Eckhart Tolle (whom I actually really like) said something that resonates with much of the popular thought of today. He said:
“People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.”
There are multiple variations of this quote — but the crux of the idea is that the past and future are of little consequence, and should, for the most part, be ignored. Instead of worrying about the past or future, we should only focus here and now on this moment.
This is popular advice today from often well-meaning people and to be blunt, it’s incredibly bad advice. It’s actually dangerous advice. And most of the people saying it aren’t actually living it.
This article briefly explains, with science, why it is impossible to effectively and meaningfully live “in the present” without a clear future you are working toward.
You Can’t Make Quality Decisions Today Without A Future In Mind
According to research done by Dr. Hal Hershfield at UCLA, seeing your “future self” as a different person than who you are today can lead to quality decisions in the here-and-now.
Rather than asking: “What would I like to do today?” you could ask, “What would my future self want me to do today?”
Actually, it’s impossible to make informed or intentional decisions today without a future self in mind. If you don’t know who you want to be or where you want to go, then it really doesn’t matter who you are today. If you don’t have a future you’re trying to create, then your behavior in the present can be basically anything.
Lewis Carroll described this well in the children’s book, Alice in Wonderland:
“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
You can’t have a quality “present” without a future in mind. This is why one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that Dr. Stephen Covey identified was to, “Begin with the end in mind.”
Without a future in mind, you can’t live in the present. At least, not effectively. You can’t make informed or intentional decisions. Instead, you’ll be living reactively to the moment.
You Can’t Have Hope (or Motivation) Today Without A Future In Mind
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” — Nelson Mandela
“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” — Aristotle
“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
Research on Hope Theory in psychology shows that in order to have hope:
- You must have a goal
- You must believe there is a path to your goal
- You must believe you can do something about it (‘high-hope’ people believe their actions matter, and that they can make things happen)
Put simply, you can’t have “hope” without a future. You can’t have hope without a belief that things can change, and that your actions matter. Research also shows that you cannot have “Motivation” without “Hope.” Why would you be motivated if you weren’t hopeful? You wouldn’t be.
According to Expectancy Theory, which is one of the most well-studied theories of motivation, motivation relies on three factors:
- Having a clear and compelling goal
- Having a clear path to achieving that goal
- Having the confidence you can do what is required
Without these three things, you will not be motivated. Thus, without a goal or future, you can’t have motivation in the present.
You Can’t Be Happy Without A Future In Mind
“The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.” —Dr. Gordon Livingston
“Anticipation, I suppose, sometimes exceeds realization.” — Amelia Earhart
Gratitude is a full appreciation of what was, what is, and what may be. It’s magic and powerful. Gratitude is so powerful. But gratitude is not simply an acceptance of what is, wherein you have no desire to also change or improve what is.
Gratitude and “anticipation” are not at odds with each other.
You cannot make meaningful choices without anticipation. You make decisions and continue toward those decisions based on anticipated outcomes. Anticipation not only makes the process enjoyable but also makes the process doable.
Hopeful anticipation can be an exquisite joy — for example, the hope that you’ll one day be with loved ones again. Even planning for a vacation, or preparing for a marathon, can end up being more enjoyable than the actual experience.
Of course, on the flip side, anticipation can be taken to an unhealthy extreme — when it stops you from taking needed action. We often imagine worst-case scenarios that are far worse than any actual event. For instance, you can spend a great deal of time worrying or dreading something, and then once you’ve actually done it, you realize you wasted a lot of time and energy worrying.
This is an unhealthy approach to anticipation (i.e., “dread”). Healthy anticipation leads to goal-directed action — with excitement and joy here and now as well as what’s to come.
Research shows that in order to become successful, you must anticipate where things could go wrong. You’ve got to plan for problems so that when or if they arrive, you will be at least somewhat prepared. Psychologists call this “Implementation Intentions.”
If you’re prepared, you won’t fear.
We’re seeing this a lot right now with COVID-19. You can never fully prepare for something like this. But you can be “prepared” in general. You could have a food storage, for example. You could have cash on hand. You could be emotionally, economically, and spiritually prepared.
Those who were more prepared before COVID-19 are living in far less fear now. They aren’t glued to the TV. They aren’t wasting their time. Instead, they are living presently, which means they are still living toward their future and making meaningful decisions here and now. They see powerfully that there is much they can still control. In other words, they have hope and motivation, despite what is happening.
You Can’t Learn or “Practice” Effectively Today Without A Future In Mind
“Only through imaging a future self with improved skills may we be able to motivate, plan, and execute the honing of skills through deliberate practice.”— Dr. Thomas Suddendorf, Dr. Melissa Brinums, and Dr. Kana Imuta
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of the “10,000 Hour Rule.” The thing is, though, that it’s not actually true. It’s based on the idea of “Deliberate Practice” from decades of research on high-performance by Anders Ericsson.
You can do something for 10,000 hours and honestly, get no better at that thing. You can write 1,000 blog posts and get no closer to becoming a professional writer. You could go to the gym and do the same workout every day and get no stronger or fitter.
It’s not about the amount of time spent doing something. It’s about how deliberate you are in doing that thing. “Deliberate Practice” is transformational. It’s difficult. It’s goal-directed.
You can’t engage in “Deliberate Practice” here and now without a clear vision of your future self in mind. You can’t engage in a meaningful and transformative — a “deliberate” and intentional” — process without a clear goal.
Without a clear goal, there is no such thing as a meaningful process. Without a clear vision, there is no such thing as an intentional day.
This is why “just live for the moment” is really bad advice. This is why saying “now is all that matters” is absurd. Yes, you need to be focused. Yes, you need to be in the moment while you’re performing. But “performing” is only truly performing if you have somewhere you’re trying to go.
The Beatles are unquestionably the most influential and famous musicians of all-time. They wanted to be famous! They loved their music, but it wasn’t without direction, guidance, or goals.
“The bigger the future, the better the present.” — Dan Sullivan
“Our present and our future will be happier if we are always conscious of the future” — Dallin H. Oaks
The only way to effectively live in the present is to have a clear future in mind. You can’t make conscious or useful decisions today without having somewhere you want to go. You can’t have hope, motivation, or happiness without a future in mind. You can’t engage in deliberate learning without a clear future self in mind.
Preparing for the future is how you live presently. Positively anticipating the future brings incredible joy to everything you’re doing here and now.
None of this takes anything away from TODAY. Today is beautiful. It’s meaningful in and of itself. But the reason today has any substance or quality is because “today” has context. That context and purpose is the future.
This article first appeared on Medium.