In December — nine months into a deadly pandemic that obliterated travel, celebrations and extracurricular activities from calendars the world over — I found myself completely confused. Though my weekdays continued to be a brutal juggle work-wise, I had spent most of the pandemic with vast, largely empty weekends. Suddenly, I had three holiday invitations (two Zooms and one socially distanced pop-by event) on the same day. I actually said aloud: “Whoa, I don’t know if I can deal.”
Apparently, I couldn’t. I bailed on two of the three events. When it came to weekend calendaring, had the pandemic had made me soft? Or had I actually settled into a preferred way of being?
One of the biggest pain points I hear about from parents involves time. Time feels scarce, and schedules become bloated with activities and appointments that feel obligatory, annoying or unwanted. The pandemic served up the ultimate reset, recalibrating us all to a new, empty baseline.
At first, that line was deeply unsettling; the losses represented missed milestones and a lack of control. Yet, as time passed, many people reveled in the slower pace. Parents found relief in not having schedules packed and planned to the minute, and they delighted in experiencing simple joys such as family walks, meals together and game time.
“We are more rested, feel less stressed from the constant treadmill and are closer as a family,” says Jason Cochran, a dad of 11- and 9-year-old sons from Silver Spring, Md. “The running was killing us and exhausting us. I don’t want to go back to that, and want to find a way to stay slow without completely withdrawing from society.”
So how do we maintain a slower pace while others charge out of the gates, ready to do all the things? Erin Loechner, author of “Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path,” thinks there’s opportunity in this new challenge. “As we reintegrate into a changed society,” Loechner says, “can we maintain the steadiness of home when society encourages us to tether ourselves elsewhere? We’ve survived the pandemic of covid-19, but we have yet to conquer the pandemic of hurriedness. Now’s our chance to be deliberate in carving out a new, sustainable rhythm for ourselves and each other.”
As I discussed this story with my husband, Jonathan Baxter, a licensed mental health counselor and my co-host on the “Hello Relationships” podcast, he encouraged finding peace in the negative emotions associated with letting go of busyness. “While we want to recover some of those [pre-pandemic] experiences, maybe it’s a lesson that we don’t need as much activity as we thought we did. Maybe it’s okay to feel some disappointment in exchange for a calmer, more centered life.”
Although the concept of preserving a slower pace may seem daunting, there are simple actions we can take to help us get there.
Create a list
Make a list of the pros and cons of your life right now. This will offer a reference point as the tide of calendar requests begins to swell, and it may also provide space for multifaceted gratitude reflections. “The pandemic gave me an extra year with my 4-year-old son, because the schools shut down two weeks after he started preschool,” says Angela Kim, a mom in Los Angeles of kids ages 16, 14, 4 and 13 months who writes and podcasts at Mommy Diary. “Knowing how fast kids seem to grow once they start school, I feel grateful that we got extra time together at home, although I’m ready for him to go back now.”
Identify and establish boundaries to help preserve the pros you wrote on your list. Jessica Gorsuch of Atlanta, a single mom of two boys ages 14 and 11, is working actively to create flexibility and a better work-life balance moving forward. “I petitioned to be reclassed as a fully remote employee, and am currently integrating a co-working schedule into my day to avoid the inevitability of multitasking with my home responsibilities,” she says. “For me, the priority is to balance flexibility and structure with my work schedule to allow for self-care in the evenings, and on weekends, help me overcome the burnout that has plagued me since mid-pandemic, and allow me to keep up the momentum of my new style of parenting and connectivity with my boys.”
Make a slow choice
Loechner recommends being intentional about slow acts. “Do one thing a day that makes your home feel like less of an assembly line; for example, grind your coffee beans with a hand grinder, rather than just pushing the button on the fancy machine,” Loechner says. “While it might seem counterproductive to avoid streamlining the morning routine, there are so many studies that suggest working with your hands offers a slower, more meditative start to your day.”
Haemin Sunim, a Zen Buddhist teacher and author of “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm in a Busy World,” says his happiness is connected to doing things slowly and intentionally. “I can appreciate different aspects of each moment, and feel more connected to people and my surroundings,” he said.
Set up reminders
Time has a funny way of eroding our memory; set up reminders to help you remember to edit your schedule, especially at predictably busy times. A few years ago, after suffering through a particularly chaotic, overbooked back-to-school season that left me feeling grumpy and resentful, I put the following annual reminder in my to-do app for Aug. 1: Do not schedule extra stuff in September! Every August, when that reminder comes up, I laugh and remember to opt out of anything optional for September.
Schedule 'do-nothing' time
Build degrees of freedom into your calendar to help you slow down, and hold tight to those boundaries. “We tell our kids all the time that it’s okay to be bored for a while, that creativity comes on the other side of boredom,” Baxter says. “As busy adults, maybe we need to schedule some do-nothing time to allow ourselves the same process.” Cochran is already thinking about how to preserve open space. “One thought is to consolidate activities, so we aren’t doing something every night, or have one day where we do not schedule anything and try to keep some of the new traditions we started, such as evening walks, playing games and day trips exploring the region,” he says.
Preserve positive pandemic routines
For many parents, remote schooling meant looser schedules and room to experiment; embrace the routines that retain calm and foster independence. “I never realized how [stressful] our weekday morning routine was until we had to stop doing it,” says LaShawn Wiltz, a mother of an 11-year-old and an Atlanta writer and photographer whose work focuses on capturing everyday moments. “This past year, instead of rushing, there was time to talk a little, laugh more, and there has been no yelling, ‘We’re going to be late!’ I want to keep this slow morning routine even when my son finally goes back to school. I’m going to finally let him ride the bus and let him take control of being on time or not.”
Before the pandemic, calendar Tetris and multitasking were the name of the game for many families. We now have a unique opportunity to advocate for less instead of more; to tune in to what we care about; and to be intentional about our time. Sunim shared: “One of the greatest Zen masters was once asked by his student what the ultimate enlightenment experience was. His answer was that, ‘When you drink tea, just drink tea.’ That is it!”
Sometimes, the little things are the big things.
Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com and on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @drchristinekoh.