“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
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?
Photo courtesy of geeknerd99
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.
I can’t claim to be perfect at being present. I can’t claim that I
do it all the time. But I can say this: I’ve been practicing being
present for awhile now, and I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve learned a
lot about being present, and I’d like to share that with others.
This article came from a suggestion from commenter Mark, after I wrote about ways to create a peaceful, relaxed workday. It’s an article I’d been planning to write for some time, but Mark spurred me to do it sooner — so thanks Mark!
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 (I know this
first-hand, as my goals at the end of 2007 were completely different
from what they were at the beginning). 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
- 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
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 I often tell my
kids when they’re learning anything or striving to be better at
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.
One Month Challenge
The best method I can offer for learning to be present, the best method
for practicing, is to focus on it for one month. Make focusing on being
present a habit. If you make it your only focus, I guarantee you’ll get
better at it, and more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of
remembering to focus, of remembering to practice, of being more aware.
Do a one-month challenge. It’s the best method for forming new
habits, and it works for being present. A good way to do this is join
the monthly challenge on the Zen Habits forums. Then do the following:
- Tell people on the forum what your monthly challenge will be (focusing on being present).
- Log in daily to report on your progress. This gives you the accountability and motivation needed.
- Do the tips below every day for a month.
“The living moment is everything.” - D.H. Lawrence
Tips On Being Present
You just knew I couldn’t end this post without a list of tips. So here
are things that have worked for me … pick and choose the ones that you
think will work best for you:
- When you eat, just eat. The best way to think
about being present is this: do just one thing at a time. When you are
eating, don’t read or think about something else or iron your clothes
(especially if you’re eating something that might splatter on the
clothes). Just eat. Pay attention to what you’re eating. Really
experience it — the taste, the texture. Do it slowly. Same thing with
anything else: washing dishes, taking a shower, driving, working,
playing. Don’t do multiple things at once — just do what you’re doing
now, and nothing else.
- Be aware. Another important step is to become more
aware of your thoughts. You will inevitably think about the past and
future. That’s OK. Just become aware of those thoughts. Awareness will
- Be gentle. If you think about the past or future,
do not beat yourself up about it! Don’t try to force those thoughts out
of your head. Just be aware of them, and gently allow them to leave.
Then bring yourself back to the present.
- Zazen. Ah, you were wondering when Zen Habits
would have anything to do with Zen, right? Zazen is basically the
center of Zen practice. It’s simply sitting. It’s a form of meditation,
but really it’s just sitting. You don’t have to contemplate Zen koans
or the meaning of the universe or chant anything. You just sit, and
focus on sitting. I haven’t done this much recently, but when I have,
it has been very useful practice for me.
- Exercise. These days, exercise is my zazen.
Running is my sitting practice. I run, and try to only run. I focus on
my running, on my breathing, on my body, on nothing but the present.
It’s great practice.
- Daily routines. Anything can be your zazen. When
you wash dishes, this is practice. This is your meditation. When you
walk, focus on walking. Make anything you do become practice.
- Put up reminders. A reminder on your fridge or
computer desktop or on your wall is a good thing. Or use a reminder
service to send you a daily email. Whatever it takes to keep your focus
on practicing being present.
- There is no failure. You will mess up, but that’s
OK, because it is impossible to mess up. The only thing that matters is
that you practice, and over time, if you keep doing it, you will learn
to focus on the present more often than you do now. You cannot fail,
even if you stop doing it for awhile. Doing it at all is success.
Celebrate every little success.
- Keep practicing. When you get frustrated, just
take a deep breath. When you ask yourself, “What should I do now,
Self?”, the answer is “keep practicing”.
“I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” - Albert Einstein