I’m on the edge of being classified as a millennial, but I don’t strongly identify with that generation, mainly because I grew up before the internet was a household fixture. I didn’t walk five miles to school in the snow uphill in both directions, but I did use encyclopedias to research school assignments, and I made plans with friends over landlines back when a hashtag was called a pound sign. Those years helped me learn to value being physically present, something I try to do as much as I can these days.
For those of us who work in tech, screens and artificial realities become central to how we spend our hours and minutes. For me, technology detracts from being present, because it pulls me away from my physical surroundings. So I do certain things to take a break at work and during my free time to counteract that feeling. For one, I go to a lot of concerts.
During a recent show by the Portland band Moon Duo, I was one of just a handful of people who wasn’t watching the entire show through a phone screen while casting it to Instagram. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed the phenomenon, but in such a small, dimly-lit venue, the glow of the screens seemed too bright. I started to wonder if the people watching the show through their phones were really present, even though they were in the same room as me.
As a musician who’s played live and recorded an EP, I understand the importance of being focused and aware during shows. Being there and experiencing the music is what ties the band and the audience together. You share that moment in real time, and that’s something a filter or hashtag can’t capture.
As an audience member who’s recorded parts of a show on my phone, I know that I never remembered how I felt during the songs I recorded as much as the ones I didn’t. That experience made me think about how I used to consciously opt in to screen time.
But now, in part because I work in the tech industry, most of my interactions and collaborations happen on phones or laptops. Opting in has become my default. So now I try to do the opposite. I look for ways to opt out from screens, so I can find a balance between physical and digital presence.
A mindful routine
I try to avoid working from home, unless I absolutely have to, because my morning routine helps me begin the process of connecting to my space for the day.
When I leave my apartment, I don’t take the elevator to get to the street. Instead, I take the stairs, because as soon as I exit onto the sidewalk from the stairwell door, I feel a cool breeze on my face. Once I get to the office, I swipe my door key card even if I think the door is unlocked. I like to hear the beep. I notice how many bikes are hanging in the lobby; it’s not a race, but sometimes it feels nice to be the first one in the building.
If I’m early, I’ll eat a quiet breakfast and water my dinosaur planter plant (it’s named Ronnie the Raptor, fyi). I notice the glow of the morning light when I make my coffee in the office kitchen. At my desk, sometimes I’ll raise the blinds and watch people walk and drive to work. All this happens before I really dig into my work queue.
During the day, I try to take breaks from my screen. I walk to the kitchen for snacks. I notice our four-legged friends. Because there’s no better way to be reminded of your space than by seeing a dog race across the carpet. (We’re pretty obsessed with dogs around here.)
It’s harder to be present on busy days. When I’m glued to my computer, I begin to feel a disconnect with my space. To counteract that, I go for walks at lunch. Hearing people talking as they wait at the food carts, or the sound of the bus roaring as it goes by, reminds me where I am.
I’ve learned that I can establish more of a connection to the office not just by paying attention to the space, but by approaching my co-workers differently. Because no matter how great your company is, or how much you enjoy your work, you collectively yawn and suffer through Mondays, power through hump-days, and tiredly celebrate the finish line on Fridays. I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of a high-five at the end of a work week.
I used to use my lunch break to disconnect for an hour, but I’ve realized that this time is central (literally) to my day. Now I set aside extra cash to go out to lunch with co-workers once or twice week, because I’ve noticed it boosts my momentum.
I’m on the Support Team, and we have weekly team meetings. If someone is out of the office or can’t make it, we’ll try to reschedule, because having everyone present is the whole point. Our team meetings are events: we laugh, share things we’ve learned, vent, and above all, we validate each other. We empathize with each other, because there’s nothing more profound to the health or connectivity of a team.
We find ways to improve our connection to each other with things like a “kudos box,” which holds notes that express gratitude or recognition of particular people who did something nice or took on extra work. Once the box fills up, we take turns reading the notes aloud in our meetings. It’s become a great exercise in learning how to value each other more and learn what we find valuable about each other, something that seems to work better when we do it in person.
The real work
Being connected and present is a journey, and I continue to strive to embrace the physical space I’m in, so I can be an active part of it instead of being consumed by it. Accomplishing this at the office takes extra work, and I don’t always succeed, especially when I’m tired or having a bad day.
That’s okay though, because part of practicing presence is identifying the times you’re feeling disconnected and why, then figuring out what you can do to fix it. Even if that just means walking to the kitchen for a handful of M&Ms.