Slowing down is paradoxically difficult, and yet the easiest thing in the world. You just... stop. Surrender your strivings for just a few hours to start. Let go of expectations and attachment to outcomes.

Here are some specific techniques that, practiced regularly, will make you better at slowing down.

1. Meditate

Yes, this advice is ubiquitous and that’s because it really is a silver bullet, one of those foundational habits that improve all areas of your life. Even 10 minutes daily will help you become aware of your mostly unconscious anxieties and urges to work non-stop. When I miss my morning meditation, my whole day is “off”.

2. The Unschedule

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore is a book that led to a profound improvement in my relationship to work. One tool it presents is the unschedule: the practice of scheduling fun & play time in your weekly calendar before work and to-dos. This might sound like a decadence you can’t afford, but the science says that those who put leisure first run circles around the tired masses. This is because we can only attract what we want when we feel good.

3. Become an Essentialist

The Essentialist’s philosophy is, “do less, but better.” I”ve gifted Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism at least a dozen times because it illuminates such a healthy approach to work: Focus on the vital few; ignore the trivial many. If you do you’ll get more done with more time to chill out to the max. Goodbye, overwhelm.

4. Apply the “tempo giusto”

Italians take three hours to eat dinner because that’s its tempo giusto—the “ideal pace”. Tempo giusto mentality doesn’t mean do everything slowly; fix the burst pipe in your basement fast. Nor should you drag your feet at work. But some things are better slow. The best music conductors are not the ones that get the orchestra to the end of the piece the fastest. Decide, case-by-case, the appropriate pace for each activity.

5. Create a “switching off” ritual

Back in another lifetime we had these things called “offices” where we would do our work, and leave it there, and home was only a place to relax and unwind. But the disease-that-shall-not-be-named turned many of us into remote workers. Home IS the office. Many have trouble defining boundaries between work and leisure time because we play Minecraft at the same desk where we fiddle with spreadsheets. My wife and I have created a simple ritual to mark the end of the work day—we have a club soda with lemon. We’ve Pavlovian conditioned ourselves to switch off and it’s a glorious relief.

6. Remember that when you die, your inbox will not be empty

Part of the reason we try to cross off Just... One... More... Item from our to-do lists is because we believe we can be “finished”. Ha ha ha! What a farce. There will always be one more email coming in, one more request, one new opportunity you want to pursue. Make peace with being in progress.

Can slowing down help reduce anxiety?

You already know the answer to this question. Yes, of course—when you become skilled at slowing down without guilt, your anxiety will fade away.

In my experience as a coach, in reading hundreds of books, and through my own struggles, I’ve come to understand this: anxiety is caused by constant worry about the future. (For the record, depression is caused by an unhealthy fixation on the past.)

To illustrate:

  • Social anxiety is worry that bad things will happen when people judge you harshly.

  • Money anxiety is worry that you won’t be able to pay your rent, feed your kids, or make your dad proud.

  • Body image anxiety is worry about being embarrassed about how you look.

Anxiety is always worry about something bad happening in the future, and the size of your anxiety is correlated to how much time you spend ruminating on this.

How can slowing down help reduce anxiety?

  • It creates space to challenge unhealthy beliefs. When you are constantly busy, you have no time for introspection. It’s only in quiet solitude that you can observe your unhealthy worry, and take steps to change.

  • It allows for less work and more self-care. Walks in nature, meditation, exercise... These self-care practices have the effect of reducing the stress hormone cortisol in your body.

  • It gives you more social time. When you’re not killing yourself with the hustle, you’ve got time and the desire to be social, which, based on our evolution, is an incredibly important practice if we want to be happy. Time among friends releases the happy hormone serotonin, which combats anxiety.

Final Thoughts

Western society pressures us to work harder and accumulate more stuff. That’s the same society that is deeply unhealthy and even insane.

Instagram is littered with million-follower accounts that force hustle & grind culture down our throats, but you know most of those are run by people with minimal real-world experience who have never experienced the effects of burnout, and just don’t know any better.

Society’s expected pace of doing is just not sustainable. I’ve seen hundreds of clients come to me burnt out and feeling like they’re not enough. Guess what? From this state you will never do great work. Even if you make a lot of money, you’ll be miserable. That’s the ultimate failure.

Hard work is NOT the key to wealth or success. Yes, I just said that! Success has much more to do with feeling good and having fun. When you’re in a great state, that’s when you do genius work and when people want to work with you. You do this by adopting healthy beliefs, and maintaining a balance between doing and being.

Now that you have permission to slow down, what changes will you make? Let me know in the comments.

And if you’re feeling overwhelmed and have trouble slowing down, book a conversation with me and we’ll get to the root of it.
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