Sacrificing the Present to Worry About the Future
The cost is higher than you think.
What is the first thing you think about when you wake up?
What is the first thing you do?
Do your days begin with a rapid-fire review of all the things you have to do followed by a check-in with the news, email, or social media?
Are overwhelm and anxiety regular visitors throughout your day?
To cope, do you do the opposite of helpful things: snack on sugary foods, take a social media break, or scroll through the never-ending feed of good things to read on Medium.com?
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A few months ago, I felt like I was about to have a mental breakdown. Without realizing it, I was sacrificing the present by constantly worrying about the future, whether that future was five minutes or five months away.
I knew I needed to get mentally organized so I could stop worrying so much about the future and be more present.
- I started meditating.
- I hired a business coach.
Meditation has helped me start my days feeling a little more grounded, but two assignments from my business coach have had the greatest impact on beating the overwhelm and accompanying anxiety¹.
First, he advised me NOT to give too much thought to work until I had taken care of myself. I like to run so I’m trying not to think about work until after I run, shower, and otherwise prepare myself for the day. I also typically do a bit of reading.
After my daily prep, I have a startup routine where I look at my task list and pick out the top 3 tasks that I need to work on that day. We all like to believe we’re good at multi-tasking. Science is proving out that we’re not so great at it. The evidence, in fact, is mounting that we’re pretty terrible at it. Now, don’t believe all the parroted statistics about how long it takes to regain focus because many of them are just made up. Even so, there is a time and attention cost to trying to do too many things at once, and regaining focus after an interruption.
So, I make my list of tasks for the day and put them on a sticky note that I can see all day while I’m working.
For me, the first time I did it was nothing short of remarkable. Simply having that short list in front of me reduced the amount of overwhelm I felt by a significant amount.
The second assignment was to have a shutdown routine. It’s simple: take 5 minutes at the end of the day to acknowledge progress on the three tasks. Often, I make a list of my wins and losses that day, spending just a moment to chronicle what I accomplished.
Taking time to shut down at the end of the day means I can mentally let go of work and be more attentive to my family and other responsibilities that occupy my evening hours.
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Of course, life is about weighing and measuring, as best we can, what we do (and don’t do). Sometimes, sacrifices are required. Figuring out what to sacrifice and when is the tricky part. If the sacrifice has a significant probability of damaging good relationships, long-term, it’s probably not worth it. The myriad circumstances we all face makes it impossible to solve a one-size-fits-all formula for determining the value of present sacrifice has in the future. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, provides a good waypoint. He said:
People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.
Another key may be not to buy into the philosophy that you need to work relentlessly in pursuit of your dreams / goals / aspirations / plans / whatever. Being present often requires working on aspirations in small, incremental ways. Sometimes, the progress seems imperceptible. Consistency is more important than anything when trying to make progress toward any goal.
The goal — for me anyway — is to realize my dreams without missing out on the wonders that are right in front of me.
Thanks for reading!
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¹I’ve been fortunate in dealing with anxiety in my life. Meditation and coaching have done wonders for me. Sometimes, medical intervention is necessary. Please don’t construe what I share here as medical advice. I’m not a doctor; just a guy behind a keyboard with a bit of life experience.