“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” ~Abraham Maslow
It was 4:00am, but I was wide awake. I wanted to be a great achiever, a great partner, and a great parent. Instead, I had turned into an irritable insomniac who no longer knew how to relax.
I was trying to do everything perfectly and be everything to everyone. Demands kept piling up. This made it tough to focus on the present moment.
A wandering mind is less happy than a mind focused on what it is doing, according to scientific research. For most people, a wandering mind dominates about half of the time spent awake. That encourages over-thinking, anxiety, and other emotional distress, while limiting the quality of work and play.
At the time, I didn’t realize how focusing on many different things at once limited my ability to be fully present in my relationships. I also didn’t realize just how crucial relationships are to happiness.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked people for seventy-five years. People who thrived weren’t those who gained wealth and fame, but those who nurtured great relationships with family, friends, and community.
What’s the key to nurturing great relationships? Presence. Love flourishes in an atmosphere of kindness, patience, forgiveness, trust, and hope. This is helped by presence and responsiveness in the moment. Anxiety and impatience don’t provide a fertile soil for love.
I’ve gradually developed a way of being more present in each waking moment of a busy life. It’s made me much calmer, kinder, happier, more relaxed, confident, and more attentive to family, friends, and even strangers.
Think of your mind as a computer screen with many tabs open. How can you close all the tabs except one, and focus on that? Here’s what works for me.
1. Clarify what you value.
Identify your top core values, those things that make life worth living for you. For example, I most value love, health, peace of mind, contribution, and self-actualization. Your list might be a bit different.
It’s okay to fantasize about being atop some metaphorical mountain. However, it helps to make values, rather than goals, your “mountaintops.” Then you can keep living by your values even if you don’t succeed at one of your goals. For example, you might not yet be able to take that dream round-the-world trip with your partner, but you can still give them your undivided attention for a little time each day.
This approach boosts motivation and peace of mind. It also plucks fulfillment out of the distant future and brings it into the present moment, enabling you to focus on the now. When your days and minutes express what you value, you become more confident that there’s nothing else you should be doing at any given moment.
2. Identify your options.
What are the goals and projects you could pursue? How does each measure up against your top few core values? How much of your time does each require?
For example, a passion of mine is to help people live with more calm, energy, and brainpower. I started a group, then more people wanted to join. I could have increased the number of groups, but that would have required too much time, eating into my personal relationships.
I explored other options and decided to start a learning center online. This allows me to contribute more, without sacrificing what I value.
Focus on the top few goals/projects that emerge. Form a clear idea of the next step toward achieving each goal. The solutions to life’s challenges can nearly always be reduced to a simple next step, and another, and so on.
If you chase too many goals or projects at one time, you might be pulled in different directions, be constantly pre-occupied, and get nowhere. A better way is to focus more boldly, so that your life becomes as simple as taking the next step, with full presence.
Once you recognize your core values, it becomes easier to say no to attractive options that don’t fit you well enough. For example, I once said no to a surprise offer of an amazing job in another country. The time was not right to uproot our family. I kept what I valued.
4. Allocate time.
Allocate blocks of time to each next step according to the importance of the goal to you. Allocate sufficient time regularly for relaxing with family and friends. Allocate some time regularly for planning, worrying, and problem solving.
Allocating time allows you to steer the ship of your life instead of letting circumstances throw you around.
For example, I used to be a champion worrier. Then I started setting apart blocks of time for worrying and problem solving. Now worry has to wait for its turn, freeing me to be more fully present when I’m with loved ones.
5. Act with full presence.
Throw yourself into each next step at the allocated time. Inhabit each moment of that “next step” fully, as if there was nothing better to do, nothing else to think about, and nowhere better to be.
This practice calms me. It helps me to work and play better.
When the allocated time is finished, move on to another “next step,” perhaps for another goal or project. Give that new “next step” your complete, undivided attention during its allocated time.
Inhabit the moment fully even when you’re not busy pursuing a goal, such as during your planning and problem-solving time, or relaxing with family or friends, or enjoying a hobby.
I love how this approach frees me to have a bit of fun every day instead of just during vacations. That renews me and restores my equilibrium, amid a busy life.
6. Save non-urgent problems for later.
When a non-urgent problem comes up, make a note of it and deal with it later, during your planning, worrying, and problem-solving time. Only when an urgent and important problem comes up need you drop everything else and deal with it.
What if your children or boss continually bombard you with supposedly urgent and important demands? Guard a little time to refresh and recharge yourself. Your children will eventually grow more independent, and you might consider changing your job.
Review how things are going from time to time. If necessary, review the goals and projects to check whether they’re still well-aligned with your values. Sometimes a new opportunity may deserve attention, or your emphasis might need to shift.
Think of your life as a ship that tends to veer off course. That’s quite common. Your reviews can then gently steer you back on course, toward your core values.
This seven-step process has replaced a racing, anxious mind with more focus in the present moment. I now enjoy warmer relationships, better work and play, and greater confidence that I can cope with whatever life brings.
You can inhabit the present moment easily when you’re confident that there’s nothing better for you to do, nothing else to think about right now, and nowhere better to be. This seven-step process will allow you such confidence.
You don’t have to get this perfect. You just need to get it roughly right, and then adjust your course during your reviews.
You can then be more present when you’re with family, friends, and others, fully enjoying your time together. Everything that really needs doing will eventually get done, in its allocated time.
You’ll also become far more secure in dealing with challenges and problems, because your self-image will change.
You may have felt like a chronically overloaded person. Now you’ll feel more confident about picking your battles, breaking a big problem into small pieces, and patiently eating even a metaphorical “elephant” one morsel at a time. Life needn’t be more complicated than taking one small step at a time.
You’ll also deal more confidently with disappointments and failures, since you may fail at a particular goal but continue to express your core values through other goals and projects.
Regrets will dim, because you’ll become more confident that the way you spend your time is an expression of your cherished values, regardless of any particular outcome.
You’ll also start to achieve much more, with less struggle. But the main satisfaction will come from living a meaningful life that expresses your cherished values in each waking moment.
This works powerfully for me. You might want to try something like this. If you do, be prepared for more peace of mind, confidence, love, and happiness in each moment.