How To Be Present

At the most recent Making Things Happen Conference this spring, as I sat in the back listening to each of our attendees share over their two days at The Carolina Inn, I noticed something...

Over and over, a theme emerged: women want to be present in their lives. They want to be present for their spouses, present for their kids, perhaps present in their time with the Lord, or even simply present with the task at hand as they move throughout their day.

This sounds like such a twenty-first century problem, doesn't it? And there's shame there, like why can't we just do this thing that sounds so simple?? While I'm sure this has always been a challenge to some degree, the fact is that it is uniquely a "right now" problem: there are more distractions, and more powerful distractions, tempting us than ever before in history. (Can you tell I'm reading The Tech-Wise Family and LOVING IT? :))


Photo by Rachel Coffey

But back to the MTH Conference: this deeply-seated desire to be present was so universal and so keenly felt, but by the same measure, attendees seemed at a loss for how they could create change in this area in their lives. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I wanted to share a few things that have worked for me and for other Cultivate team members. The catch? Very few of these will be surprises to you. We all know these things. The true challenge is doing them. I'm here to encourage you on that, too, as you'll see below! :) Let's go!

One final note: when we talk about being present, I don't think most of us are talking about achieving a blissed-out state of zen. What we want is to live deeply in important moments, giving the people we care about the gift of our attention, and maximizing (in the most heart-centered sense) each moment we have. We want to live and remember each day as distinct and praiseworthy instead of just one more in an undifferentiated slog. Okay, now let's go :)

1. Define what's truly important to you and remind yourself of it often. We will never stop talking about the importance of a "why" at Cultivate - it is central to everything we do, and to the message of the PowerSheets! Without a strong and personally meaningful why, we'll never stick with something that's challenging or requires something of us. So why does being present matter to you? Define it, write it down, and perhaps picture it visually (I have a simple inspiration board on my fridge that reminds me of the kind of life I want to live -- one that is very present).

As an example, part of my why was articulated beautifully in this opinion piece from the New York Times. The author writes that the quantity of "quality" (present) time is almost as important as the quality, that we delude ourselves when we think we can "plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, and engineer intimacy in an appointed hour." The truth is that we never know when those moments will show up, so I want to be present and ready for them as often as I possibly can be. "People tend not to operate on cue... We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them."

2. Set a hard boundary. This is perhaps contradictory to my first point, but if being present is something you struggle with, start by setting a discrete time period when you commit to being fully present. It might be in the hour after your kiddos arrive home from school, the thirty minutes when you sit down to dinner or breakfast, or the ten minutes with your spouse before you go to bed. Making a commitment is the first step in keeping it.

3. Don't just hope things will work out - make a plan. Identify your biggest barrier to being present and make a plan to defeat it. For most of us, I would venture to say it's our phones. I have found that the very simple practice of putting my phone in the same place on the kitchen counter when I get home from work stops me from having to make a decision every day about whether I'll have my phone in my pocket, in the bedroom, etc. When I place that phone down, it's a physical reminder that I'm switching over into uninterrupted time with my daughter.

4. Find a way to quiet your mind. By definition, if we're not "in the present," our minds are in the past or future, right? Once my phone is put away, I focus on soaking in as much of the moment as I possibly can -- the sights, the sounds, the smells -- instead of focusing on what happened earlier that day or what's to come. It can also be helpful to focus on your breath, especially if you feel a pull to grab that phone!

5. Learn how to be together. Sure, perhaps the best way to be present with someone is to sit by their side and simply listen to them. But, I think we can also be present with each other in ways where our whole world doesn't need to come to a screeching halt. Some of my favorite moments each day are in the mornings when I'm getting ready for work and my two-year-old is sitting next to me in her high chair eating breakfast. Washing my face, doing my hair, and putting on makeup don't require much brain power, but since my hands are busy, it's easy to focus on her and whatever she'd like to talk to me about. If she's playing independently in the afternoon, I also like to sit on the sofa nearby and read my own book - giving her the gift of my available, present self, even though we aren't interacting constantly.

6. Make a system for capturing info. Aside from my phone, one of my biggest barriers to being present is all of the stuff constantly swirling in my head. You, too? To dos, worries, reminders, appointments to make, ideas to remember, birthday messages to send... the list goes on. Simply keeping a scratch pad out in our kitchen so I can jot those things down instead of juggling them in my mind goes a long way toward freeing me up mentally to remain "in the moment."

7. Acknowledge the tension. Like I mentioned at the beginning, just the fact that we struggle with being present can be a source of guilt or shame. Shouldn't being with our kids be the easiest thing in the world? Shouldn't sitting with our spouses bring us the most joy? They very well might - but that doesn't mean the pull of long-held habits is easy to break. You are learning a new way of being, so simply acknowledge the little by little steps you're taking as well as the set-backs, and keep moving forward!

8. Listen to older people instead of resenting them. We've all heard about the frazzled mom at the grocery store who wants to strangle the grandma who says "you're going to miss these days!" as she tries to wrangle her three screaming kids out the door. Well, my own grandma's best parenting advice when I asked her was "I just tried to enjoy them." What a simple, poignant, true thought. To me, that is what being present is about: simply enjoying the people and time I have been given. Keeping that as my focus instead of resenting it, even in the difficult moments of parenting or life, has been a game-changer for me.

