The lockdown slowdown

If lockdown taught us anything, it was that we can go slower and need less. And that, in turn, having less leaves us the space to see so much more. Emma Johnson looks at our journey from more to less…

If humanity ever needed a wake-up call, coronavirus has been it. In March this year, as the entire world retreated behind closed doors, our fast-paced, angry, consumerist society was suddenly and unceremoniously unplugged.

We had glorified being busy, hurrying was our default setting, and multitasking was hailed as our most important contribution to productivity. We bought more and more things, to fill the spaces created by our loneliness. We stared robotically at our phones, searching for answers that could not possibly be found inside a device. We threw things away, bought more things, and stuffed them into our already full homes, before rushing out the door to our next engagement. We never stopped. We had morning meetings at 6am, working lunches and dinner-on-the go, and went to bed at 1am. We worked out, we worked hard, and we wore ourselves out. And still, we kept on going.

But then lockdown arrived, like a biblical flood: a great leveller wiping the slate clean and reminding us of how small we sit in the vast mystery of the universe. Confined to our houses, we were forced to look inward, to see our family anew, to get to know each other better, to sit in our gardens and to cook in our kitchens. We read books, we learned new things, we bought less and made more, we planted seeds and we put down roots. We stopped, we slowed, we took deep breaths. And we discovered that, in having less, we actually have more. Because, in the space that less left, we found that our lives were richer than we could ever have imagined.

But what remains? As lockdown eases across the world, many of us are looking at how to re-enter a world that doesn’t feel the same anymore. What happened to us during lockdown? How do we bring these new, slower selves forward? 

‘Lockdown has given people who’d never think of slowing down the chance to do so,’ says Julia Watkins, author of the new Simply Living Well. ‘It’s been good to reconnect to simpler daily rhythms and routines. And I like to think it’s helped people to see just how vital local communities are to their wellbeing.’

   Lockdown opened our minds and hearts to celebrating what we have, rather than highlighting what we lack. As we drew those in our households closer to us, we started to see that what matters is people, not things. In the same way, we stopped needing complicated exercise classes or expensive daily diversions.  ‘Perhaps we’ve all been reminded that there is lots of fun and enjoyment to be had in the simple things like playing games, starting a hobby, going for a bike ride, or pottering about,’ says Melanie Barnes, author of Seeking Slow, a brilliant guide to introducing slow living principles into your own life.

Retreating from the world, meant that – completely by accident – we were all suddenly forced to adopt the key tenets of slow living: space for rest and play, self-sufficiency, having, buying and doing less, clearing the clutter, focusing on the small moments and living with more consideration for both fellow man and the planet.

‘This is the way life has always been lived,’ says Natalie Walton, author of the beautiful Still: The Slow Home. ‘It’s only been in the past
50 to 100 years that life got out of control. It feels as if we’re returning to our more natural order. And the more awareness we have about the impact of our choices, the more people won’t want to go back.’

SLOW LIVING FOR OURSELVES

At its core, slow living is about saying yes to things that matter, and no to things that don’t. It allows us to work out what is important – something that lockdown put into sharp relief – and then to prioritise and make space for that. ‘Lockdown has been a reminder of the things in life we tend to take for granted,’ says Brooke McAlary, author of Slow: Live Life Simply and host of The Slow Home Podcast. ‘Hugs, exploring national parks and going on adventures, visiting family, spending lazy afternoons with friends.’

Almost all of the slow living books and guides talk about creating spaces for rest and play, allowing for empty time that isn’t filled with activity. By being more present for each part of our day, we have had to start choosing quality over quantity, making the most of opportunities to savour simple pleasures and live wholeheartedly. ‘It’s not necessarily about moving through our days slowly – because that’s not always going to be possible given the fast-paced world we typically live in,’ says McLary. ‘But rather about paying attention, single-tasking and learning to be present in the moment.’

At its heart, slow living is mindfulness made real – a tangible sense of what it means to be our happiest and healthiest selves. Lockdown created for us all a slower rhythm where we had time to reconnect to ourselves and our loved ones. This is something that many of us are determined to hold onto as life moves forward. ‘Through slowing our homes and simplifying our belongings, we can begin to create space for more rest and play,’ says Melanie Barnes in Seeking Slow. ‘It’s not about trying to have it all, but about learning to be content with what we have, and that less can indeed be more.’

SLOW LIVING FOR OUR HOMES

Lockdown also showed us how much more attention we needed to pay to the spaces we live in. Our homes have never been so important, their four walls and outside spaces becoming our classrooms, our offices, our meditation spaces and our workout studios. ‘They are where we wake and set the tone for the day, and right now they are where we experience all of the elements of our daily lives,’ says Natalie Walton.

