Be where your feet are. It’s so simple yet increasingly difficult in our modern world. We must learn from the past and plan for the future, but true presence, the here and now, is the first step to reducing stress in your life. This is becoming increasingly more challenging given the constant bombardment of distractions we face nearly every moment of every day.
If I had to pick one fundamental strategy to help manage stress, it would be focus. Or, another way of saying that, is to live in the present moment. Even if the present moment is stressful, a.) you’ll be able to handle it better when you focus on it and b.) there’s only so much stress one present moment can offer. Stop getting upset over events from your past and getting anxious about a future that hasn’t happened yet (and may not at all). That’s time travel; and it actually increases stress.
Stay where you can have an impact: right now.
The thing in front is always the most important. If that’s your colleague’s presentation or your child’s baseball game then that’s where your focus should be. Attempting to solve A while staring at B and thinking about C is a guarantee that you’ll do all three poorly. It’s the perfect recipe for unnecessary stress.
Processing our past and planning our future are crucial, but neither mean a thing if you are not handling the moment. It’s a balance between what you need to know and what can wait or is not worth your time. If your attention is tipping too far into the past or future, then you are failing the moment. And the moment will fail you.
Spiritual guru Eckart Tolle defines stress as the desire to be somewhere and somewhen else. Our goal should be to get out of the past (“memory”) and the future (“anticipation.”) and stay in the now. Your body can only be in one place, so your mind and spirit need to be there too. When all three are unified, you are fully present. “When you’re really in the body there’s not much thinking anymore,” Tolle has said. When you’re in the body, in the present, the two selves become one.
When we’re worried about something that happened or anxious about something that will happen, our stress has so much to feed on. The key? Acceptance. “The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance,” Tolle writes, “some form of unconscious resistance to what is.” Be where you are because you have no other choice.
This is what you’re doing, so do it.
When our energy is hovering away from the here and now, we’re unsettled. That’s why people who take things as they come are called grounded; they stay where they’re standing.
Fear comes from the past, anxiety from the future. The here and now is controllable.
Tolle teaches that we should, “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment: “What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is?” It’s not like you can successfully say no to the present moment, but when you do so, or try to do so, you’re inviting stress into your life.
The key strategies to managing stress are really not complicated. They may be difficult, but that’s because of our own habits and assumptions. Understanding the fundamentals is quite easy. I am a creature of the basics: I was in basketball, I am now in speaking, and I’ve always tried to be in my personal life.
If you can control it, change it. It you can’t control it, let it go.
Sitting in traffic is the epitome of this idea. If you’re like most people, it’s safe to say that your blood simmers when you’re stuck behind other cars with nowhere to go. This drives almost everyone crazy and it’s strange because there’s not a single thing we can do about it. Yet a German study found that sitting in traffic “more than triples your chances of suffering a heart attack over the following hour.” Now, if stress is the feeling that your resources are overloading, this doesn’t make any sense. You don’t have to do anything when you sit in traffic. There are no choices to compare, or decisions to make: there is not a single thing you can do about the situation. You are literally sitting still, surrounded by others sitting still.
As a professional speaker who has to give each audience my full self, I live on my ability to focus. When the thoughts of what was or what will be start to accumulate on me, and the stress begins, I shrink my window. When I’m on stage, I only have my audience and my content in mind. I block everything else out. It’s taken years of practice to reach this point, but it allows me to truly stay focused.
I do between sixty and seventy paid speaking gigs a year and I can’t afford to lose focus. Many of these people are seeing me for the first and only time. The impact I have on them and the stories, lessons, and actionable strategies I share with them is crucial to me. So my career depends on giving each speech as though it’s the most important one of my life. I need to behave like this is an important moment for me if I want it to translate as an important moment for them. My enthusiasm isn’t automatic, but it’s necessary. My focus is my lifeline. I know my material, make sure I have a connection with the audience, and keep eye contact with as many as possible. Every once in a while, mistakes happen. Maybe I stumble on words or forget to make a certain point, as long as I’m in the present moment, I can resolve it easily and stay in the flow. And the audience rarely even notices.
Years ago I worked as a performance coach at the NBPA Top 100 Camp. The camp, run by former NBA players, was designed to teach the top high school prospects everything they needed to be a pro, on and off the court. My friend, mental skills coach Graham Betchart addressed the athletes on his concept of “Playing Present”. “Great players,” he explained, “let go of the play that just happened and never worry about what might happen; they simply focus on what is.”
Focus requires practice—intention and repetition. It’s as much as skill as dribbling. Mental strength is like physical strength, in that you have to keep working at it. You don’t work on your body and say ok, now I’m in shape I can stop. If we step away, we lose ground; if we stick with it, we get better.