What I Don’t Know About Being Present in the Moment

The single most profound adjustment I’ve made in my life in the last few years has been learning to be present in the moment. And I still don’t entirely know what that means.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was influenced by Eastern philosophy at a kind of early age. “Going with the flow” was my lifestyle choice for decades. In a way, I’d been practicing for — albeit not actually practicing — mindful presence most of my life.

Accepting and being pleased with the present wasn’t natural for me, though. Even acting on impulse more often than not, I was nearly always more interested in the future than the current moment. Those impulsive decisions were more about getting somewhere else, creating new stories to tell, than celebrating where I was.

Generally, I lived expecting things, including myself, to be better and better in the time to come. Generally.

I suffered plenty of worry about the future too, though. Tons of regret, guilt, and issues from the past as well.

I’m no expert on being present, but I’ve learned a lot and become pretty good at it. Good enough to be happier than ever before. While I’m still developing stronger habits and skills to improve my mindfulness, here are a few things that I can share:

1. It ain’t easy. But it’s easier than you think.

Being present in the moment is challenging for us modern folks. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to tweet or post or ha ha emoji to. Distractions are distracting. Then there are responsibilities. Stuff’s got to get done.

There’s just not enough time in the day, right?

It’s true that being present takes time. In fact, it’s all about time. But the present is never the present long.

Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about silver medal winners in the Olympics that illustrates how fleeting the present moment actually is.

This cracks Ashley up every time. How long is the present? “Now. Now. N-n-no, now.”

You might want to enjoy more than .03 of a second at a time, but, you know, the present moment IS only a moment. A few seconds pause is all it has to take to acknowledge what’s going on around you and how you’re feeling. In the time it takes to read the subject line of an email, you can re-center yourself and appreciate the moments you’re living in.

ferris-life moves pretty fast

2. Being here, now doesn’t prevent you from being there, later.

In fact, I believe it provides powerful help to get you where you want to be.

This may have been the greatest misconception I’ve had to deal with. I’ve mentioned how I’ve always been sort of future focused. I believe in goals and taking methodical steps to achieve them. Settling for the present, it seemed to me, was at odds with ambition. Even going with the flow at least meant going somewhere.

I just made the point that the present moment can be an exceptionally brief time. Thing is, the present isn’t just that one moment that’s here then gone. The present continues to be the present, stretching on into what had been, a second ago, the future. In my mind, to concentrate on each moment as it comes meant not concentrating on the times yet to be. Like a twist on Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, I mistakenly assumed truly being in the ever changing moment meant never moving.

As with Zeno’s paradoxes, though, common sense and experience proved the theory wrong.

Being present is not being stagnant. Hardly. Being present is, believe it or not, an action. It’s not doing nothing. It’s being fully aware of… being. It means connecting to the truth of a situation, taking in reality as it is. It also means connecting with the truth of yourself.

Having that awareness of who you are, what your strengths and character are, being grounded in reality — that centers you on your best path forward. Outside influences will still require reaction, but a present state of mind can help you maintain focus. And that will keep you moving in a positive direction toward your goals.

3. Living in the present heals.

A couple years ago I struggled with a dangerous bout of depression. I was lucky to get some good help, starting with my loving fiancee and a couple of doctors. It took several different steps to escape that awful situation, but you probably don’t have to guess what I’m going to tell you was one of the most important.

In my case, the state I was in had roots in serious regrets about my past AND anxiety about the future. While there was a lot of good in my life at the time, I was also experiencing a horrendous time at work. I dreaded every day.

My present was terrible. Why would I want to dwell in it longer than necessary?

Because, more than anything else I did, that fixed me.

Focusing on the present helped me finally let go of the past.

Taking a minute to focus on my breathing calmed my anxiety.

Allowing full awareness of what I was experiencing at the time, of what people were actually doing and saying, of what I was feeling and thinking cleared up apprehensive assumptions and misjudged motives.

Reflecting on the present instead of the past opened my eyes to possibilities.

Greatest of all, being truly open to the reality around me helped me realize all the reasons I have to be grateful and happy.

Enjoying the present is great when the present is good. Even when it’s unpleasant, centering yourself in the actual here and now is healthier than getting lost in imagined fears.

A Punk Rock Lesson for Extraordinary Customer Service

I’m working on a series of articles on things business people can learn from punk rock. This wasn’t the one I planned on publishing first, but something happened last night which illustrates the point too well to pass up.

