Work deadlines, constant phone dings, what to make for dinner, what to do this weekend, what to do tonight. There always seems to be something at the forefront of our minds vying for our attention, often making focusing on one specific task or moment increasingly difficult. So what exactly does it mean when one talks about “staying present” and how does one even go about it when it feels like you have about 25 tabs open in your brain?
First, it’s important to understand what it means to be present. “Some experts say being present and being mindful are the same thing — and others claim they are different,” Beth Gibbs, MA, certified yoga therapist, tells TZR in an email. For the purpose of practical application, she says to think of them as being similar. “Both states require moment-to-moment awareness of what is happening within and around you,” she continues. “When you are engaged and aware of what you are thinking and doing while you are thinking and doing it — and observing what you are thinking and doing with compassion and without judgment — you are experiencing moment-to-moment awareness.”
With practice, Gibbs says you can also access the underlying “why” of whatever you are thinking and doing in order to respond productively to the ups and downs of life. “Finding healthy, productive ways to encourage this awareness is important, especially during difficult times.”
So, where does one start this journey to staying present? Ahead, mindfulness experts share their top tips for increasing awareness (and, no, meditating isn’t necessary — though it’s definitely an option).
Breathe — Just Breathe
Ariel Garten, co-founder of meditation and wellness company Muse, says that focusing on your breathing will bring you back to the present moment. “This is the simplest thing you can possibly do because your breath is always with you and is inherently in the here and now,” she tells TZR in an email. “When you focus on your breath, not only are you actively reminding yourself of your lifeforce and existence, you are also short-circuiting your wandering mind that constantly dwells on the past and worries about the future.” To relax your body, she recommends long, extended exhales — this might be four breaths in and six breaths out or four breaths in, hold, and six breaths out. “And in that exhale, you’re signaling to your body to slow down,” she says.
Ask Yourself: ‘What’s Your Weather?’
Dr. Jessie Biondi, founder of BeMore Health Coaching, LLC, says many of us struggle to put words to our emotions. “So often we are asked the question, ‘How are you?’ only to give the fixed answer, ‘Fine,’” she tells TZR in an email. “To be present is to really stop and answer the question for real. A couple times a day, stop and check in with yourself. Ask yourself, ‘How am I doing?’ and answer the question using weather terms (partly sunny, a storm is brewing, sunny, flurries, foggy, etc.) Then ask yourself, ‘What do I need to do to make this moment sunny?’ And do it!”
Start Arriving Early To Appointments
“To be present means being engaged in the here and now instead of being mentally absent or preoccupied,” Lennart Klipp, emotional wellness coach and meditation teacher tells TZR in an email. “The way to get there is to create space and make time to bring our awareness to all our senses — which is, in essence, what mindfulness is all about.” To do so, he says to create time by making it a habit to arrive early to your appointments. “I arrive at least 15 minutes early to each workshop I teach,” he says. “It allows me to be present and become aware of myself and my surroundings. Maybe I feel thirsty and need some water. Maybe I feel a little stressed out and need to take a couple of deep breaths to center myself. We can sense the temperature of the air, the smell of it, the taste even. Hear the sound it makes in our body — an orchestra of sensations is playing for us constantly, but only if we have time to be present and notice it is there.”
Try The ‘AIR’ Method
Amanda Lynch, mindfulness expert and owner of Rethinking Resiliency, recommends AIR: awareness, intention, response. This practice entails drawing into your awareness, setting an intention, and practicing your response before you react. “By moving through this three-step process, you are more empowered to acknowledge and name how you are feeling, able to identify where you are holding onto that feeling, and you are better equipped to explore ways to release any negative emotion that might come up,” she tells TZR in an email.
For example, “awareness” may mean you’re feeling anxious and you notice your jaw is clenched. Your intention is to then ask yourself if this is a feeling you want to keep or release — either inhale more of it or exhale it away. “Decide to keep or release what feels heavy — inhale peace, exhale anxiety,” says Lynch. Then, set your intention to release what isn’t serving you well and ask yourself what you need in the moment.
Employ A Hypothetical Conveyor Belt
“Even as you are reading this article, you can practice mindfulness and get in the present moment,” Sarah Belarde, of Sarah Belarde Therapy, tells TZR in an email. “Are you focused on these black ink words and the meaning behind them? Are you drifting away by thinking about an argument you had earlier this week? Are you having judgments or being hard on yourself for not being present?” If you feel your attention waning, refocus on the words you are reading now — or the task at hand.
“One way to make practicing mindfulness easier is to notice your thoughts and feelings coming down a conveyor belt,” she says. “As you notice distracting thoughts coming up, imagine placing them on the conveyor belt and watching them leave you in this moment, then bring your attention back to what is in front of you.” This can be a powerful tool because it can increase control of your mind instead of letting our mind be in control of you, she explains. “When we are mindful in each moment, we are in control of our thoughts and are less likely to spiral with anxious worries,” she adds.
Pick A Sense, Any Sense
Dr. Monica Shah, licensed psychologist, says a quick way to get back into the present moment is by using your senses. “Pick one of your senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) and focus on what you're experiencing,” she tells TZR in an email. “By engaging your senses, you intentionally bring your attention to the present moment, since your environment is naturally in the present.” An extension of this practice is to observe and describe what you are experiencing using non-judgmental terms — only observable facts rather than interpretations (like "pretty”), she says. “This can help us move away from our judgments and see things as they are, which is a key component of mindfulness,” she explains.
Use A Grounding Word That Speaks To You
“The top tip I would give for being present is ‘Be patient with yourself,’” Kresence Campbell, licensed counselor and owner and operator of Holly Street Counseling, tells TZR in an email. “It is natural for us to drift off into random thoughts when we are trying to be present. We live in a culture of go-go-go and our brains follow this trend. If your mind begins to drift somewhere away from the present, gently guide yourself back by using a grounding word that will remind yourself of the task at hand — and one that feels loving and grounding.” For example, if blankets are a sensory soothing item for you, whisper the word "blanket" to yourself when you feel yourself drifting. “It is a soft, supportive, gentle nudge to regain your focus,” she adds.
Remember That Everything Is Temporary
“Mindfulness is that experience of tuning into the body no matter what you are doing,” Pamela Crane, a certified yoga therapist and host of The Yoga Pro Podcast, tells TZR in an email. “You can do the dishes, eat your dinner, or walk around your neighborhood mindfully — it's not always a matter of sitting still in meditation. Anytime you are present in the moment and noticing what is going on around you and inside of your body, you are practicing mindfulness and presence. “My number-one tip for staying present is remembering that everything is temporary. I have a mantra that I use: ‘This is what it is now.’ Tune in to how your body feels when you are saying the mantra and focusing on what is going on in your life.” She notes that it helps to stay grateful when things are going well, and it helps when times are not good to remember that it will pass. “It's also useful to be able to recall those good feelings that you identified and use them to lift you when times are tough,” she says.
Hide Your Phone
Erika De La Cruz, best-selling personal development author and editor-in-chief at The LA Girl says the key to being present is to hide your phone. You may already try to have a phone-free morning, but what about a phone-free afternoon? To take this one step further, De La Cruz also suggests doing a once-a-week phone detox. “Beginners can start with a half-day,” she tells TZR in an email. “Your cell phone social feeds and inbound-communication work well for productivity, but keep your brain in a ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” she says. “Breaking the habit — whether it’s for part of the day or an entire one — will introduce a ‘rest and digest’ one instead. You can feel when your body is on edge, in angst, or in a reactionary space. Mindfulness is about receiving, choosing and responding to your environment, so being rid of your devices helps you transition from a ‘response to danger’ state, into a calm, collected, and confident one.” Plus, balance is good for the body, she adds, and a day without a phone gives your mental and physiological state a chance to recenter. De La Cruz also has a “game-changer” tip she recommends. “Keep your old phones or laptops — I have ones I use that aren't connected to work or messages, so I know when I’m using my ‘safe devices’ that no calls, alerts, or emails will be flying at me. I’m free to use them instead of reacting to them.”
Use the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
“Being present is when your mind and your body are in the same place,” NeuroTransformational Coach Rachel Tenenbaum tells TZR in an email. “Too often our physical body is in a room, meeting, or somewhat engaged in a conversation, and yet our mind has taken a walk and ventured someplace else.” Her solution? The 5-4-3-2-1 method. “You begin by naming (with a single descriptor) 5 things you can see (a blue cup, etc.), 4 things you can touch (and pause to really feel what you are touching, like a soft sweater, etc.), 3 things you can hear (a car honking, etc.), 2 things you can smell (freshly mowed grass, etc.), and 1 thing you can taste (your coffee, etc.),” she explains. “This exercise gives your brain a task, something to focus on, and engages each of your senses. By engaging all five senses, you quickly activate new areas of the brain while deactivating the parts of the brain which have you caught up in what I like to call, ‘the attic of your mind.’”