How to Stay Present, When You're Surrounded by Social Media

According to YouTube and Instagram star Jenny Mustard.

September 21, 2018
This is what breakfast in my household feels like, minus the beautiful bread. Photo by Rocky Luten

Thanks to my colleague Hana Asbrink, I've got Mustard on my mind. Not the kind we'll be slathering all over pretzels this weekend for Oktoberfest, but the Berlin-based, minimalist-YouTube star kind: Jenny Mustard.

Jenny Mustard is a self-described "Swedish vegan feminist in Berlin," whose minimalist home decor, vegan diet, and lifestyle tips are so useful, they've earned her YouTube channel nearly 350,000 followers. She and her partner David work full-time on their YouTube channels, Instagram account, blog, and podcast. Hana introduced me just a week back, and I've already watched dozens of her videos, some multiple times. Mustard is blunt, honest, and best of all, practical—her words are meant to be thoughtfully considered and applied to one's own life, rather than held at arm's length along with all of the other beautiful aspirational ideas that never seem to come together in a workday. She just released a book, Simple Matters: A Scandinavian’s Approach to Work, Home, and Style, that's full of ideas and suggestions we can't wait to delve into.

One topic Mustard doesn't shy away from is social media. In fact, she put together a defense of social media, explaining how her internet-oriented career is part and parcel with how she sees and appreciates beauty in her everyday life. She agreed to elaborate on this topic—and in particular, how she's able to stay present while catering to an expansive social media audience.

Ella Quittner: As a jumping off point, what is your personal definition of being mindful? How about being present? Do you think they're the same thing?

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Jenny Mustard: To be honest, I don’t really know a lot about mindfulness as a concept, since it’s not something that I’ve ever felt a particular attraction to. I do love the feeling of being present though, and I normally get to that frame of mind when in one of two situations. The first being whenever I’m in that flow state, where creativity comes easily, I’m completely absorbed in my job projects, and ideas pop like popcorn. It might very well be my favorite mood.

The second situation is whenever I look at something gorgeous—usually a beautifully written novel, but also stylish movies, beautiful buildings, well-dressed people on the street, or whatever catches my fancy. I think seeing something cool, beautiful, or harmonic aesthetically always calms me down and brings me back to the present.

Photo by Jenny and David Mustard

EQ: I loved your video about how social media (and Instagram in particular) allow you to better see and appreciate the beauty in everyday life, even when you're not photographing what you're looking at. How do you manage to stay present in your day-to-day when your professional pursuits involve thinking about how to frame or package your present experience for later third-party consumption?

JM: It can definitely be hard to stay present when you’re always on the lookout for great content, angles, backgrounds, and interesting things to capture and talk about later in front of an audience. But my personal aim isn’t to always be present. I love thinking about the future and planning ahead. Goals and results are constantly in the back of my mind and I find that it helps me stay passionate to have dreams for the future. And whenever I’m snapping pictures, I normally get that creative flow and get caught up in the moment, more caring about the actual aesthetics or value of the material I’m creating, than of the feedback I’ll get when posting on social media.

That being said, I often remind myself that it’s healthy to put down the camera and just see things with your own eyes, too. Some things I decide to be for my eyes only, and not to be captured for an audience. We have realized that whenever we're creating content, it works for us to shoot the material we need first-thing, and then put down the camera and simply enjoy the place we’re visiting.

EQ: Of course, no one is able to stay present all the time! Do you have any tips for how to "snap back into" being present when you realize that you've gotten caught up in a different mindset?

JM: Reading always works for me. It’s the easiest way to refocus, since it’s a solitary activity that demands your full attention. If your thoughts are scattered, you won’t be able to create a mental image of what you’re reading. I think all activities that demand that you actively use your imagination (like reading), instead of passively consuming someone else’s imagination (like movies or your Instagram feed), are good ways of refocusing.

...My personal aim isn’t to always be present. I love thinking about the future and planning ahead.

EQ: What do you think are the main ways that a minimalist lifestyle contributes to mindfulness? I know you've spoken about how your definition of minimalism includes thoughtfully owning the items you do own—how does this extend to the intangible, like thoughtful behaviors and practices? (In this same vein, are there any behaviors/practices you actively try to stay away from?)

JM: Since minimalism is all about simplifying, in any way you feel necessary or helpful, it has for me been a huge help in prioritizing. It’s easy to find yourself doing too many things at once, feeling overwhelmed and unable to give your full attention to the things that matter to you the most. I have become quite careful with how I spend my time and energy, prioritizing only the things I really want to do, or I feel are good for me in some way. A lot of the time we feel pressure to do things because we should, or because it’s expected of us. I’ve stopped caring about those expectations, and decided that it’s okay for me to concentrate on the things that are valuable to me personally. Life’s too short for "shoulds."

EQ: What made you decide to embrace a minimalist lifestyle? Was there a single moment, or did it happen gradually? Did your partner already practice a minimalist lifestyle when you met, or did he embrace it through your relationship?

JM: It was never a decision, actually. I have always been a minimalist, even though I haven’t always used that word for it. I have a very over-active mind, so I’m drawn to simplicity—whether it be creating a serene, calming home, simplifying my routines and behavior, or staying away from over-the-top shopping sprees.

My partner David wasn’t a minimalist when I met him, though. For him, it has been a gradual process that became unavoidable because of our semi-nomadic lifestyle. Moving countries or cities every three to four years is made more exhausting the more you own. I think it’s a process for both of us to find a balance where we feel light and not weighed down by unnecessary stuff, at the same time appreciating owning the things that make life easier, more beautiful, and enjoyable, or more comfortable. Which things, and how many—that’s something that varies greatly from person to person, but also from different stages in life.

EQ: Is there anything else you think I should know about how you stay present?

JM: Passion is a key concept for me. When I’m passionate about what I do, being present comes naturally and I never have to worry about being focused or slowing down or appreciating what I have around me. When you find your passion, most other things tend to fall into place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.