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How often do you think about the future? It’s not surprising if your answer ismost of the time since it’s something we’re used to. From a young age and onwards, a lot of the questions we get asked, and eventually ask ourselves later on, are related to what’s ahead. Doing this helps us make plans, chase after our goals and, with a mix of hard work and luck, succeed in life.
Inversely, you may be the type to look back instead. This is useful since the past has a lot of valuable lessons, learned from both positive and negative experiences, that allow us to make better decisions and commit less mistakes. In a way, this connects to our future: all our takeaways from what already happened can assist us pave the way for what’s about to come.
But how many of us actually take the time to be right where we are, in the present moment? The truth is, not a lot and for a reason: according to Psychology Today, we’re “evolutionarily hard-wired to live in the past and the future” since it has helped in our survival. When we rely on learning and planning in order to survive, there’s simply no room for the present in our daily struggle.
However, being in the present by becoming more mindful has many great benefits backed up by science. Mindfulness, in simple terms, is our ability to be present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing without passing any judgment on what is going on around us. In today’s article, we want to learn what benefits we can enjoy from mindfulness and how we can apply them not just to our journaling practice but our lives.
According to a study by Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, we tend to be less happy when we let our minds wander. The thing is, our minds wander a lot based on the data that he was able to collect through trackyourhappiness.org. They used over 650,000 real-time reports based on responses from 15,000 individuals with diverse backgrounds (age, income, marital status, etc), from over 80 countries, "that collectively represent every one of 86 occupational categories." This is what they found: 47% of the time, people thought about something else other than what they were currently doing.
What’s interesting to note based on their findings is that even when what participants were doing wasn’t enjoyable and they allowed their minds to wander away from it, they remained unhappy. In contrast, when they stayed in the moment—either focused on a task or on their current situation—even if it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience, they were substantially happier.
So what’s going on here?
While researching mindfulness, I came across this insightful TedTalk from Amishi Jha, professor of psychology at the University of Miami, who said something that gave insight as to why this could be the case. She said:
“We just don’t reflect on the past when we rewind: we end up being in the past ruminating, reliving, or regretting events that have already happened. Or under stress, we fast-forward the mind: not just to productively plan, we end up catastrophizing or worrying about events that haven’t happened yet and, frankly, may never happen.”
For survival, our mind’s ability to reflect and fast-forward is incredibly helpful: the past provides us reminders and lessons of what works and what doesn’t while the future allows us to anticipate and prepare for what’s to come. Here’s the downside though: beyond our basic need to survive, mind-wandering has the unfortunate effect of putting us in a negative state of mind. We end up anxious or depressed over things we’re not even sure will take place, or else hung up on what we can’t change.
But by practicing mindfulness, we have the chance to see everything for what they are and this includes ourselves. Without the regrets of the past and the nonexistent worries of the future, we’re able to observe our thoughts, recognize what we feel, and regulate our emotions 'right now', all without judgment.This provides us the freedom to respond instead of react, and it’s this kind of awareness that can help us stay calm and in control no matter what situation we find ourselves in.
This also means everything becomes a choice, including happiness. There may be instances where it’s not so easy to attain, but it’s no longer so out of reach. Instead, it’s something that we can work on achieving. In fact, happiness can be something as simple as writing down what you’re grateful for at the moment. Read more about how gratitude and happiness are interlinked here.
Goal setting and planning are both great things to do if we want to be truly successful in our endeavors. Every journaler and planner knows that looking into the future is an effective way to ensure we’re prepared to make changes and do what we need to do in order to reach whatever it is we’re aiming for. Unfortunately, some people end up too far ahead that they lose sight of what’s really important: now.
In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and regarded as the Father of Mindfulness: "If you want to be in the future, here you are." Change starts in the present moment, and it is by being “here” that we can truly start making our way to the future. That said, a ‘go big or go home’ attitude has downsides too: setting unrealistic plans and goals can make your destination feel unreachable and you can end up demotivated before you have the chance to get started.
Of course, this is not to say you shouldn’t dream big. By all means, dream as big as you can. But when it comes to execution, stay in the now: consider where you are at the moment and plan your actions accordingly from there. The future is likely but it’s also uncertain, and the only way you can guarantee as much success as possible is by taking mindful steps that focus more on the progress you’re making, not on the destination.
Ready to give your full attention to what’s happening now so you can start working on the future? Try a habit tracker! To get started, check out our Dot Grid refills, available for both our desk-sized Field Journal and our portable Pocket Journal. This refill is a great format to use for habit trackers because it has the structure and space to set up an entire week or month of habits. Imagine a chart with an X axis and Y axis. Write the dates along the top X axis and habits down the left side of the Y axis. Video and useful article here!
Though our mind’s ability to go back and move forward is very handy, as in anything, there are cons to it. Whether it’s the future or the past, these two have the tendency to trap us in a downward spiral of negative rumination and overthinking if we’re not careful. Once our focus is on nothing else but the intrusive, repetitive thoughts of a permanent past and the horrors of an imaginary future, our heads or the situation we’re in may feel inescapable—but no surprise that the solution is simple:
It’s all about being more mindful.
By bringing us to the present, mindfulness can interrupt these harmful thought cycles. Positive Psychology has a great summary on how it does: mindfulness provides a distraction that shifts our attention to the present, which then allows us to become more aware of our behaviors and thoughts. This can assist us in stopping these unhelpful thought patterns or find solutions to counteract them.
But it’s more than just the ‘diversion’ factor: mindfulness also allows us to process the distressing thoughts and feelings brought about by ruminating and overthinking without judgment. So in the long run, and with practice, it can help us assess, understand, and in time, accept our experiences, thoughts, and emotions for what they are. This means that we’re cutting down on things to overthink about.
One of the reasons why journaling is so effective is because it allows us to practice mindfulness in written form: it frees us from the negative thoughts and feelings that can overwhelm us, all while helping us process and cope with our experiences. It’s an awesome way to improve and understand ourselves better.
More than its science-backed benefits, what makes mindfulness so important is how it allows us to live our lives to the fullest. We’re often caught up in the past or the present that we forget to enjoy the now. As a result, we end up missing beautiful moments or amazing experiences and opportunities. If anything, what being mindful can help the most with is this: we get to stay in the present and value the people and things that matter the most. We won’t find them in the past for sure, and we also want them to still be a part of the future.
Are you the type to dwell in the past or chase after the future? What steps have you taken in order to live in the present? Leave us a comment below—we’d love to hear from you!