Now and then, I get really afraid that I’m missing out on the “good times” of my life.
It’s strange because I’ve had a lot of so-called “good times.” I make a very concerted effort to have as many cool experiences as possible. However, my issue lies in the fact that I often don’t feel fully engaged with these experiences.
The Challenge of Living in the Moment
There are many occasions where I’ll just check out from whatever I’m doing. It doesn’t matter if I’m at a concert, partying with friends, or exploring a new town — my attention will gradually wane, and the next thing I know, I’ve shifted to autopilot. I’m very much still there, and I’m experiencing things passively, but my attention and focus are elsewhere. If you asked me questions about my experience afterward, I would probably have some cursory answers for you, but I couldn’t tell you how the experience felt, how it resonated with me, how it changed me.
This issue, this inability to truly live in the moment, is troubling to me. How will I grow as a person if I can’t pay attention to the awesome things I’ve had the privilege to experience? How will I become wise if I fail to engage with all the important lessons the present can offer?
I’ve come to realize that there are three main culprits responsible for diverting my focus from the present: anxiety, daydreaming/spacing out, and inability to embrace the negative aspects of an experience. Below, I’ve detailed my methods/philosophies for combating these culprits. Hopefully you’ll find the help you need to make living in the moment just a little bit easier.
Preparation Is the Enemy of Anxiety
There are very few things on Earth that can take you out of the moment quite like an anxiety attack. Honestly, a full-on anxiety attack isn’t even necessary; one simple, quick, negative thought is enough to hurl you into that terrible, future-focused state.
Personally, most of my anxiety is work-related. When I’m away from my work, particularly during paid time off (PTO), my anxiety can run wild. I worry about things I’ve overlooked, things I haven’t left adequate instructions for, things I’ll have to do once I’m back. My anxiety has the potential to completely ruin any time off I take, which sucks because one is supposed to take PTO to forget about work, recharge, and enjoy experiences. If one is constantly worried about the things they’ve forgotten to take care of or of the terrible workload they’ll have when they return, then they’ll be unable to live in the moment adequately.
Can we eliminate this anxiety? I don’t think so, not completely, at least. But can we mitigate it, or minimize it as much as possible? Yes, we can. We can do it by planning ahead.
If I’m planning on taking significant time off from work, then I usually begin crafting my plan of action around two weeks ahead of time. In my work’s project management tool, I jot down a list of all the projects, major and minor, that absolutely must be completed before I sign off from work. I then make a secondary list. This secondary list contains projects that aren’t must-dos, but more like “nice to haves.” These are projects which I’d prefer to complete or at least have a good head-start on before I leave.
The first list allows me to prioritize my time correctly and create a definitive plan of attack for each day leading up to my vacation. It allows me to know what I need to be doing each day, and I know that if I stick to the plan, I won’t have any anxiety during my time off in regards to missed deadlines, angry clients, or angry supervisors.
The second list acts as a sort of bonus. Once I’ve ensured that everything that needs to be done is done, I can focus any of my remaining time on easing the workload that will be awaiting me post-vacation. If I can finish one of these projects before I leave, or even make some solid progress on it, then my transition back into work will be easier. This helps me combat any worries I may have about the long hours I’ll have to spend playing catch-up.
Being well prepared can apply to any obligations one may have, not just work. If you make sure all your bases are covered well ahead of time, I guarantee that it will be much easier to relax and embrace the “now.”
Combating Daydreaming Takes Discipline
I live in my head a bit too much. My uncanny ability to daydream has pulled me out of far too many moments, both mundane and deeply meaningful.
I’ve written about it before, and while I no longer full-on fantasize in the fashion that I used too, I still find myself spacing out more than I’d like. There are still many occasions where I’ll be thinking about basketball or what I should eat for lunch instead of participating in a conversation. There are still many potentially impactful experiences — concerts, parties, hiking, etc. — which I’ll be completely checked out from because I’m thinking about Star Wars or some funny joke I heard three weeks prior. I usually realize that I’ve spaced out after the fact, and yes, it’s led to quite a few regrets.
Limiting daydreaming is difficult, but not impossible. Like meditation and other practices focused around mindfulness (read: focusing on the moment at hand), limiting daydreaming takes a tremendous amount of discipline. Chronic daydreamers like myself know how easy it is to slip into some fantasy land. However, chronic daydreamers also know how to recognize when a space-out session is imminent.
First, one must recognize the factors that trigger daydreaming. Generally, triggers tend to be boredom or a general lack of stimulation, but it can depend on the individual. Recognition, though, is the easy part. The more difficult task is often pulling yourself away from the desire to daydream, forcing yourself out of that familiar place you retreat to when the real world just isn’t cutting it.
Frankly, I’ve found that guilting myself works best. When I notice my attention fading, I remind myself how much I’ll regret not focusing on the present later on. Some deep breathing usually accompanies this, and it helps, but as strange as it may sound, the self-guilting is most effective.
If you’re too caught up living in your head or your own constructed fantasy land, you’re likely to miss out on many of the lessons the present can impart on you. But don’t fret. With a lot of discipline and a good amount of patience, you too can prevent the dreaded space-outs and, therefore, prevent any regrets down the road.
Embrace Annoyances — They’re Part of the Experience
Once you’ve rid yourself of any residual anxieties and snapped yourself out of any daydreams, you still need to put in the effort to enjoy the experience you have at hand. That can often be difficult because even the most enjoyable experiences have their less enjoyable aspects that can pull you out of the moment.
For example, I attended a large music festival recently. While the festival was, overall, a ton of fun, that’s not to say it was without its annoyances, frustrations, and disappointments. Some acts didn’t perform as well as anticipated. Logistical stuff — meeting up with friends inside the venue, setting up and maintaining camp, beating other festival goers to the showers — was a constant headache. The weather was overwhelmingly hot during the day, chillingly cold at night, and I think I swallowed enough dust to last me a decade.
Though the festival weekend was filled with less than ideal times, I didn’t let that detract from the overall experience. I didn’t let it ruin the fact that I was so fortunate to be at this event with some of my best friends, watching some of the most popular music groups in the world put on fantastic shows.
Instead, I embraced the myriad annoyances and frustrations. I understood that they were inevitable, an inherent part of the experience as a whole. Once I understood this, I came to realize that we can learn and grow from all aspects of an experience, not just the positive ones. I realized that I needed to pay attention to the annoyances, embrace them as funny anecdotes to share or lessons to take with me throughout the rest of my life.
Any impactful experience will have its positive and negative traits. You cannot let the negative take away from the positive, nor can you let it dilute the value of the experience as a whole. If you get too caught up in the negative aspects of a given experience, your mood will be shot, and you’ll either shift your focus to the past (“things were so much better earlier”) or to the future (“things will be so much better later”). Either way, you won’t be focusing on the present, and that’s where so much of life, so many of our “good times,” occurs.
Are You Living in the Moment?
Are you doing the best you can to live in and engage with the moment? Are you putting in the effort when it matters? Don’t let your anxieties, daydreams, or penchant for focusing on the negative detract from a cool experience.
Life and all its wonders can pass you by much more quickly than you’d think. All those “good times” you’ll reminisce on someday? They’re happening right now. Make sure you’re paying attention!