Most articles on how to be more present only provide simple tips like doing a breathing exercise or two. But being more present requires a compelling reason behind your mindfulness practice and a plan to make it stick.
Once you learn all the downsides of not being in the moment and how you’re missing the life-changing benefits of being present, you can dedicate yourself to long-term mindfulness.
Why you must learn how to be present in the moment
The bedrock of philosophies like Buddhism, Zen, and all mindfulness philosophies point to this single truth:
There is no such thing as the future or the past.
As real as they may feel, they are just figments of your imagination. Your life is a repeating series of present moments. And the more time you spend using the present moment to think about the “future” or the “past,” the less time you can spend truly living.
Echkart Tolle put it well:
Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.
If you don’t learn how to be present, you’ll suffer the same emotional patterns that keep you stuck.
Let’s explore a few other reasons why you should practice being present (before moving on to mindfulness strategies).
You have anxiety because you’re living in the past or the future
Again from Tolle:
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.
Let’s take a deeper look at how both the past and the future cause these negative emotions.
Stop letting the past predict the future
Think about how many situations in the past you’ve ruminated over, even though it doesn’t change anything.
If you’re not careful, you can spend too much time dwelling on:
- Mistakes you’ve made: Even worse, you can form an identity of someone who makes that type of mistake, which can lead to making it again.
- What others have done to you: There’s a saying, “Being bitter is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Holding onto resentment harms your psyche. And if you define yourself by what others have done to you, you’re letting them shape the course of your life instead of you.
- Regrets over what you should’ve done: You can dwell so much on the time you’ve wasted—paralyzed—even though you know what needs to be done. And you continue to waste time because of this.
All of this dwelling leads to one huge obstacle to overcome.
The more you focus on the past, the more you start to cement an identity based on those past experiences. And you’ll fight to maintain that identity even if it doesn’t serve you.
Why else would people continue to repeat harmful patterns?
If you want to get over the past and learn how to be more present, embrace these mantras:
- Your past doesn’t have to predict your future: You can make wholesale changes to your life when you decide to.
- What’s done is done: Since you can’t do anything to change the past, learn to use the present moment to live your new life.
- Reframe what the past means to you: What you see as the past is just your interpretation of the past. The past only has a certain meaning because you assign meaning to it. It doesn’t have to matter.
Don’t let the future disturb you
Just like you’ve had situations where dwelling in the past served little to no purpose, you can spend too much time thinking about the future.
If rumination is the main problem when it comes to dealing with your past, then anticipation is the main problem when it comes to thinking about your future.
Thinking too much about the future can lead to problems like:
- Needless worrying: Have you ever been in a situation that didn’t go as badly as you thought it would? Much of life is like that. This quote comes to mind: “Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.” —Balzac
- The hedonic treadmill: This describes the process of getting what you want, growing used to it, and wanting something else. Something new. Something better. If you’re not careful, you can live a life where you never enjoy the moment because you’re always looking forward.
- Fear of uncertainty: Most people don’t pursue meaningful goals because they fear an uncertain outcome. This general fear of an uncertain future can be reduced by learning to be more present. Have future goals, yes, but actually pursuing them requires you to live in the moment.
These mindsets and frameworks can help you deal with the future:
- You create the future now: Even if you do have big goals for your life, you won’t achieve them unless you can stay present long enough to accomplish each step.
- You don’t “need” anything you don’t already have: You don’t need more money, more status, a better car, a bigger home, or a nicer job. These are all things you trick yourself into thinking you need to be happy because you don’t know how to be present.
- Instead of worrying about the future, trust yourself to handle it. Another favorite quote of mine: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” —Marcus Aurelius
The bottom line: Keeping your eye in the rearview and letting the future pull your mind in different directions is a surefire way to increase anxiety and stress while reducing the chances of living the life you want.
The many benefits of learning how to be present
Most people would agree that learning how to be present is good for you. But let’s look closer at the many pragmatic reasons for being present and practicing mindfulness.
One of the biggest? You just get to enjoy more of life.
People who believe life is short struggle to be present because they don’t know how to value their precious time.
