Updated: Apr 3
We are told to put down the phone and be present. Phrases like "pay attention" and "stop and smell the roses" are used all the time. But what about those nagging to-dos that you can't just walk away from?
Being present in the world makes the difference between an experience and a do-to list checkmark. Step back and take a look. Do you spend your life experiencing to-dos, or simply checking off lists?
I can't just walk away from real life.
You might give me 101 reasons why your endless to-do list will never be an experience. One of them might be that the "real world" or "real life" doesn't allow for that kind of thinking. It's just something that has to be done. But I counter with these questions. At what point does putting away toys as a toddler stop being a game? Why does that happen?
Whether we like it or not our perspective and mindset change as time goes on. With age, experience, and added responsibilities our lives can feel like a burden. I am here to challenge that transition. I don't think it has to happen in such an extreme way in order to be a productive adult.
1. Don't walk away. Instead, embrace and enjoy.
This is the first way of shaping our minds to be present in the to-dos of each day. If we embrace our tasks with gratitude, our minds get a sense of joy and satisfaction. I know it may sound obvious or cheesy. But next time you are doing the dishes, try saying aloud "I'm grateful for these dishes because that means that I had food to eat and I had something to eat it with." Let your mind go down that thought path, all the way to "I'm grateful for the seed that was planted to give me the lettuce I used for my salad" if you wish. Before you know it you will have washed all your dishes and leave with an added sense of gratitude for a clean kitchen.
Now you may think something like, who is this hippy with all the free time in the world to be grateful for dishes? I am happy to answer. I am a young widow, mother of two, and business owner. As with all single parents, I have the weight of two people placed on my shoulders. My world is crazy non-stop, jumping from one task to another, handling tantrums to conference calls. My mind, like many of you, is racing a million thoughts a minute trying desperately to stay ahead.
To handle the challenges of life I cannot afford to leave gratitude and the following tips out of my life.
With all that I have on my plate, these steps make the difference between experiencing joy rather than hopelessness. Life gets heavy really fast and if we are not careful we end up living a life full of checkmarks with minimal meaning.
Now with the dishes example, you might only get the first sentence through your head before you get interrupted. And that is okay. Keep trying. The fact is those types of thoughts rewire your brain to look at situations positively and the transformation from task to experience begins.
2. Give your gratitude something to cling to.
The next tip is to structure and predict. When you take the time to plan and troubleshoot your day, week, or month you are given the opportunity to add variety and plan for moments of burnout or discouragement. If you are constantly reacting to life, how on earth could you feel present? You will always be one step behind. Now obviously, things happen that we can't plan for such as the car breaking down or a child dumping a whole cup of milk over their head during breakfast when you are trying to get ready for work (yes, that happened this morning). But that shouldn't keep us from anticipating what we can. While you're planning your day give yourself time for dishes after meals or transitions between activities. Slipping those things in throughout the day keeps them from piling into one big list. Break up your tasks into doable blocks. A dreaded task becomes so much easier when your brain knows it will end. Try to tell yourself, "focus on this for 15 minutes" or "just get to this point and you can switch."
This may seem like a way to ignore or push back tasks but in fact it just the opposite. No one can be present enjoying the moment all the time, especially when something never seems to end. So when you give yourself periods of time to focus, you are embracing the fact that you are human and all humans need breaks to refresh and refocus.
To illustrate this, think of two studying methods. One is where you have studied daily in small doable chunks, taking the time to make connections and gain insights. The other is reading the entire section the night before the test. Which one is the task and which one is the experience? I'm sure we have all felt the intensity of cramming for a test. It's not fun and not particularly productive. Our minds have been built to learn gradually over time in bite-size pieces that's why we roll before we crawl and we crawl before we walk.
While you are planning routines look at things that need to be done regularly that cause your autopilot to kick in. Consider things that cause stress or burnout. Spread them out instead of trying to tackle them for hours, resulting in starting and restarting without much progress.
3. The key to a successful structure.
In order for your structure to work, it is important to have realistic expectations. This is the third tip to help your brain transition from task to experience. If you over-schedule or hold expectations that are unrealistic your planning is going to come down faster than a house of cards.
I'm sure we've all done this. The night before we tell ourselves we are going to do this and that. It's going to be so awesome! We have our gym clothes out, our meals prepped and to-do list ready, and then...life happens. Your baby is up crying all night, leaving to sleep through your alarm and miss your workout class. In a rush, you end up burning breakfast and bam! Just like that, your drive to do anything has dropped to zero. "Why plan at all?", you think to yourself.
This is the moment where you get to pick- who are you and where are you going? If you give up right here until the next wave of drive kicks in, you will always be dependent on the conditions around you to be successful. I don't know about you but I have found "the right conditions" to be rarer than a unicorn.
Take a deep breath. Take a moment to be grateful for that breath. Then try again. If you can't fit in a quick workout to make up for the class, know that you can try again tomorrow. Be genuine about it. Mean it when you say you are really going to try. Then let the self-loathing and pitying stop there. Look at your list and adjust your expectations. Chances are there is plenty of opportunity remaining.
4. The power of grace.
Maybe that day ended with everyone healthy and alive. You got one out of the seven loads of laundry done, and the dishwasher empty and loaded, but there are still dishes in the sink. You played with your kids for five minutes instead of the thirty like you'd hoped. And you still didn't get to the grocery store. But the fact is you faced the day and did what you could. Use that to embrace, restructure, and adjust. Tomorrow now has the opportunity to be better. Because the fact is, you have one less load of laundry to do and one less cycle of dishes to run and you have just a bit more of a relationship with your kids.
It is important to reflect and learn from our past, however, if we always look back on our efforts with negativity we steal the power from ourselves to look at the present positively.
5. Last but certainly not least.
One of the greatest joys of this life is we don't have to do it alone. When we've applied tips one through four, we set up ourselves to experience our to-dos. We can find joy and the power of positive thinking in even the most mundane and boring tasks. To add a cherry on top, we can experience those tasks with other people. Have endless loads of laundry to fold? Invite a friend over, tell them to bring their laundry too. Or Facetime? All of a sudden you are there enjoying the moment and being successful. Did your kids trash the playroom? Instead of moaning and groaning as you walk around throwing toys in bins, channel your inner child and invite your kids in for a game of putting away. If you are struggling to experience a much-needed to do, reach out and live it with someone else. This keeps you from slipping into the pit of unmotivated and automated living.
This tip may seem easier said than done when it seems like you're the only one struggling. The fact is, you're not the only one. Everyone struggles, and the sooner you realize it -and that it's normal- the sooner you can give yourself permission to ask for help.
Now keep in mind life is full of less than ideals, the difference is made when you keep trying through those times. You will find that when you have been powering through moment after moment, walking through this pattern of thought, a change as occurred. When the clouds clear, the wind stops (because it eventually does) and the 100 lb weight you've been pulling is released...
When you have prepared in less than ideal circumstances, it adds strength and momentum for the ideal ones.
No one is perfect. We all have tough, discouraging moments. And that is okay. Just keep in mind the ratio of past to present. You can't move forward if you are always looking back.
Embrace with gratitude.
Structure with confidence.
Adjust as necessary.
Give grace generously.
Don't do it alone.