3 Simple Steps to Stop Mental Time Traveling

You can create daily routines that help rewire your brain for present moment awareness and free you from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

Sergey Nivens/Adobe Stock

What do standing in line at Starbucks, stop signs, and stairs have in common?

The answer — each are opportunities to integrate the experience of awareness into your everyday life.  The trick is to develop the habit of transforming these everyday experiences of modern life into opportunities to skillfully direct your attention to what is happening right here, right now.

If you’re reading this article, you may have already experienced this acute state of present moment awareness. You know what it’s like to be fully engaged in a conversation with a loved one, to become absorbed in the flavors and textures of your food, or to lose yourself in the sight of a beautiful sunset. And you may know the profound feeling of inner calm that accompanies these sublime moments, which, as it turns out, are always available to us.

The problem, of course, is that, for most of us, this rich experience of being fully here now in the present moment rarely arises in the course of everyday life. The natural habit of our minds is to leave this current moment and to instead get caught up in an elaborate game of time traveling. (A part of your brain might even be somewhere else as you read these very words!) Without even knowing it, we spend our days jumping from decades-old memories to expectations of an imagined future.

…we get so caught up in the shams and delusions of the mind that we miss reality — what is happening now and here.

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau had a name for this state — he called it slumbering through life. As he saw it, we get so caught up in the shams and delusions of the mind that we miss reality — what is happening now and here.

Thanks to advancements in modern science, we now know that this isn’t just an interesting philosophy — it’s an empirical fact that most of us spend our days in this scattered mental state.

A 2010 study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard, called “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” showed that the average person spends a good percentage of their day in this state of perpetual slumbering or “mind wandering” — around 47% of the time. Killingsworth and Gilbert also learned that the more our minds wander, the more we tend to experience unhappiness. In other words, developing the skill of bringing our mind back to the present moment is perhaps the best thing we can do to live a fuller, happier, life.

How to Develop the Skill of Presence

Answering the question – “why develop the skill of presence?” is the easy part. Learning how to build this skillful means into our lives is where things get interesting. One traditional approach involves the formal practice of meditation, which serves as a core strengthening and conditioning workout for the mind that trains the neural muscle of attention

In our book, Start Here, we show another way to develop this skill that seamlessly integrates into the living of our day-to-day lives. This technique is based on the scientifically proven idea that the way to shift from mental time traveling to presence is to build the moment-to-moment habit of noticing where our attention is directed throughout the day.

If you read our earlier article on mindful.org, you might remember a powerful yet simple mindfulness technique called Notice-Shift-Rewire (NSR) — an inner technology that can be used anywhere and anytime, to shift to what is happening right here, right now.

And that takes us back to Starbucks, stop signs, and stairs.

The everyday landscapes of life offer the perfect opportunity to shift our attention to the present moment – to place our full attention on the sights, sounds, and sensations that are happening right now.

The everyday landscapes of life offer the perfect opportunity to shift our attention to the present moment – to place our full attention on the sights, sounds, and sensations that are happening right now.

To turn presence into something more than just an idea, the key is to create a new daily routine that will allow you to build alternative neural pathways in your brain and exit the neural superhighway of mind wandering and mental time traveling. In other words — we need to develop a new habit! This science of habit formation emphasizes that the first step is to establish a regular and repeating cue — an everyday reminder that triggers the ritual of the NSR habit.

We have experimented with all sorts of cues for bringing the mind back to the present moment throughout the day. We encourage you to do the same. A great starting point is to use everyday actions, such as standing in line at a store, bringing your car to a full stop at stop signs, and walking up and down stairs, as a kind of daily moment-to-moment alarm clock reminding you to bring your attention back to presence.

3 Simple Steps to Stop Mental Time-Traveling

Here’s how to do it.

  1. Notice
    The first step is to Notice. Each time you encounter one of these cues, simply Notice by bringing your attention to your mental state.   Simply notice what’s happening in your mind from a non-judgmental place of curiosity.
  2. Shift
    Step two is to Shift. Bring your attention into the present moment by shifting your awareness to a stable point of focus — something that’s anchored in the present moment. This could be a prominent sound. It could be the sensations in your body. Or it could simply be the breath.
  3. Rewire
    The final step is to Rewire. Take just 15 to 30 seconds to savor this alternative experience of being present. This step will help you with the exquisite experience of shifting from mental time travel to what Thoreau called “reality.” It also ensures that you strengthen this essential life habit by strengthening this new set of neural pathways.

We have one final tip. It can be tempting to eschew these kinds of everyday life cues and to instead attempt to just be present all day, everyday. This ambitious approach, however, can often lead to discouragement and a feeling of failure. The mind’s habit of mind wandering has tremendous momentum. For most of us, it has been going on in the background for decades. So it’s unrealistic to think that you can dissolve these superhighways of habit with a few days of hard-core practice.

Noticing, shifting, and rewiring your attention will have a profound effect on your life. It’s the perfect antidote to the near constant experience of stress and busyness that many of us experience each day.

Most importantly, it offers a way of integrating mindfulness practice deep into the midst of your every day life. You can use this practice to return to the present moment anytime, anywhere: while commuting to work, running errands, or washing the dishes. Every moment — no matter how ordinary or banal — becomes an opportunity for rewiring your brain for enhanced present moment awareness and more optimal wellbeing.

Here’s to being here, now.

Read More

How to Notice, Shift, and Rewire Your Brain 

A simple mindfulness strategy for mastering the habit of becoming more present to each moment and, as a result, experiencing greater focus, productivity, and life satisfaction. Read More 

  • Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp
  • December 12, 2016