Cultivating a Slow Brain

When’s the last time you were actually bored? Do you feel the need to always have music or the TV on in the background? Is it hard to make yourself do boring tasks?

In the age of TikTok and YouTube, most of us agree with the above. With it comes anxiety and a lack of focus. I want to share the approach I’ve been taking to stay present, focus on the things that matter, and feel more calm. Let me show you how to cultivate a slow brain.

What is a slow brain?

I’ve been using the terms slow brain and fast brain to describe two different mental states.

Slow brain is a relaxed state where you’re able to sit with your thoughts or a dull task and don’t need constant stimulation.

Fast brain is the opposite. It’s when you keep your brain so stimulated with entertainment that less engaging tasks become impossible.

It’s like you’ve spent the day eating an entire chocolate cake, and then you try to eat some raw, unseasoned kale. Every bite from the cake lit up your taste buds and you ate so much your stomach is full. A challenging task just became impossible.

When I’m in fast brain mode, I’m constantly seeking dopamine. I’m spending hours each day on sites like YouTube and TikTok. As I walk around the house I feel the need to have something playing on my phone. I’m not alone with my thoughts because there’s always another voice drowning them out.

Slow brain is when I’m able to sit in silence, read a book, write in my journal, or wait at the doctor’s office without needing the distraction of my phone. It’s when I’m consciously in control of my actions. When I’m deciding to do things, rather than letting habits and algorithms take over.

Slow brain is not an inherent trait, but a kind of mental fitness. One hundred years ago we all had what I’d now consider a slow brain.

Why would I want a slow brain?

When you’re bored your brain doesn’t just shut down, but starts to wander. Some of the best fun as a kid came as a result of being bored and inventing a new game to solve our boredom.

The mental state of a fast brain is especially challenging if your job involves knowledge work. At my job I need to work alone for hours at a time, come up with my own ideas, and do challenging mental work.

Not only will you be able to focus on boring tasks, but you’ll enjoy things more. When you’re scrolling Twitter while watching TV, are you honestly enjoying either of those things? Having a slow brain helps you stay in the present and appreciate the moment you’re in.

How do you cultivate a slow brain?

Spend more time in a state of slow brain. Reduce your stimulation. Do one thing at a time.

Pick up slower tasks like reading, writing, and meditation. Go for walks without your headphones. Go for a silent drive.

Once a week I have to take a 45-minute drive, and I spend it talking out my thoughts or sitting in silence. It’s a big dose of slow brain time, and I generate some great ideas as a bonus.

Meditation is essentially slow brain training. You sit and focus on a single thing like the breath. Then for the duration of the meditation, you practice returning to that one point of focus. It’s simple but life changing.

Avoid devices that can lead to high stimulation. Reading is the only thing I can do on my Kindle. When reading on my iPad, I’m just a tap away from a big dose of dopamine.

Add some slow brain time to each day and after a couple days you’ll start to feel the difference.

Take small steps

I know that a lot of people keep their brains occupied for good reasons. Sometimes sitting with your thoughts can elicit negative emotions.

You can find small ways to lower your tolerance for entertainment. Instead of TikTok, try an audio book. A 30 second breathing meditation is a wonderful place to start.