Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. – Eckhart Tolle
“I wish I could be more present.”
I find myself thinking this on and off throughout the day.
I find myself thinking this when I get lost thinking about the worst case scenarios that could snowball into reality with the slightest provocation. I often feel scatter-brained and anxious. I realize the anxiety I feel is due to my own run-away thoughts, yet I often feel helpless to stop them.
Studies show that mindfulness and savoring the moment are distinct predictors of emotion well-being and health. In fact, there are quite a few studies that explore this. But why is this?
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” – Mark Twain
The mind is often it’s own worst enemy. Human beings have the most developed and complex brain in the animal kingdom. This same organ that allows abstract thought, forward planning, and complex social structures also gives us anxious thoughts, feelings of inadequacy, and an often cruel sense of imagination. The mind and how we perceive and react to events truly are the source of our own negative feelings and unhappiness. Less time spent worrying about hypothetical scenarios would make us happier. There is power in separating from the imaginary stories and world we build for ourselves. However, taking the step away from anxious thoughts to becoming more present is a difficult step to take.
Personally, I am often overcome by anxiety and particularly by social anxiety. This has intensified and lessened at different points in my life, but in my mid-to-late twenties it had reached an all-time high. I moved to a foreign country alone, I started freelancing, and came face-to-face with the uncertainties and difficulties of an early professional vying to become established.
The exact sequence of events that led me to embrace mindfulness is murky, but I do know that it was birthed by necessity. After a long winter in corona lockdown in Seoul Korea, I was faced with a brutal gauntlet of challenging freelance work and finishing the contract of my teaching job. The freelance job required me to give difficult weekly video consultations and I felt way out of my league. My teaching job was almost finished, but I couldn’t leave early due to visa reasons. I had to buckle down and work 10-hour days including weekends throughout the month after an already taxing winter season.
My thoughts and anxiety went through the roof. My unconscious impulse to reach for my phone increased to near neurotic levels and my thoughts become increasingly negative. I knew I had to do something and luckily something new fell into my lap.
I first started by turning off my phone at night. This was a game changer. Suddenly I had time to clear my head and think about my day. This provided the first little bit of space I needed to give myself. After shutting off my phone, sometimes I would watch a bit of Netflix before bed. And it was on that Netflix homepage that I saw a new series called “Headspace Guide to Meditation” was released. This isn’t an advert for Head Space, but this cute, animated mini-series was my introduction to meditation and meditation later became oh so important for me.
I had heard of and even tried meditation before, but for whatever reason it never clicked. Maybe I was trying too hard or maybe I just wasn’t ready, but for some inexplicable reason, this time around the moment was right. I gave meditation a try.
And I liked it.
I liked how it felt like a breathe of fresh air. Like a much-needed rest after a long day of chasing my own thoughts.
And somehow, using meditation, my overall mental well-being improved during one of the most challenging months of my life. This was remarkable. Additionally, one more thing happened. I stopped watching porn.
For better or worse porn had been my go-to stress coping mechanism. I had tried to quit watching porn so many times and for so many reasons, but I was never successful. Yet, when I could finally replace it with a different stress-relieving technique, suddenly quitting became effortless and natural. As of writing this article, I haven’t watched any hardcore pornography for 5 months and honestly feel no urge to. I am actually extremely proud of myself for this.
I also performed exceptionally well professionally during this tough stretch. I reached out and connected with friend much more often that I thought I would. I did good data analytic work and was commended by my clients. I also actually started doing my home workouts regularly again, though this was a habit I’ve built up before so it’s not entirely new.
So what happened? How did this work?
Well, ostensibly, I was learning how to meditate, but really I was learning how to be present. I was learning how to be mindful. And this mindfulness kind of snowballed into my taking more attention to what I was presently doing. Then being more present made me more productive and focusing on one thing at a time helped my brain feel clearer. I felt better prepared to engage with the world around me.
We know mindfulness and savoring the moment are scientifically proven to be linked to emotional health and psychological well-being. Don’t believe me? Well here’s some links to a few of the numerous studies conducted on the matter.
- The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being
- Meta-analytic evidence for effects of mindfulness training on dimensions of self-reported dispositional mindfulness
- Appreciating Life in the Midst of Adversity: Savoring in Relation to Mindfulness, Reappraisal, and Meaning
These links might be a bit hard to read so let’s just skip to my personal experience. So what did I do that worked? How was I able to improve my mental health in a stressful situation? What are some actionable things that you can do to be more present and be more mindful?
This is the big one for me and is equivalent to exercising your mindfulness muscles. I think the healthiest way to start meditation is to view it as a muscle to be exercised. How would you start to use a muscle that has been left to atrophy for years? Very gently and very slowly of course.
