Confession time, I find it incredibly hard to do nothing, to be bored. Even more, I find it difficult to just do one thing at a time.
I know I'm not the only one. Unless you've been hiding under a rock recently, you've probably noticed the surge of discussion around being present, mindful, and still. Why do we struggle with this so much?
Before I answer that, let's flashback 10-15 years ago, I'm a preteen and I've just purchased the latest Harry Potter book (at the midnight release of course). I take the book home and immediately start reading it, falling asleep to dreams of quidditch and butterbeer. I wake up the next morning (conveniently it's summer, so there's no school to distract me) and I pick up my book where I left off, reading literally all day long, barely breaking to eat and go to the bathroom. This continues for THREE days. No I do not shower, to the dismay of my best friend who has the unfortunate fate of spending the weekend with me. I wear the same giant t-shirt and sweat shorts for all three days, and when my mom or my friend tries to get my attention to ask me a question, I can't hear them, unless of course, they literally get in my face, between me and my book (true story). At the end of the three days, I finish my book, immensely satisfied by the whole experience, feeling as though I AM a student at Hogwarts, but finally able to do the next thing.
This wasn't the only time I checked out of the world to read a book or finish a task. My parents used to complain that they couldn't get my attention once I started something. For most of my high school and college life I was berated by my friends and family because they could rarely reach me via my phone. I was somewhat proud of this, attributing it to the fact that I was too busy focusing on something or someone in the moment and didn't time space to constantly check my phone or email.
Okay, now flash forward to the present. If I read for a solid 5-10 minutes without breaking, it's a miracle. I'm a mom, wife, business owner, friend, sister and daughter. Just like everybody else, I'm busy, I have responsibilities. But I don't really know if this is an excuse--things didn't used to be so complicated for people. Women used to get all number of house chores done and cook and attend social events without batting an eye. Surely increased responsibilities isn't the only thing to blame. The sad truth is that sometimes I feel like my preteen self, with the ability to completely zone-out from the world for one task, would be more effective at fulfilling my responsibilities today than my current self. Most days, it feels like I'm so scatter-brained, trying to accomplish everything at once, that I hardly complete one thing out of about 15 on my to do list.
This sentiment is widespread. If you're a christian or you follow any faith focused media, you've likely seen Psalm 46:10 posted at least 2 or 3 times.
"Be still and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
Be still --- it means to be quiet, wait without movement. The hebrew word from the verse takes it further, it means to stop striving, to let go, to surrender. The passion translation says it like this:
"Surrender your anxiety!
Be silent and stop your striving and you will see that I am God.
I am the God above all the nations,
and I will be exalted throughout the whole earth."
The beauty of this is that if we can stop striving to anxiously hold our lives together and instead, give them over to the one who makes everything work for our good, we'll find that all that striving wasn't the answer after all.
In popular secular culture we talk about being mindful and present. You see, we know the value of being still, of quieting our minds and doing just one thing at a time. Instinctively we know that it allows us to be more productive, feel less chaotic and develop deeper relationships. From research, we know that being mindful leads to lower levels of stress which may improve markers of disease like blood pressure as well as improve our relationship with food, our bodies and other people.
So why is it so hard to do this, to slow down, be still and focus on just one thing? There are so many reasons, and I'm sure I won't mention them all-- but things that come to mind immediately:
TECHNOLOGY(Esp. smart phones) -- we have access to everyone and everyone has access to us at all times. It's hard to fight the social pressure to respond to texts, calls, social media comments and emails as soon as they come. Plus, when we do one task on our smart phones or computers it's just way too tempting and easy to slip into a one hour social media scroll session. Not to mention the allure (and possibly "addicting") pull of TV and movies which distract us from the things that matter most (also me!).
FOMO (fear of missing out)-- Technology also let's us see everything that everybody else is doing all the time, leading to all kinds of comparison and a fear of missing out on all the things that others are doing and experiencing. But the truth is pursuing the wrong things instead of focusing on the one right thing for us just means we don't accomplish ANYTHING or at lease we don't feel fulfilled when we accomplish the wrong thing.
BUSY IDEAL--The fact that our culture glorifies being busy (guilty of this too) makes it really hard to feel okay about just sitting still and being bored, but being bored is the best launching point for creativity and rejuvenation. This busy ideal also makes us feel like we need to be doing more than one thing at a time to be productive and valued. Of course this is completely false, and we know that we're more productive when we do one thing at a time AND when we take breaks throughout the day to do nothing.
INSTANT GRATIFICATION--The world is at our finger tips, or so it feels and we want everything we can get RIGHT NOW, because we CAN. Remember when you had to wait until a movie rental came available at blockbuster to watch it or when you actually had to wait the whole week between episodes to find out what happens on your favorite TV show. Now we have amazon instant video and netflix binges. Besides this, we have books on our phones and instantly downloaded music, groceries delivered to our door, and now, because we can hardly wait those whole 2 days for a prime delivery, Amazon has started setting up more and more warehouses so we can get SAME DAY delivery. All of these options make it hard to slow down and focus on one thing for more than 10 minutes.
