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How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience


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Do you feel overwhelmed by the pace of your life? Do you often feel disconnected or distracted and unable to relax? If so, check out these 6 tips for avoiding a “near-life experience” and living a happier, more rewarding life.

near life experience
Finding balance in everyday life experience is important. iStock.com/Olgaorly

Do you find yourself experiencing any of the following?

  • You get to the end of a day and you feel like it was all a blur. In fact, you can barely remember what happened.
  • You often feel distracted and have trouble focusing.
  • You are constantly checking your email, text messages, or social media accounts—even when spending time with loved ones, on vacation, or out in nature.
  • You feel overwhelmed and anxious and are never able to fully relax.
  • You never feel like you’re getting enough done, and yet there’s so much more you have to do.
  • The boundaries between work and your personal life have blurred to the point where they hardly exist.

If you were nodding your head as you read those, there’s a good chance you’re in danger of having what author Max Strom called a “near-life experience” in his recent book There Is No App for Happiness.

We’ve all heard of near-death experiences, but what is a near-life experience? I would define it as a life characterized by distraction, disconnection, and dissatisfaction. It’s a life that doesn’t feel fully lived; a life that we are not completely engaged in and present with; a life that leaves us feeling that something is missing, despite how relentlessly busy we are. 

A near-life experience has unfortunately become the default for many of us living in the modern, industrialized world. Advances in technology have led to unprecedented access to information and communication. But this “hyperconnectivity” has not increased our happiness, improved our relationships, or created more meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

With this in mind, what steps can we take to avoid a near-life experience and lead richer, more fulfilling, and happier lives? Here are six of the steps I’ve found to be most important in my own experience.

#1: Be Mindful

Mindfulness is a concept that was originally derived from Buddhist philosophy, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice and benefit from it. In fact, mindfulness is now being taught and practiced in hospitals and outpatient clinics, Fortune 500 companies, schools, prisons, and the military.

Mindfulness simply means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is, rather than getting lost in our thoughts about the future or the past.

A large body of evidence has shown that practicing mindfulness—even for a short time—increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. (1) It also helps us tune out distractions and improve our ability to focus. (2) It enhances our relationships, makes us feel more connected and relaxed, and boosts our compassion for ourselves and others. (3, 4)

Here are a few simple tips for getting started with mindfulness practice, from psychologist and mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn:

  • Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
  • Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
  • Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
  • Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.

There are numerous ways to learn more about mindfulness and deepen your practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program is a great place to start. You can take an 8-week class at many locations across the US, or learn online. My 14Four program, which helps you optimize your diet, sleep, physical activity, and stress management in 14 days, has several mindfulness tutorials on audio and video. And this link has some additional resources and videos worth checking out.

#2: Stop Multitasking (It Doesn’t Work Anyway)

Most people who multitask would tell you they do it because it makes them more productive. On the surface, this makes sense. If you can check your email and respond to Facebook posts while you’re working on that important report, you’ll get more done in a shorter time. Right?


Studies have found that so-called “multitaskers” have trouble tuning out distractions and switching tasks compared with those who multitask less. There is also some evidence that multitasking may weaken cognitive ability.(5)

In fact, the very idea of multitasking is a myth. According to the late Stanford neuroscientist Clifford Nass, multitasking should really be called “multi-switching” because the human brain does not have the capacity to focus on several tasks at once.  If you are multitasking, you are simply switching back and forth between tasks very quickly.

What’s more, a study by Nass found that media multitasking is associated with negative social well-being and social indicators. (6)

All of this suggests that you’ll not only be happier, but also more productive if you just focus on one thing at a time. So the next time you’re writing a paper or working on a project, close your email and social media accounts and turn off the TV.

#3: Batch Your Email and Social Media

A recent survey found that three-quarters of workers reply to email within an hour of receiving it, and on average employees check their email 36 times an hour. The average person picks up their phone and interacts with it 221 times a day. Frankly, it’s remarkable that anyone can get anything done considering these statistics.

Not surprisingly given the multitasking information I shared above, reducing the frequency of checking your email and social media accounts has been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity.

At some point we all seemed to accept the idea that we are somehow obligated to respond to an email as soon as it’s sent to us, and it’s a good idea that we be notified immediately when we receive an email. I think it’s time to question both of these ideas.

In Part One of my two-part podcast about increasing productivity, I recommended “batching” email and social media into 2–4 discreet periods a day, instead of checking them continuously throughout the day. This single step has increased my productivity dramatically, in addition to relieving stress and improving the quality of my experience. Try it!

