10 Exercises to Help You Live in the Present Moment
Welcome to Self-Mastery — a place for timeless ideas to help you be the architect of your mind, create yourself, and do less, better.
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
― Arthur Schopenhauer
I often find myself in two states: waiting for the future or reliving the past. 90 percent of the time, I’m truly unaware of where I am (and how I feel) now.
What kind of life is this if I’m “living” only two or three days out of the week? Or worse—living two to three hours out of the week. How good is it for my health if I’m always stuck in the past or rushing to the future?
Am I alone? Am I comfortable with being alone?
I don’t think it’s just me that struggles here. Many of us—especially those born quite closely connected to this digital era, like myself—are glued to sentiments designed to disturb us from reality. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, “I can’t wait for next week to hurry up”, or “I’ll be so happy when I get to do … next month”. And I realised that we could get so divulged into wondering about the world as it turns around us that we lose track of where we are, what we’re doing or even what day it is. Have you found yourself forgetting the weeks gone by recently?
In several corners of the internet, you’ll likely find someone citing the phrase “enjoy the present”. It’s the most cultured catchphrase of our decade. Everyone and their dog is likely to tell you not to worry about the future, move on, and forget about the past to live in the “here and now”.
While most of us will agree that we need to live in the “here and now”, how many people actually do that? Often, the person telling you to “start living in the moment” is probably still scrolling away, completely distracted most of the time.
Most people are fully in the present moment for a few minutes, at best. Our minds can wander as soon as we get time to think blankly for a moment. But being present is about learning and sensing how you feel. It’s about recognising what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and knowing if it’s making you happy.
If you find yourself constantly distracted, unsatisfied or unhappy, try one of these ideas to help you return to the moment you’re in, realise its beauty and re-energise.
1. Take away the music
As great as it is to listen to music while working, cleaning or driving through each errand, too much noise unobtrusively pulls you from reality, and the moment you’re in. Try to resist the urge to immediately put in headphones or take out your phone to scroll—even if just for a few minutes. Instead, enjoy a few minutes of silence first.
2. Turn negative circumstances into positive opportunities
A bad day is an opportunity to get to know yourself better. Plans going wrong is an opportunity to determine what you really want. An argument is an opportunity to understand someone else better. You don’t need to “look” for opportunities most of the time—they’re often right in front of you. What you might call a “wasted day” might have been exactly the day of rest you needed. Anything can be an opportunity—if you want it to.
3. Just eat
No—not the takeaway service. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, pick a meal every day where you will eat and only eat. No commuting from place to place. No working and no distractions. This ritual can help you feel more connected to what you eat, how much you eat and how you feel. It’s a sound excuse to give yourself time for yourself. And honestly, if you struggle to eat without doing something else—looking at your phone, watching TV—it’s a clear sign you need to do this more often.
3. Stop multi-tasking and start mono-tasking
Multi-tasking isn’t healthy. You might feel like a master multi-tasker as you drink your morning coffee, catch up on emails and tune into your morning meeting, but it doesn’t mean you should be doing it. “When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once, but instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task switching”, says Cynthia Kubu, PhD. Rapidly switching between tasks is less efficient; it increases the likelihood of making mistakes and over-stimulates your mind. The more you do it, the less you actually accomplish—because you gently lose your ability to focus enough to learn. Surgeons, for example, aren’t gifted with the ability to work with the utmost precision and steadiness of their hands. Their gift is their ability to single-mindedly focus on one person and complete a single series of tasks over the course of several hours. This is developed through days and weeks of practice.
4. Give yourself mental “Check-ins”
Every hour (or whenever you can remember), practice asking yourself: “How am I feeling?” This teaches you to mentally “check-in” with yourself to make sure you keep in touch with your emotions. It also gives you a chance to reach a calmer state anytime you feel caught up in something stressful. It’s always a good idea to sometimes ask ourselves how we’re feeling—not only other people.
5. Create a “Step Back” Alarm
Pick a time every day (9 pm, for example) to set a daily alarm to remind yourself to “Step back”. When it rings, pause what you’re doing (if appropriate), walk over to a quiet spot nearby—or just go to the bathroom—and take a moment to close your eyes and relax. Remind yourself that you’re alive, healthy, and surrounded by good people. Think of everyone in the world that you love and how grateful you are for them. After a few minutes, resume the thing you were doing. You’ll find yourself retaining a better sense of appreciation, acceptance and gratitude for yourself and those around you.
6. Silence your notifications
Open your phone and go through the settings of your applications; turn off any notifications and alerts for the apps you don’t need to know about immediately. Be brutally honest with this. While it might seem like a small matter, these tiny buzzes and notifications roll over into enormous distractions, which can make you feel unsatisfied. I have my phone set only to notify me about texts and phone calls, and it’s had a more meaningful effect on my productivity than I expected.
