It was Thursday evening at 6:30, the second hour of the period of time that many working parents begrudgingly refer to as “the grind:” the three or four chaotic hours between our arrival home from work and bedtime, in which we must make dinner, eat dinner, and relish our limited time with our children before bathing them, wrangling them into their pajamas, reading umpteen bedtime stories, putting them to bed, and preparing for tomorrow morning.
As usual, my body was performing a number of tasks while my mind was churning through dozens more. I was cooking dinner, talking to my husband about his workday, playing with my two-year-old son, and mentally writing a list of all the things I needed to do before I turned in for the night.
Part of me became aware of my son’s voice, “Look, Mama! Look, Mama! Look, Mama!” above the whistling of a kettle (I am perpetually boiling water for coffee). In one swift motion I closed the dishwasher I’d just finished loading, turned off the kettle, and crouched down to attend to whatever my son was trying to show me.
“Look, Mama!” he repeated. My vision was suddenly obscured by the wings of a stinkbug. He thrust the dead bug into my face, so close that I could see the speckled details of its wings, the tiger stripes of its antenna. Behind it, my son’s perfect dimpled knuckles were smeared with paint from his daily crafts, and behind his hand, his eyes surged with wonder. In this moment, he was intently focused on a single effort: showing me a fascinating thing he had discovered.
My son fully experiences each individual moment of his life. He is never distracted; he is never in a rush. He is never planning for the next thing. When we walk down in the stairs in the morning to make breakfast, he is amazed by every piece of dust on my rarely swept floors.
The Stinkbug Revelation (as I now call it) made me realize that, while I have made strides toward freeing myself from the culture of busy, I am often not present. My mind is always elsewhere—making a to-do list, solving a problem that’s unrelated to what’s happening in front of my eyes. I sometimes find myself returning to the present as if I have just come out of a dark room, completely unfamiliar with the bright, active room I’m unexpectedly dropped into.
An unscientific survey of my friends—both those with and without children—confirms that many of us are experiencing this. We’re missing our lives because we’re always mentally multi-tasking.
How can we avoid this? An obvious answer is to clear our lives from distractions, particularly the technological ones. Study after study finds that the multi-tasking enabled by our mobile devices is detrimental to our ability to focus and concentrate. Our addiction to our devices has also created a culture obsessed with recording and documentation—the endless need to take pictures of our lives and share with others. But taking pictures is inhibiting our actual experience of the moment, and research shows that it may even make us less capable of remembering that experience.
Last year, I made a conscious effort to disconnect from my cell phone when I was at home with my family, but I still found myself slipping away to check email or grabbing it whenever I had the opportunity—when my husband took my son outside to check the mailbox or to kick a soccer ball around, I found myself feverishly punching in my passcode.
What I realize now is that simply restricting the distractions that are housed in my phone or iPad isn’t enough. I need to—we need to—to rethink our approach to how we spend our time, measure success, and define productivity.
Of course, I’m not breaking any new ground here. A number of talented, thoughtful people, from Arianna Huffington to Oprah to the late Steve Jobs have been touting the benefits of mindfulness and intentional mental and personal development for years. But how can someone like me (and like you, probably), who works for a living (not for fun) and does not have endless amounts of time or capital to employ spiritual advisors or go on yoga retreats, reset their internal framework?
Well, I’m not entirely sure, but over the past several months I’ve incorporated a number of practices—gleaned from a variety of sources, from friends to celebrity memoirs to scientific studies—and I’ve managed to make some headway (or headspace, perhaps). Here’s what I’ve been doing:
1. Purposefully Connecting to My Breath
I used to think that meditation was too “out there” for me, but my recent study of modern meditation has changed my mind. Now I spend just five minutes every morning, after my workout, stretching, breathing intentionally, and meditating, with the help of—wait for it—a meditation app on my iPhone called “Simply Being.”
I’ve also begun to focus on my breath during any “dead time” that I would normally be checking my email on my phone: waiting in line to order my coffee, sitting at a stop light, or waiting for my client to join a conference call. Breathing with intention and reflecting during these moments has made me more aware of how many of these moments I actually have and has thus allowed me to be more present in the rest of my life.
2. Writing (Not Typing)
Obviously my professional pursuits—both as a writer and as a marketer and PR professional—require a lot of writing. I will never be able to detach from my laptop, and I would never claim to want to do so. However, I’ve found that writing (with pen and paper) during meetings, conference calls, and other moments when I want to be very mentally awake has significantly increased my ability to be in the moment.
Likewise, at the beginning and end of my day, I’ve returned to my adolescent habit of writing in a journal. And as much as I hate the word “journaling” (it’s not a word, people!), I’ll admit that putting pen to paper, without the distraction of the internet, has helped me focus and avoid mental distractions. Setting my intentions on paper every morning to be fully present with my son and with my work has strengthened my resolve.
3. Turning Off All Notifications
If you need proof of the amount of unproductive multi-tasking you do every day, count the number of windows open on your computer by 1 PM. If you’re like me—it’s an embarrassingly high number. Here’s how it happens: I’m working on a project when an Outlook notification tells me I have a new email. I go to Outlook, read an email, and then realize that I haven’t checked my personal email yet today. I go to my personal email and see that I have a new gas bill. I grab my purse to get my credit card to pay the bill. As I’m reaching into my purse, I see that I have a text from my mom. I read and respond to it, then go back to my computer and see that I have a high priority email from a client. I immediately start working on that deliverable, completely forgetting the project I was working on before I was distracted by the Outlook notification. And the gas bill.
What I’m trying to get across here is that notifications are pesky, distracting, and counterproductive—you should be in charge of when you’re notified about things. By turning of all notifications and being in control of when I receive information, I have exponentially increased my ability to concentrate and exponentially decreased the number of windows I have open by midday.
4. Challenging Myself and My Son
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Parenting can be boring. Of course I love my son, but the bottom line is that we have different interests. His idea of a thrilling afternoon is running between the front door and the garage door over and over again while singing “B-I-N-G-O.” I, on the other hand, do not find this task stimulating.
Every time I bring this up to other parents, they emphatically nod. But, in truth, this statement makes us feel guilty. We don’t want to admit that playing with our children isn’t always sublime. And I’ve found that during these mundane moments, I start to zone out. So instead of feeling guilty about this, I’ve started to simply encourage my son to do things that we will both enjoy. Like reading books that have more words than pictures, cooking, and FaceTiming with my friends and family. By giving myself permission to enjoy myself and to prioritize activities that will enable me to do so, I’ve been much more successful at ignoring my mental to-do list.
Clearly there’s no right way—or easy way—to overcome the urge to multi-task and mentally check out of the present. But I think the surge of popular opinion in favor of mindfulness has us all headed in the right direction.