Imagine how much more joy you’d experience if you appreciated the little moments of your day—the meal you had, a conversation with a friend, or even taking the time to simply observe and enjoy your surroundings.
Learning how to be present means slowing your life down and spending more time truly living than you do being inside your head.
Adopting these practices will improve the quality of your personal and professional lives.
Presence is the most profitable skill of the 21st century
In an increasingly distracted world, long attention spans have become rarer and more valuable. You develop a long attention span by learning to be present, and having one helps you level up your career with “deep work.”
Deep work is creative work that requires focus and brain power to accomplish, like coding a website, creating content, or developing a marketing campaign. It helps you develop two important abilities.
If you get better at deep work, you can increase your “career capital,” which means you have rare and valuable skills that will help you:
- Command higher rates
- Have more autonomy at work
- Become irreplaceable, which gives you leverage in situations like negotiations
We are suffering from a focus crisis in the modern workplace.
According to this research: Companies lose an average of 720 work hours annually to distractions per employee.
Individuals and companies are all better served by learning how to be present.
Learn how to be present in relationships for deeper bonds
How much uninterrupted quality time do you spend with family and friends?
I’m not talking about watching Netflix with your partner while each of you has a phone in your hands. No, I mean just you and the other person, totally focused on enjoying the moment together.
Do you have children in your life? What would your relationship with with them look like if you spent more uninterrupted time together? Children want your attention more than anything else.
Think about your conversations. What if you were entirely absorbed in what the other person was saying?
If you avoid this conversation gaffe, people will think you’re a great conversationalist even if you spend less time talking:
When you focus on the other person while in the present moment, they’ll feel understood, which will make them respond to you more positively.
EVERYONE would respond to you more positively if you spent 100% of your time in the present moment. You’d feel better about yourself, too. It’s a win for your relationship with others and with yourself.
Being in the moment is a free “elixir”
If you learn how to be more present, you’ll be healthier due to better self-care. You’ll live longer. If for no other reason, embrace the present moment because it can save or extend your life.
[Mindfulness] benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The science is clear—mindfulness works. A simple mindfulness and meditation practice, coupled with being more present in general, can lead to a whole host of benefits:
Without nitpicking the details, it’s clear that mindfulness is a scientifically proven net positive for your life.
Now that your mind is primed for the power of presence, let’s talk strategy…
How to be more present: mindfulness 101
“What does it mean to be present?” is a deeply profound question that takes years to fully understand the answer to.
Learning how to be more present is a lifelong practice (that you can practice at any time, btw—that’s the beauty of it).
Start by continually catching yourself when you leave the present moment so you can return to it.
Let’s practice it right now.
First, focus on your breath. Feel the air going in and out. Are you breathing deeply or shallowly? Is your breathing relaxed and consistent or rushed and scattered? You can always return to your breath to snap into presence.
Next, focus on your body. Is your jaw clenched? Are you carrying tension anywhere, like your shoulder or back? Doing this often will show you what body parts to relax into so you can lower stress by returning to the present.
Notice your surroundings. If you’re in public, take the time to notice all the ambient noise around you. Just sit there and listen. Next, take the time to consciously observe your surroundings. Notice not just what you see but how you see it differently when you’re focused on the moment.
You can use this “snap out of it and learn how to be more present” method during a ton of situations in your day:
Do these “presence checks” as often as possible, and you’ll develop the skill of staying in the moment for longer durations.
Try this exercise (and get comfortable being uncomfortable)
To fix these problems, sit in a room alone.
Borrowing from Cal Newport again, he suggests this exercise to start developing your ability to focus.
It’s simple. Set a timer for an hour and practice being bored.
Most people can’t handle the tension of boredom, which is why they numb their minds with distractions. This exercise is like a detox for your brain. Sit with the tension and embrace it to learn to alleviate it.
Once you learn that boredom won’t kill you or that being alone with your mind is nothing to be afraid of, you’ll start to develop the superpower of focus.
Harness the power of mindful meditation
There are already tons of articles about how to be more present by developing a daily meditation practice. But most people have some common misconceptions that keep them from sticking with it.
There is no goal of meditation other than to become the observer of your own mind. It’s the art of noticing your thoughts without judging them.