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#4: Turn off Notifications on Your Phone and Computer (And iWatch If You Buy One)

Both smartphones and more recently computer operating systems have the capacity to notify you when just about anything happens—from someone replying to your Facebook post, to someone sending you an email, to an artist you like releasing a new album, to a file being uploaded to a Dropbox folder you share with someone else. The more applications you have on your phone or computer, the more often you will be notified. And since these notifications are usually turned on by default, unless you turn them off you can quickly find yourself receiving 10-20 notifications per hour.

Each time you are interrupted by one of these notifications, your attention is distracted from whatever it is that you’re doing. This is the opposite of mindfulness, and it’s a recipe for feeling frazzled and overwhelmed. It’s almost like a constant interruption machine that was specifically designed to throw us off track.

Of course there are certain notifications which can be very helpful (like appointment reminders), and there are some cases where certain people will need certain notifications. You will know what those are. What I’m questioning here is whether you really need to know if someone responded to your Tweet when you’re playing with your son or daughter, whether someone liked your Facebook post when you are hiking in the woods, or whether someone you follow on Instagram uploaded a new picture while you are out to dinner with your partner.

This is one of the concerns I have with the iWatch. If it’s used responsibly, it can certainly make some things easier and more convenient. But it’s yet another opportunity for people to be constantly distracted if they don’t control the flow of information coming from the device.

#5: Go off the Grid

Many of us are tethered to our phones and other electronic devices 24 hours a day, even sleeping with them close by. There’s no doubt that these technologies have improved several aspects of our lives, but it’s equally clear (to me, at least) that we’ve lost something vital in the process.

When we’re constantly connected to these devices, it’s much harder for us to be mindful and present to the world around us, and it’s so much easier to become distracted and have our attention taken away from whatever it is that we’re doing. We are rarely able to sink into what we’re doing, to fully relax, to allow our time to unfold without continual interruptions and demands on our time.

This is why I’ve become such a big believer in spending regular time “off the grid”, where I don’t check email or social media or use the computer or my phone except for very basic tasks (like getting directions or making restaurant reservations). I go off the grid for one day each week, and for the past few years I’ve been taking a 10-day vacation where I also go completely off the grid.

At first it was hard, but now the only thing that’s hard about it is going back on the grid—especially after the 10-day break.

#6: Do Less (But Accomplish More)

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in living a happier and more productive life is focusing on what is most important and letting the rest go. This has meant learning to say no to projects and tasks that are not important.

This has evolved into a regular practice for me, with monthly, weekly, and daily attention. Each month I sit down and identify the five most important projects or goals that I want to accomplish for that month. At the beginning of each week I then identify the tasks that I can do that week that will move me closer to finishing those projects or achieving those goals. And at the start of each day, I list the three most important tasks that I can do that day.

This ensures that I am focused on only the tasks that matter to me. It also helps me to be clear on what I will say “yes” to, and what I will say “no” to. If I receive an offer or opportunity that might be interesting in some way, but doesn’t get me closer to accomplishing my goals and my purpose, I say no.

I’ve found that with this heightened focus, I’ve been able to do less—but accomplish a lot more.

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Join the conversation

  1. Good ideas except for “mindfulness.” That’s an old idea and it just makes me sick, literally. I have a lifelong history of fainting, mostly from fear of needles or,gory movies, but ” mindfulness” of my own breathing can make me faint faster than anything. i have a slow respiration rate and making myself aware of it slows it to the point of dizziness.

    You left out prayer. Perhaps “mindful” is as close as some people get to prayer. Being mindful of God is far better than concentrating on oneself.

    • In that case, I would second Chris’ suggestion to focus on bodily sensations … the feel of a chair beneath you, the feel of your feet against the ground, water running over your hands, etc. I’ve been taking a meditation class from a teacher who believes that to be much more useful than focusing on the breath, and for me, the results agree!

    • Diane,
      Glad you mention prayer; mindfulness of the food we are about to eat; there is a prayer over the sight of a rainbow; does the #5 off the grid sound like remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy? Old ideas in a modern setting; we adapt!

    • Thank you, I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by paying attention to my own breathing! I focus on something else as Juanita suggests, and I second your comment on prayer. In a study done with prayer and meditation, prayer was shown to be more effective. Interesting that it took a study for that, most people with any belief system already know it. :o)

  2. I’ve been wanting to start a mindfulness meditation practice for a while, since you talk about it a lot on your podcast and blog, but I never got around to it until my doctor wanted me to go on anti-anxiety meds. Honestly, that seemed like overkill, but I didn’t want to totally ignore the guy, so I started using this app called Headspace. LOVE IT! I just finished my tenth 10-minute session today. You’re totally right Chris, even just a little bit of mindfulness makes a big difference. I know it’s kinda dumb to get an app for something as simple as meditation, but it’s appealing enough to use that I’ve stuck with it for nearly two weeks straight.

