When young children break down in a fit of tears, we are quick to recognize that this is a case of being overstimulated: too much noise, too many people, too much to manage. We put them down for a nap, and know things will be more calm in an hour.
Yet we often fail to recognize the same signs of stress and overwhelm in ourselves. We take on work projects, make plans with friends, push ourselves to go to the gym, keep up with the news, and tackle new recipes, then question why it is we feel so frazzled and burnt out.
As philosopher Alain de Botton explains, sometimes we just need to keep things simple.
“What registers as anxiety is typically no freakish phenomenon; it is the mind’s logical enraged plea not to be continuously and exhaustingly overstimulated,” he says.
Here are seven ways to slow down and simplify your life:
1. When it comes to relationships, focus on quality—not quantity
The many relationships we foster—with friends, family, coworkers, classmates, neighbours, and more—are valuable, and enrich our lives. However, the pressure we put on ourselves to maintain these relationships can, at times, be damaging.
“We need to recognise that what is physically possible for us to achieve in a day is not, for that matter, psychologically wise or plausible,” de Botton says.
On weeks when you feel overextended, it’s important to learn to just say no to a dinner out, a day volunteering at the school fundraiser, or a weekend work trip.
2. Go to sleep (Yes, you! Get some shut eye)
Sometimes when we’re feeling flustered, unfocused or just plain out of it, we might think we need to make major changes in our lives to “fix” things. But before you make a major change, press the reset button and put yourself to bed.
“We don’t necessarily have to get divorced, retrain in a completely different profession or move to the country: we just need to get some more rest,” de Botton says.
If you find yourself tossing and turning at the end of a long day and have trouble getting to sleep, try a sleep meditation to relax before you hit the hay.
3. Take a break from the information cycle
For most of history, news came to us slowly—we waited for letters, for gossip from the neighbour, for the newspaper to be printed each morning. But today, with the 24-hour news cycle and the internet in the palm of our hands, we are tuned into everything at once. And it’s messing with our mental health.
“Every minute of every day presents us with untold options for filling our minds with the mania, exploits, disasters, furies, reversals, ambitions, triumphs, insanity and cataclysms of strangers around our benighted planet,” says de Botton. “Always, news organisations speak of our need to know – and to need to know right now.”
While it’s important and necessary to follow the news, we don’t have to follow it at every hour of every day. Instead, set one or two times a day to check the latest headlines or watch a recent broadcast—like in the morning while you have a coffee, or in the evening after dinner.
4. Practice mindful eating
Most of us feel better after we have a good meal. But what happens when you spend that entire meal texting, working at your desk, or worrying about an event later in the day? You stop focusing on your food—and miss out on all the mood-boosting benefits that come with it.
By practicing mindful eating, you can pay more attention to your meal and begin to savor each bite, in order to feel more full and satisfied for longer.
5. Check in with your emotions
When we’re busy, we often slip into auto-pilot—going through the motions of our day without pausing to notice how we really feel. But when you bury your emotions, you put yourself at greater risk of burnout.
De Botton recommends a mindful journaling practice to check in with your thoughts as often as possible.
“In order to be able to find rest, we need to carve off chunks of time where we have nothing to do other than lie in bed with a pad and paper in order to think,” he says. “We need to consider three topics in particular: What is making me anxious? Who has caused me pain and how? What is exciting me?”
Not only will doing so help you better understand and manage how you feel today, but by noticing how you feel about an upcoming event, you can also keep your anxiety from spiralling out of control tomorrow.
“Experiences lose at least half of their power to unnerve us when we have gone through them in our minds the day before,” de Botton says.
6. Focus on personal achievement, rather than status
Sometimes, we may take on a challenge simply because it’s a challenge—and not because it’s actually meaningful to us. We become consumed by the desire to get a promotion, win an award, or publish a book, so much so that we cease to find any enjoyment in the task.
Although it can feel difficult to “quit,” at something, it’s ultimately more fulfilling to focus your time and energy on something we really care about, even if it that’s a more quiet type of success—such as finally taking a cooking class, or learning how to play guitar.
“We are not backing away from a challenge, we’re simply shifting our sense of what the real challenge might be – and more importantly where the real rewards may lie.”
7. Cultivate a healthy environment
Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to live on a beach in Bali or wake up with a view of the Swiss alps. But we can create an environment that fosters a sense of peace and contentment in our daily lives—whether that be by repainting your bedroom, adding plants to your desk at work, or simply tidying up the living room.
“The visual world can’t magically translate itself into a mood; but it can certainly foster and invite one,” de Botton says. “We need to take every step we can to make a home in the sort of environment that promises at a visual level the calm we crave at a psychological one.”