There’s not a day that goes by where we are not pulled in multiple directions. Unlike days of yore, we are much more easily pulled in multiple directions due to our reliance on technology. Our phones all have access to the internet, to Facebook and social media, to all other distractions which pull our attention. Our phone chimes with a notification from an app, or an email from work, or a text message from a friend. We immediately feel the pangs of anxiety ticking like a clock, the pressure mounting as the need to respond grows larger and larger the longer we delay the response.
The notification has snapped our attention away from the task at hand. And by doing so, has stopped us from our productivity and the opportunity to be more aligned with the present moment. In the blink of an eye, our attention to the task at hand is gone. And we think that it’s okay, because we will get back to the task at hand right after the message is responded to, or we see that video a friend just sent us. But marketers’ jobs are to keep us hooked. Once you watch that first video, there’s another after it, and before you know it, we’ve wasted 15 or 20 minutes on the distraction. Thus, the task we were performing is dead.
Remember what Seneca says in On the Shortness of Life:
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.”
Science shows that it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on track after we have been distracted by something. 25 minutes is nearly half an hour. If we work an average of eight hours a day, that’s nearly 5% of our working day we’ve lost to a single distraction. But compounded over the week, that’s almost an hour and a half. Over a month? Well, that’s over eight hours just trying to get back on track from tasks we’ve abandoned due to distractions.
Every minute counts and we must remember what a gift it is to have this moment. That we are lucky to be here, doing what we do. To be alive.
Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations:
“Let no act be done without a purpose, nor otherwise than according to the perfect principles of art.”
Marcus is reminding himself, and in turn us, of the importance of our actions and our presence in those actions. Without the presence and intention to what we do, we have something that is incomplete, lacking the most vital parts of ourselves which could have been poured into whatever it is we were doing.
Later in Meditations, Marcus writes about how it is through abstinence in something we want that we are able to be better and grow. This restriction of desires is not new, it is a powerful exercise the Stoics used to help conquer their desires of things and keep them grounded in the present moment, one of the key tenets of Stoicism.
We need to remember that being still is okay. Not answering that text or notification is okay. The world does not end. Do not be afraid of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). We are stronger than that.
We can spend time with ourselves. We can work to be comfortable in silence. We can spend time in solitude. It is from ourselves that we learn to create a happy and comfortable life. External stimuli will not create this for us. It is an illusion to believe it will. Ralph Waldo Emerson whose essay, Self-Reliance, was heavily influenced by the Stoics, states:
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
So how do we remain present in a distraction-laced world?
It begins first with our mindset. We must set our minds to be comfortable with silence. And it is strange at first. It is uncomfortable to sit and hear nothing. It does not feel right to not have our cell phone or computer right next to us. But does that mean it’s bad or wrong? No, of course not. Learning to be still in the world is the key to success. While everyone else is running around jumping here and there, being distracted from this or that, we have the ability to focus on something in its entirety and in turn do our best at that task. Think about what is discussed in the best-selling book The One Thing: The key is to focus on the most important task and that is it. We have the ability to do more by doing less. It is about quality not quantity. We have control over ourselves and our own actions. From this we can find peace. It means that we don’t need other things to form a happy life. Like Marcus reminds himself in Meditations:
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
To help yourself practice presence and optimize your time away from distractions, try to restrict phone usage during certain hours. Learn to become comfortable without having these right by your side. Find a place you like and go to it. Sit there in silence for five minutes and just exist without distraction. Feel your breath entering and exiting your lungs. Enjoy the moment you have, embrace the silence from all distractions. If your way of staying present is through writing, try writing with a pen and paper rather than keyboard and computer. This will not only help you retain the things you write down much better but will also keep distractions away. If you’re listening to music, try to listen to music which is instrumental only, avoiding lyrics which could pull your focus elsewhere. The point of all of this is to avoid the distractions that usually consume your day and be at complete peace with the stillness.
By opening yourself up to stillness, you will allow creativity to freely flow through your mind, unhindered by any of the distractions or problems of the day. Your thoughts will begin to flow freely and without restriction. Allow the silence to speak to you. It will engage your focus in the present moment. Try this each day for seven days and see if you feel a difference.
You will find that once you relinquish all distractions and are left in silence, your monkey-mind will start bouncing off of walls with ideas, things to do, worries that have gone unaddressed. Allow these thoughts to flow. Through practice, you will learn to accept the thoughts as they come up, to accept the noise they create and be comfortable with that noise. You will learn to prioritize the thoughts and speak directly to them. Thoughts tend to bounce around in our minds because they want to be heard. They’re like the kid in the classroom who keeps raising his hand saying “Pick me! Pick me!” But like the teacher in the classroom, we must teach ourselves discipline in this and center our thoughts. You can do this through journaling and writing down the thoughts. Alternatively, you can speak directly to the thoughts and explaining through self-talk that all the thoughts will be heard in order. (Safi Bahcall has a great method for dealing with insomnia due to these fluttering thoughts that he shared on the Tim Ferriss Show which you can find here,and Safi’s newest book, Loonshots, here).
Your mind needs rest and rejuvenation the same way your body does each night. Take care of it the way you would anything else. Allow it to be free of distractions. To relax. To enjoy the present moment.
As Marcus reminds us, all we really need to live a happy life is already inside of us, we just need to stop and listen.
We’ve enlisted the help of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca to assist us in providing even more additional guidance to help you live your most virtuous life. Want to see what wisdom they have to offer? Complete the form below and join our private monthly newsletter. Oh, and did we mention there’s also free goodies for signing up?