When to Live in the Present (and When Not)

Photo by Niklas Tidbury

With a new baby, I’ve been living in wholly in "the present" for months now. Babies live in the moment! She needs so much of us, that we’re forced to be right there with her, whether it’s time to eat, go to sleep, play, or bathe.

This is absorbing work, and the days fly by.

Occasionally a thought of the future flutters by. I wonder what she’ll be like when she’s older, or what fun things we’ll do together. Or I have a sudden idea for myself, how I’d like to grow my business or plan a backpacking trip.

Then, I hear my daughter cry or see her captivating smile, and – whoosh! – I’m sucked straight back into the present.

It’s funny – we often hear about how we should “be more present” or “live in the moment,” and yet I notice that this is not a good place for me to be 24/7.

I know that days that blur into each other are dangerous. After too many of them, you wonder how you got where you are, and sometimes realize with a shock that you want to be somewhere else entirely.

I need my dreams of the future, for motivation and direction.

So this week I’ll set aside some time to look forward to my future – to daydream about where I want to go. Maybe I’ll write a few pages in my journal, or make a mind map or vision board

Finding the balance between "present" and "future"

I never used to notice whether I was inhabiting the “present” or the “future.” Coaching has taught me the importance of finding balance between these two. 

Here’s another example of how this works:

When I begin working with a client, we initially spend a lot of time talking about what he or she wants for the future. After all, people come to me because they want to improve their lives – and generally we must begin by talking about what they want instead of (or in addition to) what they have right now.

So we start painting a picture of the life they'd like to have in the months and years to come.

Then, we return to the present to look at where they find themselves right now.

We have to be clear about where they want to go – and where they are now – before we can create any plan or action steps.

And most times, we find that there is important work to do in the present before we can move forward.

Because you can’t move toward the future you want without:

  • Peace and acceptance for where you are right now. One of the biggest (and sneakiest) things that prevent us from moving forward is our disappointment in ourselves for where we've ended up. Sometimes we need to practice self-compassion before we can move forward wholly and powerfully.
  • An appreciation of your skills, strengths and resources -- and how they can support you going forward. An explorer would never set out on a new expedition without taking stock of the quality of their crew, supplies and equipment. When we feel well equipped to tackle what’s ahead, our confidence and resilience grows.
  • Sufficient energy and time. Making meaningful change in our lives isn’t possible if we’re too tired or overwhelmed. Often we have to start the journey by simplifying our lives, making space and time, removing tolerations and taking good care of ourselves.

How about you? Do you need to shift your attention this week from your present to the future – or vice versa?

Imagine that you’re an archer at a shooting range. Here, "the future" is your target – and "the present" is you, standing with your bow and arrow.

Where do you need to direct your attention now – toward your target, or toward your technique and composure as you take aim and draw back your bow?