In this article you’ll learn 5 simple ways to improve how you think about, imagine and shape your future. These principles can be applied to your life in a personal or professional context.
On any given day, you’ll think about the future a lot. One study estimates that for every seven hours you spend thinking, you’ll spend a full hour pondering, predicting and planning your future.
Now, this figure may come as a surprise to you – it may not. But ask yourself this: how effective is your future-thinking?
Is your future-thinking trained on what’s urgent, rather than on what’s important? Does it ruminate on forces outside of your control? Or grapple with questions that are in your gift to influence? Do your thoughts of what’s to come leave you feeling deflated, or inspired?
Your future-thinking is something your future depends on
It’s easy to overlook this simple reality: what you do today shapes your tomorrow (and the many days after that).
Put more bluntly: your future-self is entirely dependent on you.
Now, you might read this as a stern rebuke to those who don’t do what they probably should be doing – eating right, exercising more, saving and so on.
But what if the way you thought about the future gently reminded you how what you do today contributes to all the great things you’ll experience tomorrow?
That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but where do I begin and how? The future’s so vast and unpredictable.
Well, here are some basics to get your future-thinking up and running.
1. Adopt the right mindset
The future’s scale and breadth of possibilities can be intimidating. Positive futures can appear remote and abstract. Negative futures can feel unnerving. So, approaching the future with the right mindset can help you to overcome barriers to engaging positively with what’s to come. The right mindset can help you to unlock the benefits of taking some time out to properly contemplate your future, which are many and well documented.
Small changes today can add up big changes over time
Take the story of the pair transatlantic ocean liners setting sail from New York in the US to Southhampton in the UK. The two captains carefully plot their courses, but one gets their bearings out by a single degree. As the two liners depart, they appear to directly track each other’s course. But as the nautical miles pass, between them a gap emerges and widens until, some 3,500 miles of ocean-going later, the two ocean liners, their passengers and cargo, end up in completely different ports, in different countries.
Another example of a small change with a big impact is a study by Christopher Bryan and Hal Hershfield. In the study they tested different ways to encourage people to save more for their retirement. One group of participants were invited to “consider the responsibility you have to yourself in retirement and to start saving more now.” Researchers stressed that “your ‘future self’ is completely dependent on you. Your decisions now will determine how much money is available to you when you retire.”
“[Y]our ‘future self’ is completely dependent on you. Your decisions now will determine how much money is available to you when you retire.”Bryan and Hershfield, 2011
A second group received a subtly different message about considering, in general terms, their future self interest, stating “your long-term well-being is at stake.”
Two weeks later, participants who received the “obligation to future self” message had taken action to increase their retirement savings, and more so than the other groups by 0.85 percent. Now, that might not seem by much, but assuming a 30-year-old man earning an average wage without raises over his working lifetime increases his contribution from 5 to 5.85 percent, that small act will eventually swell his retirement savings by some $70,000. Or, he could retire a year and a half early.
This suggests that our perceptions of the future are sensitive to quite subtle changes. It also highlights how small tweaks to our approach shifts how we engage with the future in ways that can have material effects.
It tells us that our view of the future isn’t fixed. It can be changed.
2. Start small
Contemplating your entire future can be a bit like deciding that your first tentative steps into jogging are going to be a sprint to the moon. If you want to improve how you think about the future, it helps to focus on a few key specifics.
Choose your topic and limit your timeline
To start, choose your topic. Consider what’s coming up in just one area of your life. It could be the next step in your career, your family’s social engagements, your programme of exercise, your piano playing, your language learning. It could be a routine activity like your morning wake up or mealtimes. Or it could be a one-off project.
Next, try limiting your time-horizon to your immediate future: tomorrow or the rest of the week or month.
For instance, why not look at your morning routine?
What works? What’s wasteful? Then decide what can you do right now, that’ll help things to run more smoothly tomorrow.
Clearing the path
I sometimes refer to this process as ‘clearing the path’.
Why not prepare your lunch the night before? Or, move your alarm clock to the far side of your bedroom to get you out of your bed at the time you need to be up. (After all, what’s the practical purpose of having an alarm set to wake you up to remind you to hit snooze and continue sleeping?)
Take small actions now to help yourself to navigate some of tomorrow’s more predictable obstacles and irritations. It can help your day tomorrow to run just that little more smoothly.
