How To Be More Present & Live In The Moment, From Experts
Being present is a concept that stretches across disciplines of philosophy, physics, and psychology. In The Study of Time1, philosopher A.N. Prior equates the present to reality. Meaning, this moment is the only thing that truly exists.
So, if now is all we have, why is it so hard for many of us to stay present?
What does it mean to be present?
Being present refers to a state of mindful awareness of what's right in front of you, with no dwelling on the past and no worrying about the future.
"Being present means slowing down, bringing awareness to the moment that's currently happening versus engaging in the unrelated thoughts that may appear," licensed therapist Steph Tuazon, LCSW, tells mbg. "We are constantly processing information that we're seeing, feeling, thinking. It's easy to have our attention split between the three and get lost in thought."
Learning how to be fully present is a big part of many forms of meditation, spiritual, and mindfulness practices.
Presence is also a noun, where someone can have presence and share presence. The way that we talk about presence is oftentimes a positive gift. If you have stage presence, you light up a stage and invite your audience in. If you share your presence with another, you are engaging in the present moment with someone. Presence can feel like an intimate form of expression that involves other people around you.
Why is it so hard to be present?
If there are so many positive qualities about staying present and sharing presence, why is it so hard to be present?
As board-certified physician Rajeev Kurapati, M.D., previously told mbg, our minds are always toggling between anticipating risk and cultivating hope. This is a natural process where we prepare for the future with lessons from the past.
But sometimes this cycle of focusing too much on the past and future can lead to becoming detached from what's in front of you. When these thoughts go unchecked, they can become overwhelming and lead to overthinking.
"Our anxieties and stress about the past and future can get in the way of being in the present moment," board-certified psychiatrist Pia Quimson, D.O., tells mbg. "We worry about the impact of our past mistakes or events on our current situation and about the 'what ifs' of possible events that haven't happened or may never happen."
Since our minds are already used to tapping into the past and planning for the future, intentionally cultivating a mindset that focuses more on the present takes practice.
12 ways to be more present in the moment:
It's well known that meditation helps you slow down to notice the things that are right in front of you. Not only does meditation help change your thinking patterns, one 2011 study2 suggests that it may actually change the physiology of your brain by producing more gray matter in specific areas. This means that meditation can shape your brain to become hard-wired for higher levels of learning, memory, and emotional processing, which can lead to becoming more present.
Engage all your senses.
Our mind's consciousness is only one tool that we have to explore our world. Tapping into the intelligence that our bodies have can be useful for becoming present. According to Quimson, "A helpful strategy is to focus your attention on your five senses."
A few guiding questions she suggests:
- What are you seeing, hearing, and smelling in your immediate view or environment?
- Is there anything in your hands that you can feel the texture of?
- How does your clothing feel on your body?
- How does your body feel in the chair you are sitting in or the bed you are lying down in?
- If you are eating or drinking something, how does it taste?
- What is the temperature of the food or beverage you are ingesting?
Start a hobby.
A hobby can help you tap into the present and work with your flow state. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the founding psychologist of "flow" research3, says, "the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism but in mindful challenge." Engaging with a challenging task can be rewarding and contribute to positive feelings of achievement. When immense attention is on a passion project, the flow state can keep you focused in the present.
Make eye contact.
If you're having trouble staying present in a meeting or a conversation, try to make eye contact with the speaker to stay engaged, Tuazon recommends. "It doesn't have to be for the whole time, but at least to establish and confirm a connection is being made."
Focus on one thing at a time.
We have been sold the myth that we can multitask. This concept originates from computers' abilities to multitask or do more than one thing at a time. However, our brains are not wired like computers. We actually cannot multitask well. Some research4 suggests that multitasking is even detrimental to our productivity rates.
"Try focusing on one task even if it's for five minutes before jumping into the next task," Tuazon suggests. "When our attention is split, we can easily start to feel overwhelmed at how many things seemingly need our attention in that moment."
Pause social media usage.
Social media content is mostly based in the past because the pictures and videos you're consuming all happened in the past. Sometimes taking a break from social media can help you focus on things that are happening in front of you, in the physical realm.
Social media platforms are also built to keep you in the app, potentially keeping you scrolling for hours. One substitute for social media could be a mindfulness journal where you use the pause to reflect on how you're feeling in the moment.
Do some breathing exercises.
Your breath is one of the most accessible ways to be present. If you just follow and focus solely on your breath, you can be in the here and now. Try this 4-7-8 technique next time you need to be in the moment with your breath.
Intentionally schedule time to be present.
Quimson shares a popular quote by Randy Armstrong: "Worrying does not take away tomorrow's troubles. It takes away today's peace."
If you're a busy person, actually scheduling time for yourself to just be in the moment may be a helpful practice until you can habitually tap into the present. With any new skill, it takes time to build a practice. So, building little by little can be helpful.
The scheduled time to be present can start as little as 30 seconds. Try it now.
Feel emotions deeply.
