If you’re out for dinner with a close friend, and you get an email marked ‘URGENT’, should you set aside the conversation you’re having and deal with it right away? What about if you’re just getting to grips with a piece of work and your phone rings showing your partner’s number, should you stop what you’re doing and talk to them?

Earlier in our technology season we looked at trying to filter out the unnecessary distractions that interfere with our real priorities. But what about those times when you feel there really is a valid need to respond?

Of course, there are so many benefits to being able to get hold of people when you need them, but the expectation that every communication should be answered immediately can sometimes be at odds with our effort to live mindfully, that is, fully invested in the moment, free from distraction. After all, each message, update or alert is an invitation to be elsewhere, either literally, or at least in the mind.
Worst of all, these notifications come to us irrespective of the context that we find ourselves in. Sometimes there’s even a temptation to answer over-quickly, just to get it out of the way. Each nagging request causes a miniature spike of adrenaline, a feeling of disturbance, and maybe we believe that the only way to get rid of that feeling is to respond right away. Sometimes we might even answer hastily, acting on a feeling of frustration, send a communication that we regret, and ultimately create more difficulty for ourselves in the future.

It can all start to feel quite complicated, so I’m pleased to be able to offer a really simple suggestion that’s good for all these situations, and that is: breathe deeply.

Although meditation existed long before any of the devices that now play such a big part in our lives, the lessons it teaches are so helpful here. In our daily practice when difficult thoughts and feelings arise, rather than trying to push them out of our minds, we learn to acknowledge and accept them, and then go back to the exercise at hand.

In just the same way, whatever feeling the communication you’ve just received creates, you often don’t need to respond to it immediately. If you can breathe deeply for just long enough to acknowledge the feeling that arises, you will often find that you can continue with what you’re doing for now. Of course, I’m not suggesting you ignore urgent requests, but just try to acknowledge the substance of them, and respond accordingly, rather than responding to the feelings they provoke immediately. By all means set aside a bit quiet space to deal with the call or email later, but there’s no need to let it dominate what you’re doing now.

When you think about it, whoever sent you that message would probably prefer you to reply when you have enough space and time to do so properly. If the communication you’ve received is challenging or provokes more complex emotions, there’s all the more reason not to take up the invitation to respond right now, this instant. In fact, you’ll make better decisions, write a calmer, more thoughtful response once that initial emotional response has faded. Sometimes breathing deeply can even mean getting a good night’s sleep and responding in the morning. You’ll be amazed at how different things can look the next day.
It might feel risky at first, but deliberately resisting that urge to respond instantly, just a few times, is enough to help you to realise that nothing terrible happens when you do. And maybe, just maybe, the best way to show that you’re treating something seriously isn’t to respond immediately, but mindfully, in your own good time.

By Andy Puddicombe, as published on Headspace Daily

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