The following story is excerpted from TIME’s special edition, The Science of Happiness, which is available at Amazon.
Whether you’re a web designer, teacher, fire-fighter or Army officer, you are encouraged to keep checking things off the to-do list, amassing accomplishments and focusing your efforts on the future. There’s always something more you can do to further yourself at work: an extra project or responsibility you can take on, more schooling you can complete to ensure a promotion, or an additional investment to wager on just in case. There’s always that co-worker who is putting in longer hours, showing you that you too can and should do more. And so you strive nonstop to exceed your goals, constantly playing catch-up with your ambitious to-do list.
Why? Because you live by the faulty theory that if you want to succeed, you need to continually be getting things done and moving on to the next goal as quickly as possible. Your mind is always on the next task, the next accomplishment, the next person you need to talk to. In the process, you sacrifice the present—forgoing personal happiness, enduring negative feelings and tremendous stress—because you believe the eventual payoff is worth it. As a consequence, you get caught up in frantic and anxious workaholism. You may find yourself asking, “What am I doing right now to help reach my future goals?” If you’re not asking yourself this question, then your manager, partner or colleagues probably are. And if your answer is “nothing,” you may feel bad. Thus the need to constantly be doing something to improve yourself.
You’re caught up in the compulsion to constantly achieve, always adding meat to your bio and feathers to your cap. You haven’t finished one task before your mind is on to the next one. You work hard to clear things off your to-do list and then immediately fill it up again. You might be working on a presentation or article, but your mind is already on the topic you will cover in the next one. Even at home you might be doing dishes, but your mind is making a mental list of other chores you need to tackle.
This tendency to focus on getting things done is, of course, not categorically negative—accomplishments are good things! Yet when everyone embraces the view that each minute is an opportunity to accomplish more and move ahead, you get caught up in this perspective and don’t stop to question whether it’s working for you. And you may even pride yourself on your willpower.
The problem comes, however, when we keep delaying our happiness in favor of getting more things done so that we can be even happier later—or so we think. This delaying process can go on forever, turning into workaholism, which damages the very success and happiness we are seeking.
The reason we are so hooked on getting things done is that we believe the payoff that comes from achievements—an award or a larger savings account—will ultimately lead to the biggest payoff of all: happiness. But it doesn’t. We have the illusion that the success, fame, money—fill in the blank—that we are chasing will bring us some kind of lasting fulfillment. We often expect that we’ll be happy when we get this or that project over with. For example, you might think that if you work like a maniac, you’ll get a sought-after promotion with a big raise, which will ease your financial anxieties at home, and once that anxiety is gone . . . well, you’ll finally be happy. But there are major problems with constantly trying to get things done and focusing on the next thing: doing so ironically prevents you from being as successful as you want to be and wreaks havoc on body and mind. From the outside we may look like we have it all, but on the inside, we are burned out, not performing to our highest level, and feeling miserable both emotionally and physically, while our relationships suffer.
Paradoxically, slowing down and focusing on what is happening in front of you right now—being present instead of always having your mind on the next thing—will make you much more successful. Expressions like “live in the moment” or “carpe diem” sound like clichés, yet science backs them up robustly. Research shows that remaining present—rather than constantly focusing on what you have to do next—will make you more productive and happier and, moreover, will give you that elusive quality we attribute to the most successful people: charisma.
Given the demands of this day and age and the pervasiveness of technology, you inevitably experience multiple personal and professional demands at any one time: you may be in a meeting at work but also watching for incoming texts from your spouse, who needs a ride home, or you may be finishing a work document while keeping an eye on emails so you can respond to a client right away. Some workplaces expect you to be on top of your inbox at all times of the day. Even when there is no urgency involved, multitasking has become a way of life. You have become used to checking your phone while working, while spending time with your family, and even at the gym and during vacations.
Multitasking, instead of helping us accomplish more things faster, actually keeps us from doing anything well. When you are performing any individual task, if you are able to give it your undivided attention, you will accomplish it far more efficiently and quickly while also enjoying the process.
When we are caught up in multitasking or preoccupied with the next thing we need to cross off the to-do list, not only are we harming our performance, we may be harming our well-being. One study found that the more people engaged in media multitasking (from word processing to text messaging and email), the higher their anxiety and depression levels tended to be. If you are constantly being pulled in several different directions, it is only natural that you will feel more stressed and overwhelmed.
On the other hand, research shows that when we are completely in tune with what we are doing, we more fully enjoy that activity. Moreover, being completely present allows us to enter a state of complete absorption that is extremely productive. Think of a time when you were faced with a project you were dreading. You knew it would involve a lot of effort; maybe you kept putting it off. Once you started, however—perhaps finally egged on by an impending deadline—you became engaged and the project just flowed. You found that you actually enjoyed the process. You became highly productive because you focused completely on the task at hand. Instead of being stressed about the future and having your attention pulled in different directions, you got the work done and done well, and you were happy to boot.
