The gift of being present
What does it mean to be present? And more importantly, why is it so hard these days?
I’ve always been a good listener. At work, I made it my mantra not to multi-task, knowing the detrimental effect to the quality of my listening when I tried to finish off an email, check my schedule, and tick something off my to-do list while simultaneously trying to start a phone conversation. Whereas multi-tasking was once a coveted skill, we now know it has few advantages in terms of productivity, and certainly creates the impression that we aren’t focused on whoever or whatever needs our attention at that moment.
So while I felt like I “got this” at work, as a parent, I struggle to spend more quality time and be more present with my kids. At the end of the day, it feels like we all tumble into the house, generally tired and frazzled, but sometimes energised and hyper. Shoes get kicked off, coats dumped at or near the coat rack, and hunger cries are instantly issued. Most likely the kids head into watch tv, or burn their retinas on the glow of the iPad (at least that’s how it appears to me), and I – on a not so dissimilar note – head into the kitchen to pour a drink – sometimes tea, often wine – before then pouring much of my attention to my phone. Any new emails? What’s happening on Facebook? I’ll just look up now that thing I was curious about earlier today. What article do I want to read to beef up my knowledge on x topic? And on, and on, and on…
For someone who wants quality time with loved ones, this isn’t really the story I wanted to be writing.
One of the benefits of my coaching certification program is that I am getting a lot of practice with coaching, both coaching other people and being coached. Last week, I got coached in a 15 minute Skype session with a soon-to-be certified coach in Abu Dhabi, someone I’d never met before but who was looking for practice before her oral exam. In those 15 minutes, I was able to say, “This is the situation that I want to be different.” We talked about a number of aspects of what was important to me in terms of the temptation of social media – namely connection, relationships, and creativity – but by the end of the call I’d agreed that I would detach myself from my phone in the evening when the kids were around.
That evening, when the boys and I walked in the door, I first found a way around all the potential excuses I might come up with as to why I’d need to have my phone near me. I forwarded my calls to our home phone, so that if Matt happened to call, then I wouldn’t miss that. I told myself if someone texted me, that it wouldn’t be urgent, and that I’d just look at it later. I then put my phone in our fruit bowl, somewhere out of my line of sight, and told myself I wouldn’t be touching it until after the boys were asleep.
Generally the results were positive. I played football with Noah in the hallway, Blake and I had a conversation, and I felt a lot more free in my body not feeling tethered to my Otter-box-covered “link to the outside world”. I listened intently. I heard so much more. I laughed more with them. I felt like I wasn’t wasting time, or to turn that into a positive phrase, I felt like I was putting my energy where I wanted to put it – with my family who were right there with me. I was being present.
In the following days, I kept it up pretty well. I could see how just as easily as patterns form, new ones can re-form. We are capable of breaking the habits that we don’t want in our lives. I’m not perfect, and sometimes I’ve slipped up. When that’s happened, I’ve just tried to put the phone away and remember to be more present. I love many of the people that I’m friends with on Facebook. I’m very intrigued by the interesting people who I might want to connect with and learn from on LinkedIn. Twitter still baffles me in its amount of content, but I marvel at the speed of information being shared in such innovative ways, and at the number of people who are getting their messages out into the world. The colors, perspectives, and beauty on Instagram still take my breath away. So while I’m not abandoning any of those platforms and see the huge amount of value, opportunity, and fun in them (James Corden’s carpool karaoke with One Direction being 13 of the most entertaining minutes of my year), I’m just being more mindful of when I interact with them. It would seem ludicrous to say that I’d invite all of those people physically into my home every evening of the week, but realistically that’s what I was doing. And they were distracting me from the very people who were already in my house and with whom I wanted to be present.
A few days into this experiment, Noah said to me, “Mummy, is your phone a fruit?” I went to the first connection that came to mind: “Oh why, you mean because it’s an Apple?” “No,” he said, “because you put it in the fruit bowl.” Kids notice so much more than we sometimes think they do. And for once, I was pleased to know that other people had noticed my efforts to be more present.
To summarise a few tips, if you want a better relationship with technology:
- remember what you’re working toward, as opposed to what you’re being “deprived of”: Having a positive goal (“more quality time with family”) will serve you better than being reminded of the thing that you’re having less of
- write down the boundaries: knowing what’s allowed, and when, will give you a framework to work in…e.g. “Switch off phone between 6:00 and 9:00pm”
- be realistic: phones are hugely useful, so know that you’ll need and want information from them. Just find that information outside the timeframes you define in your boundaries
- don’t aim to be perfect: you’re human, so if you don’t stick absolutely to your goal, don’t wallow in it when you fall off the wagon. The goal is improvement of a situation, so if you slip, reset yourself and remember what you’re aiming for. Giving yourself a hard time for “failure” is a waste of your energy.
- celebrate success: pat yourself on the back when you stick to your goals. Connect with the benefits you had when you were less attached to the technology. Positivity fuels positivity!
Do you have this same challenge? What would work for you to switch off and put your attention where you want to? What would it give you? I’d love to hear from you!
p.s. Ghada, good luck on your exam – you’re going to do great.