“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what is in Fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life1
When you think about how to manage your time, it may seem counter-intuitive to focus on the present. Shouldn’t we create to-do lists, calendars, and carefully categorized action items? Yes and yes. All those things have an important place. However, the only moment you can ever control is the present moment. If you constantly focus your thoughts, hopes, and plans on the future, you may “hang upon tomorrow and lose today.”
The Danger of Just Dreaming
There is good research from the psychology literature that just wishing for something or having positive visualizations about what you want to accomplish in the future will not only not propel you forward, it can paradoxically make you less likely to take the needed action. For example, in many different studies, individuals who had positive fantasies of what they wanted to accomplish, but did not contrast their dreams with their present situation and create an implementable plan, were less likely to reach their goals. Only dreaming or fantasizing about a future goal tricks your mind into thinking you have already accomplished it. Fantasizing about accomplishing future goals makes your blood pressure decrease and makes you feel better, but alone it is not productive. This phenomenon has been true in weight loss, time management, and many other fields.2
Instead of just dreaming, you have to look at your future goal, look at your current situation, and plan for how you will overcome the internal and external barriers to get to your plan. I’ll talk much more about this in a future post! For now, spend less time in the future, and more time thinking about how you use each present moment.
Many busy professionals I work with talk about their desire to be present. They constantly have a million thoughts and to-do items and ideas bouncing around in their heads and can’t be present in any given moment. When they’re working on one task, they’re thinking of three other tasks and the 900 emails in their inbox. When they’re answering emails, they’re thinking about the things they have to do at home. When they’re at home, they’re thinking about all the work they have left to do.
“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing.” – David Allen author of Getting Things Done 3
Think about how you can be present with each thing you do today. When you work in a focused way with “nothing on your mind except what you’re doing,” you will work more efficiently. You will enjoy your work more. You will do higher quality work. And, most importantly, your mind will feel calmer.
Don’t hang upon tomorrow and lose today.
- Seneca. On the Shortness of Life. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; New, Revised, Translation Edition; 2018.
- Oettingen G. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current; 2015.
- Allen D. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Books; 2015.