Sometimes we want to dwell on the good times of the past or rush to the next moment because we are feeling uncomfortable feelings in the present. Allowing ourselves to feel all emotions deeply and acknowledge what's in the moment can strengthen our ability to be in the moment, no matter the circumstances.
A paper on emotion theory5 in the Annual Review of Psychology concludes that having the ability to identify emotions helps us to develop emotional regulation and high-level social skills, which could be helpful for being present in our daily interactions.
Go out in nature.
Nature is one of the greatest healers for our modern world. It provides an invitation to slow down and be present. Following the waves of the ocean or the sway of trees is similar to following your breath. The pattern of regular movement can help center you in the moment.
Research on 6shinrin-yoku6, or forest bathing6, has also demonstrated potential benefits of stress reduction. Lower stress levels can lead to greater ability to focus in the present moment.
Create a ritual with candles or other scented objects.
Research suggests that our bodies have emotional and physiological responses to scents7. Some people utilize tools like candles to remind themselves that they are in a specific moment. For example, you can use a lavender meditation candle to calm down, or a lemon verbena work candle can perk you up throughout the day. Assigning a reminder to be present to a specific scent can help you cultivate a mindfully present practice.
Find support from a therapist.
Therapists can help you talk through any of the practices above as well as explore why you might be having a hard time staying in the present moment. Working with a therapist is especially helpful if you've experienced trauma or sudden loss, which could be linked to the longing for the past or yearning for the future.
How to be present in a relationship.
Being with our partners in the moment creates memories and meaning in our relationships.
There are many ways to be more present in a relationship. For example, Tuazon shares, if you and your partner often watch TV together after a day at work, but sometimes you're both watching and sometimes one of you is on your phone, there may be a lack of presence there that can cause feelings of loneliness for one or both partners.
"It does not have to be a hard rule of no phones while watching a show," she says, "but if you're noticing you're feeling distant or irritated seeing your partner on their phone, [you can] ask, 'Hey, can we put our phones away tonight? I really want to watch this with you.'"
It may also be meaningful to make contact with each other physically while you watch or to make eye contact throughout the show to help you feel connected in the activity, she suggests.
"It could mean pausing the show for a bit to have a chat with each other, cuddle up on the couch together, or hold hands," she adds. "Again, being present is slowing down and bringing awareness to the moment and in this case—to each other."
How to be present in a conversation.
Real-time conversation is the glue that keeps our relationships together. It's important to stay present in conversations with others because it signals that we are there in the moment with the other person.
"In a conversation, we can be present by listening and resisting the temptation to interpret, assume, predict, or come up with a reply while the person is still talking," Tuazon explains. "This could mean physically moving bodies to face each other or making eye contact. Listening can also mean asking someone a follow-up question or repeating back what you heard to see if you understand."
One sign that you aren't being present in a conversation, she notes, is when you totally miss what the other person said or can't repeat back what they said later on. But she adds, "This is a very normal human thing to do. If that's the case, take accountability for it and see what the other person may need for repair."
Being present is fully engaging with the person you are with. Depending on the topic, this may call for offering advice, empathizing, or just using active listening. The more you practice being in conversation with someone, the easier it gets.
How to be present with your children.
Children are highly sensitive to learning from the world around them. In early years of development, children mimic the people around them to learn behaviors. In later development, they learn the customs in their culture and communities, which informs how they interact with others. Being present with your children helps them to learn how to be present with others.
"Being present with children is similar to being present with adults," says Tuazon. That means using all the same practices we've mentioned above for how to be more present in your relationships to create attunement with your child.
"Give space for the child to express themselves and engage with curiosity," she adds. "Children may not always be slowing down in the ways we want them to, but they absolutely pick up on if an adult is distracted."
Once children learn about the basic concept of being present, they are capable of starting to cultivate their own mindfulness practice.
Why is being present so hard?
There are many reasons why it's so hard for us to be present, from our mental health and personal stressors to our very neurobiology. Our brains are hardwired to protect us from mistakes in the past so that we can avoid danger in the future. That's why cultivating mindful awareness of the present often takes effortful practice.
How can I be less in my head and live in the moment?
Living in the moment may feel difficult if we're used to dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. But there are simple practices you can use right now to be more present. Quick ways to engage now are to learn how to meditate, follow the pattern of your breath, or focus on one thing in front of you. If you want to engage with a more robust solution for becoming more present, plan a trip into nature next weekend, or book an appointment with a therapist to figure out a plan of action to become more present.
Practicing mindful awareness in the present moment is a skill. Not only are we navigating our neurobiology, but we also have obstacles in the form of social media, difficult emotions, and other distractions that can pull us out of the present.
The good news is that we have research-backed ways to help us become more present with ourselves and each other. The benefits of being more present in our lives are enormous and worth every try.
Stephanie Catahan is a health coach and writer. With a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine and iPEC, she applies a holistic lens to her wellness writing. She also has experience building corporate wellness initiatives for employee resources groups at companies like Google, encouraging members to build sustainable health strategies to prevent burnout.
Catahan currently runs, writes, and lives in San Francisco.