7. Set a morning routine
I’m not going to tell you to wake up each morning at 5 am, scream some affirmations and run around saying how great life is with a coffee in your hand. Instead, set yourself a consistent time in the morning to do an order of tasks. The best thing you can ever do for your sleep is wake up and go to bed at the same time. So keep it consistent. Next, try going for a walk, or shower, or meditate for a few minutes. Find a series of habits that dial you into a healthy rhythm and positive mindset for the day.
8. Create pockets of pauses
You always have time in the day for a break. Avoid trying to convince yourself that you have no time to pause in the day—no matter how busy—because it’ll only leave you more stressed. It’s your responsibility to create pockets of time in which you can take a small pause. Do it right before a meeting, a few minutes before you begin to eat, or the moment you get in (or out) the car to do your next errand. When you’re in this pocket of time, with a small window of opportunity, just take a moment to sit, breathe, relax before moving forward in a calmer, more collected manner.
8. Don’t be busy being busy
You don’t need to always be busy. This fallacy of hustling 24/7 is dangerous; it can be seriously damaging to your well-being—and we live in a super busy world as it is. Prioritise your life by saying “No” more often and omitting the things you don’t have to do. Pick a day where you can be completely off a schedule. It can be once a week, fortnight or month. Just let yourself do nothing or things that take very little focus. When our lives are so busy that we don’t have time to smell the roses, are we really enjoying it?
9. Put your health above everything
One of my (and my mother’s) favourite lines from Lauryn Hill is “How you gon’ win when you ain’t right within?” and it matters even more now. We’re heavily disconnected from ourselves in this world. Many people are happy to spend money and time on things that aren’t good for their health but will shun the idea of spending money or time looking after themselves. It’s silly. Put your health first. This is one thing I’d happily sing across the hills and through every town for the rest of my life.
9. Serve others
Nothing’s more humbling than doing things solely to help others. Find time to help someone else without thinking about yourself. Get lost in someone else’s life instead of your own. Life is about you—but it’s also not about you. You don’t want to look back one day and have to admit you weren’t there to help others. You don’t want to get so busy that you forget to make time for people that matter. Life is not something you do alone; it’s something we all go through together. There is nothing purer and more beautiful than helping someone simply for their benefit.
10. Laugh (and smile)
I used to cringe at my tendency to laugh at most things (non-serious, of course), but now, I love it about myself. To me, life—every part of it—should be three things: fun, meaningful and simple. And I learned that the “fun” aspect of it is about being able to laugh every day. Learn to laugh at yourself and situations. It does wonders for your health—and don’t worry about laugh wrinkles.
Living in the present is about creating a balance between not dwelling in the past and not living only for the future. You’ve made it this far, so be happy with where you are now. Learn from everything and everyone. Be hopeful, not wishful. Look forward to what you’ve got coming but stay excited about what is right in front of you today, at this very second.
What’s on My Mind
A Reddit post on r/AskReddit posed the question, “People who choose to be kind everyday despite not receiving the same kindness back, what motivates you” and the answers were quite moving:
“I just think you shouldn’t make anyone else’s life harder than it already is.”
“I try not to reproduce behaviour I don’t like in other people. Makes me like myself more.”
“I don’t expect people to be kind back.”
“I do it because it’s the right thing not because I’m hoping for any return.”
“Because I know how it feels when you’re down and your day/week/month/year just f*ing sucks, and if there’s a chance I can make just one person who feels like that have a better day and feel good for a bit, then it’s worth it.”
“Because I could be the other person.”
“If I can’t be strong or smart, socially adept or successful I can definitely be kind.”
“I’m kind because I’m kind, not because other people are.”
“Tbh for me it takes a lot of effort to be an ass.”
This Week’s Reads
“People often think that weightlifting is solely about lifting heavier objects. It’s not. One purpose of it all is to submaximally engage key muscle groups and develop a stronger mind-muscle connection. Another purpose is to simply stimulate growth, and this effect does not require the heaviest weights you can find to do so.”
→ Core Training for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know
“Uncertainty is the place where we learn — if we are certain about something, there’s nothing new to learn. It’s the place where we form intimate relationships, create art, make something new. It’s the place of discovery, play, dance, growth. It’s the pre-requisite for all of this!”
A Quote to Think About
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
— Elisabeth Kübler Ross
My Favourite Things This Week
Thread - A mental model of goal setting and unintended consequences.
Mymind - I use mymind a lot for writing. I love its simplistic design and its philosophy of taking notes without distraction—and without tracking. It’s excellent for designers, writers, marketers, developers—or anyone who needs to store inspiration.
Instagram - I’ve started an Instagram page to share my thoughts on all things Health and Self. If this is something you’d like to read, I’d love it if you could follow me or share it with someone who might enjoy it.
A Question for You
How easy is it for you to work in silence?
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Thanks for getting this far. Speak again soon.
P.S: You’ve made it even further! So here are 20 book recommendations to read “in your 20s” (no, it doesn’t matter what age you are).