Making an effort to being present makes me a better software engineer, and a better person overall.
Being present for 10 minutes is better than being just there for 60.
This was the advice a career coach once gave me when I was figuring out how to spend more time with my family.
Ever since practicing being present, it has improved my life as developer and as a person. If you do a search for “being present”, you’ll find many articles from fields like psychology, social science and spiritualism. There are clearly many benefits but I’m going to discuss this from my own experiences and how it has helped me.
Meaning of “present”
It means to live in the moment and in the place. It means to have your mind fully engaged with the people your with and the activity at hand. If I’m with my wife talking about weekend plans, I’m thinking about that, not the email I need to write before bed. If I’m writing code, it means thinking and writing code, not looking at my messages.
Why be present?
Being present in your interactions has several benefits:
Connect more deeply with others
When you’re present, something magical is happening, at least for me it feels like this. Your minds are symbiotically working together, simultaneously communicating. Sure, only one person can speak at a time, but when the other person is present, they are communicating with body, their sounds and perhaps their touch. This deeper experience leaves people feeling more connected.
When you’re present amongst others, say in a meeting, you’re more creative. Creativity can be thought of as ideas feeding off of other ideas. If you’re not fully engaged, then you’re not receiving or processing other people’s ideas as well as you could, so your ideas won’t be as good, or they might be stale or repeated. Have you ever heard someone say something great, but it was said 5 too late? That person obviously was not present. (I’ve totally done that!)
If you’re fully engaged with people or your task at hand, you’re more effective and productive.
As you’ll be processing things more deeply, you’ll remember more of it.
All in all, it’s a better experience for you and those around you. And when working independently, you’ll get more done in less time and that feels great.
How can you be more present?
Make a conscious effort, that’s pretty much it. But a lot of times it’s not easy. It takes discipline, forethought and energy. Sometimes it’s easy. Ever listen to an amazing speaker? You’re totally in the moment, right? What about a bad speaker? You need to put in mental energy to be present. Also, as humans, we’re wired to be distracted. So, in a nutshell, to be more present: eliminate distractions, and actively engage. Here are some practical things I do:
- Turn off your phone. Otherwise, use airplane mode and/or turn off notifications.
- If you go into a meeting, don’t bring anything with you. If you really need to, only pen and paper for notes. Or if you prefer, a laptop or tablet. Keep in mind though, depending on who’s there, electronic devices can carry negative stigma compared to pen and paper.
- When working on your device, make sure only the apps you need for the task at hand are open and quit all others. Use “distraction free” or full screen mode wherever possible to avoid temptation of opening email or another app. And turn your notifications off.
- Listen to others, and avoid the temptation to speak until they’re finished speaking. If you’re worried you’ll forget something you’d like to say while they’re still talking, you shouldn’t be because if it’s important enough, you’ll remember. If you’re still worried, jot it down.
- Look at the person, and make eye contact. This will keep you engaged with the person, and your ears will follow.
- Ask clarifying questions and rephrase things they tell you. This will help you fully understand the other person’s point, and signal to them you’re actively listening.
- When you’re speaking, make eye contact, to help others engage with you.
- Avoid ad-hoc interactions in favour of scheduled ones. Ad-hoc interactions interrupt you which breaks you being present on whatever you’re doing. And second, it’s hard to focus because your head still might be engaged with what you were just doing. If you’re a developer, you know how much energy and time context switching takes.
Being present is better
Learning and practicing presence in my interactions isn’t easy, it takes some effort. But it has easily been worth it for me, both personally and professionally. I hope my experiences can help you too.