Start small by contemplating your near-term future. Anticipate what’s reasonably foreseeable and take a few steps to better prepare. Then, try to move on to considering more complex projects over longer time horizons.
3. Nurture your future-thinking skills
Here are two ways that you can begin to sharpen your future-thinking skills:
Understand the ways your mind thinks about the future
It’s difficult to improve any skill without understanding something about the underlying mechanics of how things work. Or perhaps don’t work as well as you’d like.
We typically flit between four modes of future-thinking (simulation, prediction, intention and planning). So, knowing a little more about these four modes can help you to better structure your thinking to identify what your preparations should consist of.
Understand the information your mind uses to make decisions about the future
“Garbage in equals garbage out” (as they don’t say in the recycling business). If you’re serious about upgrading your ability to think about and plan for the future, understanding the information your mind uses to make decisions is essential. It can also be quite enlightening.
When you think about the future and think about how you may feel in a possible upcoming situation, your mind draws on essentially two types of information:
- your experience
- your beliefs and theories
So any gaps or imperfections in either information type is directly imported into the way you assess the future. You’ve been warned.
4. Use a simple and versatile approach
‘The future’ can sound impossibly complex. It might, therefore, feel like you need to use a detailed, multifaceted methodology to make sense of it all. But what’s the use of unwieldy models and methodologies that are difficult to apply or recall when required?
If you want to improve how you think about the future, a useful maxim is: don’t meet complexity with complexity. Instead, meet the complexity of the future with simplicity in the present.
3 simple and intuitive steps
I use three simple and intuitive steps to help consider and prepare for what’s coming up – large or small.
- consider your future: think about what’s coming up in your life in the coming days, weeks or months, and think about new possibilities, not just what’s planned or expected.
- anticipate your future needs and wishes: identify where a little extra support, preparation or resource will help ‘future you’ with what you anticipate is coming up and help you to build towards those new possibilities.
- gift your future: take simple steps today to help yourself in the future.
These steps also help me to clarify my priorities and purpose. They place me in the right mindset by reframing my focus on the opportunity and benefit I’m setting up myself (and those around me) in the future to benefit from and enjoy.
Imagine for just a moment if you switched your mindset from “I have to do” something for the future, to “I get to do” things to help myself out in their day tomorrow?
This approach transforms a chore benefiting some unspecified person or thing, into a kind, generous act directed at helping yourself at a specific moment. It offers you a clear answer to the questions: why am I doing this, and why now?
5. Remember, the future doesn’t end with you
The future starts with you but it certainly doesn’t end there. This is just the beginning.
Here are three ways you can further improve how you think about the future:
- Think about the needs and wishes of others around you. Expand your vision of the future to include the people who are important to you. For example, you might wish to save for your children’s education or for a deposit on their first home. You might wish to think about the needs and wishes of your fellow colleagues whom you are working closely with on a high-profile, time sensitive project. You might want to picture the future needs and wishes of your parents or grand-parents.
- Think about the needs of others yet to come. You might wish to extend your time horizon even further out into the future to consider people who are not even yet born. You’re probably familiar with the trope “our children and our children’s children”. So how about considering the wellbeing of future generations and being a good ancestor.
- Rethink how you look at time all together. Our modern-day concept of time is one that marches on in a straight line (also called ‘mono-chronic’ time). It’s a bit like an arrow fired from the past through the present and into the future. But, there are other concepts of time that can offer us fresh perspectives. One such concept is to think of time as a cycle, rather than a line. Think of the seasons. Or ideas of legacy where your role is one of stewardship or guardianship of knowledge, language and custom.
Summary: Improve the way you think about the future
What you choose to do today will shape your tomorrow in myriad ways that range from the immeasurably small to the profound.
Yes, ‘the future’ can feel at times a bit of an ill-defined mystery. It can look murky and feel detached from our present experience. But, the way in which you engage with the future is in your gift to control. The quality of your thinking about the future, which informs the choices, decisions and actions you’ll take today, is in your control.
What’s more, it’s a skill you can improve.
So, where shall you begin?
Pick a topic and a time horizon. Then, pull on your boots and start your journey into your future right now.
Your next step: start your journey into imagining and shaping your future right now with our (free) guided mini-course: the micro-gifting challenge, which offers you 5 fresh takes on your future.