Ditch these false beliefs to develop your meditation practice:
- There’s no such thing as being bad at meditation.
- You didn’t do anything wrong if you got distracted or couldn’t control your thoughts during a session.
- Not being able to concentrate isn’t a reason to avoid meditation; it’s a reason to embrace it.
- There is no reward for being able to meditate for a certain length of time.
- You’re not supposed to get better at meditation; you’re just supposed to do it.
Set up your meditation practice however you’d like. Some people focus on their breath, some people use a mantra, and others just sit there in silence.
You can start with just 5 minutes per day. Doing it daily is ideal, so pick a duration you think you can maintain. If you want to increase it, that’s great, but don’t put yourself under pressure to do so.
This technique will force you to be more present
Go for daily walks, preferably in nature, without your phone, earbuds, or any stimulus. Just you alone with your thoughts while moving your body.
Walking is good for your health because it’s a cheat code for fat loss. It also has similar benefits to meditation because it’s a walking meditation. Many artists, philosophers, and creatives also say that walks in nature have a magic quality that helps come up with great ideas.
You can go for walks by yourself to learn how to be more present and clear your own mind. But you can also use walks to bond with others.
- Try having an important meeting on a walk instead of sitting at a table.
- Swap out a dinner date with a walk date to spend more time conversing in the present.
- Take your family and friends on walks to spend undistracted quality time with each other.
Adding a daily walk to my routine has helped me practice mindfulness, and I’m mentally and physically healthier because of it. Try it.
There are all kinds of activities that you can do mindfully
By practicing mindfulness throughout your day, you’ll develop the skill of presence and reap real-world benefits. Take mindful eating, for example.
“Mindless eating” (aka eating while you’re distracted, bored, or anxious) can lead to overeating and weight gain, which both harm your health.
In one study, people who listened to a lunchtime radio mystery show ate 15 percent more than those who didn’t. The basic rule: distractions of all kinds make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat—even when we’re not hungry.
—Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think”
Mindful eating creates the opposite effect. You eat less because you notice when you get full and enjoy your food more because you’re focused.
Here are some tips for mindful eating that you can interpret and apply to other mindfulness practices:
- Honor the food: Including where the ingredients come from and how it’s made.
- Engage all your senses: In short, truly taste, smell, and experience the food.
- Don’t pack your plate: Eat less by being mindful of portion size.
- Don’t wolf your food down: Take small bites and chew your food well before moving on to the next bite.
- Pump the brakes: Focus on eating more slowly and enjoying the experience.
There are tons of different practices like these that can teach you mindfulness.
You don’t have to try them all at once, but give some of them a try:
- Mindful cleaning and decluttering, e.g., the Kondo Method
- Mindful driving: Imagine how many accidents we could prevent if everyone was fully focused during their drive
- Mindful reading: Turn off the TV and pick up a book. Don’t try to speed-read. Enjoy each sentence one at a time.
Create focused time blocks for deep work
If you set aside time in your day to focus on developing skills, you can achieve different goals—like starting a side business, developing a cool hobby, or leveling up in your career.
I used focused time blocks for writing to become a full-time writer and quit my job.
The rules of your time block are pretty simple:
- (Ideally) do it at the same time, in the same place, for the same duration.
- During your time block, you can only work on the task at hand or sit there and be bored. No in-between.
Focused time blocks help you enter “the flow state.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term, describes it this way:
A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Focused time blocks help create flow states. Getting into flow makes it easier to get into flow faster. Getting into flow faster increases your creativity and productivity, which produces better outcomes like high-quality work.
Instead of worrying about the future and getting nothing done, use focused time blocks to build the future in the present moment.
Staying in the present moment is a lifestyle
“Now” is all you need.
Learning how to be more present is one of the few skills that affects every single area of your life.
Embracing the present will make life feel longer (in a good way). Practicing mindfulness every day—without judgment—will help you enjoy life more and worry less. You’ll be happier, and so will the people around you.
This isn’t a game you can win.
Of course you’ll get distracted from time to time. You might stew over the past. Or get anxious about the future. But now you’ll have a tool you can return to at any moment.