Mark Vancil, author and biographer of Michael Jordan, commented on what made Jordan such an international icon and legend for his basketball ability: “Most people struggle to be present. People go and sit in Ashrams for 20 years in India trying to be present. Do yoga, meditate, trying to get here, now. Most people live in fear because we project the past into the future. Michael’s a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”
It has become very difficult to be present. Most people struggle with it. Never before have there been so many distractions in the world than today; in his book Deep Work, Cal Newport described traditional workplaces as “A distracting open office where inboxes cannot be neglected and meetings are incessant; where colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest email than produce the best possible results.”
How are you ever going to enter flow states in that hectic environment?
The largest and most powerful companies in the world usually employ hundreds of highly trained marketers whose sole job is to capture your attention. Everything from the specific color of the red notification icon on your smartphone app to the number of syllables in each word of an advertisement are meticulously studied and experimented to find the optimal attention-grabbing power.
These factors, along with the rise of technology, social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the general stresses of modern living have made “being present” one of the most difficult skills to develop. As a result, it’s one of the most valuable skills in the world.
And if you know how to use it, you can create an extraordinary life full of deep connections, lifelong relationships, and highly profitable work. People will pay an extremely high price for you to be present; your family, friends, and your boss are all desperate for your undivided, full attention.
The key to being present is to know how to successfully recharge each day, so you can start each new day with enough energy to enter hyper-focus on whatever you’re doing.
How to recharge each day so you can wake up hyper-energized
Being present is actually a skill you can learn, and build. But you must commit to cutting out distracting time-wasters and prepare to be where you are.
For a long time, I wasn’t present. When I was at work, I was dreaming about relaxing at home. When I was relaxing at home, I was stressing out about work. When I was stressed, I would usually drink or watch porn or play video games. After years of this, I was almost incapable of being present. I never felt recharged or rested. But when I learned the following lesson after years of therapy, my whole life changed:
“Wherever you are, be there.”
Most people are distracted right now. They’re focused on what’s going on in the world, politics, the news, social media, gossip, their reputation, even how cute their outfit of the day really is. Look — most of these things are fine. But if you aren’t in control, then these activities become toxic.
Television and video games and social media are fine, but as soon as they start controlling you and your mood, you’ve lost control.
It’s impossible to recharge if you’re always “on.” Most people are constantly in a cat-like state of readiness, ready to check email, answer a call, or react if someone needs something. But as long as other people and external factors call the shots in your life, you’ll never feel rested or in control; it’s impossible to relax if you might be needed for something at any moment.
Back in college, I worked at our campus bookstore. To save money, our bosses would give us “on-call” shifts, which meant there was no guarantee we’d need to come into work, but we needed to be ready just in case. I soon realized this was the meanest, cruelest joke they could’ve played on us. For a while, I was on-call every Saturday morning at 8:00 am. That meant I couldn’t sleep in, couldn’t go anywhere, and couldn’t truly relax. It was horrible. I soon began resenting my job — they almost never called me in but forced me to always be ready whenever they demanded it.
If you want to recharge, you can’t tolerate these factors in your life. In Deep Work, Cal Newport described a ritual he would do every day at 5:00 pm on the dot. As soon as it was 5:00 pm, he would stop whatever work he was doing, and speak the phrase, “shutdown complete.” Kind of like a nuclear reactor.
As someone who had a hard time turning his brain off, Newport was always thinking about work or mentally solving problems during dinner, at the gym, and watching a movie with his wife. But when he started saying “shutdown complete,” he was telling his mind and body that it was time to completely, entirely, and fully stop working. After just a few weeks of this ritual, he found he was much more relaxed in the evenings and rested in the mornings.
The secret to high-level productivity isn’t to be “on” all the time — it’s knowing when to turn it all off, and fully detach from work. Once you make this mental shutdown a habit, you’ll start seeing enormous boosts in your energy, mood, and results.
100% When You’re On, 100% When You’re Off
I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I still think I had one of the easiest (and most boring) jobs in the world. I worked for the Career Services department at an online university, and it was my job to convince employers to hire our students. The job was extremely easy for a few reasons:
- Employers weren’t required to give out hiring information, so no one could prove if I was actually making any progress
- Employers were across the country, so it was hard to ever build real relationships with them
- I didn’t have a boss
I didn’t even have a boss! But I always needed to be ready to solve a problem or go to a meeting or help someone else. I’d usually finish most of my work around 11:00 am, pretending to work from 11:00 am until I clocked out at 5:00 pm.
That might seem super fun and easy to you. Frankly, it was sometimes. But after just a few weeks of that, I began feeling really tired and cranky all the time. It was so boring, and I was expected to work even though there was almost no work to do. I began subconsciously acting as if I was always “on,” even when I wasn’t working. I had to be. What if someone needed me, or I had an email or a meeting? So I’d spend hours just waiting for someone to ask me to do something.
As a result, I unknowingly began training myself to always be ready to work, even when I wasn’t working. Instead of fully focusing at work and fully resting at home, I was always ready to work. This is exactly how drinking problems and stress are created.
In his book Peak, Anders Ericcson explained that the optimal way to consistently produce high-level work is to also spend time in high-level rest.
In other words, give 100% of your effort when you’re on, and then relax 100% when you’re off.
Most people are already bad at multitasking, and even worse when it comes to disciplining their thinking and completely stop working. It’s just easier to work: your computer, phone, and tablet are usually just an arm’s reach away. But if you want to feel recharged each day, you have to learn how to turn your brain off. 100% when you’re on, 100% when you’re off.
I have a hard time shutting off my brain.
When my wife and I are taking our baby for a walk, when we’re running errands, when we’re watching The West Wing reruns, it’s extremely easy for me to slip into work mode. Suddenly, I’m worried about that nasty email I got or if I’ve written enough articles for the week.
Once I start working when I should be resting, I’m causing significant damage to my ability to recharge. Honestly, the days where I crank out a week’s worth of content are only possible after I’ve rested and slept extremely well the day and night before. If you want to feel recharged and be able to consistently deliver high-level work, you need to shut off your brain — no matter what may come up.
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This article originally appeared in Medium.