    • If an app is what will help you to create the habit, then I’m all for it. Whatever it takes!

  3. I have noticed the best time for me to do mindful thinking is while I am driving. I find it helps me relax into my seat, breathing slows, and speed is into the limit zone. Iam still focused on driving and what is going on around me, but less stressed.

  4. I’m fascinated by your approach to getting more important work done, breaking it into 5 projects for the month, and then approaching the week and day in terms of how best to advance those goals. Can you elaborate on how you do this, in other words, what constitutes a project, and what might you do on a particular day to advance it? Are these projects in addition to your “regular” job as a clinician and researcher? Are they tangible projects only, or are you talking about self-improvement projects as well?

    • Glad you find it helpful. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say the project is “Hire a new patient administrator for the clinic.” That is the goal, but there are obviously a number of distinct tasks that will need to happen to reach that goal, from writing the job listing, to filtering applications, to conducting interviews, to onboarding the new employee. So this might be one of my projects for the month. Each week I would list the tasks that I think I can get done to move it forward, and each day I might list the one task I can do. I don’t recommend committing to more than three important tasks in a day.

      I use this system for personal goals as well.

  5. I find spending time with The Lord in prayer keeps life from becoming overwhelming. After all, who knows me better than the One who created the universe?

  6. Important topic. I have experienced both the near life and the full life experience. I feel that idealism and desire are two of the main obstacles to allowing the second. And perhaps fear…. Often when I go deep in meditation, or soon afterwards, I have a clear insight/understanding as to how I could be living a much more fulfilling, simpler life-style. I notice for me it often means releasing the trance of more money and choosing what my heart would lead me to do – what to do and who to be with…and it is often a path of discipline and faith that it will work out too. And I can’t help but notice that the regular practice of meditation greatly helps me to renew that clarity.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Meditation practice cultivates self-awareness, which in turn enables us to witness the ways in which we get carried away, stuck, or distracted from what is most important to us.

  7. Great article! I used to practice mindfulness when I was younger and was extremely happy in every moment….even if it was a task I didn’t particularly like! It is very helpful to go off the grid and probably so freeing! I see how our devices halt relationships….everyone’s! Less communication and so on! Fantastic ideas in this article! Thank you for them!

  8. This is why God calls us to practice a Sabbath–he knows our bodies and knows that we need REST! Imagine a full day with no work or commitments but just the love of family and friends and the enjoyment of creation. Hard to do but I know it would be excellent for our health.

  9. I rarely answer the phone. I almost always let the answer phone pick it up even if I am there. For years, now, I have practiced never asnwering the phone when someone is with me and talking to me and yet I am surprised as to how uncomfortable this makes others feel: Friend or client while my phone is ringing and am not answering: “DON’T YOU NEED TO GET THAT???” Me: “No, I am here talking to you and I can deal with that call later on”. Not jumping to answer every phone call when it happens has greatly reduced my stress levels.

    • My wife gives me a hard time about this, but we’ve lived in our current home for three years and I have not checked the voicemail on our home phone once during that time. I think I’ve answered the phone maybe five times. 🙂

      • Wow. Inspiring. Makes me want to write a blog post called, ‘Success, 2.0’. Re-evaluating our idea of success has gotta be important. Too many of us today confuse materalism with success. I’m not christian, but this one quote always struck me, even since I was a kid: ‘Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all things shall be added unto you.’ My notion of success has gotta include a feeling of well-being/health, love, and contribution. Simply, really. But getting back to simplicity can be a long journey, I know.

      • Nice! I don’t even use voicemail – too annoying. If they have to leave a message, they know I’m not in. If they can’t get me, they know I’m not in! I do have a friend that gets annoyed with my not having voicemail, but he forgives me and calls back; not even for him will I change this value I hold dear.

        • I actually think that voicemail allows me to focus more on those who are around me. Voicemail allows me to batch phone calls like I would batch emails, or at the very least I can ignore the ringing phone until my conversation is over, then check the voicemail. That way I can concentrate on the person I am with yet not miss what might be a very important call.

  10. I wanted to add to the discussion that I recently quit caffeine and that made a huge difference in allowing myself to be present, more relaxed and to slow down. I’m more aware now of my surroundings than when I was on caffeine. I highly recommend it!