As I was preparing to leave work, I saw a missed call and voicemail on my phone. Didn’t recognize the number, but checked the voicemail quickly in case it was something important. It kind of was. It was the fraud prevention department from my credit union with some questions about some check card charges.

I was in a hurry to get home because the Flash was crossing over on Supergirl. Oh, yeah, and to see my beautiful fiancee, who wasn’t feeling well. So I put off calling the credit union back until later.

I stopped by a favorite restaurant of ours to pick up dinner. I knew it would be quicker than cooking something up at home, plus Ashley was excited about getting a yummy dinner from there. I put in the order, tried to pay with my check card, and — yeppers — it was declined. I apologized to the cashier, mentioned I’d had a notice from my credit union about some fraudulent activity on my account, and told him I needed to make a quick call.

He was nice about it, said he’d suspend the order, and I stepped away to call my money’s keepers. Turned out my check card number had been used in a restaurant in Russia that afternoon while I was at work, for a very large purchase.

The credit union representative was helpful, explained the steps they’d take to make things right for me. I wasn’t worried about it. I know I’m in good hands with my credit union. But I didn’t have cash on me, at least not enough to pay for dinner. I apologized to the cashier, filled him in briefly about the unfortunate status of my bank account, and let him know I wouldn’t be able to pay for the order. He was understanding, and hoped the rest of my night would be good.

Just as I was starting up the car, considering the dinner options at home, a girl from the restaurant zipped out, excitedly telling me to wait. “We want to give you the food, ” she said with a smile.

“Oh, no, you can’t do that,” I said.

“But it’s already made. It would just go to waste anyway.” She encouraged me further to go back in and get the meal I’d ordered.

As I went in, the manager and cashier were bagging up everything. I told them again they didn’t have to do that, but they insisted. I promised I’d be back as soon as I could to pay for the food, and thanked them a few times for doing such a nice thing.

So here’s the lesson, from experiences like that AND from punk rock:

Don’t let rules get in the way of having a good time.

Historically, that’s what punk is all about, right? Screw the rules, we’ll do it our way! Rebellion is a rock & roll thing, but punk took it up a few notches, rebelling against rock & roll even.

You can’t write a song that matters with only three chords; you can’t have a band with two bass players and no guitar;  you have to learn how to play your instruments really well before anyone will take you seriously; you can’t name your band Dead Kennedys… punk rockers proved all that — and more — wrong.

Dead Kennedys

Rebellion With Purpose

Not that you can be a total ass. Not totally. Not and still get positive results.

It’s important to know that sometimes breaking the rules can be exactly what prevents a good time. Don’t follow basic standards, and you might not get booked to play. Show up late, or flake out on a gig, and you won’t get booked again. And, of course, it’s hard to play for an audience if you’re in jail for breaking a serious, criminal rule.

When it comes to being true to your ideals, though, striking a different path can be the best decision. Especially when it comes to setting yourself apart from boring, conformist competition.

Doing something totally different can create excitement. It can create a movement, even.

minor threat

When straight edge took a stand against the accepted rules of excess for rock and punk, promoting individuality and healthy choices instead of drugs, it spawned a lifestyle that spread across the world.

Thinking of business, Starbucks also spread across the world by going against accepted notions of how much people would pay for coffee, and breaking the traditional rules that hand-crafted beverages couldn’t be quick service, too.

Punks went DIY out of necessity. While the music industry perpetuated a belief that it took thousands of dollars to record, press, and distribute music, punk rockers broke the rules, created their own record labels, and got their stuff out quickly and cheaply. Their music and messages were just as worthy — more so, many would say — as what the public was getting from the corporations. They needed to be heard, so they broke the rules, bypassed the traditional way of doing things, and made it happen.

Breaking rules just to be seen as a badass might get you attention, but if that’s the only reason for acting outside the norm, you’re just a novelty act.

Have a good reason to bend the rules on occasion, though, and you can make legend.

Rules Versus Results

Let’s face it, rules are important. They help ensure consistency and fairness. Dogmatically sticking to a rule just because it’s a rule can hold back progress, though. These days, it can even cause you harm. If you can’t exercise some flexibility, especially when dealing with people, you limit possibilities for positive outcomes.

When small businesses are compared to larger corporations, attentive and personalized customer service is almost always considered a strength of the smaller operations. Why? Because the decision makers are more directly involved with their customers. They’re also closer to their profits and goals.

The best reason to step outside the rules is to maximize results. Why are you in business, anyway? To get results, right? Whether the results you’re working toward are sales, revenue, market share, or productivity, allowing options outside the given rules can help you better realize them.

