“Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance.” – Amit Ray
I know, I hear you.
“Dangit James Michael, now I can understand how going to bed earlier and getting up earlier and focusing on important work can raise my productivity, but mindfulness? Meditation? Presence? What’s this woo-woo voodoo got to do with staying productive toward my dream of professional photography?”
Time is precious.
But presence is powerful.
One of the most insidious forms of The Resistance is that of distraction.
Not the obvious stuff: constant e-mail dings, Facebook notifications, and that coworker who’s never around until you’re working on deadline.
Distraction is the slippery, slithering snake in the thicket: you see it when you come across your to-do list from three months ago (last year?) and recognize how long it’s been since you even thought about your dreams. You skipped your morning routine, had a spat with your spouse, and then went off the rails for months.
E-mail and Facebook will distract you for hours. That annoying coworker? Minutes.
But The Resistance will distract you forever, if you let it, or the over-and-over-again equivalent if left unchecked.
Mindfulness is the hydrogen bomb in the scorched earth campaign against distraction.
Mindfulness is hard, though.
It takes proactivity, purpose, prioritization; slowness, stillness; awareness.
Especially when we already feel like there’s no time to waste, it’s a big ask to stop and look around and think.
But consider it this way:
Life – job, family, friends, passion work, community – demands you put the pedal to the metal seven days a week.
Before long, you’re going 90-to-nothing. You know you’re getting somewhere, but you have no idea where that somewhere is, or if it’s where you wanted to go in the first place.
Mindfulness is the act of hitting the brakes, pulling over, and checking the GPS.
“You’re certainly busy… But is what you’re busy with taking you where you want to be in life?
“Going further down a road you don’t want to be on just because you’re already pretty far down it doesn’t take you closer to where you want to be, does it?”
“Where are you, where do you want to be, and what change in course do you need to make to get there?”
Over and over, I’d get serious, get committed, and set goals for myself. Health goals, photography goals, business goals, fatherhood goals, husband goals, employee goals. Something would shake me up (a mini-Harajuku moment), I’d get mad and get my to-do list out, and get back on track.
For a day. Maybe a week, at the most.
Three months later…
“Now I’m mad and motivated and I’m gonna get this stuff done! Where’d I put that to-do list…”
For years I repeated this cycle of get serious, make a plan, then get distracted from everything I was so desperate to achieve.
The Resistance had an easy time of it with me.
Maybe you’re sitting there, shaking your head, recognizing how easy a target you’ve become as well.
If so, this is for you.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” – Marcus Aurelius
- Mindfulness raises your level of consciousness. Most of our fellow human beings get up, go to work, come home, go through the motions, and go to sleep; all with a general sense of ennui. They’re zombies. They don’t think. They aren’t conscious. They lack purpose, awareness. Everything they do today is to survive with no risk or pain so they can get up tomorrow and do it again. Mindfulness gives you agency over your life, so that you can live with passion and purpose.
- Insidious distraction pulls you silently away from your purpose. Living with mindfulness is as close to “seeing the Matrix” as you can get: when you’re conscious, aware, and present, it’s like The Resistance is an absurd pickpocket trying to lift your wallet from your hands right in front of your face. “I see you” stops distraction cold in its tracks.
- When you’re mindful, you’re able to evaluate every action, every choice, for the value it brings (or doesn’t) to your life. You retake agency over your choices. As your butt hits the couch, instead of settling in for four hours of The Walking Dead, you bounce right back up. “Nope! I know what’s going to happen here! I’m going to grab my camera, hit up the park, snap some portraits, practice the lighting techniques I’ve been reading about, come back and process and post those shots for critique in my photography group, THEN I’ll settle in for an hour of Netflix.”
- Mindfulness lets you recognize what quadrant of productivity you’re in, and shift your time and choices and actions back into the Important and Not Urgent zone. This is where almost every story-changing action will take place. time spent here will greatly accelerate your progress toward the life, art, and business you dream of.
- Mental and emotional padding – breathing room and flexibility mostly earned through meditation practice – is a powerful result of living mindfully. Without that margin, you live in a constant state of reaction: as soon as something unexpected happens, you become angry, upset, distraught, discouraged, confused, and frustrated. You become raw. You react too fast, and poorly. You’re stressed. You’re on edge. The slightest things set you off. Raising my hand here, because even in the good place I’m in now, I still get reactionary when I lose perspective. This is the angry text message you wish you hadn’t sent, or those times you snapped at a coworker or friend or family member because you were having a bad day. Mindfulness gives you the margin you need to stop, breathe, and choose your reaction – both internally and outwardly.
- They say time is your greatest gift, but without presence, it’s just empty wrapping paper. Mindfulness is about being present. Attention. Focus. Caring. The most charismatic people in the world are masters of presence, making the person to whom they’re speaking feel like there’s no one else in the room, and no place they’d rather be. Being present at work is a blessing to your boss, your coworkers, your clients, and your work. Being present at home is a blessing to your family and enables a future with fewer regrets. And being present with your passion work, your art, your business, and your self, is a blessing to you and everyone you touch through your professional photography. The time is going to be spent either way; get in alignment, and get present, so you can enjoy each moment to the fullest.
