We’ve all been there. You’ve reluctantly accepted a meeting invite. One of those meetings when you just know that your role is going to be sitting there and listening to someone bang on for an hour about something that’s only tangentially relevant to you.

But you accepted anyway because you need to be seen to be there. You need at least to be present.

Back in the days when a meeting meant sitting down with other people around a physical table you could get through one of these affairs by fixing on an ‘I’m listening’ face, nodding occasionally, and letting your mind wander – mentally planning your next holiday, assembling your current top 11 world football team, that kind of thing.

These days, when pretty much all meetings take place virtually, you can actually make productive use of that otherwise wasted time! Bang out some of those unanswered emails, make headway with the report you’ve been putting off writing. No one need ever know…

But then…you hear your name being called. There’s a question mark on the end of it. Someone has asked your opinion on something. At this point a weirdly common response is “Sorry, can you repeat that – I was on mute…” But mute means that they can’t hear you, not that you can’t hear them. Everyone knows that you weren’t listening. You may have been present – but you weren’t present.

Log on, tune out…

In a world where actually being face to face with other people is now something of a rarity, it’s become even more apparent what it means to be present. We’ve learned that mere physical proximity is not actually a pre-requisite of presence. To be present means being ‘here and now’ rather than ‘there and then’. It means being mentally, emotionally and spiritually available to whoever it is you are with or whatever it is you are doing in this moment.

It can be difficult to put into words. It’s something that’s more easily felt than it is described. You can feel its presence or absence in yourself. You can certainly feel its presence or absence in others…

Because who cares if you tune out for a few minutes on a video call? That’s part of modern life isn’t it?

Well, watch our video about the ladder of inference and you can see how quickly these little – apparently harmless – moments of disconnection can begin to create a story about who you are (“He doesn’t care”; “She’d rather be somewhere else”) that may not be true or fair…but that can really stick.

The impact can be even greater if someone in a leadership position gives the impression of not being present. When you see a boss tapping away on their phone during a meeting, or muting themselves to take a call what do you make up about them? That they are busy and have no choice? Or that they think they are more important than everyone else, that they hold the others in the meeting in mild contempt?

Because here’s the thing, none of us want to come across as rude. Rarely does someone slyly flick open their emails midway through a Webex call actively thinking “I don’t need to listen to this rubbish – this is more important”. No, we tell ourselves that we are busy and have to get stuff done. We may even tell ourselves that we can do both things at once without our attention slipping…

The myth of multitasking

We may buy into some bigger cultural stories around multitasking: that multitasking is essential to be efficient in the modern workplace; that multitasking is an acquired skill that can be perfected with practice; that women are good at multitasking (a fascinating and unhelpful story that persists because it sounds like a compliment to women, but has actually served as an excuse for generations of men to pass on 90% of household chores and office labour that they just don’t want to do – “I would do it, but I’ve only got a little man brain! We can’t multitask!”)

In his book ‘The Myth of Multitasking’ Dave Crenshaw argues not that multitasking isn’t efficient, or that we are not as good at it as we think – his proposition is that multitasking simply doesn’t exist. Crenshaw posits that what we are actually doing when we tell ourselves we are multitasking is what he calls ‘switchtasking’ – switching between multiple things, perhaps very rapidly. Switchtasking means we are directing less brain power for shorter periods of time, causing our efficiency to deteriorate – and our sense of presence to plummet.

Because the myth of multitasking has become ingrained in office life we can forget that it exists just as unhelpfully outside of the workplace. How often do we find ourselves multitasking at home? Watching TV and tweeting at the same time. Cooking dinner and talking on the phone.

Or perhaps half-heartedly playing with a child or absently chatting with a partner whilst scrolling through your social media feed – giving only a portion of our attention to someone who loves us and wants to connect.

Essentially absent to someone who craves our whole-hearted presence.

Focus on what matters…

We are not here to say that multi-tasking is bad, or that 100% presence is the only way to live. Certain workplace tasks are simple and can be done on autopilot – why not chat to colleagues whilst you do them? Certain household chores are dull and might need a little something fun to make them tolerable – if you are ironing or doing dishes go ahead and listen to a podcast! Because what is the worst that can happen? You iron a crease into a shirt or miss an ad for a mattress company… probably you can live with this. 

But what we are saying is that perhaps it is worth consciously bringing your full presence to people and things that matter. How many important moments to connect with people that we care about do we miss because of our wandering minds, because of the addictive pull of technology? How often do we make valued colleagues feel unimportant because we are thinking about the next meeting we are about to head into, because we tell ourselves we can pop out an email and still listen to what they have to say? 

So yes, we will say that our presence is a present – it is the biggest gift we can give to another person. We all know the difference between talking to the side of someone’s head and having them give us their full, undivided attention. 

But we understand that if it was easy, we’d all be fully present all the time. We live in a world that seems – and in some ways literally is – designed to distract us and divert our attention. Here are our top tips for staying present:

1. Remove unnecessary distractions

If you know that you have a skittish attention span, then why not make it easy on yourself and create an environment free from needless distractions? When Jonathan Franzen was writing his classic novel The Corrections, he hired an empty office and worked onto an old Dell laptop that had no Wi-Fi card and no games installed. Taking no chances, he also superglued the Ethernet port shut as well. 

You don’t have to go to these lengths, but what would it be like to turn off your Wi-Fi when you know you really need to focus? Or to disable the email-alert pop up?

2. Consciously focus…and then consciously un-focus

We are not really designed to be focussed the whole time. If we are going to be consciously and intentionally present during the moments that really count, then we need to find moments to consciously and intentionally disconnect.

This means giving yourself the gift of good quality recovery time – ensuring that when you have time that is just yours you spend at least some of it doing something that allows you to truly relax, and to recover the precious resource of your mental and emotional energy.

Over the course of a working day many have found real success using the Pomodoro Technique. This is a simple time-management tool developed by Francesco Cirillo which involves working with total focus for 25 minutes and then taking a short break (of between 3 to 5 minutes) before beginning the next 25-minute burst of work.

3. Return to self

So far, we have talked about presence as about one’s ability to be present to other people or other things. But on a fundamental level presence is about our ability – our willingness – to be present to ourselves. In April 2019  we talked about how many of us are addicted to pace, business, stimulus because we are reluctant to just be – that many people would rather give themselves a series of painful electric shocks than just be with their own thoughts.

Part of mindfulness is the ability to simply notice your inner world from a place of curiosity and non-judgement. Developing the mindfulness muscle – just being able to engage with your thoughts and feelings as they are in this moment rather than struggling with them or trying to change them – is an essential component of true presence. If you are ill at ease in your own company how can you truly be available to others?

Warriorship and Presence

With the right level of willingness and intention you can train your mercurial mind to return to whatever is happening or whomever you are with in this moment. With the right level of mindfulness and courage you can become more comfortable just being with your own thoughts and feelings.

And we’d say that those Warrior Leaders that are needed to guide us into the next era will be the ones who are able to be present simultaneously to their inner and outer worlds – those who are open to influence from their environment, but not a slave to it; those who can stay in touch with what is going on inside their heads and in their hearts without becoming blinded by it. Those who are fully in touch with the world and able to choose how they respond to it.

Ultimately it comes down to intention and impact.

What impact do you want to have on the people and the world around you? How do you want to look back on your life? You only have one…. why not be present for it?

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