Why I’ve decided to stop stressing about the future

I’m a chronic look-ahead-er. I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember.

I’ve tried just about every trick in the book to try to focus on the present moment rather than hesitantly and anxiously looking ahead into the unknown. A wonderful former therapist told me that looking ahead causes anxiety and looking behind causes regret, so it’s important to work to stay in the present moment. This is a helpful, logical way of thinking, but the question remains for me — how do I do it?

What I know

I know that practicing meditation even for just a few moments per day helps. And I know that staying organized and allowing myself to have a feeling of control helps, too. Exercise and its accompanying endorphins often loosen the tight grip of anxiety that I sometimes feel in my chest. And so do gentle reminders — my mom told me an analogy once that compared looking ahead to swimming — it’s important to focus only on each individual stroke rather than the ultimate end of the lap.

How I get trapped

My anxiety du jour is that I once again find myself at the crossroads of a career transition. I wrote about it a few months back, but I will be finishing up a graduate degree in English in December. This degree is quite broad; I know I have the opportunity to apply my newly-acquired skills to many different areas. But with that comes the next question: where do I turn? What do I do? And then come the tailspin questions (often riddled with imposter syndrome): will I be able to find a job I love? Am I adding too many twists and turns to my career path? What if I’m not qualified enough? How will I pay the bills? What if I hate the new job? How will I know if it’s “right”?

And once I’m in this mindset, no matter how many times work on my breathing or picture the swimmer, the anxiety grips me.

A change of perspective

There’s a beautiful wooded trail near my house that I walk just about every day. I was recently listening to a podcast and was struck when the interviewer asked the interviewee what they planned to do “next.” For some reason, that word lodged itself into my brain and stayed. I kept walking and it became a near-mantra that day. With the pace of my stride, I thought, “next, next, next, next …”

This little word somehow sparked in me a shift in mindset. Instead of focusing so much on what I should do for the rest of my life and worrying about the broad, distant questions, I have continued to repeat the word “next” to myself: what do I want to do next? What is the next best step for me? What next step will help keep me on the path that feels inherently right? What can I do next to help better myself?

What I focus on now

Instead of what is forever…just, what is next? I’m almost 30 and realize that I am still pretty young—with many years of my career still ahead of me. Instead of finding the “be all, end all” path, maybe it’s okay that I continue on a more circuitous route. It can cause anxiety, sure, but maybe there’s some fun in not knowing what is to come. Maybe the trick is to move away from the perceived stability of “forever” and focus on the excitement — instead of the anxiety — of the unknown. Maybe the point is to look forward, but just a step or two ahead — toward the next.

This article was originally posted on CareerContessa.com.