According to a study of 5,000 people by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, adults spend only about 50% of their time in the present moment. In other words, we are mentally checked out half of the time. In addition to measuring when people’s minds were wandering, the scientists collected information on happiness levels. They found that when we are in the present moment, we are also at our happiest, no matter what we are doing. In other words, even if you are engaging in an activity you usually find unpleasant, you are happier when you are 100% consumed in that activity than when you are thinking about something else while doing so.
Why does the present makes us happy? Because we fully experience the things going on around us. Instead of getting caught up in a race to accomplish more things faster, we slow down and are actually with the people we are with, immersed in the ideas being discussed and fully engaged in our projects.
By being present, you will enter a state of flow that is highly productive and will become more charismatic, making people around you feel understood and supported. You will have good relationships, which are one of the biggest predictors of success and happiness.
Bring your mind into the present
Bringing your mind back into the present can seem daunting. Let’s face it—it won’t be easy to undo a habit you’ve had for years. The first step is awareness.
When you notice that your mind is going toward future-oriented thoughts, you can choose not to follow the train of thought—instead, you can nudge your mind back into the present. Let’s say you are working at your desk, playing with your child or having dinner with your spouse, and you notice that your mind is somewhere else. Of course, this isn’t the first time your mind has wandered away from the present, but when you first consciously observe this pattern, it can be a little disturbing for you. You might have thoughts like “Wow, here I am with my loved ones and I can’t focus on them at all.” But this awareness is a key first step.
Try reorienting your attention fully on what is going on in front of you. This exercise is not easy at first, but, like working a muscle, you can strengthen your ability to stay present by repeating this exercise over and over again. Like learning a sport, it takes training. So this and the following five exercises, when done regularly, can help you be present more easily.
Take a technology fast
One of the greatest exercises in presence and joy is to spend a half-day or whole day on a technology fast, ideally in nature, without a schedule. That means no screen time. None. Let your mind rest and relax. Take aimless walks. Contemplate the sky. This may feel strange at first, and you may even start to be antsy or anxious because you are unaccustomed to not “doing” anything. It may even make you uncomfortable, but see if you can move past that state. It’s just a phase. The mind takes some time to settle down. You can learn to relax your mind. The quality of your life and work depends on it.
Being ambitious and having goals is essential. To actually achieve those goals to the best of your ability, however, you need to try your best to remain present. Being present allows you to find fulfillment in the moment, in the task at hand—rather than in some distant future, after you have achieved everything and ticked every last task off your list.
When you slow down and focus 100% on the tasks you are working on or the people you are with, then everything becomes joyful, even the mundane. That joy in turn leads you to perform better, be more productive, become charismatic and build better relationships.
Try your best to be consciously present
Start with a 10-minute exercise. For example, if you have a PowerPoint presentation to prepare or are working on filing your taxes, experiences you dislike or want to get over with as fast as possible, see if you can give them your full attention instead. Use these otherwise tedious activities as great opportunities to train your attention. You may find that you even start to enjoy them. Notice when you get the itch to distract yourself by surfing the Web or checking your phone and practice focusing exclusively on the task at hand.
Outside of work, take time to watch the sunset, brush your pet or do your errands without texting, talking on the phone or occupying yourself with planning at the same time. The more you practice being present with your activities, the more being present becomes a habit. It’s not about how quickly you chop the vegetables or how soon you can get dinner put together. It’s about the act of chopping itself: Find pleasure in cutting the vegetables evenly, for example. Notice every detail.
Meditation can help you cultivate a state of calm and quiet in your mind, displacing the cycle of desire and anxiety that comes with chasing the future. Research shows that experienced meditators have less brain activity in areas related to mind wandering.
There are many forms of meditation. Find the one that is right for you. If you are not drawn to meditation as a way of calming down and centering yourself, there are other activities, such as yoga, yoga-based breathing exercises, tai chi or walking quietly in nature, that can help settle your thoughts. Find the activity that allows you to settle your mind, your thoughts, your emotions and your desires so that you become grounded in the present. And if you decide you do want to try a sitting meditation, don’t worry: You’re allowed to do it in a chair, or anywhere else you feel comfortable.
Focus on your breath
An age-old and effective practice for bringing the mind back into the present is to focus your attention on one thing, for example on your breath. When you find your mind wandering, take a deep breath in; as you breathe out, let go of your thoughts—as if you were consciously exhaling them—and bring your attention back to the present. You may have to do this exercise repeatedly, whenever you become caught up in a flurry of thoughts.
Another breathing exercise that research shows helps strengthen your attention is breath counting. Count each breath you take, and when you reach 10, start over. While this exercise may not sound very exciting, research shows that it increases your ability to pay attention and stay in the present moment.
Truly experience pleasure
Here’s a fun one. When you feel pleasure, close your eyes and be 100% present with that pleasure. Whether it is emotional (such as love) or sensual (food or touch or sound), savor the sensation or experience completely. Instead of reading while you eat, savor your food, for example. Research shows that learning to bask in your pleasurable experiences helps to extend the feeling. Not only will you enjoy pleasurable experiences all the more, you may have fewer cravings for more because your experiences are more satisfying.
From the book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Seppälä. Published by arrangement with HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.