Striving to live in the moment

November 6, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

Information swirls about that it disorients us and even paralyzes us, and not just during elections.  Those of us who systematically try to stay well-informed are especially vulnerable. Media outlets are always working hard to steal our attention with all of those new products and stories and they do a great job of it.  Television is especially good at hypnotizing us with constant scene changes, including a nonstop parade of bright shiny shallow-minded things. Because of this special power of television to mindlessly consume us, I’ve warned that it is critically important to pull the plug on television.  “Just say “no” to TV. Do it for your country.”

Even those of us who are able to pull ourselves away from television are subjected to a constant stream of distractions ranging from work pressures, home repairs social obligations and numerous flavors of interruptions. These distractions often yank me away from things I consider important, things (including my children) that are often right in front of my nose.  In fact, if I had to sum up my biggest frustration in life, it’s that I end up doing far too many things I don’t really enjoy in order to do the things I treasure.

Quite often, though, we are contributors to our problem. For instance, we end up choosing to do non-important urgent-seeming things instead of spending time on things we truly consider important.  How could that be?  This issue was well-described by Steven Covey, who illustrated the problem with a 2 by 2 matrix of the types of tasks we face.  The two variables are importance and urgency.  All of us readily attend to those things that are both important and urgent and all of us ignore those things that are not important and not urgent.  We struggle, though, when it comes to prioritizing the two remaining types of tasks

Many of us all-too-willingly attend to those tasks that are urgent but not important, ignoring those things that are important but not urgent.   Recognizing this problem is the first step toward solving it.

This tendency to ignore important things in order to attend to nuisances and distractions causes a fundamental disconnect in many peoples’ lives.   If you ask them what is most important to them, they will sincerely tell you that they want to spend time with their families and friends or they want to help to make their communities better places.  Or perhaps they claim that they want to work to make themselves better (e.g., intellectually, artistically, “spiritually,” or by working on specific new skills).  All of these things are important but not urgent, however, which means that too many of us tend to ignore them in favor of those things that are urgent but not important.

Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly aware that I’m letting precious time slip away by not staying focused.   I’ve been trying to consciously “center” myself, so that I make better decisions, so that I spend more time doing those things that I actually consider important.  My personal challenge with distractions is the context for a new Psychology Today article I’m recommending: Jay Dixit’s: “The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment.” Here’s the article summary: “We live in the age of distraction. Yet one of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that your brightest future hinges on your ability to pay attention to the present.”

What is the price we pay for not living in the moment?

Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. “We’re living in a world that contributes in a major way to mental fragmentation, disintegration, distraction, decoherence,” says Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace. We’re always doing something, and we allow little time to practice stillness and calm.

When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We don’t appreciate the living present because our “monkey minds,” as Buddhists call them, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.

This sounded familiar to me: “monkey minds.”  I am one of those people who lets work intrude at home and lets home intrude into my work. To the extent that this happens, my life is disjointed.  Living like this is like trying to drive a car with your foot pressing down on both the gas pedal and the brake pedal.  The solution is to live in the moment, something easier said than done.

If done correctly, though, the rewards for living in the moment are many.  Dixit explains:

Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. Mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships.

I’ve been experimenting with staying in the moment over the past year.  I have been taking my camera wherever I go.  I don’t do this just to take photos (though I do take a lot of photos).  Rather I always carry a camera because it forces me to look carefully at my world.

I also write to make sure that I’m tending to my thoughts, so that the voice in my head amounts to more than word salad.   I find that writing loosens up an incoherent swirling ball of thoughts in my head.  I’m finding that walking also centers me (something my wife has been telling me for years).

Dixit argues that you need not choose between being in the moment and being efficient.   Instead, he argues that being mindful allows good things to happen to you.  He also urges that being mindful invites “flow,” the state described and promoted by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Dixit’s Psychology Today article spoke to me loudly, given my repeated failures to live in the moment.  The article was clearly written, with repeated citations to outside literature and many practical suggestions that are categorized under these six tips:

1: To improve your performance, stop thinking about it (unselfconsciousness).
2: To avoid worrying about the future, focus on the present (savoring).
3: If you want a future with your significant other, inhabit the present (breathe).
4: To make the most of time, lose track of it (flow).
5: If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away from it (acceptance).
6: Know that you don’t know (engagement).

After reading these tips (each is a section of the article), it occurred to me that I needed to work harder to incorporate these tips into my day.  I “knew” these things long before I read the article, but I am reminded that I need to work harder to actually incorporate these strategies in my life.

If you struggle to live in the moment the same way I sometimes do, go read Dixit’s article, but do it in a nice quiet place.  Read it while you are in the moment.


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Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    One thing I've learned, after many years of trying to keep the Urgent vs. Important grid in mind, is to consider: Important to whom? Wednesday afternoon I was painting my rusting sleeping porch (as a cold front approached) when a client called and expressed surprise that I wasn't working on his important project. I was taking better care of my house, yet frustrating one of my benefactors. (But a forgiving one, who sometimes reads this site.) I judged the client as more important but less urgent, yet the urgent one won. But I can support it as the better use of my time. My time.

  2. I completely agree with Dan. Too often we sacrifice ourselves (or worse, our families) for some 'bigger picture'.

    This moment, right now, is the only moment that actually exists! Be sure to take some of this moment to take care of YOU,


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