Want to know why this is so hard?
Because so long as you’re living in a state of unconscious, purposeless distraction, you have excuses.
You put on 50 pounds. “I didn’t realize I gained so much weight. It’s like I looked in the mirror one day, and there it was!”
You go three months without touching your camera. “I’ve been so, so busy. I just haven’t had time to shoot.”
You go three years without launching your business. “I hate this job, I hate my boss, but I’ve got to pay the bills. I’m just waiting for the right time.”
When you know what you’re doing (which you do), and know the consequences of your choices (which you do), you have no excuse for doing what’s easy instead of what’s right.
But no matter how much doing the right thing would bring health, prosperity, and real, lasting happiness, we still choose poorly.
How many pizzas and cheeseburgers did it take for me to realize I was going to die 10, 20, 40 years too young?
How many months did I have to ignore my camera to recognize the distance I was putting between today and the art I wanted to make?
How much time did I have to spend on low-yield activities before realizing I would never get to launch by doing the easy busywork?
How long did it take me to stop being scared, to overcome my limiting beliefs (which were all in my head), and realize what a blessing my work is for my clients and community?
It’s fear. It’s The Resistance. It’s distraction. It’s waste.
And it’s okay.
Because the time I lost was a check I had to write to pay for the mindfulness I now enjoy. It’s a small price to pay to live the rest of my life consciously, and purposefully.
The same goes for you.
No matter how deeply you’re feeling the regret of those lost years, the greatest failure is to not choose differently now that you’re aware. Even with this feeling of loss, be grateful – grateful that now you know, now you’re aware, and now you won’t allow another day to go by without taking control over your future.
How I Practice Mindfulness
“Mindfulness helps us freeze the frame so that we can become aware of our sensations and experiences as they are, without the distorting coloration of socially conditioned responses or habitual reactions.” – Henepola Gunaratana
My morning routine is the first line of defense against distraction each day.
Being up early gives me time to breathe, think, and reconnect with my Why.
Mix in some affirmations, visualization, exercise and motivational reading, and my attitude for the day shifts from “There’s no way,” to “I can totally do this!”
Meditation, even just 10 minutes a day, gives me an almost supernatural amount of mental and emotional padding.
It gives me so much emotional and mental padding that I can truly practice an observing mind and take control of my reactions to whatever life throws at me.
This is especially valuable in a day job work environment fraught with distraction, and with young kids at home. Instead of feeling like I’m a victim of life, I recognize and exercise my agency, controlling what I can while letting go emotionally of what I can’t.
If getting off track was a competitive sport, you and I might just make the Olympics.
Ever sat down at the computer to practice your Photoshop skills, then looked up to see four hours have disappeared? Ever “checked Facebook real quick” for an hour? Maybe two?
The Pomodoro Technique is useful for more than just getting started on a big task. I set timers (in Chrome and on my phone) regularly throughout the day – at work, at the coffee shop, at home – to check in with myself and ask the mindfulness question of, “Is this the best use of your time?”
If you get distracted easily, set a timer for every 15 minutes. The more I’ve practiced this (and eliminated digital distractions), the less I need to rely on timers to bring me back to course.
Cleaning the slate is a scary, but powerful exercise.
Set aside an hour to go through and turn off every push notification on your phone and computer, and don’t turn on your e-mail until your daily scheduled e-mail time. As soon as that time is up, turn off your e-mail program and don’t look at it again until the next scheduled time (start with twice a day and work down to one, or start with one and see if you need two).
This was one of the most powerful choices I made as a notification-distraction-junkie.
I used to love it (and look immediately) when my phone would ding with a new notification. Someone liked my post! Someone followed me on Instagram! Breaking news out of Kazakhstan!
There are exceptions to this, such as if your job IS to quickly respond to e-mails – but for most folks, being immediately accessible is a choice, not a necessity. (If it’s truly important, don’t worry: they’ll call.)
First Things First
You have to get your time, mind, and priorities in alignment before you can have peace in the present.
This is one of the superpowers bestowed through early rising and a consistent morning routine. Take care of your self and your dream work first every day, so that when you’re at work or with friends and family, you’re free to be present and attentive and grateful. So long as you’re putting your needs and your dreams off to serve everyone else’s needs, you will constantly suffer a state of misalignment, leading to distraction, disgruntle, and resentment.
I spent so much time angry at work and distracted at home before I learned this. It kills me to consider all the time I spent in the presence of my kids, but checked out and ungrateful, because my mind was on all the other things I “should” have been doing. My time was being invested either way; why waste it with distraction?
It is a constant battle for me to slow…down…
Again with my young kids, I used to always be dragging them on to the next thing. They wanted to stop, and look, and explore, and play… But we had a schedule to keep! Things to do! Errands to run! We have to hurry up and get to the playground so we can hurry up and play so we can hurry up to go home and hurry up and watch a movie and hurry through baths and into bed so we can hurry up and call it a good day!
Then I read one blogger’s post about slowing down to your children’s pace, and learning to appreciate their wonder with the world.