HABIT/WEAK FOCUS SKILLS--Finally, just like everything else, our focusing skills have to be used in order to be maintained. It takes practice to be able to focus solely on the task in front of you and shut out distractions. Researchers call this state of doing just one thing and doing it well, flow. It's where we thrive and where we create; it's where we produce the best results. We simply have to break the habit of checking our phone every 5 minutes (or whatever it is) in order to focus!
To be honest, even in the course of writing this blog post, I've had to continually draw my attention back to writing and away from all manner of distractions. So, NO, I am not a zen master. BUT I do know the value of doing one thing at a time and I am making progress. And, guys, I'm not naive, I know that we can't just take three days to read a book all the way through, we DO have responsibilites and adulting to do. However, we can be more efficient and effective at carrying out the responsibilites that truly matter by giving them the undivided attention they deserve. So, without further ado here are my favorite tips for cultivating stillness in this crazy million-miles-a-minute world of ours. BTW, some of these may seem waaay out of your wheelhouse right now and that's OKAY, my hope is that you would just start thinking about ways YOU can cultivate a present mindset and MAYBE one of these will help you do that (okay I guess that was a little "further ado").
Taming your relationship to your phone
Ahh, the smart phone. I have such a love/hate relationship with it. On one hand it allows me to reach so many people and stay in touch with them, on the other hand it's a life-sucker. So how do you keep it in check? The best thing I've tried is putting it on the charger and turning it on loud and only answering it for phonecalls when I'm able (it's original design). As far as texts, social media messages and emails I try my darndest to schedule or time block periods of the day (or week) to answer these and I do what I can on my personal computer. Using the computer for work, over my phone is not only more efficient, but for some reason, it's less tempting to get distracted on my computer. I've also heard people have success with apps that monitor screen time on their phone (I just end up ignoring this, but to each his own).
Read Real Physical Books
OHMYGSH I can't tell you how much I love books and the instant gratification of dowloading one right on my phone/computer the moment I decide I want it. But I also have a real obsession with physical paper books. For myself, intentionally buying a physical copy of a book as opposed to a digital copy has helped reduce my screen time, which has allowed me to stay focused while reading. As a bonus, my eyes feel 100% better and my sleep is easier when I read a physical book as opposed to a digital one.
Do activities that require creative focus and have zero to do with technology
Recently, I've started drawing and journaling more. You guys I am a terrible drawer, but it's fun for me and there is no screen involved. Drawing also requires consistent focus and creativity which means I'm building my focus muscles. You know, of course, that I love to write, but since writing usually takes place on the computer, I've been making an effort to outline and journal on paper FIRST. Also, I try to minimize other windows and shut off wifi when I can to help with my focus while typing on the computer. If you aren't a drawer or a writer, consider hobbies like painting, water color, calligraphy, knitting, music, even COOKING. A good bout of chopping and experimenting in the kitchen is bound to require your focus and creativity - flow at its best.
Know your values and your priorities, cut out the rest!
Part of being able to focus on one thing at a time is getting rid of the extra stuff, the to-do list items that clog our calendars and our brains. Make a list of your top 5 values and/or priorities. Now look at your schedule for the last few weeks. Does the way that you use your time reflect your values? For many of us the answer is a resounding NO. We want to prioritize family and relationships. We want to prioritize our faith and our health, we want to work on that side hustle we're passionate about BUT instead we end up going to 18 different baby showers, volunteering for things we barely know anything about and scrolling through Instagram for hours a day. Not every good thing is a GOD thing. It's amazing how scary it can feel to stop doing something that seems good and maybe even necessary. Yet on the other side of this letting go we find that putting our energy into the things we value most and the things we're gifted at is so much more rewarding--and dare I say it---productive.
One caveat here, make sure to evaluate your priorities and your values. Do you value fitness above relationship and family? How is that working for you? Are you happy? In my more disordered days I would have proudly told you that healthy eating is a value! Hah! I was so focused on eating healthy and exercising that I didn't realize how it was effecting the people closest to me (namely my husband). And while I would have said that marriage was more important than eating a certain way, I certainly wasn't acting that way. But of course grace entered in and gently showed me this trap, this bondage. And realizing what I truly valued in my heart and acting on that set me free from my obsession disguised as a "value" for healthy eating and fitness.
The reality is that our truest health, our most vibrant wellness is found in a quiet and nourished soul, one that's acting in line with our values. This is when we're at peace with doing the one thing that's in front of us well and letting the 18,000 distractions be put in their proper place. Or so I'm learning, over and over again -- hopefully I won't need to learn it too much more ;)
This is a topic near and dear to my heart, I'd love to hear your thoughts and experience with being present and cultivating stillness. What's worked for you? Please share in the comments below.
Until next time, happy fueling and stay nourished, body & soul.