It’s an unfortunate fact of life that most us are living cognitively in the past
and in the future. While most people can agree there are no benefits to dwelling on
the past, we’re very good at coming up with arguments as to why looking ahead is
actually beneficial. “It inspires me to do better today.” “By planning ahead I’m
working towards the future I want.” These are valid arguments, to which I would
pose a very tricky question: are they true?
Planning, strategizing, even fantasizing are not harmful in and of themselves,
but they become addictive. It’s very easy for thinking about our goals to transform
into longing for what we don’t have yet, and for that longing to fester into feelings of
anxiety that sap the motivation out of our today, often based on worries about the
future and ultimately getting stuck in “what if…. ” land. Before we know it, we’re
willfully engaging in a detrimental habit that we’re consciously supporting with that
old-faithful argument, “This is productive. This is useful.”
The shorthand response to this is; it’s not, quit it. More often than not, you’re
expending valuable personal and cognitive energy on something you can’t do
anything about. You’re denying yourself the opportunity to enjoy today by
projecting importance onto something that has not and may not happen.
This doesn’t mean we can’t ever think about the future. Obviously we need to
plan our lives, anticipate the steps that need to be taken, and take those actions. But
after you’ve done those three things… there isn’t much left to do. And that’s where
most of us tend to get in trouble with dwelling on the future.
Let’s say you want to learn to play the guitar. First, you buy a guitar. Second,
you sign up for lessons. Third, you go to those lessons and work some practice time
into your day. After that, you’ll gain more from patience than you will from plucking
the same scale until your fingers bleed. You’ve done everything you can – that’s
when it’s time return to the present. Similar to a watched pot, goals take much
longer to accomplish when you refuse to take your eye off them.
So how do we turn our thoughts away from tomorrow and find the value in
today? The best way to do this is through enjoyable rituals that consume our
attention. This builds attentiveness to the here-and-now like a muscle, becoming
stronger over time until what once took a concentrated effort can now be
accomplished almost second-nature. Here are just a few of the ways to work that
This is the zone-out-and-get-zen stuff. Meditation. Low-impact exercise.
Origami, if that’s your game. Music. There are countless exercises designed
expressly to clear the head of clutter, lower the heart rate, and sit in full presence.
Any exercise that’s relaxing and diminishes attachment to your thoughts fits in this
category, and these are great stepping-stones to adopt even if you hate them. Ten
minutes a day can have a tremendous impact.
You can never go wrong with being grateful. Gratitude by its very nature
says, “I’m happy where I am,” and the feeling of gratitude is like a mantra that
resonates through our body and mind until we believe it. Keep a gratitude journal
and write down three things you’re grateful for every day, being sure to include why
you are grateful for it and how you made that happen for yourself. “I’m grateful for
my friend Charlotte; she is endlessly supportive and if an awesome person likes her
enjoys spending time with me then I must be awesome too.” How did I invite
Charlotte to be such a good friend to me?” It may feel cheesy at first, but work
through that. Fight for the results.
Hobbies and Activities
There are hundreds of inspiring, entertaining, rejuvenating things happening
around you all the time. While you’re on the journey towards your long-term goal,
there’s nothing wrong with snagging some immediate gratification. Join a sports
team. See a movie. Pick up a book. Experiment with water colours. Try that new
restaurant. If you’re willing to dive into life’s small pleasures, you’ll be rewarded
with enjoyment. Build mastery in something and do it everyday. This reminds us of
our goodness and that makes the present so much more attractive than the worries
or concerns about the future.
Here’s where we back-track. You’re working towards a long-term goal. Does
it have to be long-term? The same way we’re good at justifying our dwelling on the
future, most of us have a knack for putting things off ( aka procrastination which
just indulges the future worry) because of an unconscious fear of change or failure.
“I’m going to ask for a raise, I just want to take a little more time to prove I deserve
it.” Why? What are you actually waiting for? In many cases, there’s no time like the