I Tried ‘Being Present’ and It Was Terrible

Pls don’t make me do it again


As a modern woman with my pinky toe on the pulse, I understand that distraction is considered by many to be the enemy of enlightenment. If we just learned to unplug and meditate and IRL talk to each other, our problems would dissolve like Splenda in hot coffee, sans cancer. At least that’s how the fairytale goes. I wouldn’t know.

Like any self-respecting millennial, I feel a healthy mix of resentment and shame regarding this line of thinking. I’m protective of my distractions. Which is exactly why I volunteered as tribute to forgo all of them for a week. I couldn’t help but wonder a la Carrie B if it might change everything. Would I make 17 new friends? Be struck by a groundbreaking idea and go on Shark Tank and pick Robert? Figure out the whole Bermuda Triangle thing? I had to give it a shot.

The rules were pretty simple:

1. No using my phone nor reading nor doing anything, really, while in transit. That means no music and no apps unless imperative i.e. maps.

2. No engaging with for-fun apps or content when I’m working or waiting around for something.

Essentially I just had to sit there. Easy enough! It was terrible.


I feel superior to my former distracted self within minutes of starting this diet. I’m working on a story about which I feel a smidge apathetic (I have no fucking idea what to say) and such a conundrum would normally have me procrastinating with the internet. Open tabs haunt me like grim reapers of attention when I’m suffering writer’s block. Without that option, though, I’m forced to face the blank page sooner. It feels sort of nice.

I briefly wonder if I’ve solved A.D.D.

A few hours later, things take a turn. Never do I enjoy listening to music more than when I walk through New York and romanticize it for something it’s maybe not. Commuting without headphones feels sad. I walk to the subway station in silence. Spooky! I wait by the tracks and am off-put by the deafening screech of the passing trains (I assume they’re rolling over six million rat kings). When it comes time to actually ride, I aggressively door-lean in silence and wait for the epiphanies. They never come. I’m so bored!

The ride to Manhattan almost doesn’t end — I consider moving in — but then it does. When I transfer trains, I make an attempt at waxing poetic about the sound of pounding feet at Union Square (I normally don’t hear it), but tbh it’s a stretch.

I would rather be listening to Moonlight by Noble Oak.


Please imagine this underlined in dramatic, red, Gelly Roll pen: Commuting without using my phone is so. fucking. boring.

Things I am not feeling: a newfound sense of camaraderie with my fellow riders, full of ideas, calm. Things I am feeling: NOTHING. I briefly consider becoming a distraction zealot/writing the counterpoint to The Power of Now.

At work, I keep doing this thing where my fingers, driven by muscle memory, move towards Command+T (new tab) whenever I’m stuck on a sentence I’m writing. I freeze before doing so, deciding whatever hamster video I’m about to watch isn’t worth it (a lie for the sake of the diet).

Later, on my way out of the office, my brother convinces me to subscribe to The New York Times Crossword app. I’ve recently become obsessed with the Sunday crossword, so granting myself access to hundreds of puzzles on my phone during this diet was maybe, possibly, a huge mistake.

I do the crossword the entire way home.

Worse, I pretend it doesn’t count as cheating because it’s “educational,” dismissing the entire premise of the diet, which has nothing to do with education.


I spend the rest of the night writing on my computer while trying to ignore the Gossip Girl marathon my roommate is constantly streaming in our living room. I occasionally glance up and rant about Serena doing that stupid thing with her mouth, but mostly I focus.

I miss Instagram and listening to You Were Right by Beauvois.


On my way to work on Wednesday I’m feeling pious/ethical and thus do not open the Crossword app. Instead, I watch a girl carefully unwrap the plastic covering of a cassette tape for fifteen minutes, slowly unwind the tape reel (glacial, really) and then meticulously wrap the strung-out tape reel around the tape. I am rapt. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?

I can’t. I start doing the crossword. I’m sorry. Do I get credit for not listening to Stay by Dimond Saints or checking my email?

At the office, I find myself clicking on links my coworkers send in order to take a break from writing by convincing myself that it’s “work.” Ultimately, there is no justifiable reason to read Why Liberals Are Wrong About Trump (despite it being great journalism), so I quickly close out and get back to work.

By the time the clock strikes 10 p.m. and I’m still writing, I realize that my Command+Ts and link breaks aren’t distractions so much as necessary reprieves during long days. I wonder if “distraction” is really something I suffer from, or if I need these diversions to stave off burnout.

I get home after a crossword-less commute that lasts ~one year and continue writing. As a diet-approved distraction, I stream Peaceful Cuisine cooking videos nonstop in the background.


I decide, again, to forgo my Crossword app on the train, but not without disdain for myself for pitching this story/downloading my new favorite app during it. I notice today that I feel a little more present. I take note of the sounds of people shifting in the train car, feel nothing, and then notice a pregnant woman and give her my seat. Would I have noticed her had I been on my phone? Maybe not. DISTRACTION-DIET WIN.

