Best-Selling Author Nikki Gemmell On Why Being Quiet in a Modern World is So Important

“About 18 months ago I realised that a lack of quietude in my life was making me sick. I was becoming shouty mum – the woman I didn’t like – under the weight of four kids and a full time job. I could not clear my head of noise; at 3am I was waking to run through lists of things I had to do the next day. I was drowning in busy-ness and noise.” Best-selling author Nikki Gemmell on her quest to find silence amongst a world filled with noise.

Her latest book, On Quiet, takes a deeper look at how the noise of modern day living is impacting more than just our stress levels, with incessant calls, messages, social media, traffic and children playing havoc with the stillness and tranquillity we so desperately need. In short, this is a pint-sized read that packs a punch when it comes to practical and mindful solutions to exist simply and quietly. 
We caught up with Nikki to see how she manages to balance moments of quiet with four children and a successful career, why less is more when it comes to socialising and friendships and how a simple hotel safe transformed the way her family approaches screen-time and technology… 

Why do we all need quiet in our lives right now?

Stillness and silence – a recalibrating stopping – seem antithetical to how we live now. Our cities in particular are an agitation of the soul. We all need the medicine of quiet, to replenish ourselves.

Modern-day living is shouty, with everything from technology and traffic impacting our lives. How do we avoid these noises without entirely removing ourselves from them?

By putting the screens down more often. By finding places now and then with no mobile and internet coverage – if we could possibly bear to. To cleanse ourselves of the noise of modern living. The cram of noise in our heads.

You refer to quiet as medicine in your book because “noise is making me sick - the noise of the city; of motherhood; of work stress . Of school runs and commuters and people endlessly asking things from me, depleting me, because I am not very good at saying no.” When did you realise that noise was affecting your health and wellbeing?

About 18 months ago I realised that a lack of quietude in my life was making me sick. I was becoming shouty mum – the woman I didn’t like – under the weight of four kids and a full time job. I could not clear my head of noise; at 3am I was waking to run through lists of things I had to do the next day. I was drowning in busy-ness and noise.

Mothers in particular are affected by a lot of noise day to day - kids, home, pressure, work - how can they break this cycle? Is it possible to do so when support is not in reach?

By gleaning some me-time, hopefully every day. I do it while my kids are all at school. And sometimes I have sneaky afternoon naps to replenish. Sometimes I go away by myself, too, on writing breaks. They may be a few days or a week, and they feel like a huge guilty luxury, but my husband is happy for me to go because I come back a calmer, better mother. I get agitated if I can’t do the thing I want to do more than anything in the world – write – so I need to find time in my life to do it.

How do you make quiet in your own life as a mother of four children - do you schedule in regular quiet time? Do you meditate? Have a digital detox?

I wish I meditated or did yoga! But time on that is time taken away from writing. I walk the dog in the morning which is refreshing and soul-cleansing. It’s a familiar path but every day feels differently beautiful. It makes my soul sing. And I pack up completely at about 9pm. After the kids are all in bed I unfurl in my own bed with newspapers and magazines on my iPad. It’s my nightly joy, other people’s words and lives.  I have no social life, I only reluctantly go out now as I only have room in my world for family and work. Everything else exhausts me.

You speak about limiting screens at home and threatening to lock devices in a safe when necessary - how do your children react to this and how has it impacted your family dynamic?

I bought a safe for all the blasted screens after we went on a holiday and there was a hotel room safe. In desperation I locked away all the children’s devices because I was so sick of seeing them, and wanted an old fashioned holiday. It worked a treat. The kids were less squabbly; calmer and more collaborative and creative. So when I got home I marched down to Officeworks and bought a safe. It’s transformed my life. My entire parenting technique is about bribery and negotiation – the safe aids and abets me with this. It brings wonder and curiosity into my kids’ lives, because it forces them to open their faces to the world.  

Mothers often over-schedule themselves socially in order to get back some “me-time” and indulge in some much needed adult conversation, but you’ve scaled that right back. How do you approach friendships and social engagements now?

I have distilled my friendships to a core group (well, several) of beloved women. Old colleagues, old school mates, neighbours etc. It’s all I need. I am greatly nourished and replenished by female friendship; they’re my medicine. But we are all careful not to make too many demands on each other, because we are crazy busy with jobs and kids and elderly parents etc. Sometimes we will go away together, or go interstate op shopping (I did this recently, 9 women and a mini bus in the Adelaide Hills. Bliss.) But saying that, I love a clean, clear week in my diary. It makes my heart sing.  

Does being quiet also include having less around you - material objects and clutter can often cause a lot of chaos physically and emotionally?

God no. It’s my greatest sin. Collecting. I cannot pass a junk/antique shop without checking it out.

Why do you think we do have so much noise in our lives right now? Is there an element of competitiveness to it - keeping up with people and places and things constantly?

I think you grow out of that after a certain age. Learn the power of saying no. Especially as a woman. We stop being pleasers, yes people. It’s magnificently liberating. The lionesses finally learn to roar. With a big “no. Enough. Leave me be.”

What’s the first thing you do when you have a moment of quiet?

Sleep. I can sleep anywhere after 18 years of interrupted child-crammed sleeps. Or quite possibly eat chocolate. Generally, unfurl. And that’s when creativity comes. Alone, in the blissful solitude. It feels fabulous.