I’m playing a game on my phone while “watching” a Netflix movie. I’m not the only one who does this. I know I’m not paying attention to the movie if my eyes are glued to the phone in my hands. The fact that I’m trying to do this is a warning sign that my anxiety is elevated. I take a deep breath and ask myself one important question:
Is this really how you want to be spending your time?
I’ve been asking myself this ever since I got back from visiting my grandmother in hospice care. While I was there, I turned my phone on silent, turned off the vibrate option, and flipped it over. I wanted to be there for every single breath she had left. I spent that time massaging lotion into her skin, telling her stories, and lying beside her holding both of her hands in mine. I was completely present in a way I so seldom am, and I came home feeling that difference.
It’s About Purpose, Not Pleasure
Asking this question isn’t about focusing on my pleasure in the moment. I never want to be doing laundry, but I know it’s a worthwhile endeavor to have clean clothes and a tidy home. But did I want to spend my time playing a game on my phone while a movie I’d never seen was ignored in the background? I really didn’t.
I’m not trying to cram meaningful activity into every corner of the day, but I am asking myself if what I’m doing at any given moment aligns with my higher purpose. Sometimes, the answer is yes. A nap on the couch could be what my body needs. A mindless game could be a form of stress relief. I’m not judging what I’m doing when I’m doing it, but I am getting curious about what I do from habit versus intention.
Cultivate Mindful Presence
The other day I watched a movie with my children without simultaneously playing on my phone. I just tuned in. I keep showing up for my life and deciding to be present in a way that maybe I wasn’t before.
I know that life is far too short, and I just don’t want to waste it. I’m applying this same question to everything — to how I spend the holidays, to what activities and obligations I commit to, and even to who I spend my time with along the way. I’m paying better attention, and life keeps revealing more of my priorities every time I answer the question.
Create an Intentional Life
We live our lives following familiar, comfortable patterns. But for a whole day, life slowed down, and I listened to my grandmother’s soft breathing paired with the ambient sounds of the oxygen machine. I felt every minute because I knew that one of them would be her last.
This question isn’t meant to cause an existential crisis or to shame us for the sometimes-meaningless activities we engage in for stress relief. It’s meant to re-center priorities and bring them back into alignment.
Every time I ask the question, I’m not placing a value judgment on what I’m doing but asking if it resonates with what I want out of life and if there’s something else I’d rather be doing. I ask it reflexively throughout the day, and maybe there will come a day when I don’t need to ask because I stay in alignment with what I want and need without having to keep checking.
Be Reminded of Your Purpose
Until then, I use it as a touchstone. It’s a part of a larger mindfulness practice. It add meaning to my time and the way I choose to spend it. It guides me back when I start falling into mindless habits that don’t serve my best interests.
Be Open to Learning About Yourself
The answer can yield so much information about the ways we choose to spend our time and how those choices fit into the larger picture of our lives. Sometimes, it makes me stop and do something else. Other times, it helps me tune into what I’m doing so I don’t miss out on the full experience. More of who I am and what I want keeps being revealed, and I stop reflexively doing what I think I should do and start thinking about the whys of what I’m doing and if it still fits into the life I’m creating.
Ask Why, Not What
Sometimes, we don’t need to look at what we’re doing but why we’re doing it. Playing a game on my phone is something I do when I experience anxiety. Instead of focusing on what I’m doing, I ask myself why I’m doing it. Once I identified the underlying cause of what I was doing, I could figure out if there was a better way to address it.
I turn off the game and put my phone away. I know that this isn’t how I want to spend my time. I take a few minutes to care for my houseplants. I feel better about this choice, and nurturing my plants soothes the anxiety I feel.
I’m shaping my life with more intention than I ever have before. I feel it coming into alignment. A simple question is all it takes to remind me, and I’ll keep asking it as long as it’s needed to cultivate an intentional life.
Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned author. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elephant Journal, Elite Daily, and The Good Men Project. She’s also the author of Left on Main, the first book in the Heart of Madison series. When she’s not writing for Medium and working on her next book, you can find Crystal traveling, paddle boarding, running, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, doing yoga, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with her two wild and wonderful children.
Image courtesy of Thirdman.