Being present is probably one of the hardest things for me to achieve. If I am not interested, wait no that’s not right... If I am not captivated by what I am doing, my mind drifts quickly and thousands of thoughts pour into my brain. My mind drifts into future mode and I think about what I’ll be eating for dinner, I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow, I plan my day of work, I think about what I should buy at the grocery store. Are we running out of milk yet? Did I cook enough chicken for all my lunches this week? Should we book the babysitter and go see a movie? Oh, what movies are currently in the theater? Should I go to the gym or run tomorrow morning? As I said, if I am not captivated by what I am doing, I am all over the place except in the moment. Being present is one of the hardest things for me to do.
The problem with not being present is that it means that I rarely enjoy the moment and I constantly feel like life is going by and I am missing out on it.
My mind is so easily distracted that when I think back on certain memories, I often remember more my thoughts at that moment than the actual events and then, I feel like I have been missing out on my own life. At the same time, I love to be distracted, to plan ahead, to think a thousand things at once as it allows me to be prepared for what comes next, be quick on my feet and to be honest, it has become a large part of my identity.
On normal days, I manage my struggles to be present well as when I am working, I tend to be in the moment more easily. I am always in the moment when I can hyperfocus and when I need to be in a deep concentration state. This I can achieve when I work, when I am in some meetings I find myself deeply invested in and when I write. That being said, when the weekend comes, I struggle with what’s called “weekend anxiety”, something I’ll write about in another post one day. But in short, it means I struggle to be present way more on weekends as I don’t have a rigid schedule and because I don’t have activities where deep focus or high concentration are needed. I will be honest, I love my children more than life but playing with my 2 and 4 years old doesn’t require deep focus and I struggle to be present with my family. My mind drifts, I think of a thousand things and then I find myself filled with anxiety because I am not present and because there is no structure. I end up in this vicious circle being annoyed at myself for being anxious and not enjoying being with my kids. Let’s be honest, no parent wants to spend time with their kids and be annoyed about it because their mind is all over the place except in the moment.
As summer holidays are coming and as vacation is like a very long extensive weekend, I am usually quite apprehensive about vacation as I know I will get anxious and I will struggle being in the moment. Yes I know, this sounds a little insane, but I do get apprehensive and anxious about holidays…
I don’t look forward to them as an opportunity to relax as I know I will feel the exact opposite. I'm sure someone else somewhere feels the same, but let’s be honest, who dares say they don’t like a vacation because they find it stressful...
Who dares say they don’t like a vacation because they find it stressful?
But enough is enough and I’d like to look forward to vacation like most other people I know. Therefore, I have finally decided a few weeks ago I would start training to learn to be in the moment so I can finally enjoy a vacation and enjoy playing with my kids without thinking about a million other things. As being present is something I find extremely hard to do if I am not hyper focused, I have decided to train my ability to be present, like a muscle, through repeated exercises hoping I will build the muscle memory needed to ease into being present more often.
I won’t scream victory yet, I am still in training and I realize now that I will probably always have to train to maintain this new ability that is not innate in me, but I am seeing progress. I know many people, including my wife, who never struggle being present as it is their natural state of mind. But I am sure I am not the only one struggling with this inability.
Therefore, I wanted to share that I am working on this in case it can help others with this unpleasant struggle.
If you are like me and struggle, here are the different exercises I have been practicing lately to learn to be in the moment. Maybe some can be useful to you too.
1. Constant reminder: the first and most important exercise I do is to constantly remind myself to be present. Sounds obvious and a little silly, but I will be honest, it is not easy. As soon as my brain drifts while I am playing with the kids, I take a breath and say “stay here” and I focus on my kids’ smiles to anchor myself back in the moment. To be honest, when I started this training, I was reminding myself every few minutes, but I am starting to see some improvements and the reminders come a little less often.