The train ride stretches on for several hundred years. I’m just bored. As in, the ailment your mom says makes you boring. What’s so wrong with music? Romantic line at the climax of this diet: “If distraction is wrong I don’t wanna be right.” Cue melancholy soundtrack: Goodnight by Shoffy.

The day goes by without much of a hitch (please do know that my 45-minute commute back ages me by three years and that I eventually cheat by doing the crossword). Later, when I get home and am working on the couch, I get so desperate for a distraction that I brush my cat’s hair and literally clean his butt to avoid writing, which I psychoanalyze not at all.

By the time I get into bed, I am straight up giddy to check Instagram guilt-free. Unfortunately it is very late and I am so tired I cannot keep my eyes open long enough to do it.

Cancel this distraction diet!


While walking to the train today, I pass a car that’s blaring music out of its windows and am so enamored with the sound that I nearly forget everything I learned about strangers in strange cars and hop right in. That’s how desperate I am to enhance this boring commute.

Seeing that it’s Friday and I’m having trouble focusing at work, I use the MR comments section (a beacon of all that is good) as a diet-approved distraction tool, since it’s technically part of my job. When I leave the office, I very cheaply consider the diet done because it’s Friday, I’m on my way to meet a friend for a drink and I’ve never wanted to pop my headphones on more.

This might have been a good time to test my strength as a distraction dieter. Instead, I take advantage of my position as rule-maker and immediately blast Touch Me by Allure, open my Crossword app and commute the whole way to Brooklyn on a freaking rainbow. The ride goes so fast I almost miss my stop.

I love distraction so much I might as well marry it.

Ultimately, this diet did little for me beyond reveal: a) my passion for having a soundtrack to my life b) how often I have writer’s block and c) my brain’s ravenous desire for content snacks after long stretches of focus. The thing is, none of these register as problems I want to fix. I actually think sitting on the train with music inspires far more interesting thoughts between my ears than sitting in silence.

I will say that abstaining from my distractive crutches was good practice. I am more aware now than ever about my twitchy involuntary tab-opening when I’m struggling to write, for instance. I’ve also discovered a really uninteresting way to slow down the space-time continuum as we know it, which strikes me as big.

Should I call Shark Tank?

Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos by STAN HONDA/AFP and Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images, map by NYC MTA. 

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  • Michaela H

    I misread your sentence about your current article as you having to write an article *about* feeling apathetic and not knowing what to say, aaaaand I was delighted by that. Also, I read this while procrastinating at work, so I am feeling this *so hard*.

    • Haley Nahman

      lol that would have been better


  • Meg S

    I had a communications teacher once upon a time tell us that we had to BE PRESENT. I don’t want to be present. I spend all day at work being present (most of the time). Please let me not be present whenever I just want to not have to acknowledge people, smile and be friendly. I don’t know what would happen if I went on this diet and took it seriously. Probably drive myself crazy.

  • Samantha Lee

    LOL at “rolling over six million rat kings” and literally cleaning your cat’s butt (I’ve had to do that with my dog…NOT FUN, so you must’ve been bored to tears). I don’t think we need to be without distractions entirely, especially if they are giving value to your life, i.e. listening to music or reading a book (which I always do on the metro). But mindlessly scrolling Instagram or falling into a rabbit hole on the internet never really adds anything to my life (besides anxiety, if I’m being honest). I think it’s just important to recognize how often you reach for your phone and WHY you’re doing it. Like, when I’m standing in line for coffee for 2 minutes, I do not “need” to pull out my phone. Before I had a smart phone I always abhorred everyone who did because they couldn’t pull it away from their faces, and now I am shamefully, one of them.

    • Haley Nahman

      YES totally agree


    • Haley Nahman

      That video is 100, pls watch!

      • Meg S

        I watched it and that was the most relaxing thing I’ve seen all day. I have a new youtube channel to watch now. I was convinced he wasn’t actually making kimchi because it was way too neat, then he actually started coating the cabbage and I decided it was legit. I need to learn knife skills like that. I wonder if the peaceful chef would teach me.

      • ToriaBeth

        I watched the video. And while I (still) have no desire to make Kim Chee, I think I’ve developed feelings for the featured chef.

  • Harling Ross

    This story was distractingly gr8

  • Jackie

    i feel like this diet cut out too much to be effective. For me, I’m trying to use my phone less – things like social media that I don’t feel add value to my life (it might for you – it’s up to you to decide what is important to you). But listening to music, reading, doing crossword puzzles… that enriches your mind, it’s not just a mindless distraction. The goal isn’t to be “present” when you’re not doing anything, like commuting — there’s nothing much to be present FOR. It is to be present when you’re with others or doing something exciting / fun like being at a concert and soaking up the experience rather than taking so many pics that you’re seeing it through the phone screen, or thinking the entire day abt what you’ll post later. At least that’s how I define “being present.”

    • Haley Nahman

      V good point!

