We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future. – Bertrand Russell
Mindfulness – as practised by concentrating deeply on every sensation in the here and now – is well-known and beneficial (albeit controversial). We should not, however, limit our mindfulness to present experience.
Future mindfulness, concentrating on looking forward, offers even more potential and power to individuals, leaders, and organisations wanting to forge better futures.
Forging futures involves a handful of essential principles.
Mental time travel offers an advantage
Humans possess a mighty evolutionary asset: the ability to engage in extreme mental time travel. We can travel to the past via memory and to the future via forethought.
These abilities bring an unfortunate tendency: to travel mostly to the past and not much to futures beyond tomorrow. We often are admonished to think long-term, yet we don’t capitalise on the gift of forethought. We act according to short-term rewards and costs, prefer the status quo over change, and act as if a longer-term future doesn’t exist.
Judging what we value by how we behave, we value the present over the future, everyday actions over the novel, and maintaining rather than changing the paths we travel.
Commonplace examples include self-control failures and later regrets about sleeping in, overeating, overdrinking, and skipping workouts. When other people make bad choices, observers wonder: ‘What were they thinking?’ And of course, we’ve known for decades the harm we are doing to the planet. In these and many other ways, we disappoint ourselves, and our leaders infuriate us when they fail to make needed course corrections.
It’s a monumental point that describes individuals, organisations, societies, and our species at large: The long-term gets little respect. That is, until we experience the negative consequences of bad decisions driven by short-term biases and demands.
Past and present influence behaviour
Several research-validated cognitive biases control this tendency, including present bias, hyperbolic discounting, status quo bias, projection bias, and system justification. Their details differ, but here’s a fair conclusion: We often behave unthinkingly, succumbing to biases that cause poor decisions under novel and changing circumstances. We are shortsighted and do most of what we do by default, favouring present efficiencies and outcomes over more impactful longer-term consequences.
Much behaviour stems from established routines, current environments, and immediate thoughts and emotions. Logically then, most psychological theory and research emphasise past experiences, psychodynamics, and cognitive and emotional reactions to present circumstances.
But the psychology literature is now making a decided turn toward future thinking, future-focused mindsets, and how to actively and effectively navigate uncertain futures.
Prospecting is more potent
Mental time travel helps us make predictions, but predictions are often wrong, and prospecting is far more useful. Prospection involves mentally generating (prospecting for, discovering, creating) future possibilities and options. It is the key to adapting forward – changing not just reactively, but proactively and continuously. The goal of prospection is less to predict what is going to happen than to prepare for action in a variety of circumstances that might demand different responses.
Most prospecting involves planning that is designed to bring about one outcome rather than alternatives. Better yet is to create two plans: an action plan and a coping plan. The action plan helps you get started and identifies the steps expected to achieve your chosen objective. The coping plan, perhaps better called an adaptation plan, envisions what can go wrong and how to change when things don’t proceed as hoped. People rarely do this, but coping plans help attain later success.
Travelling mentally to the future can generate a prediction for what likely lies ahead. Much more than that (although this is less common because it requires more effort) we can construct alternative possibilities because no actual future has yet appeared. Building this matrix of maybe can prompt us to stay tuned to unfolding events, thoughtfully consider new information, and keep generating further options.
These processes help to chart new paths and broaden our behavioural repertoires – new behaviours being essential to adapting to changing circumstances. We are not squeezed into a single future, preordained by past decisions and current paths, but can keep course-correcting toward outcomes we prefer.
Creating a matrix of maybe allows you to see a full range of possibilities and to change trajectories as needed. Thus it provides maximum flexibility and far greater ability to adapt. It gives you – and work teams, organisations, and our species – ways to stop doing what is future-harmful and start doing more that is future-enhancing.
For individuals, leaders, and societies, such future-focused adaptation is what it means to be truly proactive.
Navigating the future via mental time travel, the matrix of maybe, and future-focused but flexible action embodies free will. Circumstances might feel constraining, but don’t need to be all-powerful. Proaction can restore some control by enacting your own goals, applying your best strategic thinking, and contributing to futures that would not otherwise arrive.
At any given ‘now’, the past and present are unchangeable, but the future remains to be determined. We have options, periodically and more often than not, to make course corrections off current paths.
Ideally, but far from always, we capitalise on options that avoid bad futures and create better ones. Perhaps nothing else can contribute to personal and professional growth and well-being than learning to proactively navigate the future. The sooner we employ future mindfulness and corresponding actions, the higher the leverage and the more significant the ultimate impact.
An earlier version of this article was first published in Psychology Today.
Image credit: Freepik
Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.
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