    • I wonder if it could be the choice of caffeine or how much ? Maybe you are caffeine sensitive. Both tea and coffee have good nutritional qualities about them if they are organic and single sourced. It is often the by products (mold and other mycotoxins) that cause problems in coffee. I found a marked difference when I made the switch to organic light roast. I also chose different condiments like unsweetened coconut milk and added a bit of cinnamon. Another surprisingly good way to dress coffee is with coconut oil and unsalted butter blended with a high speed blender. I love coffee but have learned to limit my intake to no more than 16 oz prior to noon. That way I didn’t have to give up something I enjoyed nor the benefits of a quality product.

    • I’m with you! I am highly sensitive to caffeine (organic sources or otherwise), and feel so much better now that’s out of my life.

  11. One great detriment in modern society is confusing motion for accomplishment. We somehow feel that being constantly busy is a good thing, something to be strived for and proud of. We would be much happier and healthier to realize the fallacy of accepting this as desirable at all times.

    Being PRESENT with the people you are actually physically with is a much better mode of living. I find that spending time with and hugging a furry pet (cat, dog, horse, etc.) can be a great reminder and teacher since they always live in the present moment. Activities like taking a walk, gardening, meditation, mindfully preparing a meal, painting a picture, etc. are wonderful at calming the overactive mind and recharging our batteries for those times when we truly do need to be “busy.”

    Perpetually planning the next thing and never being with who we are with can damage relationships as well as diminish productivity. Focusing too heavily on the future or past robs us of our present. Turning off devices and regularly protecting time to be unplugged is terrific advice. Fostering spontaneity is wonderful. Having some unstructured free time is essential and therapeutic.

    • Yes, this is the sickness of busyness.

      Typical social encounter these days:

      “How are you?”

      “Crazy busy. Just nuts.”

      “Oh yeah, I know what you mean.”

      It’s like a badge of honor now, which strikes me as bizarre. When did it become cool to be so busy that you can’t spend time with your friends or family or relax? I think you hit the nail on the head with confusing motion/activity and accomplishment and fulfillment.

      • I totally agree. It is without doubt a cultural sickness. As I age (gracefully) I look forward with glee to being a “layabout” – planning on retirement at age 60 – and am currently practicing what I preach.

        Sleeping late (if one wants), preparing a leisurely breakfast, going out for a walk in nature, smelling those flowers, listening to the birds chirp, watching wildlife scamper about, canoeing on a peaceful pond, doing yoga or tai chi under a tree on a spring day, spending quiet time in the library, listening to a Beethoven symphony, walking around the neighborhood and having casual conversations with neighbors, stopping to pet a neighbor’s dog, getting together with friends and family to relax and laugh, playing a musical instrument, strolling around an art museum, creating art or a painting, holding a baby, playing with young children, staring at the clouds, sleeping in a hammock, swimming in the ocean – in my estimation, THESE are the important moments in life.

        What is slowly killing us is spending 8-12 hours a day under fluorescent lights, sitting and staring at a computer screen. Sitting in cars for long commutes to and from offices with no windows. And then, in our spare time, constantly checking our devices for “updates”.

  12. Also: Exercise / movement. Focused movement, in the form of exercise, jogging, qigong, stretching, yoga, etc. will inherently lead to many of Chris’s benefits from his wonderful suggestions. It’s amazing how everything changes after really being in your body and movey movey to the groovy! Now, research how to create a newly formed habit around this, and voilà…exciting things start to happen.

  13. Kylie, I just wrote down your statement, ‘seeming is not being’. So true! While reading your article, Chris, I am practicing sitting up straight in my chair, dropping my shoulders and deep breathing while reading your article on my break at work. I feel more relaxed already. I was once in a room with 4 other people and 3 of them were texting on their phones so much that the other 2 of us just looked at each other like why are we all gathered here. I need to mightily practice #1 and give up #2.

      • i hate to disagree but women have always “multitasked” while men cannot. Our brains use right and left sides simultaneously more easily than men. We can hold and comfort a baby while directing another child in a task as weĺl as prepare a meal. Men are more singleminded— the hunter–it is true in other animals in nature as well. Motherhood requires it to protect the young and feed them. Watch your wives and see how it is done on a daily basis.

  14. Hi, great article! I think not having notifications on your phone/computer and checking email at a specific time each day (for a max of say 15 minutes each time) is a great idea, and you can then ‘train’ people to expect a reply by 10am or 5pm or whatever times you choose to set.
    I think feeling you have to answer the phone when it rings but your mid flow with a task or already talking to someone is something to definitely let go of too! You should control your time, not it control you, because time is life.

