It’s that time of year when many of us are looking to the future and making plans. Our amazing minds enable us to think about the future and effectively ‘time travel’ there in an instant. It’s not always helpful, though.
Here are three forms of future-oriented mental time travel, each of which can have a different impact on us, our emotions and our behaviour.
This is when you intentionally look to the future, to make best use of your finite resources. Your time, your attention and your physical energy. You might plan your week on a Monday morning, looking for opportunities to schedule things efficiently.
Planning can also include anticipation of realistic challenges and how you’ll deal with them. So it could include thinking about how you’ll deal with a last minute request from your boss, when you’re already pretty busy. How do you know when you’re planning? Planning normally brings some clarity, maybe event some peace of mind, and enables you to take action.
Let’s look at a common example. Thinking ahead, you might plan out how you’re going to work towards your sales target for this quarter. You consider the time you have available to dedicate to client calls, removing holidays and other commitments and work out roughly how many calls you need to make each week. This helps you turn your goal into quantifiable action and you can block out time for this on your schedule.
Yes, it’s a lot to do, but now you have a structured plan and know what you need to do to get started. You pick up the phone and start dialling.
You make predictions when you somehow ‘know’ what’s going to happen in the future (when you obviously can’t). Additionally, the kind of predictions that are unhelpful often have a negative or even catastrophic tone. A focus on future ‘disasters’ and a sense of ‘awfulness’ indicate you might be engaging in unhelpful predicting. In contrast with more objective planning, predictions are less flexible and objective. And where a plan can facilitate action, a prediction can stop you in your tracks.
Predictions can lead us to start feeling unwelcome emotions in the here and now that are associated with something that hasn’t even happened yet. Or may never happen at all. At best they’re a distraction, at worst, they can delay or even prevent you from doing what matters.
Using the above example, you might predict how poorly clients will respond to the increase in the cost of your services this year. You have made any calls yet, but you can imagine call after call going badly. You feel a mix of frustration, shame and disappointment and begin to wonder if you can avoid making these calls. Predicting your failure means you turn to other activities instead, all because your mind gave you a picture of future possibilities.
With my coaching clients, I often discuss the more extreme kind of prediction. This is when we start to mentally act out our future scenarios, imagining what others will say and do, how we’ll respond to that, and what they will say and do in response. And on and on… I refer to this as ‘playwriting’, as we’re constructing a little story in our minds and treating it as if it were real.
Our incredible minds can so easily transport us to a future imagined scenario, playing it all out like a Hollywood blockbuster. As with predicting catastrophes, playwriting can lead to unwelcome and upsetting emotions in the here and now. Additionally, it can really drag us from the present moment. You can think of mental play-writing as a scary kind of day-dreaming. It can really escalate the negative emotional tone of the experience.
Returning to our sales calls example, you might start to imagine specific calls you’ll have with clients, playing out the interaction in your mind. You imagine their anger at the price increase, your own inability to articulate your point of view and their final (imaginary) words as they slam down the phone on you. You feel demotivated and begin question your competence and even whether you’re in the right job. Thoroughly deflated, you slump back in your seat and view the telephone with suspicion.
The power of noticing
If you recognise yourself in these descriptions, don’t worry – there’s a way to deal with it all. Two key skills can be helpful here:
1. Building your present moment awareness. Anchoring yourself in the here and now means you can take action in the here and now and be less likely to float off into imagined disasters. Check out our podcast episodes about this key skill here, here and here. When you notice your focus is moving unhelpfully to imaginary futures, gently bring yourself back to the present moment and identify what you can do to practically move forward.
2. Learning how to see thoughts for what they are, not what they say they are. Collectively, we call this ‘Defusion’, but it’s as simple as being able to identify thoughts as thoughts – not perfect predictions, instructions for action or threats of terrible consequences. Check out our podcast episode about Defusion here. Remember, a thought is just a thought, whatever its form. Self-talk, memories, images or even the detailed storyboards we walk through. It’s all just thinking.
When you notice you’re paying more attention to predictions and future difficulties than is helpful, pause for a moment, then label these thoughts for what they are. A prediction. Or a story. Because that’s all they are.
Remember: planning gives clarity and indicates a way forward. Predictions and playwriting mean you’re less likely to take action and instead, stay stuck in your thoughts.