The Multitaskers’ Guide to Being More Present
Just about every self-help movement from spirituality to leadership to parenting extols the virtue of being more present. We’re told to cultivate being introspective, still, and to pay attention to what we’re doing at the time we’re doing it. If we focus on the person or task in front of us, we give them, and ourselves, a gift. I wholeheartedly believe this is a good and positive thing.
But man, do I struggle with it.
I am a master multitasker. I’m a business owner, a mother of two school-age kids, and involved in a bunch of outside activities. I feel like my days are often a race against time, with dates and details bouncing in and out of my head like super important ping-pong balls. That’s not even talking about the electronic devices, social media, and emails I keep up with. (I am admittedly a news and good TV junkie. I miss you, Breaking Bad.) Uh oh, I digressed.
Yes, I want to be more present. I want to tune out work when I’m home, and be more often in the moment. I’m regularly trying new ideas that push me along in that direction — and I’ve made some decent progress (with focus and effort.)
For all you sworn multitaskers, take heart. That efficiency you’ve cultivated can be coupled with an intent to be present with lots of positive benefits. Not only will being more present help you feel less stressed and promote better relationships, studies show that mindfulness can also benefit your physical health and even increase your lifespan.
Here are some ideas for how to go from distracted to mindfully present:
1) Turn off electronics and email.
No surprise that this one tops the list; it’s my own Achilles heel. The Energy Project’s Tony Schwartz has found that 80% of us are rarely, if ever, disconnected from our email. There are many advantages to being constantly reachable, but in the long term, in addition to causing stress and unnecessary distraction, it can also alter the way we think and behave.
As Schwartz says, “it isn’t overload we’re battling anymore, it’s addiction — to action, and information, and connection, but above all to instant gratification.” We no longer know how to wait, and our activities are tainted by listening for that ping that tells us we have a message. If you want to be more present, turn off your electronics and stop checking your email when you’re having a conversation with someone, working on a project that requires concentration, or even when you just want to enjoy the moment.
Schwartz, for example, is a major proponent of an electronics-free lunch break. Leaving your smartphone in the car until after dinner or checking it at the door are other options. I’ve learned that if my phone is in front of me, I’ll check it. Better to put it away.
2) Center before a conversation.
Centering is a key skill that coaches learn before meeting with a client. To be a good coach, you need to be fully present and actively listening — which requires tuning out any static or energy from whatever came beforehand. The process is simple. Before you begin a conversation or meeting, take a moment and get intentional about how you want to show up. I also take a few deep breaths and remove distractions. If I’m at my desk, I move so I’m away from my workspace.
This allows me to come into a coaching session calm, open and present. Consider the opposite. We all know what it feels like to have someone enter a room stressed, distracted, and still reeling from their last meeting.
When you practice active listening, it’s far easier to stay in the moment as well. Active listening is what it sounds like: not only do you listen to someone, but you actively ask questions and engage in the conversation. In a helpful article, psychologist John M. Grohol lays out some basic active listening tips and techniques. These include restating what you’ve just heard to be sure you understand it clearly (“So you think office policy about PTO needs to change?”) and sharing your observations about what the person has said (“You seem frustrated.”)
3) Break from the madness.
As I’ve mentioned before, studies have shown that taking a short break between tasks helps the mind recharge and refocus.
Zen teacher, CEO, and author Marc Lesser has this advice for how to integrate breaks to reduce stress and a speeding mind. The first is to “rest mentally and physically in between or outside of your usual activities, perhaps instituting a regular practice of meditation, retreats, breaks, and reflection. In the midst of a busy life, a full work day, go for a walk, do yoga, read some poetry.”
If yoga or poetry isn’t your bag, Lesser suggests taking a few moments to breathe deeply and reflect. Anyone can do this without leaving their desk.
4) Schedule important discussions without a hard stop.
When we’re in back-to-back meetings, it’s difficult to be present because we’re also thinking of what happened before and what’s next. For important discussions, leave room for the conversation. Make sure to structure a situation where you can both focus on what the other has to say, perhaps even out of the office. This also means not having a hard stop or starting a conversation at the end of the day.
5) Consider (and verbalize) what you’re saying no to.
For everything we say yes to, we’re saying no to something else. When you reflect on that and verbalize it, the decision is much easier. i.e. “I’m saying no to my kids so I can respond to a non-urgent email” or “I’m saying no to planning this pivotal project so I can say yes to surfing Twitter.” When you put it out there, the distinction often makes the real choice laughable. What’s taking away our full and focused presence doesn’t deserve it at all.
Have you discovered some tips to stay present? Share here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
This article also appears on Forbes.com.
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