5 Ways to Live in the Present & Enjoy the Moment
Now that I’m literally days away (like 9 days) from defending my dissertation (holy cats!) I’m finding my brain is going wild thinking of everything that needs to get done and all the ways things can go wrong. Even though I’m weeks away from finally finishing my PhD I’m still half afraid I’m not going to get it all done in time and I won’t graduate.
I’ve previously talked about how my “all or nothing” mindset has gotten me into trouble and how I’ve worked to combat that way of thinking. But I also wanted to take some time to share the five things I do in the moment when I find myself slipping back into those less than helpful behaviors. So here are my five tips for helping you to live in the present and enjoy the present moment, rather than live in a constant state of anxiety—trust me, been there, done that, learn from my mistakes.
There are a number of techniques to do this, but one version that I stumbled on a while back that’s quick and easy. It’s called the 5 4 3 2 1 Grounding Technique. Basically you do the following:
Look: look around for 5 things you can see
Feel: pay attention to your body and identify 4 things you can feel (ie. The softness of the chair your sitting on, the texture of the clothing your wearing, etc.) and actually say out loud or two yourself “I can feel the soft cushion of the chair”
Listen: identity 3 things you can hear
Smell: identify 2 things you can smell
Taste: identify 1 thing you can taste
You’re supposed to also take some deep breaths during all of this but sometimes I literally just run through the 5 senses. It gets me out of my head and focusing on my body and having to come up with all the different examples for all 5 senses provides a bit of a distraction. Usually by the time I run through this exercise the initial sense of panic I was feeling has subsided just enough that I can use some of the other tips below or find another way to shift my thoughts.
2) Narrow Your Focus
I’m a planner. And a worrier. And I’m brilliant at thinking up the worst case scenario for something. I’ve always had a “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mindset. It goes back to growing up in the military and having to be prepared for literally anything. So my mind can spin out months ahead of where I’m currently at in my life and think of all kinds of crazy things that can happen or all the tasks still on my list.
But you can’t spend too much time thinking about what you will be doing 5 months from now. You have enough on your plate right now. I could waste a lot of time worrying about what kind of revisions my committee will ask for at my defense, but my first priority is getting to the defense and creating the presentation for it. So sometimes it helps to narrow my focus and not think too far ahead.
|My bullet journal is never far away. But once a task is|
written down/planned, I try not to obsess about it. It's
counterproductive and just causes more stress.
When I plan I think of long term goals, but also break that down into short term goals and action steps. Then once I have it broken down and written out, I try not to come back to that list too frequently. Once a week when I’m planning in my bullet journal is usually enough. So if I’m starting to think of stuff that’s still weeks away while I’m working, I remind myself to come back to the present moment and just think about the current week.
If a week is particularly busy and hectic, I’ll narrow it even further and just think about the current day. And if a day is really crazy, I’ll just focus on the morning and not think about the afternoon until lunchtime. Basically, I narrow my focus as much as needed to keep from freaking out. I’m aware of the future and what needs to be done but I’m not consciously thinking about it all the time.
So if you’re panicking about your mountain of tasks, trying narrowing your focus to whatever time frame feels manageable. Whether that’s focusing on the current week, the current day, or the specific hour you are currently living in, being in the most manageable current moment you can focus on will really help. The future will happens when it happens, but you can’t control it. And once you’ve prepared for all eventualities, at a certain point you have to just let it go until the time actually arrives to deal with it.
3) Visualize It All Going Right
|Living in London (or nearby) is a life goal of mine, so I|
always keep pictures and mementos of London
around my desk to help my visualize those dreams
I’m really good at imagining all the ways things could go wrong. But I don’t always spend enough time visualizing what life would be like if things went right. So when life starts getting really crazy and I start stressing about everything and worrying that it’s all going to fall apart, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and imagine what it would look like if my life goes how I wish and hope it will, if everything I’m working towards were to come to fruition and I had the life I dream of.