  15. I have taken 2 steps in my work environment to support my mindfulness; 1 hour every day blocked out as protected time (stop, rest, eat & drink – brain fuel) and plan to complete 1 task each morning before opening up my mailbox (proof read document, edit, reflect etc). So far, it’s been a big help, but I’m always keen to do more to work smart to ensure I still have time for creative thought and not working flat out.

  16. #6 is excellent advice for reducing the list of things you choose to achieve. I’ll try to take it to heart. Thanks, Chris.

    • Mark Sisson would call that the 80/20 approach–keep the 20% that works, and chuck the remaining 80% that doesn’t. I did this in my kitchen, and WOW! Empty cupboards, empty drawers, a cleaned-out fridge, and much-pared-down food bill…and that’s just one room.

  17. I have ditched the TV as well and only watch 1-2 movies at the weekend. I use the time I gained for walks before dinner or to work on my personal projects when I get home from work. I would really, really love to commit to being more mindful and feeling every moment of a day. Or at least some moments, so that I can think back in the evening and realise, yeah, today I felt this and I thought that, etc. Most of the time I’m already thinking of what I need to do next, even before I finish what I’m currently doing. I am so caught up in the doing thing, that even when I have more free time that I could use for reading or meditating (which I don’t to at all) I find myself looking for another task/chore to do; and there is always a long list of things to do. Thank you for the suggestions Chris, I will work on #1 and #6 to start with.

  18. I’ve had a recent epiphany that SEEMING is not the same as BEING. It’s one thing to seem happy; quite another to be happy. Being demands self-acceptance, peace, reflection, dropping the mask, letting go of expectations… Suffice to say, I’m working on it.

  19. I very recently got to this point myself. I’ve turned off the TV and I listen to soothing music. I sat on the deck and practiced my mandolin in the spring sunshine for two hours, withou the tablet. I de-clutter more often because the result is soothing.

    • This is great information that makes totaI sense. It’s sad to see so many peopIe thinking they are “connected” with aII their devices, and yet at the same time they are sociaIIy disconnected from the peopIe around them! They are so busy keeping up with their texts, emaiIs & sociaI media that they are missing out on the reaI Iife that is happening right there under their noses! Instead of taIking with their famiIies at the dinner tabIe, they are texting other peopIe. Instead of pIaying with their kids at the park they are facebooking or tweeting! If they Iose their phone they are unabIe to cope & can focus on nothing eIse but finding their phone! I reguIarIy see whoIe famiIies at a restaurant, each absorbed in their phone or tabIet. It’s a very sad situation…

      • From a physiological point of view, I believe it’s pure escapism fueled by a sense of drugs, environmental toxins, and a conventional diet of junk food. On a spiritual level, people are obsessed with phones, e-mails, social media because it makes them feel as if they are an important part of a whole big universe. People are desperate for attention. We fail to honor one another that makes each of us feel loved. So we chase it through social media, etc. If people seek connection to the divine within, (by prayer, self forgiveness, and love), this obsession with exterior “rewards” of attention would be greatly reduced, i.e., ‘selfies’, plastering photos on Facebook every five seconds, etc.

        • Franchesca and John, great comments! To add to your posts and my comment above, I also think that excessive busy-ness and obsessive device use can be a form of addiction. It can give the sense of accomplishment, meaning, belonging, etc. but sometimes can detract from true connection. It really seems at times that this over connectedness in actuality disconnects us from people and experiences that matter most.

        • Absolutely, John. I don’t even own a smartphone. I did not own a cellphone until 2007. Eventually I will probbly acquiesce and get a smartphone but I really don’t miss it that much. If someone really needs to find me, they can call me on my ancient flip phone.
          An entire generation has adopted texting as their main form of communication. I don’t need my smart phone so that I can constantly post updates about my mundane line on Facebook so that my 407 friends can all comment. Facebook is ultimately a negative thing, in my opinion, and I participate begrudgingly. The narcissism it breeds is sad and perplexing. When young people break up, their 800 “friends” know about it instantly through their “status update”. What happened to privacy?

          People used to walk down the street and occasionally greet each other, now people stumble into each other staring down at their phones. I wonder what things will be like 20 years from now, will we be zombies just walking around staring at devices that are implanted in their foreheads? Craziness.

          We are NOT forced to participate in this culture, we can willingly OPT out.

    • De-clutter is exactly the remedy. In just about every aspect too. Simplify your day and keep a lid on the amount of information you get exposed to. It’s good to keep up with things one finds interesting (for me that is health topics), but don’t get inundated.