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Are You Too Future-Focused?

Note: this is based on my understanding of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Any mistakes are mine, and I certainly encourage you to read the book to get your own understanding.

I recently read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, and among other things, Burkeman talks about how most of us are future-focused. By that, he means that most of what we do is with an eye toward some future event or goal instead of enjoying the present moment.

And one of the specific examples he used caught my attention. He talked about people who have a “when-I-finally” mindset, “as in: ‘When I finally get my workload under control/ get my candidate elected/ find the right romantic partner/ sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.’ The person mired in this mentality believes that the reason she doesn’t feel fulfilled and happy is that she hasn’t yet managed to accomplish certain specific things….” (p. 126)

That struck me because I used to be stuck in that exact mindset, except for me, it was, “When I finally lose weight, then I can finally live my real life.”

Maybe this sounds familiar to you, too. I think a lot of people who are focused on weight find it easy to get stuck in that mindset, and it’s understandable. When society and diets try to convince you that you’re not worthy as you are, it’s hard to feel like you can be living your best life until you achieve some future weight-loss goal.

The problem is that this type of mindset doesn’t work. As Burkeman points out, “Yet in fact the way [the person with this mindset is] attempting to achieve that sense of security means she’ll never feel fulfilled, because she’s treating the present solely as a path to some superior future state – and so the present moment won’t ever feel satisfying in itself.” (p. 127)

This was also my experience. I decided to start changing things in my life before losing weight, and I specifically wanted to focus more on the present. And that, in turn, helped me change my relationship with food.

Problems with being future-focused

It might seem like thinking about your future goals would be enough to keep you motivated and make choices you won’t regret, but it doesn’t work that way, for a few reasons.

One is that by only thinking about the future, you won’t pay attention to how you feel right now. So, instead of eating mindfully and noticing how your body feels as you eat, you’re distracted by an imaginary future and could easily end up overeating.

Another problem is that if you eat for the future, as it were, you may well be depriving yourself. After all, you’re not eating what you want or need right now, but rather what you think you should be eating to get to that dream future. When you do this enough, though, the feelings of deprivation become so strong that they force you to focus on the current moment – and then you’re likely to overeat anyway because you’ve been feeling deprived.

But the biggest reason being future-focused doesn’t work is because you don’t know if you’ll have a future, and you certainly don’t know if you’ll get the future you’d like to have. None of us knows each day what the next will bring, or if we’ll have the next day.

As Burkeman puts it: “[It’s] a recipe for a life of unending stress to insist that you must be able to feel certain, now, that this is how [life] is definitely going to unfold in the future…. You can’t know that things will turn out all right.” (p. 119)

This is a hard thing for most of us to accept, but accept it we must.

And rather than feel depressed or burdened by it, you can also consider this an opportunity to let go of unrealistic expectations. Instead of always striving for certainty that you can never attain, focus on what you can do here and now.

Staying present

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have goals or plans for the future, but if you’re only focused on doing certain things to achieve some future goal, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Instead, try to keep your focus on the here and now, at least some of the time. It’s hard to do all the time, but even staying in the present some of the time will help you eat more mindfully and to enjoy this moment – which is all we truly have.


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