And I don’t mean I just casually imagine finishing my PhD or one day having a nice home. When I say visualize the best case scenario outcome I mean really picture it in your head. What career do you have? What city are you living in? What does your home look like? Who is around you? For me, I stop and think about owning my own business or working as a writer or in communications for a cool company, living in a cozy little flat in London, taking long walks through Hyde Park, with my cute little dog (I really want a dog of my own!) on the weekends, spending time with friends in cute, Instagramable cafes, and enjoying 4 individual seasons instead of suffering through an endless summer a year long. Give the visualization as much detail as possible and imagine how you will feel once you achieve that. Similar to grounding yourself or narrowing your focus, this visualization exercise serves as a good distraction that gets your brain off the negative mental loop and shifts it to something more positive and more motivating.
|I will always think of Oxford when |
listening to Ed Sheeran.
I live for music. There’s always something playing on my iPod. As I’m writing this I have Chasing Cars “Open Your Eyes” going on my playlist from my London Summer 2014 trip. I make playlists for every season and every trip, and then listen to them obsessively until some songs become so intricately connected to the moment my life was in when I first listened to it. Imagine Dragon’s debut album is forever tied to long walks around the City when I visited London in summer 2013, and Ed Sheeran’s “X” is so connected to my summers in Oxford that all I have to do is put on any of those songs and I’m back walking around Uni Parks or Christ Church Meadow or getting coffee in Caffe Nero on High Street.
Music is an escape for me. If I’m stressing or getting anxious about something, I can put on certain songs or albums and immediately feel better, because the songs are so connected to happy memories that that’s what my brain begins to focus on. This allows me to be calmer and happier in the present moment.
Now, I know music won’t be for everyone, especially while working, but even if you just take a few minutes for a quick break to listen to a favorite song before getting back to work, it can have a huge benefit.
5) Do Something Just For You
|Sometimes you just need to sleep in and then have a |
lazy coffee in bed. Bonus points if it's in a
cute squirrel mug.
When things are getting really stressful, it can be better to take a break than to force yourself to work through the stress. Even if you just take 30 minutes or 1 hour, it can have long lasting benefits throughout the rest of the day. Take some time and do something just for you (read, walk, cook, etc) that connects you to the present moment (ie. something that requires more of your focus). So, binging on Netflix doesn’t always work for me, because I can keep thinking about stuff in the back of my mind while watching TV. But reading a novel is a rare treat and something that requires my focus. Cooking or baking is also good.
Going for a walk or a hike gets you some fresh air, some natural light, and can be very meditative. I’m not a fan of mediation, my mind wanders too easily, but using the grounding technique mentioned above while out for a walk can be very helpful. Going for a walk with a friend is also good because then you can have a conversation, just agree not to talk about school or work or whatever you’ve been worried about! Or if you do talk about it, or if you find your mind wandering while walking by yourself, try my rule: “Think/worry the problem away for the first half, and then let it go.” When I used to do a lot of hiking I would give myself the first half of the hike, usually the climb to the top of the trail, to think about the problem, and pound my worries into the trail with every footstep, then once I got to the top or to the turn around point, I would take a few deep breaths and let my problem go, and then think about something else on the second half.
Whatever you do, bake, knit, paint, read, walk, find something that you love and that is a positive distraction from your stress that gives you some joy and satisfaction in the present moment.
We can’t control life, but we can control our reactions to the challenges and surprises life brings us.
|I'm learning to smile more.|
All of these techniques have really helped me over the last several years of my grad school experience. And I’m not giving them up any time soon. I’m quickly learning that just because I’m nearly done with my PhD doesn’t mean my stress is going to disappear. I’m already feeling myself shifting from stressing about school to worrying about getting a job and doing that job well…omg, what if I get a job and do so poorly they fire me?! See what I mean? Stress, worry, anxiety will always be a part of our daily lives. I have yet to meet a person who honestly never stresses about anything at all. It’s just part of being human. But how we manage that stress is what’s important.
What are your tips for being more present and staying calm when life keeps throwing you one challenge after another? Tell me in the comments, I’d love to hear! And if you found any of these tips helpful, please do share this post on your socials with friends who you think might enjoy reading it.
Until next time,