How often are you driving while talking on a cell phone, or thinking about work problems, or the errands you have to do? How often do you eat without thinking about the food you’re eating? How often do you drift off while doing other things, thinking about something you messed up on, or worrying about something that’s coming up? I would submit that most of us are elsewhere, much of the time, rather than in the here and now. If I could only give one word of advice to someone trying to find peace in an overwhelming and stressful and chaotic world, it would be this: simplify. But if I could give two more words of advice, they’d be: be present.
Focus On Now
There are three things we can think about: The past. Reliving things we messed up about. Being embarrassed about something we did. Wishing we could have something back that is gone. Living in memories of good times past. Being angry about things done to us. You get the idea. The future. Worrying about things we need to do later. Worrying about what might happen, or a big event coming up. Being anxious that things might go wrong, or that we might mess up. Hoping for something wonderful. Dreaming of great things to come. The present. What is happening right now, at this moment. What we are doing now. It is inevitable that we will think about all three. We cannot stop ourselves from thinking about the past or the future. However, with practice, we can focus on the present more than we already do.
But why should we do that? What’s wrong with focusing on the past or future? Nothing’s wrong with it. It isn’t wrong to think about past or future. However, there’s nothing we can do about things that have already happened, and worrying or agonizing about them doesn’t usually do us much good. I’d suggest analyzing what happened, learning from it, and moving on. It’s much healthier.
We also can’t control the future. It’s impossible. We can do things that will change the future, but they might change the future in ways we cannot anticipate. Or they might not change things at all. And the only thing we can do about the future is do something … now. In the present. So focusing on what we do now is the best way to improve the future. Not thinking about the future. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have goals or shouldn’t plan — but goals change. Plans change. We must be prepared for that change not by overplanning, but by being in the moment and rolling with the punches. There’s also the problem of missing the present. If we spend most of our time thinking about the past or future, we are missing life itself. It’s passing us by while we’re elsewhere. You can’t get the most out of life unless you learn to focus on being present, while things are happening. Thinking about your childhood, or your kid’s future, is useless if your kids’ childhood is passing by without you being there.
Benefits of Being in the Moment
I’ve noticed a ton of benefits from my increased focus on the present. Here are just a few to consider: Increased enjoyment. I find that I enjoy life more if I’m present rather than having my mind elsewhere. Food tastes better, I have more fun with my family, even work becomes more enjoyable.
Reduced stress. Worrying about the past and future gives you stress. But being present is almost like meditation. There are no worries. There is just experiencing. Better relationships. When you really commit yourself to being with someone, to listening to them, you are being a better father, husband, friend, daughter, girlfriend. You have better conversations. You bond.
Get things done. I find that focusing on what I’m doing, rather than trying to multitask or multithink a million different things at once, I actually complete what I’m doing, do a better job on it, and get it done faster. I don’t necessarily do more, but I get things done. Focus tends to get things done, in my experience, and when your focus is split among a lot of things, it is less powerful.
The Magic of Flow
There’s a concept called Flow that’s been pretty popular among productivity circles in the last couple of years. I’m a big fan of it myself. In a nutshell, it’s basically losing yourself in whatever you’re doing — reaching that magical zone where you forget about the outside world and are completely doing what you’re doing, whether that’s writing or drawing or coding or whatever.
It’s a wonderfully productive zone to be in, and a state that also, incidentally, makes you happier. Productive and happier at the same time. Hard to beat that. However, it can’t happen if you’re switching between tasks or thinking about the past or the future. It basically happens when you are in the present. So practicing being present will help you get to flow, which makes you happier and more productive. Best argument yet for being present, perhaps.
There’s no single method that will get you better at being present. I don’t have the magical formula, except one word that when you’re learning anything or striving to be better at anything: practice. You won’t be good at it at first, most likely. Your mind will wander, or you’ll do a lot of “meta-thinking”, which is just thinking about what you’re thinking, and whether you’re thinking it the right way, and whether there is a right way … and so on, until you’re no longer in the present. That’s normal. We all do that, I think.
Don’t beat yourself up about that. Don’t get discouraged. Just practice. So what’s the magical method for learning to be present? Practice. You do it in the morning. You practice it while eating lunch. You do it with your evening jog or walk. You do it while washing dishes after dinner. Every opportunity you get, practice. And you’ll get better. I promise.