Make Progress or Savor the Moment? The surprising gift in learning to do both.
If you’d rather listen than read, find the podcast version here.
Are you a driver and a planner? Is your life a giant “to-do list” that you are just cranking through?” Or do you live in the moment, like dandelion fluff floating on the breezes of life? This post is about the surprising things available to you if you cultivate the skills of progress and presence.
The Most Progressive Day of the Year
I’m publishing this on March 4th. On this day many years ago, the phone rang at 6:00 a.m. I was still asleep. Before I could say hello, my father, almost shouting into the phone asked, “What day is this?”
I responded, “What time is this?”
“It’s 6:00 a.m. What day is this?”
At this point, he was already starting to giggle, and I was irritated.
“I give up, what day is this?” I asked.
“It’s THE MOST PROGRESSIVE DAY OF THE YEAR!”
“Its March 4th. The most progressive day of the year. Get it? March Forth!”
This was so Dad. He never met a pun he didn’t love. And it didn’t even need to be clever. In fact, the deeper the groan, the more he loved it. He got his reward that morning.
He got such a rise out of me that morning that every March 4th thereafter, he would call me at dawn and ask, “What day is this?” It became a thing and grew from there. He involved my brothers and eventually, his grandchildren. After awhile, the grandchildren started calling him on March 4th. And then it became a contest with a prize for the one who called first.
There was an irony about my father’s fascination with the Most Progressive Day of the Year. He was not a man who worshipped progress. Much to the consternation of my mother, he was not known for his steely focus or his ability to get things done. He was a man of the moment. He had an underdeveloped capacity for worry and an overdeveloped capacity for delight.
Unlike my dad, I’m a planner and a doer. My attention is squarely focused on the future – equal parts reveling in the possibilities and scanning for danger. My dad and I were actually quite similar except for this one thing. The difference between us highlights the key difference between how we each danced with presence and progress.
He turned his gaze outward and savored the world as it is; I turned mine inward and imagined the world as it could be.
The Case for Progress
So, on this Most Progressive Day of the year, let me begin by making the case for progress and future focus. Productivity and progress have been getting a lot of criticism these days and for good reason. Our relentless drive for progress in this hyper-connected world, has taken a toll on our mental and physical health and the well-being of the planet.
But a life without an eye to the future is a life without possibilities. A life without progress is a life in stasis; a life without purpose. It has no forward energy. It’s what author and organizational psychologist, Adam Grant would call languishing. Most humans need a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. The very definition of leadership is that you are leading people somewhere.
Working toward something is enormously satisfying. Even the anticipation of achieving a goal offers the brain a wonderful cocktail of pleasure-inducing chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine. Focusing on making progress keeps us engaged, learning, developing, and evolving. A future focus contributes to creativity, innovation, and breakthroughs. And let’s be real, is there anything better than looking at a to-do list at the end of the day and going tick, tick, tick? Okay, that might just be me.
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”– E.B. White
But a life spent driving forward, rushing to the next thing, getting through this thing so you can get onto the next, is not a real life. Life doesn’t happen in the future; it unfolds in the present.
The problem with an overfocus on the future is that eventually you run out of future, and you realize you’ve blown through your life trying to get somewhere, when all that you need is already here.
The Case for Presence
Take a moment to think back on a favorite memory. A vivid memory that you cherish. What do you notice? Were you planning in that moment? Were you rushing to get somewhere? Or were you having an experience, then, there, in that moment?
The present moment is the container for experience.
You know those people in your life who are perpetually late? What I’ve discovered about them is that they don’t actually have a problem showing up on time, they have a problem leaving the thing that has captured their attention in this moment.
I have a cherished walking buddy who’s a little like this. She is sometimes challenged to get to our walks on time, whatever on-time means in the context of a walk with a good friend. As she says it, she ‘drifts’. (To be fair, I sometimes drift too.) What I notice though, when we are walking together, is that she sees things I don’t. She has a way of being completely present to me and to the world at the same time. I’ll be talking about something that just happened or something I’m worried about, and she’ll interrupt, “Stop! Look at that!” And something will be happening, an osprey landing in a nest, a beaver chewing on a piece of birch, something I would have missed if I was not with her. I love that about her. She brings me back to the moment.
What amuses me sometimes is that we’ve created a whole industry around supporting people to stay present. What an osprey or a beaver does instinctively, we need an app for. Meditation, once considered an esoteric, ancient eastern practice has now been adopted, and some might suggest co-opted, by the west. In true western fashion, we’ve not only adopted it, we’ve studied it. We’ve analyzed it. We’ve even put our brains in imaging machines so we can explain the circuitry of it.
Ironically, meditation has become one of my critical “to do’s” each day and yes, it’s on a list and I do tick it off at the end of the day. DON’T JUDGE!
But being present is not all bliss and joy and that is why we sometimes try not to be here. It can be profoundly boring. The present is sometimes very painful. Like the morning my brother and I stood at my father’s bedside, holding his hand, and watching him struggle to breathe. Caught in that terrible grief of not wanting to lose him and wanting his suffering to hurry up and be over. It was really hard to stay present. But we did. There was nothing joyful about that moment he passed away and yet, I feel so grateful to have been there with him.
When my father died, I wondered if March 4th would die with him. It did not. March 4th continues to progress. It has become a way to honor his life and his legacy. It’s become an excuse for an annual family Zoom call and the family is progressing too. It is larger now, there’s a new generation celebrating The Most Progressive Day of the Year.
A life lived in the delicate and conscious balance of progress and presence is a life fueled by purpose and filled with meaning.
It is a life in which you can both dream and be awake to life’s unfolding.
The Surprising Impact of Embracing Both Progress and Presence
When we work with leaders, my colleagues and I talk about how leaders need to be conscious and intentional. Which is another way to express the dance of presence and progress.
Recognizing and practicing this balance in my life has made a profound difference in the quality of my life. Because my head is no longer stuck in the future, my productivity comes from the quality of my attention and not the ferocity of my drive. And here’s what’s weird about that. By letting go of pushing and striving and simply focusing on what needs my attention in this moment, I actually get more done.
As I have worked to rebalance my own relationship with presence and progress, the moment has delivered many gifts – sorrows, joys, moments of laughter, moments of awe. It has made me more aware, more awake to my life and more grateful to be alive.