I got a watch for Christmas.
It does not text. It does not email. It does not count steps, measure sleep, play music or cook my dinner. This watch is so basic that it doesn’t even have numbers.
My watch does, however, serve several important functions. First, it’s cute. White band, black lines, orange hands telling me all I need to know: the time.
Second — product placement alert — it’s a Swatch, the Swiss company known for its whimsical watch designs that swept through 1980s Gen X childhoods. It’s a piece of nostalgia, connecting me to a simpler time when the only screens were TVs, when the only phones were tethered to cords and when I remember what it was like to be bored, read books and have nothing to do.
Most of all, my new Christmas watch saves a trip down the rabbit hole of today’s time keeper — a term literal in the sense that it keeps too much of our time — the phone. Check the time and — poof! — there went an hour. It disappeared in tweets and texts, in emojis and likes, its kaleidoscopic apps pulsating with urgent messages that seem to say: NOW! OVERDUE! ON FIRE!
I am resolving in this new year to follow the sage advice of everyone around me who keeps saying: Slow down. This stripped-down watch is a first step. Its limited functions will limit mine and, I’m hoping, ease the pedal on the gas.
Like diet, exercise and every other good intention at New Year’s, slowing down is much easier preached than practiced. Slow down? You take three kids in sports and music, a full-time job in a morphing industry of constant deadline, a house with toilets that don’t clean themselves, a dog that needs attention, a van that needs the same, a phone that provides both distraction and urgency and try to slow down.
The concept seems anathema in an age when what seems required is not brakes but speed.
There is a growing movement pushing against the idea that faster means smarter or better. You’ll find it in obvious places, like a yoga shop in Benson where yoga therapist Susi Amendola tells her heart patients and other clients to think of their bodies as computer systems that need “powering down.”
“We all have to power down just like our computers or we become frazzled,” she said. “Most of us don’t power down.”
And you might find the slow-down movement in the unlikeliest of places — a conference room at the online furniture retailer Hayneedle, where employees sometimes gather for lunchtime meditation, or a fraternity house room at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where a 20-year-old college sophomore is tuning out social media and most other phone distractions to focus on differential equations and his future.
“It’s my favorite topic,” said Leslie Jeffries, a 53-year-old managing editor at Hayneedle who said she tries to create mental space for herself by meditating for up to 20 minutes a day, keeping home clutter and décor to a minimum and even keeping her voice quiet.
She said cultivating more of an interior life has eased her anxiety and helped her physiologically, spiritually, emotionally — “everything,” she said. She holds certification in meditation and tries to incorporate simple aspects — such as deep breathing — into daily life.
“It’s amazing the cumulative effects,” she said. “To be able to relax is huge.”
What’s more, she believes it’s good for the workplace. From time to time, Jeffries has led voluntary meditation practices over the lunch hour at Hayneedle and will begin meetings by having people go around and share something good — something that brought them joy or for which they’re grateful.
Jeffries leads a team of senior editors who write the company’s blog, direct mail and high-level marketing pieces. Promotional emails that go out to nationwide need to “sing to our customers,” and words don’t write themselves. Jeffries knows that being creative requires some mental space. And that comes from slowing down.
Jeffries slows herself by limiting “that constant scrolling” on social media feeds, sticking to work-home boundaries and examining what the 24/7 on-call culture is about.
“I think we have to check ourselves and check our motivations,” she said. “Why are we madly responding and hitting ‘reply’? What are we afraid of?”
She does sometimes indulge in a little mindless screen time. “I look at cat pictures on my phone.”
I had to marvel at Jake Wietfeld’s ability to tune out — though let’s be honest, it sounds like his mother deserves the credit. The 20-year-old construction engineering major told me that growing up in North Bend, the five Wietfeld boys were not allowed to have their own cellphones until they turned 16 and even then “we had the dumb slide phones.”
He has a smartphone now but limits his use on it to the alarm, email and music functions. He shuns most social media, keeps his phone on silent in his pocket and face down on his desk. He’s pretty disciplined about sleep.
“I try to make it so tech is not running my life,” he said.
People have noticed. Teachers have told him he’s observant.
“If you step away from your phone you kind of get to be present in the situation you’re in,” he said. “Not only will it help you creativity-wise. It makes you a better thinker. I don’t know exactly how to word it. I like to scan the room I’m in. Sometimes I get lost just looking around the room.”
He’s onto something.
Amendola, the yoga therapist, suggests picking something — a thought, a memory, your breath — to use as an anchor for daily meditation. Activities can be as simple as conducting slow gentle movements with awareness at your desk, like just sitting there and moving your head from side to side.
Breathing is a big one since deep exhalations automatically calm down a heightened nervous system. When we’re busy, we inhale much and too quickly.
Meditation and mindfulness offer ways to step outside ourselves and let the mind rest. The result, she said, is more creativity, more productivity, more clarity and more focus.
It seems counterintuitive to step away from a long to-do list to relax, but Amendola said we’re better off for it — and so is our to-do list.
“We actually are more effective and more efficient when we’re doing a regular (meditation) practice. We get more done in less time,” she said. “When people get super busy they get less and less effective ... because they’re operating off adrenaline.” Adrenaline helps in a pinch but constant adrenaline over the long run leads to burnout and that can take months to recover from.
Amendola said finding stillness amid the storm of daily life is the goal.
She liked the idea of a watch, a simple device uncluttered with other things beckoning for our attention. And our time.
Like the kids on Christmas Day, I ripped that watch container open and strapped it on. It sure was pretty. And for most of Christmas Day, forgettable. Every time I wanted to know the time, I caught myself craning to look at the stove clock or find my phone. This slowing down thing, I’m learning, is going to take practice.