A child will spot a ladybug on a flower, stop in their tracks, squat down to get a closer look, and just watch and wonder in awe. As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, peace is every step.
So one day he took the same bike path he always did, but sat up, rode casually, looked around and enjoyed every moment of the experience. When he got home and checked his watch, he’d lost only two minutes on a 45-minute ride.
The difference between making his life miserable and making it beautiful was about 4%.
Sivers said he has never looked at life or business the same way since.
The Observing Mind
If you’ve ever gotten snippy with a coworker or gone to work after a spat with your spouse, you know that emotional turmoil can wreck 100% of your productivity.
How can you learn to bounce back, or better yet, not get worked up in the first place?
Talking about the Observing Mind is as far afield into Woo Woo Land as I’ll take you guys. I know I’m already asking a lot with recommendations of meditation and turning off your Facebook notifications (!!!).
With meditation comes emotional margin – you get some space, some time to react, between what life throws at you and how you respond.
The observing mind is your higher intellect recognizing that space, recognizing the emotions in play, and choosing what to do with them. Thomas Sterner explains this more clearly and practically than I ever could in his book, The Practicing Mind.
When I talk about fear and embarrassment and other ‘negative’ emotions as being energy, energy you can use to fuel positive progress, I’m encouraging you to recognize those emotions for what they are and make better use of them than self-destruction.
This is the observing mind in action.
Life and love and work and the boss and clients are going to throw you curveballs, that’s guaranteed.
But with practicing an observing mind, they don’t so easily bump you off track.
Do This, Not That
“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
When I began practicing mindfulness:
- I stopped being a victim of life’s distractions, and started recognizing and exercising the control I have over my life.
- I stopped living in misalignment, feeling the pull and pressure to constantly be somewhere else doing something else, and started enjoying the incredible peace and gratitude that comes with being present – at work, at practice, at home.
- I stopped making excuses for not making progress on my dreams, and started taking baby steps which over time have brought me farther than I could have ever dreamed in my passion work.
- I stopped feeling pressured to rush and be busy, and started slowing down to check my ‘map’ and make sure I’m on the right path to the success I dream of.
- I stopped wishing for the miracle of ‘change’ to show up in my life and make things better, and started claiming agency over my life.
- I stopped being distracted and disgruntled, and started being grateful for every opportunity to live, breathe, love, and choose.
I know a lot of what I’m writing about in this productivity series isn’t unique to photographers, but it is fairly universal to human beings.
Could you not use an extra two hours a day to work on your self, your needs, and your dreams?
Would having some emotional and mental margin help you to spend more time choosing your life instead of reacting to it?
Do the distractions of life and technology ever take you off your chosen course toward your dreams?
Do you ever feel like there’s somewhere else you should be, or something else you should be doing, to the detriment of your happiness and your relationships?
Do you stay busy rushing through life, but get no closer to your dreams each day / month / year?
Are you tired? Tired of feeling like everything isn’t what it’s supposed to be, and that universe conspires to stop you from making the art and launching the business and living the life you want?
Mindfulness, and all the practices in this productivity series, are what you need to heal yourself and thrive.
No matter how much you feel ineffective or like a failure, today you are wiser, and it’s within your control to apply that wisdom to better your life.
We all have the same time, the same 24 hours in a day.
How you spend it is your choice.
So choose better.
“Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn. But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter. Foolishness. Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies while you save up money or studying for the bar—even after you already achieved the success you sought.” – Ryan Holiday
This is Part 4 of my series: 9 practices to increase your productivity as a professional photographer
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- SCHEDULE IT: Set your alarm 10 minutes early tomorrow if you’re not already practicing a morning routine, and put on your calendar for that time, “Meditation.”
- HEADSPACE: As the man in the app says, Get Some Headspace. I’ve tried reading books about meditation and then practicing it, but I had zero consistency in my practice until I got the Headspace app. The guided meditations were exactly what I needed to commit to a specific length of time and stay focused without allowing distraction (and a raging lack of presence) to carry my monkey mind away.
- CHEAT: Don’t rely on your overtaxed brain to “just remember” to stop and smell the roses. Use your phone, use a browser extension, use an egg timer; whatever you choose, use it to remind you to check in with yourself on a regular basis. If you’re easily distracted, set the timer for 15 minutes; if less so, try an hour or 90 minutes. Just keep asking yourself: “Am I living in the past (depression), future (anxiety), or present (gratitude)? And is this the most valuable use of my time?”
- BRAINSTORM SESSION: Get out your pen and paper. Think back on earlier today, or all of yesterday. What negative emotions did you feel? What triggered them? Were any the result of being stuck in the past, or anxious about something in the future (that may or may not ever happen)? Did you perceive someone slighted you? Are you feeling any negative emotions right now? What are they? Why are you feeling them? Are any of them rooted in a negative experience right here, right now, in the present? If not, why are you wasting your time and happiness on them? File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
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- DO THIS NOW: What’s the biggest challenge holding you back today? E-mail me your answer (yes, right now!), and let’s make a breakthrough.