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12 Simple Ways to Be Present
Editor’s note: I recorded this for the Productive Flourishing podcast long after I originally published this post. I hope you enjoy it.
Learning to be present cures a lot of ills and prevents them from happening in the first place. (Tweet this) Frustration, anxiety, regret, and worry often come about because we're consumed by thinking about the past or the future. Past-focused thinking anchors onto what we coulda/shoulda/mighta done, whereas future-focused thinking latches onto worries and fears of uncertainty. But we can't change the past, and as Thomas Jefferson remarked, "How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened." As with meditation, there are more ways to be present than by lighting incense and sitting in the lotus position. This post explores other ways of bringing yourself back to where you are in this moment, and (gasp!) some of them may actually be things you want to do. I have these ordered by how simple they are to do. Items earlier on the list are things you can do pretty easily and won't require any major disruption to your work or whatever flow you're in. Items further down on the list require a little more effort but also will likely have a bigger presence payoff. As I mentioned in 21 Ways to Quickly Short-Circuit a Funk, look for ways that you can stack these tips. For instance, "step away from all electronics," "get some nature therapy," and "play with kids and animals" all go really well together. "Play with kids and animals" and "take a meditation moment," not so much.
1. Drink Water
My military trainers apparently went to the same school of life as my football coaches, because for anything that ailed you, the instruction was always “drink water.” Headache? Drink water. Sprained ankle? Drink water. Homesick? Drink water. Nervous? Drink water. Confused? Drink water. Sore? Drink water. Hungry? Drink water. Hot? Drink water. Cold? Drink water. As asinine as it may seem, they were right. For every one of the items above, drinking water has a positive effect, but I’m going to focus on emotional states like being homesick. Drinking water works because:
it makes sure your emotional state isn’t a reflection of your being dehydrated
it makes you slow down and breathe
it gets you to take a mini-break from whatever external situation you’re in
So I’ll just join my lineage of coaches and trainers. Want to be more present? Drink water. (20 ounces / .5L is a good guide.)
2. Breathe Deeply
Speaking of my lineage, there's a technique known as combat breathing that has you breathe in while counting to 4, hold for 4 counts, and breathe out for 4 counts. Repeat for 3--5 breaths. The technique is used by athletes, first responders, police officers, soldiers, and other people in high-stress environments. You don't need to be under fire to be in a high-stress environment, and there's no need to reserve a perfectly good presence technique for only when you're in a high-stress situation. You can use the technique between every email you send or perhaps after doing 10 minutes of email processing. Or maybe it's between meetings. Or during meetings when you're not talking. Again, the trick here is that it's hard to do it without being present, so it makes for a great way to slide into being present.
3. Wiggle Your Toes
Seriously. Our toes are anomalies from the rest of our bodies, for they're one of the movable parts of our bodies that we don’t reflexively move or incorporate into the rest of our motion or lack thereof. Our toes are just there, not moving. Rather than over-thinking this one, trust me and do the following:
Scrunch your toes up to make a toe fist
Stretch them out
Focus on moving your big toes without moving the rest of them
Now do whatever feels right for your toes
Did you notice that you couldn't really think about anything else while you were actively moving your toes? You might also be noticing other parts of your body. The great thing about wiggling your toes is that you can do it in social situations and no one will notice. I've had breathing and toe-wiggling in my grab-bag of responses to social stress for years now -- so much so that I almost forgot to include them here. Toe-wiggling is also a reminder for me about the love, presence, support, gratitude, and forgiveness that are available to me if I were only to be present to and activate them. The fact that those reminders are tied to something as silly as toe-wiggling reinforces my experience that spiritual insight comes from being silly and joyful as much as from being "focused" on doing my inner work.
No list like this would be complete without including stretching. A stiff, constricted body leads to anxiety, and it's hard to be present when you're anxious. William James remarked that "we don't smile because we're happy; we're happy because we smile." His insight was that we can use our bodies to create moods. Stretching helps us be present in the same way that smiling helps us be happy. Why? Our "fight or flight" response is triggered not just by outside stressors but also when our bodies are tense. This response can lead to a feedback loop whereby we're anxious because our bodies are tense and we're tense because we're anxious. Stretching short-circuits this loop, so we're more likely to be present. Aside from the general relaxing of your body, focused stretching also incorporates breathing deeply.