If you can view meditation as something you want to learn and improve on, you’ll find success. The simplest way to start is to follow a YouTube guide or even start with Headspace as I did. I cannot recommend the Netflix series “Headspace: Guide to Meditation” enough. It explains a lot of the science behind meditation and goes through some of the basic techniques all while being cute and artfully animated.
Even mediating only 3 minutes every other day is a great start. Remember as with all habits, start small. Momentum will build naturally. And as you begin to do these meditations, I think you’ll notice how that meditative mind state will bleed over into your regular life. This will make you more aware of your thoughts and reactions throughout the day and more ready to act on them from a calm, non-reactionary place. You need to actually do this if you want to start seeing changes in your day to day mindset.
2. Do Things More Slowly
I remember Dr. Lewis vividly.
His nonchalant pace and his meandering speech was equally charming and frustrating. He was a graduate Engineering professor who championed the idea of doing things slowly. He always told us it’s faster to do something once slowly, then having to go back and fix your mistakes. Measure twice, cut once.
As impatient as I was and still am, Dr. Lewis’ advice comes to mind more often than I’d like to admit.
When I began freelancing, I would be overjoyed with a new contract and would immediately jump into the programming and start pulling data without first writing out the steps involved. I would inevitably get ahead of myself and have to go back or get caught multitasking to the point of hurting my productivity. I would easily become scatter-brained and this impacted not only on my productivity, but also my anxiety.
However, I started to always plan out my steps for each project and for each workday. Then I go through each step one by one, focusing on what I am presently doing. I try to keep my thoughts from moving onto what I will do later, and from wandering too much. This leaves my mind feeling fresh and less scattered. I also typically have the satisfaction of a job well done.
So what can we do?
Well, focus one task at a time and do each task more slowly and deliberately for one.
Plan out and understand the process of what you need to do. Then once you have a clear understanding of each step, begin with step one. Try to really immerse yourself in each part of your workflow and keep your thoughts focused.
Naturally this comes with a caveat. If you work in a fast paced industry this is a non-starter. However most white collar jobs, creative occupations, and even some service industry jobs would benefit from slowing down just enough to be present in what you’re doing. This can improve your performance and even induce some known as “flow” states. These states are characterized by full immersion in a task that is accompanied by intense enjoyment. Mindfulness can help take you there.
3. Turn Off Your Phone
If you’re anything like me, you use your phone a lot.
And when I’m on my phone, I engage with a ton of information, images, and videos on all different topics. I browse reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and watch YouTube not to mention the messaging apps I use.
It’s so easy to get caught up with constantly picking up my phone and cycling through each of the apps I listed until I get to the point where I’ve reloaded the Facebook homepage at least 20 times. This is not an exaggeration. I believe that my phone and all of the immediate, bite-sized content I consume takes me away from being present more than anything during my normal work day.
I pull up the news and suddenly I am angry and bothered by what protesters and counter-protesters have down to provoke each other. Or I open Facebook and suddenly I am viewing and commenting on pictures from my friend’s honeymoon on the other side of the world. I feel jealous that I can’t take a vacation right now and I’m stuck in my office job. There is just so much emotionally provocative content immediately available, and it all takes me away from the here and now. It takes me away from the immediate experience of myself and the world directly in front of me.
So what can we do?
Well, luckily we can simply turn off our devices. We can unplug.
Nothing quite makes me as aware to how often I reach for my phone as simply turning it off does. I will mindlessly pick up my phone and try to navigate using the blank screen before realizing that I turned it off. I was startled to see how often I unconsciously reach for my phone, but turning it off really helped me step away from that behavior.
Nothing helps my mind recuperate as much as time aware from the onslaught of information, funny videos, and messaging and I believe turning off your phone for a hour or two a day can give you immediate mindfulness benefits and help you be more present.
Again there is a small caveat here that sometimes you need your phone on to be available for emergencies. For instance, if you have a family or elderly parents you might feel better knowing you’re available.
But I believe most of us can find an hour or two during the day to shut of your phone, and I promise your mental health will thank you for it. I don’t always do this before bed, but sometimes shut it off during day. I am particularly fond of shutting off my phone during the day or night during the weekend.
So what can we do? The best three habits I can recommend are meditation, slowing down your work process, and turning off your phone. These behaviors will help you become more present and mindful. And maybe today, start by taking an extra second to savor and enjoy that first sip of coffee. Or stop for an extra moment to linger in a beautiful stretch of your morning commute. Or maybe even stop at your front door and admire the outside of your apartment or home, no matter how drear it seems. It really doesn’t take much, but for me and hopefully for you too, improved psychological well-being is truly only a moment away.