Imagine your day is an empty container. It has a finite capacity, a mere 24 hours, a third of which is taken up by sleep (that is, if you're able to sleep). There's only so much you can fit into this brief space of time, only so much you can do with this small moment of your existence.
How will you choose to fill this container?
Will you choose to fill it with: family, friendships, relationships, aspirations, physical and mental well-being, learning, hoping, and growing? All the noble things in life that you know you should be doing, but you don't always necessarily do.
Or will you choose to fill it with: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TV, video games, trashy articles, click-bait, gossip, alcohol, and drugs? All the distracting things in life that you do, but you know you shouldn't necessarily be doing.
There's definitely room for moderation here—trust me, I'm no prude. Distractions are easy, they feel good, and can be a much needed break from the weight of life. If done right, if done in balance, distractions aren't all that bad.
It's up to you. If you choose to spend some time in the morning catching up with friends and reading articles on Facebook, great! But set a limit for yourself. If you won't keep to your limit, try the Stay Focused app for Chrome, that automatically locks you out of Facebook—or any other site—based on your own set of rules. And try turning off notifications or even deleting the mobile app so you aren't so easily drawn back into the clickhole.
It's up to you. If you choose to go out to the bar, have fun! But set a limit for yourself. It's one thing to have a go out and let loose, set aside your stresses for a night, and foster stronger friendships. It's another thing to let that fun night ruin the next day with a hangover.
With both the noble things and the distracting things, choose balance. That way you can both enjoy life and accomplish something in life, which is really what our ultimate goal should be.
How will you choose to fill it up your container today?
It's really easy to see the faults in your life and think, "yeah, I totally want to fix that." It’s a whole other thing to actually go in there and start fixing it. That's because changing a habit is hard, especially all the super unmindful habits that’ve grown out of the digital age. Sometimes we need a trick to help us stick to it.
Enter mindfulness cues
As each of us goes throughout our day, we can use reminders or triggers to remove distractions and the stress they create.
This is my new challenge to you: set aside a specific time every day to be mindful. Choose something you already do and turn it into a mindfulness cue.
Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, I charge my phone. What if I used that as a time for mindfulness? Instead of standing next to the charging area, continuing to tap away at Facebook, Instagram, or Gmail, what if I set the phone down and leave it alone? Instead of picking up my iPad as an alternative, what if I used that moment to breathe and be present?
Phone charging time is now my mindful time. It's a reminder to stop distracting myself with the wealth of mindless activities our over-connected world has to offer and start living in the real world, the here and now.
When it’s time to recharge my phone, it’s also time to recharge my mind.
And I'm posting this here publicly so my friends can keep me honest. Letting other people know you're trying to change a habit helps you stick to it, because they can give you shit when you start to waiver. Never underestimate the power of a healthy guilt trip.
So choose something that works for you. When you use the bathroom, leave the iPad on the counter. When you eat breakfast in the morning, close the laptop lid. When you have lunch at work, don't have it at your desk. When you're waiting for a friend to arrive at dinner, look around you instead of at your phone. There are a million different moments in your life that could act as a mindfulness cues. The possibilities are endless.
It's so easy to forget, but every moment of every day is chance to find peace and the power to do it is right there inside you. Try using your everyday life to remind you of it, and see how much that reminder can help you get there.
The last few months have been really rough for me in the sleep department. It's been a roller coaster of both bad nights and good.
Through these ups and downs, however, I've grown. I learned about a lot of specific tools to use for a better night's sleep, of course. But I think more importantly, this experience shined a light on the areas of my mindfulness process I hadn't spent much time exploring before now. And for that I am grateful.
One big lesson from this has been that I'm not alone. When I reluctantly bring up my sleep issues with friends, I quickly discover that many people are (or have been) in the same boat.
We tend to try and avoid the negative in both real and digital life—we post social media updates about the good news, the smiles, the pretty sunsets, the people we love. That's mostly the case. Not always, but mostly. Even when we're hanging with a friend and they ask "how are ya?", most of the time we stick to the basics.