5. Take a Meditation Moment
As I discussed with Susan Piver in Demystifying Meditation, there are some misunderstandings about meditation that prevent a lot of people from benefiting from it. Chief among those are that it's something that requires a lot of time to do and that people just don't know how to meditate because they believe there's some particular way it must be done. That said, I know it can be hard to sit somewhere for 5--10 minutes with your own thoughts. If you don't have a meditation practice, I highly recommend using Insight Timer because it has guided meditations of varying lengths. Tara Brach's "Gateway to Presence" guided meditation is 10.5 minutes long and, while short for my normal practice, is great for taking a meditation moment. (Her other meditations are quite good, too.) Susan also shares a new 10-minute meditation every week in her Open Heart Project and you get access to the last four of them, so just follow along every week and save your favorites on your computer or phone so you have some go-to, accessible meditations at the ready when you want to take a meditation moment and be present.
6. Take a Jam Break
Have you ever been belting out your favorite song in the shower or in the car and realized that for the last 45 seconds, you were 100% in the moment? Or have you busted a move because you simply could not not-move while listening to that song, only to realize that you've been dancing in front of strangers? It's good stuff, embarrassment aside. Let's be intentional about it, though. Depending on where you work, cranking up the music and dancing may not be an option, but some creative thinking and recon may illuminate places you can go to have a jam party. (If I could find safe jam spots while being deployed, I'm sure you can find safe jam spots in your environment.) Your jam break may include listening to music, singing, dancing, or playing an instrument. Bonus points if you can do all four. What's important here is that it's music that you really feel and it sinks you into that special place that only your favorite music can take you. For musicians, I'm not talking about practicing - I'm talking about playing. (You know the difference.) Whether it's one song or 10 minutes of jamming, it's a great way to be right in the music and in your body. And have fun while doing it.
7. Step Away from All Electronics (Including Your Phone)
You might think that it's just the notifications that are pulling you out of presence, but it's deeper than that. Given the ways that our brain works, when we touch tools, we start to reflexively do the activities that those tools help us do. Pick up a hammer and you start looking for things to hammer AND your arm is primed to do the hammering. Try this: touch your phone and pay attention to where your mind and fingers start to go. When I do this in live workshops or with my clients, most of them notice that they start reflexively thinking about checking stuff on their phone, and their fingers start moving to those apps. So, next time you're wanting to be present, step away from all electronics (including your phone) so that you're not priming your mind and body to do all of the activities that are probably what's keeping you from being present in the first place. You might be wondering how you're going to keep track of time. Consider getting a for-real watch so you're not tied to your phone. You might also consider getting an iPod Nano or a Fitbit, which help you listen to music or exercise (respectively). They're much better servants without the chance of becoming your master like smartphones are. (When's the last time you wanted someone to look up from their watch to have a conversation with you or had to practice not looking at your watch at the dinner table?)
8. Shut Off All But Critical Notifications from Your Devices
I mentioned notifications above, so let's wrap back around. You've probably already heard tips about shutting off email notifications, and that's sound counsel. I want to take it a step further and think about all notifications from all of your devices. I'll start with a question: does knowing that someone just liked your Instagram photo or Facebook post really nourish you? Does it matter in a deep way? If not, then why get the notification that will pull you out of being in the present? Same with emails. The fear keeping us tied to email is that we'll miss something important. The truth is that being tied to email means we're missing out on something even more important -- ourselves and the mundane magic right in front of us. Try removing all but critical notifications from your devices for a week. If you don't like it, go back. If you miss something really important that could not wait until you looked for it, go back. But take that week to come back to yourself. Quick tip: if you use a Mac and an iPhone, create a "DND Passthrough" (DND = Do Not Disturb) list in Contacts on your computer and add people who you always want to be able to reach you. On your iPhone, go to Settings > Do Not Disturb > Allow Calls from [DND Passthrough]. Now you can leave your phone on Do Not Disturb without worrying that you'll miss calls and texts from your kids, family, friends, and others who you want to always pick up the phone for. Then batch-process your voicemails and texts just as you would your email. (I'm sure other phones can do this, but I'm not sure how because it's not the tech I use.)
9. Get Some Nature Therapy
There's a growing body of scientific literature that's showing a correlation between happiness and getting outside. For instance, in "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature," the authors state that "[their] experiments demonstrate the restorative value of nature as a vehicle to improve cognitive functioning." Their hypothesis is that the types of stimuli that exist in nature focus our attention in ways that relieve stress, whereas the types of stimuli that exist in urban environments tend to induce stress responses. More simply put, interacting with nature allows our minds to restore and replenish. In a similar vein, the authors of "Environmental Preferences and Restoration: (How) Are They Related?" show that viewing natural environments made people feel better and concentrate better than viewing built environments. Yes, it takes some effort to get out of your house, car, office, and stores, but it's worth it. The constant buzzing, whirring, honking, and concrete mazes of modern existence take their toll on us.
10. Play with Kids and Pets
Aside from the exercise components and the way they get us to unplug, there's another really good reason to play with kids and pets: they fire up our oxytocin factories. Oxytocin -- sometimes called "the love hormone" or "the bonding hormone" -- is a key hormone that promotes trust, relaxation, and happiness in humans. For instance, the authors of "Oxytocin-gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds" show that merely gazing at dogs increased oxytocin levels in their subjects. Many activities with children releases oxytocin as well. While being happier and more trusting are good things, you might be wondering how they help you be present. One theory posits that oxytocin causes us to pay closer attention to socially relevant stimuli -- in short, it helps us be present with the people we're with. Note: If having kids and pets isn't in the cards for you now or ever, you don't have to miss out on the oxytocin fun. Parents need some adult time and, in my experience, are quite happy to have unpaid sitters to get it. Borrow your neighbor's dog. Watch their cats. As every great uncle and aunt knows, you get to have a lot of fun and turn over the kids and pets to their real parents at the end of the day. Everybody wins! :p
11. Declutter Your Space
Clutter affects us in two ways: 1) it forces our brain to chunk clutter areas into one unified mass (to make sense of it), and 2) it reminds us of unfinished business. The stacks of papers, books, random wires in the closet, and other miscellania tug at us more than we think they will. Even when we close the closet door, we know the stuff is there, waiting for us. It's hard to be present in a cluttered space. One of the reasons many people have to leave their houses to actually think and reflect is that all of their unprocessed stuff is at their house and they can't think with it all there. If you want to explore decluttering without diving too deep, check out Joshua Becker's The Simple Guide to a Clutter-Free Home. You don't have to be a minimalist to benefit from decluttering, but I've found that the less excess stuff I have, the more I'm able to be present with the stuff that really matters.
12. Ask "What Really Matters Now?"
While we're on the subject of clutter, consider your cluttered To-Do list. One great way to thwart your ability to be present is to be overwhelmed by everything you have to do right now. I've worked with hundreds of people with their goal-setting, planning, and To-Do list-making, and I've rarely come across a "clean" list that's focused only on what really matters to the person right then. Usually, it's a hodge-podge of want-to's, need-to's, shoulds, might-do's, and need-to-think-abouts. Throw in the tasks related to projects that are effectively dead and you get a cluttered, unfinishable, crazy-making list. Sometimes the best thing that you can do to be present is step away from the list and ask "what really matters now?" Here's how I suggest going about this:
Grab two clean pieces of paper or notecards.
Step away from your desk or working area.
Ask yourself "what really matters now?" without looking at your To-Do list.
Write down whatever comes up.
For each item on the list you just made, ask yourself "does this really matter right now?" Scratch through any items that don't get a resonant yes from you.
Transfer the remaining items to the other piece of paper.
If nothing is time-sensitive for the next 30 minutes, do something else on this list. (Make sure to look at your calendar first.)
Come back, look at the list you made just before leaving, and work on whatever matters most. If you do this at the end of the day when you're really just looking at the screen and clicking buttons, consider not coming back at all.
To be clear, time-sensitive, important stuff on your list can matter. Important stuff that isn't necessarily due today can matter, too. Many people find that when they get grounded in what really needs to happen now, there really aren't that many things that have to get done right now or at all. Remember: eliminating things from your list is a better strategy than learning a way to organize stuff on your list.
Any Presence Practice Will Work
If you're wondering which of the tips above are right for you, I have some very good news for you: any would be right for you. You can't go wrong with any of them AND some are more simple for you to do right now. So, pick whichever tip most calls to you that you know you can do right now and go from there. Over to you: do you have any tips or go-to practices that help you be present? I'd love to hear about them so I can explore them, too. :) PRODUCTIVE FLOURISHING