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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Casteel

Great Barbarians

We may have reached peak sword enthusiasm. Everything is a sword: sticks, brooms, spatulas, anything that is longer in one dimension than the other (if it’s round or square it’s a shield).

We just got back from camping at China Camp in Marin. It’s not far from us and it’s not that big of a state park, but all we really needed was a change of scenery and a change of pace. It was good to unplug for a while.

We really didn’t do much while we were there: splashed in the bay, went on some very short hikes, played some board games, roasted some marshmallows, accidentally fed the raccoons (kid grabbed a snack and didn’t lock the cabinet afterwards).

These kinds of vacations used to drive me crazy. I was never able to sit at the beach all day and do nothing before, but that’s just what I did this trip and it was great. Read a bunch of comics. Drew a few sketches. Skipped stones across the calm bay waters. Really just gave myself space.

Being away from my usual routine helped remind me how much I still rely upon distraction to get through a day. Even though Covid has helped me simplify and focus on being more present, I still find myself giving into distraction at any moment of quiet that’s more than a couple seconds long.

What’s amazing about presence is that you can find it in an instant. Just stop, take a deep breath, exhale slowly and you arrive at present moment. Finding presence is not the challenge. The challenge is remaining present. That’s where you need a practice.

Writing these dadkus for my son is part of my practice. Each moment I’m with him I’m looking for beautiful moments that are worth remembering and wrapping them in a brief poem to enshrine them in my memory.

I’ll admit the practice isn’t perfectly suited for maintaining presence. I’m often lost in thought, walking through memories, composing poems, but these moments are far better than the other distractions that would steal away my presence like doom-scrolling through the news, obsessively playing some phone game, or mindlessly wandering through my social media feed.

Over the week and a half I wasn’t able to bike or walk because of my torn meniscus, I had developed some bad habits. I was reading the news too often. Once a day is enough to stay informed, the rest is just doom-scrolling. I was wandering my social feed too often which can become toxic in large doses. I needed to get centered again.

First thing I did was revisit my OKRs, Objectives and Key Results. It’s the goal setting system my wife and I use in both our work and personal lives. Each quarter you set out your goals. There should be no more than three. They all must be measurable and have a numeric target to hit by the end of the quarter.

With everything that has happened with Covid, I hadn’t set new OKRs for a few months and as a result, I was increasingly distracted, so I sat down and set new goals for this quarter. Then I added recurring weekly entries in my calendar for when I would be working on them. My first rule is that I can move these times around, but I can’t delete them. My second rule is that looking at emails, news and social media comes after I finished my work on these items. If I let the world in first, it will immediately derail the rest of my day. The immediate will eclipse the important and I won’t make progress on the things that really matter to me.

Second, I changed the lock screen on my phone to:

Seems harsh, but I needed something to break the automatic behavior of looking at my phone to kill time. Bad habits are the weeds that grow between your moments of presence. We usually only notice them after the damage is done, staring across the empty bag of chips at the scrolling credits of a show that we can’t remember anything about. Time has passed, straight through our fingers and we have nothing to show for it.

The only way to change our habits is by cultivating awareness. We know these habits are bad. We would choose not to do them if we were conscious at the moment we made that choice. Changing my lock screen to “PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE” gives me one more chance to become aware of my choice to distract myself from the present moment and choose not to. Try it yourself. Download the image if you want to or make your own. You know what will get your attention.

Third, I removed all the icons from my home screen that weren’t for immediately contacting someone, which adds a fraction of a second to the time it takes for me to open any of the distracting apps on my phone. Possibly enough time that I’ll become aware of my choice and use my better judgment. I'd already turned off notifications from everything except the messaging apps I need to monitor. It's bad enough for me to choose to be distracted by my phone, but it's inexcusable to let my phone intrude on the present moment with anything unnecessary.

Hope this post is the distraction you needed to help you find the present moment. Now put down your phone.

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