  • lateshift

    as a fellow veteran of that 45-minute subway commute: oh wow do I hear you….the music isn’t a luxury. it’s a necessity. SDTRK 4EVA

  • Kattigans

    Haley! You have great music taste..I now can’t stop listening to Moonlight by Noble Oak. I’m sorry you had to miss out on spotify for a week. Commuting without a podcast/music/instagram distraction is so boring. Sometimes I do it because I need some silence with myself but its not my usual thing. You’s a trooper, girl!

    • Kattigans

      Also, please tell me you’ve listened to Made in Heights

      • Haley Nahman

        I have I have!!

  • Grace B

    Get a flip phone! I did and use it as my normal phone — for texting and calls. And then I still have my smartphone but I only use it when I’m out at a coffee shop or some other place with wi-fi. It’s a good trade off. Also I used to listen to a CD PLAYER while commuting a few years ago and I actually found the music made me sooooooooo emotional. YMMV.

    • Haley Nahman

      Omg flip phones are so cool…

      • Grace B

        and cheappppp

    • Meg S

      I love my phone but i kind of miss my pink moto razr. Not gonna lie.

      • Grace B

        i heard they were bringing back the razr!

        • Meg S

          Nostalgia makes me want to buy one. That’s how I end up with a lot of crap.

        • Cristina

          OMG and when you could customize the text tones on those… i thought I was ballllinnnnnn

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    i’m convinced you made up the entire contents of this article because THERE IS NO WAY U COULD HAVE FOLLOWED ALL THESE RULES AND LIVED TO TELL THE TALE 😮 !!! not that i’d judge u for doing so, ofc; i can (shamefully) admit to having made up one or two high school lab reports back in my day. my “highly scientific experiments” were really just me watching youtube videos of titrations and describing what i saw and throwing in terms like “mol” and “systematic error”as i saw fit…of course this is very bad and dishonest, but i feel like this is a safe space wherein i can reveal my darkest secrets (also, ap chem sucked).

  • The sound on my phone stopped working a few weeks ago, so I did my commute without music for a week too. It was a sad week. Then I got a new phone (I was due for one) and life suddenly got so much better.

  • Hellbetty666

    I have stopped using my phone on public transport, but you can prise my MP3 player out of my cold, dead hand. No-one should have to listen to their fellow humans. You can still be present while listening to some music of your choice.

  • Antoinette

    It’s not for everyone and you have to get to a point in your life where you feel as though social media or apps on your phone ( apps that take up valuable time and disrupt the productivity of your life) need to go. If you’re cool with your life as is, and you feel as if you are living in the moment while enjoying the virtual world then grand! Also, your approach was not serious which is what I gathered from your use of the term diet. For many people who want too be more present, which can mean different things to different people, I think it’s more of a lifestyle change. I also believe for you it may be different because of the nature of your job. MR writes about fashion, and pop culture, and products and, many other things, which may require that you immerse yourself in different forms of social platforms. If the day comes when you feel overloaded online, you may find the escape refreshing rather than such a torture.

  • Serena

    What?! A 45 minute commute with no stimulus of any sort? A waste of good intellectual time I say! Listening to podcasts, audiobooks and yes, music! That crossword puzzle is one of the reasons I love my phone… Distraction is a mean word, one that should not be applied to filling “dead” time with intellectual, cultural and emotional stimulation! Keep those headphones on and commute happily! Throw that diet out the window or down the disposal. Blekh

  • Not until I stop looking at my book or phone and look up and notice the elderly are the only other people not distracted by something else. I’m usually straight from the book, and right before my stop, change it up to music or a podcast… I have it down to a timed art during morning peak hour commuting on public transport. It is nice to just switch off sometimes, as much as a phone is a damn appendage, it must only get easier with time as you ease into forgetting it exists every now and then. This is precisely why I love travel, then I am completely and utterly absorbed in all of my surroundings, and I rely on my phone for entirely different reasons. It’s so nice.

  • kevynryan

    The NYT crossword app is the greatest $6.99/month my boyfriend spends on my behalf. Best gift ever.

  • Cristina

    Sidenote, Haley do you have public playlists on Spotify? If not, you should!

  • I use the “Pomodoro Method” – basically, 15-minute focused segments with a 5-minute “break” that I’ll go over if I’m really into it. Every four 15-minute sessions there’s a longer 10-minute break where I take a walk.

    I’m on a break right now and find that I’m much more focused, work faster, and spend the breaks doing stuff more useful/fun than browsing Pinterest or just scrolling through Reddit like I used to.

    There are apps and plug-ins you can download that will automatically time it for you.

  • HOW do you know so many songs??? I’m always impressed when someone seems to know every single indie/house/underground rap song under the sun… I simply don’t have the bandwith for it 🙁 I either listen to whole albums…like legit one album a year… or movie soundtracks and the latest top 40 hit 2309482394x in a row.

    • Mariana

      You have to “lose yourself” in youtube, for example. Once you grab a great indie music, you can just listening to the suggestions and voilà! great music for you!

  • Shroots

    Thanks so much Haley for introducing me to Peaceful Cuisine. Watching PC’s videos seems to transport me to a meditative state.