Be honest – how many times have you ‘drifted off’ so far today? When has your mind wandered and where has it taken you to? Have you lapsed into ‘automatic pilot’ on your commute or in a meeting?
Our minds are wonderful in their ability to help us remember life’s lessons and to plan for a successful future. But our mind isn’t always helpful and can sometimes remind us of painful or uncomfortable episodes from our past and make us feel anxious about an imagined future -even when we don’t want to.
We can spend too much time dwelling on the past or getting upset about fictional futures, when our energies would be better served focusing on the here and now. Further, these trips into the past or future can lead to unpleasant or upsetting emotions (“That was so humiliating”, “That would be a disaster!”) which impact us in the present.
But focusing on the here and now is difficult when our attention is being pulled in so many directions at once. You may already have wandered off while reading this brief blog post! Maybe an email notification popped up on your screen or you started to remember the last time your mind wandered off.
It’s difficult to avoid this kind of distraction, but it’s not impossible.
Be you, here, now.
One of the ways we can improve our psychological wellbeing and focus is to consciously practice spending more time in the present, adopting a mindful approach to our activities. We do this by developing an awareness of the present moment and there are lots of ways we can do this.
If you think of your present moment awareness as being like a muscle, then it needs training. Maybe right now you’re easily distracted by your own thoughts and what’s going on around you. But with practice, you can gently bring yourself back to the here and now and focus on what’s important in front of you. Your mindfulness muscle will get stronger with practice!
And when you inevitably slip up and start to think about other things, don’t beat yourself up – gently bring your mind back to the mindful present and carry on. After all, you can’t unlearn your lifetime’s habits in just a few minutes.
Try some of the following:
- Simply take a few deep breaths and focus only on the breathing and what it’s doing to your body. Notice the changes to your neck and shoulders, chest and abdomen.
- Take a short walk and focus only on the action of walking – no music, no planning, no ruminating on the past. Notice your footfall and how your weight shifts from leg to leg. Note the speed of your walk and how walking actually feels.
- Avoid the temptation to multi-task and just do one thing at a time – mindfully. Notice what it feels like to give a single task all your focus. Mindful reading. Mindful eating. Even mindful email writing!
- Try mindfulness meditation, a great way to build your mindful approach. You can start with very small steps, of just a few minutes at a time via various apps and even in-person classes.
At first, this kind of mental exercise may seem incredibly difficult – being alone with such a narrow focus of mental experience can even be a little scary. But persevere and you’ll soon experience the benefits: more time spent on what’s important in the here and now and less unwelcome mental time-travel.
What else can I do?
This post is part of a series on psychological flexibility, a concept central to our wellbeing and mental health. If you’d like to learn more about this, you can download our free guide to developing psychological flexibility via this link. We also recently recorded a podcast episode (episode 3) all about paying attention to the present, which forms part of a series on a concept called Psychological Flexibility. You can access the podcast here.