How I Will Be More Present This Year
Could uttering a few words inside my mixed up head make any difference in the real world?
“Slow Down” — it’s the mantra I’m stepping into 2021 with. Do I really need to be reminded to slow down after a year spent indoors without much to do? Yes. Yes, I do.
The way I think of a mantra is a short phrase I keep in mind and say to myself often. A reminder to do something or lean in a certain direction. For me, a mantra is more like self-talk, rather than something that might be found in Transcendental Meditation or Kirtan Music.
I didn’t always think mantras and self-talk possessed value. For many years I believed they were quaint at best and delusional at worst. As rational beings, I believed that if we knew what we wanted to do, we’d simply do it. In hindsight, I “knew” this despite heaping mounds of evidence that I behaved otherwise.
What could uttering a few words inside my mixed up head do to make any difference in the real world? I immediately wrote off anyone who even suggested a mantra to me. I knew better and saw through the farce. I wasn’t going to buy into “The Secret” or the “laws of attraction.” Instead, if I set realistic goals — I’d have all the direction and motivation needed to achieve those goals and live as the best version of myself. I believed that to be successful and grow you need hard-nosed discipline and appropriate self-flagellation. Sweet words spoken to myself in kindness are not going to move me to act.
That kind of softness is not going to change anything.
Until it did.
Evidence is building in the academic and scientific literature on the benefits of using a mantra or self-talk to improve well being. Research has been conducted on the effects of self-talk in the areas of eating disorders and body image. Additionally, there is substantial research on the use and value of self-talk in athletic performance. A 2019 research study on the effects of self-talk on younger, non-elite athletes demonstrated that directed, positive self-talk had positive effects on numerous variables including increased self-confidence and decreased levels of anxiety. Furthermore, several meta-analyses (studies about research studies) have found similar and robust findings on the value of self-talk in many areas of life.
I wasn’t aware of this research last year when I started to see the value and power of a mantra in my own life. The idea of utilizing a mantra entered my life in three powerful ways. Several years ago, a mentor of mine suggested reading a book by Shad Helmstetter, “What to say when you talk to yourself.” I read most of it but never found it compelling — and a little too good to be true. Nonetheless, it was a seedling planted in my brain. Then, a year later, when listening to the Tim Ferris podcast, I heard Tim recommend the book, “The Magic of Thinking Big”, by David Schwartz. Both of these titles are a bit dated (1986 and 1959 respectively) but the authors identified something powerful based on their experiences in the business world. The books may be hokey, but their message is clear and call to mind a quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Our beliefs and how we talk to ourselves about those beliefs is powerful.
This idea also took root through the work of Brene Brown. She is known primarily for her work on shame and vulnerability — she is always very honest and transparent about her own struggles and self-development. She talks openly and encouragingly in her writings and her podcast about her own use of mantras. She has discussed using phrases like, “I’m here to get it right, not be right.” or “courage over comfort.”
As the instances started to pile up, resonate, and connect within my mind. The universe handed me a tool to use. The universe said (in its universe voice) “This tool has been effective to others — why not give it a try yourself.”
So I did.
Self-talk, or what I’m calling my mantra, is a way in which I can routinize positive thinking, belief in myself, and a growth mindset. I experienced some success with my mantra in 2020. But like most things, It needs a do-over as the results of 2020 are hard to normalize. The mantra for 2020 was, “there is no rush.” It was effective enough that I’m willing to give using self-talk another try. This year, the mantra is along the same lines as last year — but more direct and specific to my life right now. Another of Brene’s mantras is, “clarity is kindness,” and in the spirit of clarity and kindness toward myself, I’ve settled on the phrase, “slow down.”
It could look like I’m giving myself a pass on getting a lot done or being highly productive in 2021. The opposite is the case. Slow Down doesn’t mean sit back and relax. I’m not taking a page from Dude Lebowski here. Rather, Slow Down means to be more mindful. To take my time. Do what I’m doing, and do it well. Years ago my son made me a sign for my desk that reads, “Just do what you’re doing while you’re doing it.” I was aware of the value of mindfulness and slowing down all those years ago — it just hadn’t stuck yet.
In holding this mantra close, I’m combating my tendency to rush through things. Which means nearly everything. Efficiency has been my highest priority and the yardstick by which I measured all my efforts. My focus on quantity over quality has resulted in many less than optimal outcomes and many post hoc reminders that “haste makes waste.”
Just the other morning, my wife and I ate breakfast and looked over the upcoming Yoga with Adrienne 30 day challenge (I do recommend you check it out!) We wanted to print the schedule to hang on our refrigerator as we did last January — it’s a handy way of both reminding us and planning the necessary time. We struggled to get the calendar to print in the landscape orientation. As the seconds ticked by my brain began screaming, “Just print it!” Before I gave voice to those hasty words, my mantra came to consciousness and I heard another voice in my head muttering, “slow down.” And I did. And now our 30-day challenge calendar hangs from our fridge in landscape format, easily legible without an acre of wasted white space.
I can tell many, much more consequential (and embarrassing) stories of my making a hasty decision in an effort to just “get it done.” And indeed, there is a time and place for that. Slow Down a way of reminding myself that quality is important (measure twice and cut once). Intentionality is important. This simple phrase encapsulates how I want to be this year, and for the rest of my life. Those 8 letters, two words, hold vast wisdom for me.
Importantly, Slow Down is an invitation to stay in uncomfortable situations a little longer. To sit with uncertainty and not to run and hide. This represents a big shift in my default mindset. I too often emphasize speed over velocity. Slow Down grounds me in the thickness of life and lets me consider alternate paths.
Mantras, self-talk, these strategies may not be for you. You may still be in the “that’s too hokey” phase. I can certainly appreciate that. I offer the recommendation for using a mantra as a simple, low cost of entry, tool to potentially experiment with. Perhaps just allow this brief article to plant the seed. If the idea comes back around in your life — maybe then, investigate it a little further.
As for me and 2021, I’m looking forward to today and tomorrow. So many experiences to savor and moments to sit into. Slow Down will be a challenge, no doubt. It is one that I welcome with open arms and heart.