Do you find yourself experiencing any of the following?
- You get to the end of a day and you feel like it was all a blur. In fact, you can barely remember what happened.
- You often feel distracted and have trouble focusing.
- You are constantly checking your email, text messages, or social media accounts—even when spending time with loved ones, on vacation, or out in nature.
- You feel overwhelmed and anxious and are never able to fully relax.
- You never feel like you’re getting enough done, and yet there’s so much more you have to do.
- The boundaries between work and your personal life have blurred to the point where they hardly exist.
If you were nodding your head as you read those, there’s a good chance you’re in danger of having a near-life experience.
What is a near-life experience? I would define it as a life characterized by distraction, disconnection, and dissatisfaction. It’s a life that doesn’t feel fully lived; a life that we are not completely engaged in and present with; a life that leaves us feeling that something is missing, despite how relentlessly busy we are.
A near-life experience has unfortunately become the default for many of us living in the modern, industrialized world. Advances in technology have led to unprecedented access to information and communication. But this “hyperconnectivity” has not increased our happiness, improved our relationships, or created more meaning and fulfillment in our lives.
Here are six steps we can take to avoid a near-life experience and lead richer, more fulfilling, and happier lives:
#1: Be mindful
Mindfulness is a concept that was originally derived from Buddhist philosophy, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice and benefit from it. In fact, mindfulness is now being taught and practiced in hospitals and outpatient clinics, Fortune 500 companies, schools, prisons, and the military.
Mindfulness simply means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is, rather than getting lost in our thoughts about the future or the past.
A large body of evidence has shown that practicing mindfulness—even for a short time—increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. It also helps us tune out distractions and improve our ability to focus. It enhances our relationships, makes us feel more connected and relaxed, and boosts our compassion for ourselves and others.
Here are a few simple tips for getting started with mindfulness practice:
- Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
- Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
- Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
- Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.
#2: Stop multitasking (it doesn’t work anyway)
Most people who multitask would tell you they do it because it makes them more productive. On the surface, this makes sense. If you can check your email and respond to Facebook posts while you’re working on that important report, you’ll get more done in a shorter time. Right?
Wrong. Studies have found that so-called “multitaskers” have trouble tuning out distractions and switching tasks compared with those who multitask less. There is also some evidence that multitasking may weaken cognitive ability.
In fact, the very idea of multitasking is a myth. According to the late Stanford neuroscientist Clifford Nass, multitasking should really be called “multi-switching” because the human brain does not have the capacity to focus on several tasks at once. If you are multitasking, you are simply switching back and forth between tasks very quickly.
What’s more, a study by Nass found that media multitasking is associated with negative social well-being and social indicators. (6)
All of this suggests that you’ll not only be happier, but also more productive if you just focus on one thing at a time. So the next time you’re writing a paper or working on a project, close your email and social media accounts and turn off the TV.
#3: Batch your email and social media
A recent survey found that three-quarters of workers reply to email within an hour of receiving it, and on average employees check their email 36 times an hour. The average person picks up their phone and interacts with it 221 times a day. Frankly, it’s remarkable that anyone can get anything done considering these statistics.
Not surprisingly given the multitasking information I shared above, reducing the frequency of checking your email and social media accounts has been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity.
At some point we all seemed to accept the idea that we are somehow obligated to respond to an email as soon as it’s sent to us, and it’s a good idea that we be notified immediately when we receive an email. I think it’s time to question both of these ideas.
#4: Turn off notifications on your phone and computer (and iWatch if you buy one)
Both smartphones and more recently computer operating systems have the capacity to notify you when just about anything happens—from someone replying to your Facebook post, to someone sending you an email, to an artist you like releasing a new album, to a file being uploaded to a Dropbox folder you share with someone else. The more applications you have on your phone or computer, the more often you will be notified. And since these notifications are usually turned on by default, unless you turn them off you can quickly find yourself receiving 10-20 notifications per hour.
Each time you are interrupted by one of these notifications, your attention is distracted from whatever it is that you’re doing. This is the opposite of mindfulness, and it’s a recipe for feeling frazzled and overwhelmed. It’s almost like a constant interruption machine that was specifically designed to throw us off track.
Of course there are certain notifications which can be very helpful (like appointment reminders), and there are some cases where certain people will need certain notifications. You will know what those are. What I’m questioning here is whether you really need to know if someone responded to your Tweet when you’re playing with your son or daughter, whether someone liked your Facebook post when you are hiking in the woods, or whether someone you follow on Instagram uploaded a new picture while you are out to dinner with your partner.
#5: Go off the grid
Many of us are tethered to our phones and other electronic devices 24 hours a day, even sleeping with them close by. There’s no doubt that these technologies have improved several aspects of our lives, but it’s equally clear that we’ve lost something vital in the process.
When we’re constantly connected to these devices, it’s much harder for us to be mindful and present to the world around us, and it’s so much easier to become distracted and have our attention taken away from whatever it is that we’re doing. We are rarely able to sink into what we’re doing, to fully relax, to allow our time to unfold without continual interruptions and demands on our time.
#6: Do less (but accomplish more)
One of the most important lessons in living a happier and more productive life is focusing on what is most important and letting the rest go. Even if it means learning to say no to projects and tasks that are not important.