2. Being kind to myself: at times where step #1 fails or I simply forgot to remind myself for too long and my brain has drifted too far, I stay kind to myself. I used to get annoyed and beat myself up for not being present, but I have realized that this approach adds fuel to the fire and simply ignites my anxiety. Instead, I now try (I am not always successful), to be kind. I remind myself that it’s ok to drift sometimes and stop being present. That I am doing great as I caught myself and that I can just focus back. Being kind is key!
3. Box breathing: to help myself focus back into being present, I do some box breathing exercises when I can feel the panic rise or that my kindness isn’t working the way I hoped for. If you don’t know what box breathing is, it is super simple and it’s a great way to ground yourself back in the moment… If you think about it, you will notice that when we panic or when we are harsh on ourselves, we never think about our breathing, but that if we do and focus on that instead, things quiet down quickly. Box breathing is simple: breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, taking the breath into your stomach. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Release your breath through your mouth with a whooshing sound for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Repeat the entire technique 3-4 times in a row.
4. Learning from my children: I have to thank my children for being by far my greatest coach and inspiration in this training. Kids are always in the moment. They give their all to what they do and they are not thinking about random things while they are playing, they are just playing. I spend a great deal of time observing their ability to be present and be immersed in the moment. As I am unlearning my patterns, I use my kids and imitate their ways to learn to be present.
5. Appreciation: I am slowly learning to swap expectations for appreciation. As I am trying to be more present, I am trying to focus on appreciating the moment, small joy and laughter. Instead of focusing on expectations, what will come next, I purposely focus on appreciation as it helps me stay grounded.
6. Feel my feelings: I try to be a lot more mindful of my feelings so that I know how I feel in the moment. This enables me to not only be more present but also be more at peace and happier generally.
7. Run or train: if I completely lose my ability to be in the moment and I am totally off, either feeling anxious or discouraged, I have discovered that the best way to shake this off is to change my physical state, get the blood moving and do some exercises. Physical exertion, high pulse and a good sweat always bring me back on track and allow me to ground myself. I will be honest though, going for a run is the last thing I want to do when I get anxious. Just the thought of it feels like an insurmountable mountain I need to climb and I don’t always have enough strength and self-discipline to force myself to do it… But when I do, it never fails.
8. No multitasking: I love to multitask, but it turns out that multitasking is probably one of the worst inhibitors for being present. When I multitask, I do so many things at once, I am not in the moment at all. The less I multitask, the easier it is to be present.
9. Taking breaks to let my mind run free: this is counter intuitive for someone like me who feels that weekends are unstructured and where there are no hyperfocus activities as I spend most of my time on the weekends with my kids. That being said, I have discovered that taking breaks from being in the moment is fantastic. During these, I allow my mind to run free, get distracted, think about the week’s plan, tomorrow’s activities, etc. As I am really bad at being present and get overly distracted, I time my breaks to ensure I don’t get back into old habits and only allow myself 5 to 15 minutes at the time depending on the need. Once the time is done, I do a few box breathing and I am back in the moment with my family.
10. Don’t care about what’s next!: I’m a control freak, plain and simple. I care so much about what we need to buy at the grocery store, what we will do this afternoon, what the plan is for tomorrow. Everytime my mind drifts to planning the future, I am looking for what is next, whether it is next week or the next hour. Next, next, next… Now that I train myself to learn to be more present, I need to constantly remind myself not to care about what is next, to take it easy and that we will figure out what to buy at the grocery store when we get there and that this afternoon’s activities will fall into place when the time is right.
I will be going on vacation in a few days. I admit that so far I have succeeded for 2 weekends to be in the moment and I am very pleased with my efforts. But there is a big difference between a 2 day weekend and 3 weeks of vacation ;) I am sure I will have some moments where being present will be extremely hard and I will try my greatest to remember to be kind to myself. Unlearning is really hard, but so rewarding.
Anyone else dare say they struggle being present and that for that reason they find vacation stressful?
See the original publication LinkedIn here.