When an opportunity arises for a deviation in normal procedures, a good question to consider is whether sticking to the rule, in that instance, will move you toward your results, or away from them?

It’s not always easy to know, of course. Using the example of my experience at the restaurant last night, I can’t say what the decision process actually was for the manager to do what he did. Certainly, giving away food seems contrary to the goal of making money. I do know the results, though: strengthened customer loyalty, ensured repeat business, and a reputation as a business which goes beyond expectations.

Of course I also went back and paid for the food once I got cash, so the product and revenue loss was corrected. They’ve also got me sharing the story repeatedly, and using them as an example of outstanding business practices, so free word of mouth marketing — the most powerful kind, experts say — too.

Punk rock is about many things. Sometimes it’s about being a spectacle, standing out from the crowd. Being bold enough to act in ways no one expects, whether you’re a punk or a business, can make you spectacular.

 

 

What I Don’t Know About Duckies and Distractions

Productivity is important to me. I think it’s because I know my time is limited, and I want to make some impact while I’m around. So I generally intend to make smart use of my time, get good things accomplished, move forward in one way or another.

I’ve been working to develop better habits to help with my focus, but, you know, sometimes things come up that interrupt my flow. Not that I’ve ever wanted to be all work and no play — far from it! — but I can’t help feeling some personal disappointment when I know I’ve wasted time.

It’s not always easy to be aware of distractions or just how much time they can take up. One nudge off course can lead to lots of twists and turns before you get back on the right path. So being cognizant of what you’ve spent time on is the first step to finding your way back.

For me, one of the worst distractions is social media. Facebook, specifically. I know I’m not alone. I’ll decide to check in, see what’s happening, find out if anyone’s tried to contact me, and if I’m not careful I’ll wind up scrolling and scrolling through my news feed mindlessly, letting precious minutes add up to precious hours. Now, I’m not a Facebook hater. If I was, there’d be no problem. I believe there are benefits to social media, not least of which is being in touch with good people. Most days I see or read something that improves my life in at least a small way. To get to those gold nuggets, though, I do find myself sifting through a lot of silt.

While I’m not always happy that I let myself get detoured so easily, I am happy to know what it is that distracts me. Because I know it’s something totally under my control. I allow things to distract me; I can choose not to let them as well.

I know people have lots of suggestions to solve my particular issue. Delete the Facebook app! Set a timer! Unfollow people and pages that clog up your feed! Just don’t use it at all! At one time or another I’ve either considered all these options or actually done them. What’s worked the best for me, though, is listening to Ernie.

When I was a young dad I was lucky to enjoy a good bit of children’s music. I think a lot of folks are familiar with the Rubber Duckie song from Sesame Street. If you aren’t, it’s been around since 1970 (I just found out it was even nominated for a Grammy in 1971!) and is sung by Ernie to his favorite bathtub toy. In the late 80s a new song debuted on Sesame Street with a pretty good message:

“Put down the duckie” started popping up in my head when I caught myself wasting time on something a couple months ago. I’m not sure exactly what brought it to mind. It may have been because I got sets of rubber duckies for my co-managers for Christmas. What I found, though, is that it helped. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but for me, having a mantra, if you will, silly as it is, that I actually said out loud, got me back on track with a smile.

Social media isn’t the only duckie I have to set aside for a while in order to get things done. With all the good new comic related TV shows, TV has become a real temptation these days. Sometimes I don’t realize something’s a duckie until it takes up a certain amount of time. It’s a challenge, since I’m also working on being more present and giving people more focused attention. Whatever distractions you find impeding your productivity, maybe Hoots the owl’s advice will work for you, too. You don’t have to totally eliminate entertainment or non-productive stuff from your life. Just put it down until you meet whatever goals you have set for yourself.

 

What I’ve Gained From Journaling

Like meditating and exercising, maintaining a daily journal is something I’d seen recommended for years. It’s nothing new. I know some people have been doing it for decades. The popularity of the practice seems to have really picked up in the mainstream over the last couple of years, though. Maybe it’s Shawn Achor’s doing. So in this case I’m kind of following the trend, not at the forefront of it. I’m well okay with that, since writing in my journal nearly every day has made a tremendous difference in my happiness, my attitude, my behavior, and my mental health. In short, it’s just about improved everything in my life.

