In a previous post entitled ‘Now Is All You’ve Got‘, I argued that it is best to always keep your attention on the present and not let it linger in your past or slide to your future. Now I’d like to better emphasize a point brought to my attention by Sara Red’s comment on the post:
(…) Do you really think it would be beneficial to anyone to not think or worry about the future?
One must have a plan, don’t you agree? The worry for the future is what keeps you motivated to do your best and take the rational decision.
For example, as a teenager, if you never think about your future, you won’t understand the importance of staying in school, of staying off drugs, etc. (…)
I agree: thinking about the future does serve an important purpose in most people’s lives: it gives you a direction for what to do now. It’s thinking about running a half-marathon that motivates me to follow my training program; it’s thinking about the awesome time I’ll have at college that motivates me to fill out the application forms and study for my final exams; it’s the thought of having a vibrant health and lots of energy that makes me want to read about nutrition and eat as healthily as I can.
Thinking about the future can be very helpful, but only when it gives you clarity about how to use your present. Only when you know what you want can you work toward it. There are two problems that can arise from thinking about the future, though:
- Worrying. It is not useful to worry about the future. Ever. Some people work better under stress (or have conditioned themselves to think they do), but if they worry instead of doing what needs to be done, it will be to no avail.
- Ignoring the journey. Sure, your future goal may be your motivation, but if thinking about it distracts you from enjoying the process of getting there, you should reconsider your approach. Life is the journey, and the achieving goal will probably not make you feel as you thought it would, anyway. So enjoy every bit of the process, please.
I’m a big fan of being happy in the moment for no reason, and I see no problem with focusing on a goal that makes you feel good for a short period of time, as long as you always come back to reality.
Remembering your past can sometimes be useful as well: you can rid yourself of old guilts; recognize patterns and habits that led you to things you didn’t want to experience and consciously change them; forgive others and get rid of your accumulated grudges and anger. Again, there are some dangers you should avoid:
- Beating yourself up. “Aw man, that sucked, I should’t have done that, and I’ll never do it again” is enough internal dialogue about something you did wrong. Beating yourself up about something will not help if all you do is lower your self-esteem. Some people work better when they challenge themselves to do better than they’ve be able to do since, but for others, it does not help at all. Focus on being better now instead of beating yourself up about past failures.
- Holding grudges. It is useless to resent someone for their past actions. All you’re doing is bringing back things that cannot be changed and feeling bad about them. If you are going to think about things other people did that hurt you, then it should be in order to forgive them. But bringing past negativity into your present is definitely a no-no.
- Defining yourself through your past. You are what you do, not what you did. The only thing that can define you is what you feel, think and do right now. By defining yourself through past actions, you’re taking away the chance of being different now.
Hopefully that cleared it up. In a nutshell: thinking about your future can be useful, as long as it helps you in the present and you don’t fall for the traps of worrying and ignoring the journey. The same way you can learn from your past but should try to avoid beating yourself up, holding grudges and defining yourself through your past.