A slow home, crucially, is a place that supports and encourages your way of slow living. It’s about creating pockets of space to allow life to happen in a way that leaves more time for rest and play. Design and décor should create a sense of calm, while each space within the house should offer a chance for creativity, solitude or rest. Being more thoughtful about belongings will help reduce clutter and create a sense of a carefully curated home with only the things you need or love. This in turn helps you consume things more thoughtfully and to use items for as long as you can. The home must also respond to and work within the rituals and habits of your family – making family meals possible, offering chances for escape and quiet time, and encouraging reading together or doing crafts together.

And the home must also echo the key slow tenets of sustainability: locality and provenance. ‘To me, creating an awareness of how we live is integral to the idea of embracing slow living,’ says Walton. ‘We can only change what we can see. We can live more responsibly within our homes when we consider that our decisions have an impact not just on the world today but on the form it will take tomorrow. Let us consider the contribution that we want to make. What do we want our legacy to be?’

SLOW LIVING FOR OUR PLANET

The break from which the earth benefited during lockdown has been eye-opening. The quieter roads, the silent skies, the reduction in consumption – and, by association, rubbish – have been quite staggering.

As we spend more time walking in the countryside and working in our gardens, we become more in tune with nature, and more acutely aware of our impact on the environment. ‘When we slow down, we often use fewer resources and produce less waste, both of which have a lighter impact on the earth,’ explains Anna Carlile, author of Grounded: A Companion for Slow Living. ‘In the early days of the slow food movement, a clever someone reverse-engineered “slow” as an acronym: Sustainable, Local, Organic and Whole. Cherry-picking these terms and applying them to how you go about life will help you to slow down.’

As Carlile suggests, part of slow living is reducing your impact on the earth by being more conscious in your choices about what you buy and how you use it. Recycling and reducing waste are important for the planet, but they also help you to build a life with less reliance on services, and more ability to provide and manage for yourselves.

‘Slow living has taught me practical skills that are helping my family be more resilient in the face of a rapidly changing world,’ explains Brooke McAlary. ‘Things like growing some of our own food, supporting local producers, making our own cleaning products, mending, upcycling, reducing waste, composting, and growing and developing strong local communities. It all reduces our reliance on the industrialised system, which helps us be more resilient.’

SLOW LIVING FOR RESILIENCE

The resilience that McAlary talks about is important. Because while slow living might seem to offer a gentler, more peaceful way of going about your day, it also creates a model that is more robust, more considered and less built on shaky ground. A slow life has space for the things you need, metaphorically and physically. It can grow, it can absorb the shocks of change, and it can keep you steady in uncertain times. Living slowly doesn’t mean hardship doesn’t come your way, but it means you have the tools to cope when challenges arise.

In fact, its innate nature infuses us with resilience. It helps us to cope better with changes or setbacks, because we have created space in our lives to adjust and be flexible. For those people already living slow lives, the adjustment to lockdown was less dramatic, because they were armed with the tools to act quickly to protect and support themselves. ‘Slow living is empowering,’ says Julia Watkins. ‘Not just because of how little you need to be happy, but because of how much happiness comes from being able to meet your needs on your own. I think we’re all capable of more than we think; we’re just too busy to notice.’

The more you can do for yourself, the greater your resilience, and of course is never more important than in a crisis. As Watkins explains, being able to feed yourself and your family with what you grow in your garden or from stews and soups scavenged from scraps that might otherwise get thrown away is undeniably useful, as is being able to make your own dish soap, laundry detergent, and personal care products.

But the resilience gained from slow living is more than that. It’s something that allows you to be honest with yourself and to know yourself and your family deeply. ‘Slow living is there to reveal the truth of things – about yourself, your family, your community, your past, your future,’ she says. ‘The more I try to simplify my life, the more intentional I am in my choices – and the more hopeful I become about what tomorrow will bring. Resilience takes mental strength, and I draw strength from optimism washing over me whenever I delve into old ways of doing things, living just a little bit like my ancestors.’

Once we start to live slowly and wholeheartedly, we increase our awareness of our general wellbeing, meaning we make healthier lifestyle choices, taking better care of our physical and mental health, and creating a life that not only means something now, but leaves a legacy of integrity for the future. ‘Slow living is an attractive proposition and, as the world continues to change, I think more and more people will be asking themselves what they want their life to stand for,’ adds Brooke McAlary. Slow living offers a way to work out the answer to that question, and gives us the tools we need to make it a reality.