Friends, I'd love to hear: is being present something you struggle with? What tactics have helped you be more present in your life?

Show Comments (17)
  1. Abby Alusheff
    Abby Alusheff

    I love this blog, thank you!! There is so much truth when you say how simple things should be easy, when in reality they just aren't due to constant distractions and flashy things in our faces everywhere we go. One thing that helps me be in the present is having an "unplug" night. Seems easy, but it's not. Basically what I do is schedule things to do with myself, husband or friends so I'm not reminded of my phone. I put my phone in a hard to reach place that's out of sight. Works like a charm. The more I do it, the easier it has become. And something I truly look forward too!

    • Emily Thomas
      Emily Thomas

      I'm so glad, Abby! I love the idea of purposefully planning something better so that your phone or other distractions become less appealing!

  2. Laurie

    Love these ideas - thank you for sharing!

  3. Cindy Briggs
    Cindy Briggs

    Hi Emily! Love the post. As someone that was at the spring MTH conference... I can attest that these things are so vital. Really having a chance to put those into focus last month has been life changing for me (and my family). I think your first point is the one that makes everything else possible. We have to define what really matters....and then make sure we "make it matter". I know I have done PowerSheets for years, and I always thought I was on the right path-- but then I realized I wasn't doing things daily that were what mattered to my ultimate goals. Now, each day when I spend time with God... I also spend time thinking about that very question. What am I going to do today to make my ultimate goal a reality. I know when I am 80 I want my family to remember my laughter, and my presence and NOT my stress and my accomplishments. Thanks for the reminders that you beautifully put in this post. You are so appreciated!

    • Emily Thomas
      Emily Thomas

      Hey Cindy! I LOVE the concreteness of asking yourself this question EVERY DAY. It might also be helpful to think through your day and either plan out which moments it will be most important to be present in, or when it might be struggle to be present!

  4. Kelsey Kuske
    Kelsey Kuske

    Hi Emily, I love this post and all these ideas! Not being "present" is something I have been working on this year. One thing I have done is that I turned off notifications on all of the apps on my phone except phone calls. I have found this to be really helpful because I am not constantly picking up my phone to see why it buzzed! I just periodically check my texts and such instead of it being a constant distraction! I have loved this change. I think i really need to focus on #4! It seems like my brain is always going 100 miles a minute! I love your idea of having a notepad near by to jot down all the things :)

  5. Sarah Gusky Kemer
    Sarah Gusky Kemer

    This is a really good breakdown!! I think the hardest thing for us is getting back into the groove when something has set us back — deadlines at work or school requiring more of our time/energy, etc. But I do notice my kids notice when we're busier in what they see as quiet times, so this is a great reminder to put the darn phone down!! <3 Great list!!

  6. Yana

    These are so good! It looks like I use a combination of these tips to be present - knowing what's important, having a plan with what has to get done and having boundaries when I am doing those things ❤️

  7. Kerry

    All. Of. These!!!! Keeping a notebook handy has been one of the most helpful techniques for staying present for me. The ability to get those thoughts OUT of my brain helps me relax.

    Great tips - thank you for sharing!

  8. Jennifer

    All of this is so true. I find that everyday I tell myself to put down the phone and focus on my kids. Well as it always turns out my phone is always near me or in my hands. My son, who is 4, will say “Mommy put down the phone!” Because he is trying to get my attention. After I hear his comment I immediately feel guilty and think he is right “why does my four year old need to tell me to put down my phone and why can’t I just automatically do that?!?!” My two children are my world in my heart, mind and soul....but my actions are not showing it. This definitely needs to change. Now I need to go add this goal to my Power Sheets tending list!

  9. Maggie

    I removed Facebook and messenger from my phone. Now there is much less to distract me when I am on my phone for texts and such.

  10. Britteny Williams
    Britteny Williams

    In this season of life there is no "being present". It's more like "being still." I'm married but no children. My husband is in school (prayerfully, his last semester but he's struggling in a class) full time and works part time weekend nights. I work full time for a local small copy/scrapbook shop. We don't spend much time together as a couple because any waking moment for him is spent studying or doing some sort of decompressing while surfing the net. I wish he would spend that decompressing time with me instead but he just doesn't see it and I don't want to push.
    So instead, I am learning how to be still. Finding moments to just let the stress of taking care of the apartment alone on top of work hours. I struggle to make that stillness more meaningful though. I tend to steer toward scrolling through social media or binging on Netflix, neither of which add much value to life. So learning, slowly, what adds value.

  11. Val

    Love it Emily! Our boundaries are first hour after the girls wake and first hour after school or naptime in the afternoon. We don’t do it everyday perfectly but when we do, I feel so much less guilt when I do need to clean or take a call. There tanks are full. 🙌🏼

  12. Heidi

    This has been one of the most useful blog posts I’ve ever read! Even at 57 I learned so much and it’s helping me formulate my power sheets for this month. Starting “no social media Sundays,” no checking email for 30 min while working on a project at work and start a list of to dos that would other wise distract me from being present. Yes... I’m learning a whole new way of being! Thank you! 😊

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