There are bunches and bunches of well-researched articles listing the many benefits of positive journaling, like this one, this one, and this one. I appreciate the fact there is real science and documented results behind the promotion of a healthy journaling habit. I’ll leave it to you to research and read those details. What I know most about and aim to tell you about are the specific ways keeping a journal has helped me.

Most obviously, it helps develop a writing habit. This result will be more important to some people than others, but I do believe everyone can benefit from improving their experience with writing. Even if you only use bullet point notation, which I do sometimes, the process of organizing your thoughts and selecting words that make sense as you put those thoughts on paper sharpens communication skills. For me, it’s trained me to be able to sit and write at least a little something every day. Writing for no other expected readers than myself has also trained me to let the words flow, to get my thoughts out without pre-editing or stopping to correct myself. I’ve learned to be content with what I write without feeling I need to edit and revise everything endlessly.

It’s a meditative practice. Taking a few moments to pause and be still while reflecting on life and things has helped me focus. I notice I feel more centered afterward, and that feeling lasts into the next day (at least).

IMG_1748
My current journal. It’s almost full. The next one is waiting behind it.

My journal is an excellent way for me to document things I’ve learned throughout the day as well as my own achievements. It’s a record of progress. Much like an exercise journal or diet tracker, the journal is a device that allows me to recognize accomplishments I’ve made that make me a better person. It also gives me opportunity to review my goals and intentions. Sometimes that leads to admitting I could do better. That’s still learning. Still improving. If I have made progress, I feel good. If I have had opportunities to improve, I feel motivated.

Also, the process of  writing down lessons I’ve learned reinforces them for me. There’s science that explains this, too. Basically, bringing the learning experiences to mind repeats the events once, then, with the action of writing it down, I “tell” it to myself, repeating it, effectively, two more times. Putting these experiences in my journal, reliving them, secures what I’ve learned in my memory.

Repetition of other positive experiences — people I’ve helped during the day, people who have helped me; pleasant moments, even meals, enjoyed; recognition I’ve received, and gratitude I’ve expressed to others or they’ve shared with me — increases my happiness in the same way. And here’s something: those good, happy memories are doubled, because now I not only have the memory of enjoying it the first time, live, but I also have a happy memory of remembering it and recording it and feeling good about it a second time. So what was good the first time around is doubly good for the feeling of joy the memory of it can bring.

And what wasn’t good the first time around? Surprisingly, when looking back, even experiences that seemed negative or exceptionally stressful tend to not be so terrible once I’ve got past them. I caught part of an interview on NPR a couple days ago where retired paramedic (and now author) Kevin Hazzard talked about having to deliver babies:

“It’s one of those things that it’s not good until it’s all over with. Don’t forget, these are people who are enduring a natural childbirth, so they aren’t happy to see us. There’s no joking with a woman who is way deep into a natural childbirth and is going to do it on the living room rug. She’s not in the mood to smile or necessarily even be cooperative. … All of a sudden there’s this child and everybody is smiling. … It wasn’t one you always looked forward to, but it was one in the end that everybody always seemed to enjoy.”

Now, I ain’t delivering babies, but tough things I go through in a day generally turn out like that. Not so scary once it’s all over. Sometimes there’s even a positive result. Journaling has helped me maintain perspective, and appreciate just about all the things I experience.

Similarly, journaling trains the brain to look for positives, and, when looking back on the day, to realize how good the good things were and how minimal and unimportant the negative things were. Or how they weren’t negative at all. Since I’ve been journaling, I find myself applying this knowledge as I go through the day. I’m more open to opportunities and much less worried about challenges as they come up.

Another way keeping a journal increases my personal joy is by providing a mechanism for me to recognize how fortunate I am. It provides a medium for expressing gratitude, if only to myself, so I stay cognizant of how much there is that’s good in my life. Bringing these things to mind, it then spurs me to act graciously, with compassion, humility, and appreciation of others.

Through the benefits I’ve mentioned, my journal has become an incredibly effective tool for self-coaching. It’s like talking to yourself, you know. I think I read it’s even more effective than speaking affirmations to yourself, because of the repetition involved. When writing it down, your brain thinks the positive thought once in order to write it, then again as it reads it back. I write in my journal, celebrating life, detailing accomplishments and goals, and it encourages me. “Wow! Look what you’ve done! Look where you’re headed! You are one lucky guy! Stay strong, man. You can get where you need to be.”

