Some experts recommend looking back, hence the persistence of childhood-rooted therapy and such aphorisms as, “You can’t move forward until you heal your past.”
But readers of my work know that I worry that the benefits of revisiting the past are too often outweighed by negative side effects:
- Using past trauma to justify present inaction
- Living with a chip on the shoulder
- Undue suspicion of others
- Self-absorbed retelling of their ancient woes to their friends’ and relatives’ dismay.
I also worry about people who focus too much on the future. I couldn’t have been more guilty of it myself when, at 20, on my trip to Europe, I focused more on what’s next than on what I was experiencing in the moment. For example, upon arrival at the Louvre, I said to myself, “I gotta get through this so I can get to the Tuileries before it closes at 5.” What an Idiot.
More significantly, many people worry so much about the future that they can’t focus on what they’re doing now at work or in their personal life. More benign but still problematic, some people ruminate and plan excessively, resulting in procrastination and, ironically, less wise solutions than if they lived by “Ready, Fire, Aim:” Plan only to the point of diminishing returns, take a low-risk action, and revise based on that experience.
Also, long-range planning, while of course yielding benefits, too often is inaccurate. Even world-class futurists are far more confident in their predictions for 6 to 12 months out than for 5 years, let alone 20. Too many factors can intervene to make such predictions even acceptably accurate.
So while I’m not averse to some looking back and forward, I believe in erring toward living in the moment. I go as far as trying to be mindful of how I use every second: Should I do this? Is it the best or most time-effective way? Also, I try to appreciate each second, whether it’s that I have the privilege of writing this or the sensory pleasure of my dog licking my face or my wife hugging me.
Some more examples may be helpful:
I remember a beer commercial that said something like, “Nothing is as good as the first sip.” While I’m not a beer fan, I try to stay conscious of my first bite when hungry, my first sip when thirsty. That’s a special pleasure. Why let it go unsavored, even unnoticed?
Even when I’m with a difficult client, I try to remain focused on my privilege of being able to sit in my comfortable home-office trying to help someone, one-on-one, with no distractions.
Aware of life’s transience, I am grateful for simple moments in my relationships, for example, watching a movie with my hand on my wife’s thigh, laughing with my friend of 62 years, or hugging my new doggie Hachi while suppressing the retrospective thought of missing Einstein, the dog opf my life, who recently died.
Appreciating the purchases that have given me pleasure: putting the coffee into my $20 Mr. Coffee, looking at a marigold in bloom (6-pack: $3), feeling my head drop down every night onto my very soft “Sleeps with Dogs” pillowcase ($20.)
Grateful that at 69, I can still enjoy a vigorous daily hike around a nature-rich lake.
My live-by-the-second philosophy applies even to investments. I resist thinking that the stock market and economy could crash amid the government's mountain of debt and spending that redistributes from the most contributory. Rather, I focus on the moment: that I, like anyone with just a few bucks, can, by buying even one share of, for example, Google, Apple, Disney, Toyota, Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, or Procter and Gamble, share in the fruits of the labors of some of the world’s smartest, most driven people, made even more effective by corporate efficiencies.
Are you living too much in the past or the future? When living in the present, are you appreciating and making the most of each hour, maybe even each second?
Getting good at living in the present comes down to one word: practice. Be vigilant to the second you're unproductively looking back or forward and get back to the present. You needn't be perfect at it. Good is probably good enough.