You know that feeling when you have more things to do than you have time? Sure, you take a deep breath and charge forward. But sadly, many of us have become accustomed to plowing through our day and to-do lists in this way, with a heaviness and exhaustion to it. Or just going-going-going like the Energizer Bunny. Such a pattern is much more about the “doing” or the accomplishing than it is about the “being” or the process.
I remember a story told by Tal Ben-Shahar PhD, author and international speaker on the study of happiness, during my Positive Psychology studies with him. He shared an anecdote about a dear friend of his (I’ll call her Sara) having an epiphany. She is a full-time working mother of two and a part-time professional singer in the evenings. Needless to say, her plate is full.
One evening as Sara was bathing her children, she was completely absorbed with thoughts of all she had left to do before leaving for her singing engagement later that evening. She was washing her children robotically, using her muscle memory to perform the necessary steps to get the task done. Meanwhile, the kids were having a great time giggling and splashing and blowing soap bubbles at each other. Sara was so preoccupied thinking about her upcoming tasks that she missed the joy and play of her children… she missed the moment. She was physically there, doing what needed to be done, yet she was certainly not present.
Suddenly Sara had a realization that caused queasiness in her stomach and took her breath away: If she wasn’t present in the moment, participating in a conscious way, she was missing NOW and missing the future MEMORY of the moment. This is a powerful thought. Let’s unpack it a bit.
When the conversation moves to the concept of being present, sometimes people roll their eyes feeling it’s a bit too “out there,” a bit too New Age. After all, where else is there but the present? The present is all we have; it’s where we live our lives. This is certainly true, yet it is also true that there are different ways we can “be” in the here and now, different ways of being present. This state of “being” is what I want to explore some more.
Many of us live in a state of scarcity, living with a sense that there is never enough time. We feel like hamsters on a wheel, running constantly and seemingly getting nowhere. This feeling of scarcity is not a pleasant feeling because it doesn’t support a sense of well-being or contentment; rather, it fosters feelings of anxiety, helplessness and discontent. And when we are feeling so anxious it is difficult to experience the present activity as anything other than a time to get through. If we can just get things done, get beyond this busy time, then_____ (fill in the blank). We look to the future for our calmness and contentment.
The problem with this way of living is that as we are rushing from one task to the next, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that life is happening here and now. Memories we will enjoy in the future are made when we are paying attention, noticing our surroundings, using our senses and feeling our emotions. We are not savoring current feelings, appreciating the moment, and making memories when we are so preoccupied with what is next or proudly and skillfully multitasking. We need focus on our current state to experience it fully and make a positive imprint in our mind.
So how can we achieve this presence and still be productive? Here are a few ideas:
Take 3 Deep Breaths. Thomas Crum in his book Three Deep Breaths: Finding Power and Purpose in a Stressed-Out World suggests a breathing technique and explains the science supporting its impact. He writes the Three Deep Breaths technique is a mind-body process that allows us to achieve a balancing of our autonomic nervous system through the breath. Mindful breathing grounds us and keeps us focused on the present. We all have time to stop and focus on our breath; it literally takes a few moments.
Prioritize Moments of Joy in each day. Author Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” We somehow believe the big days, the big moments, are what bring us happiness. Yet studies show it is not the intensity of our positive experiences that really matters; it is the frequency of positive experiences. Tim Urban, author of the blog Wait But Why, captures this concept well: “it is the joy you find on hundreds of forgettable Wednesdays.”
Our lives are made up of simple days, days of routine tasks and responsibilities, and we don’t need to change that. We only need to remember to make the most of those routine moments by consciously choosing to find enjoyment in what we are doing…. NOW. If you love the outdoors, make it a point to spend fifteen minutes outside each day. If connection brings you joy, call your best friend for a few minutes just to say hello. Give your child a hug and hold it for a minute.
Write Three Good Things. Similar to creating a daily gratitude practice, writing three good things that happened during your day is a wonderful way to wind down. Reflect on moments that were pleasant: a kind gesture someone made towards you, your delicious lunch, a call from a friend… you get the idea. These are not three big things; they are the simple experiences that happen every day. Writing them down helps us learn to notice them and makes us conscious that amidst our time pressures and sometimes chaos are happy moments.
I hope you will try these steps—breathe, prioritize and reflect—over the next month, keeping in mind that it takes a while to turn novel actions into habits (experts say at least 21-30 days). Socrates was wrong when he said, “To know the good is to do the good.” Understanding what is important for our well-being or what would be helpful is a necessary starting point, but it will not make a difference unless action is taken. We must practice steps daily, repeatedly, to help hone our awareness and change our brain’s neural pathways. In this case, we must “do” in order to “be.”
Here’s hoping you will give yourself the present of presence.