 

What I Don’t Know About Big Changes Resulting from Small Decisions

Remember when Buckaroo Banzai drove through the mountain? He explained how the solid parts of matter — the atoms, quarks, neutrons — only make up a fraction of what people consider to be the whole thing, and that most of a thing is empty space. That’s how I’ve often looked at our lives. Sometimes it seems like life is a series of a small number of significant moments upon and around which the rest of our time hangs. When we look back, sometimes the most important  things we do or that happen to us occur without fanfare or invitation. Choices made without much thought, decisions we expect to be small, made on the spot, wind up leading to consequences broader and with greater impact than expected.

Take this one, for instance: I was paying my phone bill a few months back when it occurred to me that dang phone service was costing me too much. I investigated options through my carrier to see if there were changes I could make to my plan to lower the bill. There weren’t, really. No biggie. It had been my choice to sign up with the plan and get the phone I have; I couldn’t be upset the company was charging me the rate I’d agreed on. What did bother me, though, was how little I was getting in return for paying one of my largest month bills. Again, no one’s fault but mine.

“I’m paying over a hundred dollars a month just to be able to scroll through Facebook wherever I am?” Seriously, I said it out loud to myself. That’s when I decided to make sure to get a better return on my phone investment.

Thinking how I could make better use of the tool the phone is supposed to be, I recalled educational apps and podcasts I’d accessed in the past. What could I do with the phone, how could I use it to be an asset rather than a liability? I started with the TED app.

The very next day, while eating lunch in the break room at work, I watched TED Talks. One of them was Shawn Achor’s “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” I was inspired by his talk to check out his book, The Happiness Advantage. I was impressed enough, I bought the book. Then I read it. Then it changed my life.

happinessadvantagedvdsmaller

Not the same way The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai changed my life, but it made an impact, pretty much right away, on my behavior at work. What I read and learned from The Happiness Advantage set me to explore other books and resources related to positive psychology. I instituted new habits, and, yes, found myself to be happier. Not only at work, but also at home and in all aspects of my life.

I have plenty more to say about The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, and the pursuit of self-improvement. The point I wanted to make here, though, is it was a small, simple change because of a brief moment of realization that brought about major adjustments in my life. Take care with your moments. Consider your choices carefully. Don’t be surprised, either, if something great comes around when you don’t expect it.

What I Don’t Know About Making Progress

A lot has happened since my last post here. Considering how long it’s been, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

The most exciting piece of news is I am now engaged to be married. My wonderful girlfriend, Ashley, accepted my proposal, and we expect to be married sometime this year. I wanted to take this step for a while but had to save up for a ring. Call me old fashioned. I am, in some ways. Ashley makes me so very happy. I love our life together.

Almost as exciting, I completed the first draft of my novel, Dead Man’s Party. I’ve been working on it for almost two years, although that’s counting several months in the middle when I had to take a break from it. I returned to the project last February, fired up and anxious to finish. I learned a lot through the process. I am still learning. It has been fun. Hard work, too. Not only because it’s hard to squeeze writing time in my schedule. A few things in the story wound up different in the end than originally imagined, but I am very pleased with the results. Now I am revising the draft, making corrections, fixing those points that no longer make sense, increasing tension, and strengthening the characters. This might be even more enjoyable than writing the original manuscript. I am thrilled with the way it is turning out. I hope to have a presentable draft ready by May.

There’s been progress at the day job too. I won’t say much about it, but I have received some nice recognition. Should get a bonus in the next couple of months, which will be nice.

I found a terrific group of writers in Charlotte and joined their critique group. What a talented bunch of folks. Thoughtful, caring, and a lots of fun, too. The meetings are refreshing and informative. I’m pretty lucky to have found a group like this.

I hope things have been going well for you, too.

What I Don’t Know About Hot Irons

I started a new writing project today. No, I’m not done with Dead Man’s Party, although I plan to have that completed soon.  This new concept came to me last night, and I believe it is a pretty good one.  It definitely has potential.
I mapped out some of the characters, background, and a general premise for the new thing, then wrote a few hundred words of a beginning.  I like the way it has shaped up so far, even if “so far” is not really very far at all yet.
I’ve done this before, of course.  Some new, exciting idea comes around and sticks in my head, begging for development.  I get caught up, think through possibilities.  That’s how I started at least a dozen other projects.  Never finished them, though.
Some wound up not being such great ideas once I put in some work to refine them.  Others remain as possible future projects, when I have more time or the right motivation to make them worthwhile.
Timing is important in many things, inspiration especially.  Lucky enough to have a day off to develop this new concept, it would be wasteful and regrettable to not give it a shot.