You’ve heard it said before—probably many times—that it’s important to live in the present moment.
You also might have heard similar pieces of advice like:
- “Don’t get caught up in thinking about the past or the future—live in the now!”
- “Be present in your own life.”
- “All you have is this moment. Don’t let it slip away.”
All of these (possibly overused) sayings boil down to the same basic message: it’s vital to live in the present moment. In our current twenty-first century lives, it’s not easy. There’s always something coming up that we need to prepare for or anticipate, and our lives are so well-documented that it’s never been easier to get lost in the past. Given the fast pace and hectic schedules most of us keep, a base level of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness is the new norm. You may not even realize it, but this tendency to get sucked into the past and the future can leave you perpetually worn out and feeling out of touch with yourself.
The cure for this condition is what so many people have been saying all along: conscious awareness and a commitment to staying in the “now.” Living in the present moment is the solution to a problem you may not have known you had. You might be thinking that this all sounds great, but what does it actually mean to “live in the present moment?” How could we be living in anything but the present? Read on to find out!
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The Psychology of Living in the Present
Living in the present is not just an arbitrary term or a popular phrase—it’s a recognized and evidence-backed lifestyle that psychologists are quick to recommend for those struggling with anxiety and stress in their day-to-day life.
What is the Meaning of the Present Moment?
Being in the present moment, or the “here and now,” means that we are aware and mindful of what is happening at this very moment. We are not distracted by ruminations on the past or worries about the future, but centered in the here and now. All of our attention is focused on the present moment (Thum, 2008).
As author Myrko Thum tells it, the present moment is all there truly is:
“The present moment is the only thing where there is no time. It is the point between past and future. It is always there and it is the only point we can access in time. Everything that happens, happens in the present moment. Everything that ever happened and will ever happen can only happen in the present moment. It is impossible for anything to exist outside of it.”
Why is Being Present Minded Important?
Being present minded is the key to staying healthy and happy. It helps you fight anxiety, cut down on your worrying and rumination, and keeps you grounded and connected to yourself and everything around you. Although it has become a popular topic in recent years, living in the present is not just a fad or trendy lifestyle tip, it is a way of life that is backed up by good science. Being present and exerting our ability to be mindful not only makes us happier, it can also help us deal with pain more effectively, reduce our stress and decrease its impact on our health, and improve our ability to cope with negative emotions like fear and anger (Halliwell, 2017).
Why it Can be Difficult to Live in the Now
Living in the now is so difficult because we are always encouraged to think about the future or dwell on our past. Advertisements, reminders, notifications, messages, and alerts are all so often geared towards the past or the future.
Think about how often you are busy doing something else, perhaps even fully engrossed in it, when you are jolted out of your flow by your phone’s sudden “ding!” Now, think about how often that message or notification helps you stay present and aware of the here and now.
If you’re like me, your response to that is probably “Just about never.” Our phones are incredible pieces of technology that allow us to do so much more and do it so much more efficiently than ever before, but we really need to take a break from our phones at least once in a while.
Other factors that contribute to our inability to live in the now include:
- We often edit out the bad parts of our experiences, making our past seem more enjoyable than it really was.
- We face a lot of uncertainty when we live in the present, which can cause anxiety.
- Our minds simply tend to wander!
It can be tough fighting these factors, but luckily we are not slaves to the tendencies of our brains (Tlalka, 2017). It is possible to overcome our more destructive or harmful urges and make better choices.
Balancing the Past, Present, and Future
It’s good to think about the past and future sometimes. Where would we be if we didn’t look back over our past successes and mistakes and learn from them? Where would we be if we never planned for the future or prepared ourselves for what is to come? In both cases, we likely wouldn’t be in a good place.
It’s essential to a healthy life to spend some time thinking about the past and the future, but it’s rare that we don’t think enough about the past or the future—usually our problem is focusing too intently (or even obsessively) on the past or the future. One of the aims of mindfulness and a key factor in living a healthy life is to balance your thoughts of the past, the present, and the future. Thinking about any of them too much can have serious negative effects on our lives, but keeping the three in balance will help us to be happy and healthy people.
It’s hard to say what the exact right balance is, but you’ll know you’ve hit it when you worry less, experience less stress on a regular basis, and find yourself living the majority of your life in the present.
How to be Present and Live in the Moment
To get to this healthy balance, try to keep these guidelines in mind:
- Think about the past in small doses, and make sure you are focusing on the past for a reason (e.g., to relive a pleasant experience, identify where you went wrong, or figure out the key to a past success).
- Think about the future in small doses, and make sure you are focusing on the future in a healthy, low-anxiety way (e.g., don’t spend time worrying about the future, think about the future just long enough to prepare for it and then move on).
- Stay in the present moment for the vast majority of your time.
Of course, following these guidelines is easier said than done, but it will get easier with practice!
How to Live in the Moment but Plan for the Future
It might seem complicated to figure out this delicate balance, but it’s not as complex as it seems. When we engage in mindfulness or present moment meditation, we are not ignoring or denying thoughts of the past or future, we are simply choosing not to dwell on them. It’s okay to acknowledge and label our past- and future-focused thoughts, categorize them, and be aware of their importance.
The important point is to not allow yourself to get swept up in thinking about the past or future. As Andy Puddicombe of Headspace states, “…we can be present when consciously reflecting on events from the past (as opposed to being caught up, distracted and overwhelmed by the past” (2015).
When we are aware and present, we don’t need to worry about getting caught up in thoughts of our past or anxiety about our future—we can revisit our past and anticipate what is to come without losing ourselves.
Using Present Moment Awareness to Stop Worrying
Speaking of worry, present moment awareness is a great way to cut down on how much you worry.
Follow these six steps to become more attuned to the present and rid yourself of excess anxiety:
- Cultivate unselfconsciousness: let go and stop thinking about your performance.
- Practice savoring: avoid worrying about the future by fully experiencing the present.
- Focus on your breath: allow mindfulness to make you more peaceful and smooth your interactions with others.
- Find your flow: make the most of your time by losing track of it.
- Improve your ability to accept: move toward what is bothering you rather than denying or running away from it.
- Enhance your engagement: work on reducing moments of mindlessness and noticing new things to improve your mindfulness (Dixit, 2008).