How Looking Ahead Can Hold You Back


How Looking Ahead Can Hold You Back
30 December

The Roman philosopher Seneca once pointed out to a friend the folly of premature misery. “Those things you fear as if they were impending may never happen,” he observed.

Seneca must have known he was fighting an uphill battle. Human beings are inveterate worriers. In many ways, we’re hardwired to peer into the future and fret about what it may hold for us.

In fact, this is one of the defining traits of our species. While most other living things are forever tethered to the present, people possess the unique and virtuoso ability to anticipate the future and plan accordingly.

Experts sometimes refer to the mental construction of future scenarios as episodic foresight, and it has obvious advantages. “By allowing us to plan and prepare, episodic foresight enables us to prudently take advantage of opportunities and manage risks,” wrote the authors of a 2015 paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

“It’s comforting to think that everything you do is leading up to some moment-of-truth in the future — that you will one day have all your systems in order, real life can begin, and you can plunge into it more wholeheartedly.”

And not only can we envision the future, but we can also react emotionally to our mind’s imagined scenarios.

Once again, this can be useful. Emotions are highly motivating. If thoughts about the future didn’t elicit real excitement or apprehension or dread, they wouldn’t have much power to shape our behavior.

But while looking ahead has its advantages, it can become unhelpfully preoccupying — or in some cases even destabilizing.

Both anxiety and depression are dominated by “future-oriented thought patterns,” according to research in the journal The Gerontologist. “Anxious and depressed individuals mentally construct and anticipate a greater number of personally relevant threat-related events, and more frequently expect negative outcomes to occur,” the authors of that study wrote.

Even if your future-gazing isn’t tipping into the realm of a diagnosable mental health condition, it can still rob your life of pleasure and contentment.

Last weekend I took my kids skiing. It was a perfect snowy day in the mountains, and I’d been looking forward to it all week. But my thoughts kept skipping ahead to our dinner plans for that night and the work I’d have to do come Monday morning. Or farther still — to the holidays, to my wife’s birthday in January, to the midterm elections. On and on. Layered in were all the usual midlife anxieties— wondering if I was properly prioritizing my time so that I could maximize my productivity and reach my goals.

At times it feels as though my present is always subordinate to my future — as though the here-and-now is just a sleepy prelude to the main attractions to come.

“Even though thinking about the future causes us so much stress and worry — sometimes even despair — there’s also a kind of comfort in it,” says Oliver Burkeman, author of the new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. “It’s comforting to think that everything you do is leading up to some moment-of-truth in the future — that you will one day have all your systems in order, real life can begin, and you can plunge into it more wholeheartedly.”

In his book, Burkeman describes much of what I’m feeling and provides some helpful insights. He explains that orienting one’s thoughts around what’s to come can provide a kind of existential security blanket. “You can avoid the fact that you’re here — that this is it, not a dress rehearsal,” he says.

There’s that great Annie Dillard line — that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives — which is clarifying and also, to Burkeman’s point, a little unsettling. If day-to-day life is as good as it gets, a lot of us may feel disappointed. Despite all the uncertainties and looming conflicts, the future can seem a more rewarding target for our attention.

“It can feel as though the only measure of whether an hour is well-spent is if it gets you closer to a future goal.”

Researchers have also found that our brains make some predictable errors when we imagine our futures. We tend to overestimate both the intensity and the duration of an event’s emotional impact. For example, a lost job or a failed relationship can seem catastrophic. Meanwhile, we assume that achieving a long-held goal or aspiration will usher in new and durable era of contentment. Both tend to be exaggerations.

On the other hand, the quotidian, humdrum experiences of daily life — including how we direct our attention — can gradually accumulate in ways that play a much larger role in our general well-being.

And so, to the extent any of us is capable, it’s necessary to balance thoughts of what’s to come with an appreciate for what already is. Mindfulness training can help with this, perhaps even if you don’t practice regularly. So can gratitude exercises — such as taking time each day to think about the good things in your life.

It may also be helpful to avoid activities that kick your thoughts too far down the road — especially in the direction of frightening or upsetting scenarios. That could mean trimming your daily helping of news, especially if it’s loaded with doom-and-gloom prognostications.

Finally, Burkeman encourages people not to think of their present solely as a down payment on their future.

“It can feel as though the only measure of whether an hour is well-spent is if it gets you closer to a future goal,” he says. “That would be fine if it were compatible with living a meaningful life, but it isn’t.”

Thanks to Elemental