You feel like you’re always moving, you’re constantly obsessing, you have never-ending to-do lists. Oh, to be able to slow down, be more laid-back and less driven without having to get stoned or drunk.
You can. Generally, there are two sources for your too-driven life: anxiety and going on auto-pilot. Anxiety is the constant looking ahead to the future, the what-ifs, the worries that propel you endlessly forward and keep you from appreciating the present.
Autopilot is when you’re doing what you do because you do it. Your habits and routines and the demands of others remove any conscious decision-making. Instead, you go on autopilot.
Time to slow it down? Here are some tips to help you regain control and move at a better pace:
1. Have a vision
Before actively embarking on this new adventure, step back and think about how you ideally would like your everyday pace of life to be different. Maybe less hectic overall, feeling less anxious, building in time during the day for you to just take a breather or some quiet time by yourself. Or something even more simple, like being able to stand in a line without getting irritated.
Your vision can help you set some goals that are important to you, can help you set new priorities to replace your old, all-too-familiar ones.
2. Be aware of when you are going on autopilot
I know, you’re probably already aware of the built-in challenge here: You need to slow down enough to be aware that you’re not slowing down. One way to do this is to check in with yourself, say, every hour. How are you feeling? How is your pace? Can you take a few deep breaths, can you slow down what you are doing? Do you need a short break?
By simply asking yourself these questions, you are stepping out of that unconscious action, becoming more aware of the moment, more aware of you and what you need right now.
3. Focus on wants, not shoulds
This is a big, important one. Shoulds are the rules, the expectations laid out by that parent, schoolmarm, or drill sergeant in our heads who is constantly wagging its finger, telling us to go, go, go, be efficient, get things done, no slacking for you. Success is measured by how much you get done, by how much you please others.
Time to shut those voices down. What is getting lost in this way of living is what you want—learning to listen not to the shoulds, but to your gut reactions, your desires. This doesn’t mean you take off from work at 11:00 and head for the beach (though that might actually not be a bad idea), but more simply building into your decisions your own reactions and needs.
Here you may take a mental health day off from work, or allow yourself to go out for lunch rather than eating at your desk, or not spend four hours on Saturday cleaning your house or apartment, but go for a hike instead.
It is not about what you do, but learning to pay attention to those gut reactions and using them as information to tell you what you need, what’s missing from your life.
4. Practice saying no
This is about setting boundaries, which helps counter both the autopilot and the anxiety. Here you don’t automatically raise your hand when someone asks for a volunteer for the committee at work, or sign up to be the assistant coach for your kid’s soccer team. Instead, you bypass the shoulds and focus on your gut.
And even if you do go on autopilot, volunteer for the committee, and only realize later that this is not a good idea, go ahead and take the bold step of telling them you’ve changed your mind.
But expect to feel guilty and worried that someone is going to get upset. This is normal because you’ve broken some learned rule, but ride it out, pat yourself on the back for taking care of you.
5. Learn to delegate
This obviously ties into 3 and 4, but is also about managing anxiety through control. Some people have a hard time delegating to others because they are always stepping up and being the pleaser. But some have a hard time delegating because they are anxious that others aren’t going to do as good a job as themselves. They are perfectionistic, untrusting, need control.
The problem with this is that if you feel you and only you need to do it all, you’re always going to wind up having a lot on your plate and to-do list. Time to bring others into the mix, time to maybe lower some expectations, rearrange priorities, and sort out what’s really important and what is less so.
Like the guilt for saying no, anxiety will creep in if you let go a bit. That’s okay, a sign that you’re taking better care of yourself.
6. Be proactive rather than reactive
If you are always responding to others, always reacting to problems and situations coming at you, it’s easy to feel driven, because essentially these others and situations are setting your pace. Yes, this may be the nature of your job or your responsibilities as a parent, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have some control.
Here you want to practice being more proactive. Rather than seeing what comes at you, plan out in advance your own priorities—what you need to get done, for example, in the next week at work, or building in time for yourself when kids are taking a nap (and proactively get them to take a nap).
This planning in advance stops the autopilot, builds in wants and needs, and helps you set priorities to counter the everything-is-important stance that anxiety creates.
7. Explore ways of lowering your overall anxiety
Here you may want to consider practicing meditation, doing breathing exercises at regular intervals during the day, or seeing a therapist. This is about having tools to help you lower your anxiety threshold and get centered in the present.
8. Plan experiments
You don’t just do all-of-the-above nor just make this another item on your to-do list. Instead, you step back and proactively take small but significant baby steps towards reaching your vision.
Here you practice focusing on your breathing when you’re feeling impatient standing in line and tell yourself that this is a first-world problem, not the end of the world. Here you plot out on Thursday what you might want to do on Saturday rather than clean the house, or better yet experiment with allowing that Saturday to be completely want-driven, or deliberately doing everything on Saturday at half speed. Here you put on your calendar going out to lunch with a friend three times in one week rather than eating at your desk, and better yet, make it a leisurely lunch as well.
By setting up these experiments, you step out of your autopilot routines, practice moving at a different pace, build up your confidence in stepping outside your comfort zone, and begin to develop a lifestyle that you really want.
With practice, these will all become easier; your head will begin to slow down as your pace does; you’ll create a new normal and move towards becoming that more laid-back person you want to be.
But don’t rush to revamp yourself, don’t put it on your to-do list—that’s only doing more of the same. Instead, take a deep breath. Slowly changing is just fine.
About the Author:
Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., is the author of 11 books: Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression; Clinical Social Work Supervision: Process & Practice; Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners, now in second edition; Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice, now in its third edition and recently translated into Chinese and Portuguese; Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery; The Art of the First Session, Brief Therapy with Couples & Families in Crisis, and Process-Focused Therapy.
Bob has also published over 300 magazine and journal articles, and has contributed several book chapters, including Favorite Counseling Techniques: 55 Masters Share Their Secrets, which cited him among the top 100 therapists in the country. He served as teen advice columnist for Current Health, a contributing editor to Your Health and Fitness, and has received three national writing awards for Best Consumer Health Writing.
Bob is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina, and has served as adjunct professor at several universities. He provides trainings nationally and internationally in the areas of couple therapy, family therapy, brief therapy and clinical supervision. He is currently in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Bob can be reached through his website at bobtaibbi.com.
(This article originally appeared here.)