It's only with those certain friends, in those private moments, or when we really feel like laying it all out there on Facebook, that we flip over the pancake and expose our burnt edges.
Sleep problems seem to be one of those burnt edges. Not just the periodic bad night's sleep because of too much caffeine. I'm talking about the insomnia, the apnea, the bad backs, the snoring partner struggles.
So I thought that rather than "vaguebook" about it, this was an opportunity for me to discuss it openly—to flip over the pancake and expose my own burnt edges. I'm going to talk about the mindfulness struggles it unearthed and the remedies I've come to learn from them, that way when you're having a silently-shitty-sleepy-time, you'll remember you're not totally alone.
This struggle isn't new to me—It's often difficult for me to shut off my mind when I get into bed. I relive conversations from the previous day, run through my list for tomorrow, and imagine all sorts of future scenarios for the days/weeks/months/years to come. Because of this, my bed is often a place where I'm terribly UNmindful. The quiet darkness of night turns off the external distractions and leaves my mind alone to spiral inward.
I tried various techniques: expensive pillows, eye masks, a sleep fan, meditation, avoiding social media before bed, reading boring literature, melatonin, chamomile, ambien. They all work... kinda-sorta. Even the ambien has a spotty track record. The mind is a powerful muscle, enough to overcome the best that western and eastern medicine has to offer.
About three months ago all hell broke loose: I threw out my back and caught a head cold at the same time. The sinus congestion worsened my snoring and I had to sleep flat on my back which exacerbated it even more. It was the perfect storm of physical sleep disruption.
And then I was told something frightening: I was choking and gasping for air in my sleep.
A test confirmed I indeed had sleep apnea, likely for years. All this time and I never knew I was suffocating myself every night and not getting enough rest as a result. Now my sleep issues were two-fold: there was my crazy mind making it difficult for me to fall asleep and my crazy body making it difficult for me to stay asleep.
I'm still exploring my options and looking for ways to cure my sleep apnea to finally get a real night's sleep. We got rid of the white noise fan that was drying out the air and purchased a humidifier. My thoughtful mother got us a sleep machine to replce the noise we're used to and a leg pillow to make side sleeping easier. I'm looking into a CPAP and possibly even tonsil surgery as broader solutions.
These bedtime struggles unleashed a slew unmindful emotions—frustration, fear, worry, anger, doubt, regret. A lot of "why me's" and "fuck this's" ensued. My bed was the enemy, sleep was the war, and each night was a new battle.
I know the basic tools of mindfulness—I've written about a lot of them here (you might have noticed). But I've also written about my difficulties in sticking to my own advice.
With sleep apnea on my mind at every night, I often start to worry about how a restless sleep might effect the next day or about the long-term effects of oxygen deprivation on my body. I worry about future rather than mindfully focus on the present, that particular moment, that night, the only thing I actually have control over.
Every struggle, every battle, every moment where feel like I'm miles away from the present, is another opportunity to practice mindfulness. It's a chance to acknowledge it, instead of getting frustrated by it. It's a reminder to BREATHE.
Sleep for me is still fraught with difficulties, in fact, this week has been a bad one. But I know that each failure, in all aspects of life, is a lesson on how to succeed the next time. So for me, every night is a lesson in mindfulness, it's another practice round, and the more I practice the better it will get.
I'll keep learning with every night's sleep, keep turning toward mindfulness instead of frustration, and then I know, one of these nights, it'll finally sink it.
I’ll be honest, I’m not really a fan of New Year’s resolutions. If we are the thoughtful, sentient beings we claim to be, shouldn't we be able to make a change in our life any day we choose? That change is up to us, not a calendar.
But I also know it’s important to people. The end of one year and start of another (even if the calendar was semi-arbitrarily determined by some Romans a few thousand years ago) is a milestone in our society.
A milestone like New Year's can be a trigger that encourages us to better ourselves, and that’s always a good thing, That is, if it’s done right.
There are a number of problems that can come from relying on a date like New Year’s to trigger a set of big life changes. Here are 3 big ones:
So if you're currently working through the starting phases of a New Years resolution, and by all means do, be smart about it: