How to be more present in your life
Our lives are hectic, busy and full of competing demands that can be hard to keep up with. We live our lives in autopilot, mindlessly going from one task to another, and as a result we miss out on the nuance of our experiences. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is an antidote to autopilot living and has been shown to improve a number of physical and mental health issues (Zhang et al, 2021).
One thing I hear a lot in therapy is “but I just don’t know how I would fit mindfulness in”. If you are overloaded and busy, developing a consistent mindfulness practice may feel too much.
In this article I outline some simple ways in which you can weave mindful moments into your life, without needing an App, You Tube or your phone.
Mindfulness involves bringing awareness to the present moment, and experiencing internal events from a more non-judgemental perspective
Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond (2011)
Mindfulness has gained huge popularity in recent years. In the psychotherapy world, many therapeutic approaches emphasise developing the skill of being more in the moment, such as Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy. Within these approaches, if you can cultivate the skill of being present without judgement, it goes alongside being able to step back from unhelpful mental chatter that keep unhelpful behavioural patterns going.
All of that sounds and looks great on paper. But when it comes to actually developing the skills of present moment awareness, certain obstacles can arise. The most common one is: Too Busy. I’m Too Busy/I don’t have time is a mountainous block to trying something new that might, at least at first, be challenging, but in the long run be highly beneficial for your mental health and the relationship you have with your mind.
So, let’s unpack that a bit. When our minds are churning out reasons not to do something, we can easily be swayed down the path of ‘ok so I won’t bother then’. The problem with this approach is that nothing changes. We stay stressed, we stay anxious and low and we get stuck in old, unhelpful behaviours that don’t help us move in the direction we actually want to go in.
Take the pressure off
If you feel very overwhelmed, stressed and anxious, ‘having to do mindfulness’ is another thing to add to the never-ending to-do list. This is not going to help reduce stress/anxiety. Instead, take the pressure off.
Mindfulness does not have to be ‘formal’ – i.e., sitting/lying down for 10 or more minutes listening to a disembodied voice talk you through a mindfulness exercise. Take the focus off ‘having to do mindfulness’ and on to being more in the present.
Contacting the present moment lies at the heart of all mindfulness
Being more mindful in your life does not have to be complicated. Generally, a good place to start is to choose an activity you do regularly – for example washing up, having a shower, ironing, cleaning, brushing your teeth, and do that in a mindful way. There are a multitude of activities you can do mindfully. Some other examples include:
Mindful walking/movement or stretching
Listening to music
Mindfully drinking a cup of tea (or any hot beverage!)
Doing arts and crafts in a mindful way
Mindful conversations with others
Mindfully playing with your kids
Cultivating present moment awareness
The key to being more in the present is to do the activity using your 5 senses, and to described this in rich detail:
What can I see (as I do…X…)?
What sounds can I hear (as I do….)
What can I feel against my skin/on my hands/legs/feet etc – what sensations am I experiencing?
What can I taste in my mouth?
What can I smell?
It is ok if your mind distracts you away from the activity – you may find yourself drifting into your thoughts, suddenly remembering that email you had to send or what you need to get from the shops. That is normal. Just acknowledge to yourself that you have drifted off into thinking, then bring yourself back to focusing on the activity. That may happen many times – again, this is normal and natural. Just keep acknowledging and refocusing.
Incorporating mindful moments into your routine
Start with an achievable goal at first – for example, one mindful activity per week, or per day, or whatever is going to fit with your life. Try a few different activities and find one that you enjoy doing mindfully.
Once you have one or a few activities you like to do mindfully, do that consistently so that it becomes part of your daily routine. Remember, each time you do an activity mindfully you are practising the skill on being in the here and now, anchoring yourself to the present moment.
It can be useful to have some kind of reminder to engage in mindful moments – some people find a reminder on their phone useful or old school post it notes in the places they will practice a mindful moment (e.g., by the kitchen sink if mindful washing up is their thing).
You can be flexible with mindfulness and start with mindful moments – and that’s ok!
Gently build up mindful moments into your day – a couple of minutes here, 5 minutes there – it all adds up and helps you build in the skill of being present into your day, which helps you live your life a little less in autopilot mode.
Flaxman, P.E., Blackledge, J.T. & Bond, F.W. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. CBT Distinctive Features Series. Routledge.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: an easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Zhang, D., Lee, E., Mak, E., Ho, C. Y., & Wong, S. (2021). Mindfulness-based interventions: an overall review. British medical bulletin, 138(1), 41–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldab00