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How to Be Present

·4 mins

“Most people struggle to be present. People go 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 high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”

— Mark Vancil, author of “Rare Air,” discussing Michael Jordan’s psyche during Episode 10 of the ESPN Films documentary series “The Last Dance”

Creator: Nathaniel S. Butler Copyright: 1998 NBAE Information extracted from IPTC Photo Metadata.

Last Wednesday - Canada Day - I was out for a walk with my wife and daughter at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax; It was a beautiful summer day, sunny and just under 27C - warm without being uncomfortable, the type of day that we crave here in Halifax. We sat down to enjoy coffee when my phone went off. I knew it was just a message, but I instinctively reached into my pocket to check who it was from (my wife rolled her eyes). I stopped to think - why? The only two people who mattered in the moment were sitting right next to me. Why did I need to check my phone?

I’ve come to the realization that I struggle to be present. Even as I try to write this post, my mind rushes to thoughts about my client deliverables, on what I plan on making for dinner, and the last conversation with a close friend. I know that I’m not alone in this - most of us are not present. We live in a state of constant distraction. You’re probably reading this post on your mobile device, and the action is taking away precious time and energy from an activity that is more meaningful.

I’ve worked with someone who is the epitome of present. Working with that person was like watching Jordan glide effortlessly across the basketball court, always on - always focused. Few problems fazed that individual, and regardless of how hard the problem was, they had the concentration to persist through the problem. Being present meant that the individual was able to brainstorm creative solutions far more effectively than others. The productivity of this individual was easily 3x or 4x that of peers, and it left time in the day for this person to pursue learning or other objectives.

There are many ways to attain focus and mindfulness - meditation, prayer, and even exercise are common methods vouched for by experts. I realized that my phone was my main source of distraction. It is no secret that these devices, and the software that runs on them - are being engineered to get us to crave that next notification, like or scroll. I believe that these powerful weapons of mass distraction are impacting our ability to work, be productive, and make the best use of our time. I’ve made a few changes to my phone habits that are starting to help reduce sources of distraction:

  • Two months ago - a week into starting my company, I decided to experiment by deleting Slack (a popular messaging app for teams) from my phone. For the first two days, I was constantly worried about missed client and team messages, but then I realized that there was no message that couldn’t wait a few hours for a response. My post on LinkedIn about deleting Slack also generated positive feedback from peers in the tech industry.

  • After that first success, I turned all notifications off from all messaging apps (WhatsApp, Signal, iMessage).

  • I performed a Marie Kondo style cleanup on the apps on my phone: I removed any app that didn’t bring me joy (like the Apple News App), or that I hadn’t used in the past 30 days (like the Air Canada app).

  • I leave my phone outside of my home office when I’m working - oddly enough, just having my phone on my desk was enough of a distraction, and I found myself reaching for the phone even when a notification hadn’t gone off

  • Going even further the Marie Kondo path, I decluttered the home screen, and reduced it to four icons in the bottom drawer. My new home screen looks like this:

This is just the start. These minor fixes are already having a positive effect on my mental health, and ability to focus more actively, and be more present for the people in my life.

I’m hoping to continue to report on my progress.

Further reading:

Saadat Qadri
Saadat Qadri
I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from data, product and growth leaders at companies such as InVision, CB Insights, Breather, Karbon, FreshBooks, Wealthsimple, among others. I love getting my hands dirty in helping build infrastructure to power insights and growth. I’ve helped build data teams from scratch, and I’m learning how to a better manager every day. I’m an instructor at Lighthouse Labs for the Introduction to Data Analysis course.