Presence Month

Before each new month rolls around, I come up with a challenge for myself. The first of each month represents a blank slate, and the mission is check off each day in the month as progress is made towards a stated goal. Recent goals have been to write everyday for month or to hack on a programming side project each day. Some months take on a theme, such as “health,” where I’ll aim to cook three new meals per week and stick to a climbing training routine. Each month is some new flavor of life experiment.

This month, the goal is to be more present.

I’m sick of:

  1. Time disappearing. There’s nothing quite as dissatisfying as the feeling you get when you snap out of a deep infinite-scroll zombie session. You’re never getting that half hour back and you’ve nothing to show for it.
  2. A distracted home life. I’m the type of fellow who might put the TV on when I get home, just for noise. At some point, I’ll crack open the laptop to make sure I didn’t miss any important gifs in any of my dozen Slack teams, then start to poke through potential recipes for dinner. A fantasy football notification on my phone lets me know that Gronk will be out this week, because he shot himself with the harpoon gun on his party boat. While searching the app for his replacement, I realize I’m not actually paying attention to any of the three screens and that my wife got home thirty minutes ago. Talking to your loved ones while you scroll is bad and you should feel bad for doing it. I do.
  3. A distracted work life. Every occupation requires some amount of uninterrupted focus and clarity to get anything done. Software development is on the extreme end of that spectrum, and that’s why I own some noise-cancelling headphones. But the only person who’s more guilty of interrupting your flow than Matt in Marketing, is you. No preaching necessary: we all know what the pings from Slack, the dings from email clients, the blips from calendar apps, the 20-something open browser tabs, and the dozen icons on the status bar all add up to.

I’m going to focus on:

  1. Meditation. This is one of my favorite ways to start the day. There’s nothing spiritual or religious about it for me; its just a time to take some nice big breaths and to pause the swirling mess of morning thoughts until I’m ready for them. If you prefer, an evening mediation is a great way to unwind too. If this is unfamiliar territory for you and you want to give it a whirl, Stop, Breath & Think is my top recommendation for beginners. Meditation is not easy (especially when you’ve got a lot on your mind), but the more you practice, the better you get and the more rewarding it becomes.
  2. Deliberate use of screen time. Before sitting down at a computer or picking up a device, the first goal is just to pick a purpose for doing so. Anything. I think the real enemy here is looking to a screen out of habit or boredom. When you let your phone notifications lead the way, you wake up 45 minutes later on the Instagram profile of a sushi restaurant in South Africa. 
    At work, Pomodoros are a great way to stay on track and still remember to take breathers. The traditional technique calls for 25 minutes of focused work, then a five minute break. Rinse and repeat, all work day. If those numbers don’t work for you, tweak it. The point is to be deliberate about your use of the time, i.e. “For the next 25 minutes, I’m going to sketch out a new blog post.” Perhaps most importantly, kill off any apps (or turn off their notifications) that are likely to pop up in the next 25 minutes. With few exceptions, they can wait.
  3. Writing. Writing is a powerful way to slow down. It forces you to focus and think linearly. The only way that jumbled mess in your mind is going to make it out into the world is with one connected thought at a time. I aim to journal more often as a way to acknowledge what’s on the mind, prioritize what deserves attention, and decide how to move forward. If that writing turns into material for blog posts (like this one), all the better.

As a result, I hope to:

  1. Focus better/longer. Not unlike a muscle, attention can be exercised and trained. (Meditation is one form of attention training.) I eagerly await the day my attention span doesn’t resemble that of a goldfish. At work, my goal is to be deliberate about my learning by curating the “Is there a better way to do this?” mindset and setting aside time for playing with new tools.
  2. Be happier, now. I’ve got an awful lot to be grateful for and I suspect you do too. Slowing down to acknowledge that more often wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Enjoy the relationships you have and show that person you care by giving them your whole attention. Bonus: maybe you can pick out a more-thoughtful-than-usual gift for someone this holiday.
  3. Relax, fully. In our “always on” world, I find it hard to ever wholly unwind (without being way outdoors). What you do to relax doesn’t matter; nonsense is fine. Just don’t kid yourself by turning on every screen you own and sharing your attention between the nonsense on each of them. Tonight, pick one thing you enjoy — read a good book, put on a good playlist, cook a good meal, whatever’s clever — and really immerse yourself in it.

So, are you ready to slow down?

Been down this road before? Got any tips for me? How do you like to be more present or deliberate in your work or home life? Share the wealth.