A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how I meditate; meditation and yoga are examples of formal mindfulness practices. But we don’t have to be sitting with our eyes closed or twisting ourselves into pretzels in order to practice mindfulness; we can choose to reconnect with the present moment at any time. Any of our daily activities—from brushing our teeth to drinking coffee or washing the dishes—represent an opportunity for informal mindfulness practice. Regardless of what we are doing, we always have a choice: we can pay attention to what we are feeling, thinking, and doing, or we can be a million miles away in our own mind, ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
Informal mindfulness practice is essentially the opposite of multitasking; it is making a conscious decision to singletask. It’s remarkable how much time we spend multitasking; we eat in front of the TV, talk on the phone in the car, and make dinner while helping our kids with an art project or their homework. Even when we’re physically doing just one thing, our minds are often multitasking for us—running through our task list, worrying about a sick child, or rehashing a conversation with a spouse.
We like to tell ourselves that we benefit from multitasking. We’re so productive! We’re getting so much done, and so quickly! We’re solving the family’s problems, roasting a chicken, and planning a birthday party all at once! But research has found that we’re actually less efficient and effective when we’re doing more than one thing once. Furthermore, life isn’t just about getting things done. Parenting certainly isn’t.
Parenting is about being present in the moment, being tuned into our children, to ourselves, and to the interactions we are having with them. It can be easy to stay connected to what’s going when we’re having a good time, but I know that when I get bored or frustrated, I want to distract myself any way I can. I used to check my cell phone. Now I find myself going to the kitchen for a snack, texting my husband to see when he’s coming home, or emptying the dishwasher. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, except for the fact that I am doing them so I can avoid uncomfortable feelings. (This dynamic doesn’t just happen during difficult parenting moments; it can arise anytime we’re feeling something we don’t want to feel.)
Practicing mindfulness, both formal and informal, when the stakes are low prepares us for staying present when it’s not so easy. Here are a few tips for integrating informal mindfulness practices into your daily life:
— Choose one or two relatively short activities that you do every day. I choose showering and brushing my teeth, because they are some of the few times each day when I am usually left alone. (I also chose the time each day when I read to my daughters. I recently realized that I can get to the end of a story and have no idea what I just read.) Other possibilities may include emptying the dishwasher, walking the dog, cooking dinner—anything you do every day.
— Take a few mindful breaths (noticing your breath coming in and going out) and then set an intention to pay attention to whatever it is you’re doing.
–Pay attention to whatever it is you’re doing. Notice the feeling of the toothbrush on your teeth, the taste of toothpaste, the sounds of your bathroom. When I am reading to my daughters, I try to focus on the feeling of their little bodies leaning against me, the sound of my voice as I read, the images on the pages of the book.
–Whenever you notice your attention wandering, gently bring it back to whatever it is you are doing. Try not to get frustrated or irritated with yourself, just come back to the moment. The practice isn’t about staying focused perfectly; it’s about noticing when you wander and choosing to come back to your awareness.
–Try to do this every day. You can do it during the same time every day, but you can also do it any time at all: while waiting for a meeting, when sitting in traffic, or while giving your kids a bath.
Even on the days when I don’t have time to sit and meditate, I remember to work on my informal mindfulness practices, and if nothing else, it gives me a much needed break from my own thoughts.
What about you? How do you incorporate mindfulness into your life and your parenting? If you don’t already, do you have ideas for how you might start?