Now that we’re all on video conferences all day long, you’ve probably had a moment recently where you were checking your email or browsing in other tabs or windows during a video call. Suddenly, you hear your name. You experience that “oh sh!t” moment, staring blankly at the screen as your mind scrambles to figure out what the heck everyone is talking about. It may even feel like your fellow meeting attendees somehow knew you weren’t engaged.
Similarly, when you’re only half paying attention to your kids telling you about their day because you’re busy scrolling through your phone, they know you’re not really paying attention. So they pull on you. They whine. They do everything they can to bring you back into the moment with them.
In other words, though you may be physically there, you’re not really present. And the people around you can tell.
The problem is, most of us think we can multitask. While I’m the first to admit I’m not the greatest at math, it seems pretty obvious that it is impossible to devote yourself 100% to two different things at once. Basic math says that, at most, you can do an equal 50-50 split. But when you do that, how much does either thing benefit from your time or effort? If your priorities only receive half of you (and that’s being generous since most of us have waaaaay more than just two competing priorities), have you really accomplished your goal? Or would it have been better to give one thing your full attention and effort, accomplish it, and then move on to the next thing?
Four years ago, I was pregnant with my second daughter. I’d spent a year of being on the road 32 weeks out of the year, and I knew I did not want to sacrifice any more time away from my family. No amount of money was ever going to make up for the time I’d already spent away from them, and I was unwilling to lose any more time. I was committed to being with them more often, even if it meant changing my schedule entirely. So, I cut way back on traveling.
As anticipated, traveling less left me at home more, with my family, which was what I’d wanted. The problem was, even when I was with my family, I often found myself checking my phone and even grabbing my laptop every five minutes to “check something really quickly.” I was so connected, I occasionally even felt phantom buzzing coming from my pocket while my phone was on the charger.
I excused my behavior by arguing that I needed my phone with me to take pictures of whatever precious moments might happen during family time. But the truth was, I actually missed more moments than I captured that way.
In 2015, it all came to a head. While on vacation in the Dominican Republic with my family, a hurricane rolled through, and we had to lock everything down. While the storm raged, the power went out, leaving my family with zero entertainment other than whatever juice my laptop battery had left. Short on options, we popped on a movie, and, since my laptop was otherwise in use, I hunkered down to enjoy it with my husband and oldest daughter. By the end, my husband joked that although we were lucky enough to survive a hurricane during a vacation to the Dominican Republic, it sure had been nice to see me sit through an entire 90-minute film with them.
His comment hit me hard. It was a huge wake-up call. I’d honestly thought I had this whole balance thing on lock. As far as I could recall, I’d done what I said I wanted to do. I came home on time, ate dinner with our family, and was there to tuck our kids in.
Yes, I’d been around. But I hadn’t really been there.
Following our family vacation and my wake-up call, I went so far as to create an entire business concept designed to disrupt the coworking business model. It specifically included onsite childcare so I could truly be more present with my girls.
It was a revolutionary idea, even though so much of our world has changed since then. But the idea of honoring every moment, every choice, and every relationship with presence has not changed in our current world. In fact, I believe practicing presence has become even more valuable.
Now, even when I am on a call or a video conference with someone, I keenly value the other person’s time. Out of respect to us both, I do everything I can to be present with them, and I also ask them to be present with me. If at any time I find my mind wandering, I’ll take a mental roll call – just like we used to do in school at the beginning of class – to see if I am present or absent in that moment.
Some days are really good, and I feel totally on point and connected with every person I talk to. Other days are more challenging. I’m improving every day, but it’s definitely a practice. I keep it up because I’ve realized that in the end, doing anything with presence takes up so much less time and energy for everyone involved. When I am home, I am fully present with my family; they have me one hundred percent, and we make every minute together count. Likewise, my clients know the time we share together is so valuable to me that there are no other browser tabs or windows open. I’ll never check my email while I’m with them, just because I’m with them.
I am certainly not perfect; there are still moments when I find myself with my phone in my hand while my daughter is talking to me. But when I notice it, the moment I become conscious of it, I stop. I close the extra windows. I refocus on my client. I put my phone down so my daughter knows she is important. And every time I do, it improves my relationships with my family, my clients, my team, and, just as importantly, with myself.