The moment I woke up, is the moment I want to get back to bed. If it’s Monday, it’s worse. My mind immediately thinks about the weekend. I get in my car, I start thinking about arriving. I leave a party, the only thing my mind wonders is when the next party is going to be. It’s like, I’m never present in the real moment and I don’t enjoy what is happening now.
I don’t know if you noticed, but we have a major flaw in the way our brains operate. We, humans, appear to be happy only when we have a future to which we can look forward. Whether this will be having a “good time”, getting our paycheck, attending a wedding, going on vacation, sleeping till noon on the weekends, whatever it is, it’s always something that’s not happening now. We’re smiling only when there is something exciting coming in the near future.
But even then, when we receive our paycheck, for instance, it’s still difficult for us to enjoy this to the fullest without some promise of more to come.
Do you feel good now, in this current moment? Or, you’re thinking about eating a large pizza on the couch while wearing yoga pants and watching your favorite show?
I bet it’s the later.
The main reason you’re not really satisfied with your life, not truly productive when you do work, thinking about the pizza I just mentioned, it’s because you’re constantly seeking joy in some future events. Occasions, that will most probably happen months from now.
The more you let your mind wanders, the worse it will get.
But why is that?
Why The Mind Wanders?
I think this has a lot to do with our ability to survive in the wilderness back in the days. If you’re too calm and relaxed while you’re sitting on a rock and you’re sharpening your spear, you won’t hear the footsteps of the wildcat approaching you from behind. When the brain is laser-focused on one specific task, it disregards the surrounding world.
But I thought being super focused is the one thing that will make you unstoppable?
Yes, I might have said the above (I did) but it wasn’t like that back in the days.
You wanted to be constantly aware of what’s happening around you and you wanted to think about future events because these future events hold the key of your tribe not starving to death and not being killed by a hungry beast.
Nowadays, being focused and concentrated is the best skill you can adopt in your life if you really want to move a project forward, faster.
When people had to hunt their food it was a bit different.
The mind of the village chieftain living more than 12,000 years ago was constantly busy thinking about different ways to protect both himself and the village.1
Probably the following thoughts circled in his brain:
“Ok, the whole village just ate but our supplies will soon be over. We must kill another beast to have more meet.”
“What was that noise behind me? Let’s check. It might be a lion!”
“We’re losing far too many men when we hunt. We must construct better armor.”
“We need more lands on the south where is warmer. We must prepare an attack to fight the southern tribes and conquer more lands there.”
So, in short, a wandering mind is an instrument of our survival skills.
The more it thinks about the past, the present, and acknowledges what’s happening around him, the higher the chances for the survival of the tribe.
For me, personally, that’s the most logical explanation.
Why My Mind Thinks About The Future All The Time?
Even though the story about the warlock chieftain sounds good, it still doesn’t explain why our mind is thinking about the future.
Actually, the answer to the question is simple: Because your mind wants to feel good. All the time.
Thinking about positive future events it’s way better than acknowledging that you’re stuck in the traffic for hours, or you’re not yet on the plane going to that sexy-sounding, Instagram-share-worthy island all of your friends shared on social media.
When we don’t feel quite good, we immediately want to change that and feel amazing instead, thus the mind races towards something that will supposedly bring the smile back to your face.
There are three:
1)Doing a dull task: You might be stuck in the traffic, waiting in line, calculating the net income of the company you work for. It doesn’t quite matter. The moment your body is in an environment that’s not so cool, not worth sharing on social media, it’s the moment you begin to daydream about doing something better. Something you can share with your friends.
2)The constant stream of information: We’re surrounded by information and when we highlight something we like in the endless stream of shares we already imagine ourselves doing this activity: “Ahh, my favorite DJ is going to play in the club this Friday, it will be super awesome…” and the next 30 minutes you’re thinking about what to wear, who to invite and other things that have nothing to do with what you’re doing right now.
A negative aspect of having social media account is that the majority of the things you see there bring thoughts about possible future actions and desires:
You see a new book and you imagine going to the store, buying the book, reading the book, later finding something interesting in the book so you can share it with other people online so that they can think of you as this super smart dude who only shares book quotes that other people don’t understand.2
You see your best friend in the mall with shopping bags and you imagine yourself buying a couple of jeans, because, why not, and later sharing pictures of these “awesome” activities. You see a commercial about a new e-bike and you think about how your life will be complete when you own this new e-bike: “I’m going to look cool and at the same time I’m polluting the world less.”
My favorite: You see a picture of a friend, or a co-worker in a foreign country, and you automatically start thinking about packing your bags. Your arms without any hesitation open your favorite site about plane tickets and you check the prices. Then, like on autopilot you call your husband and scream at him for not taking you on vacation.
3)Not really content with your life: The primary reason your mind is constantly thinking about events that are not going to happen soon it’s because you kind of hate your life. In general, you’re not happy with the majority of the activities happening in a single day. Probably you’re in a bad relationship or you’re doing work you hate. Or, you’re living in an old apartment full of old clothes and furniture you hate.
Why Constantly Thinking About The Future Is Bad?
Planning and scheduling your life is a necessity, especially if you’re trying to achieve something big in the long run.
However, constantly thinking about your plan, adjusting things that will probably look better in your five-year blueprint won’t actually make the things different, nor better.
If you really want to complete a task or a larger plan, you need to start working, now.
Besides, thinking about the vacation you booked 3 months from now will only make you feel worse in your current moment. You’re basically wasting your life every time you think about something that will happen X days/months from today.
Also, a lot of times when we look forward to a future event we set these high expectations about it. But when the day comes, it often ends up not so cool after all.
My personal theory: We ruin it for ourselves.
If I’m looking forward to the end of the year party and I imagine that it’s going to be this super awesome event, it’s often not.
So what we can do about all of this?
Don’t worry, the how-to part is what’s next:
How Can I Hold My Racing Thoughts and Live in the Moment?
Actually, the lack of sharp focus is still helping us, even nowadays.
When you’re standing near the street and you’re looking at your phone your wandering mind is what is telling you to move right before a car hits you;
Your restless mind is what prompts you to get up and check your kid in the next room.
We need a wandering mind in a lot of occasions. But we also need a way to shut the outside world so we can focus. Create a switch button allowing us to put the thoughts about the desired vacation on hold at least till we’re finished with our work.
Even though I don’t believe we can ever be truly committed to a task the way we want to be, we can at least do some sort of effort to increase our level of concentration so we can enter in a zone faster.
Here’re my steps for shutting the wandering mind and start living for the present moment:
Designated a working space:
My best tip for being productive and getting shit done is designating a working space. If you work in a corporate firm this’s probably your cubicle or your office.
Inside that space keep as few things as possible. Clean your desk at the end of the day and prepare it for the next day.
The brain associate different places with different activities:
A sofa with relaxation;
A dining table with food;
Bedroom with rest.
You want to think solely about doing work immediately when you enter your office. The less things you have inside your office the less reasons your mind to drift away.
A handy addition to the above will be wearing headphones and playing some sort of background music while you do your work. I personally can’t concentrate when I’m working around a lot of people. I always hear what others are talking and I start to process it. I don’t do it intentionally but I do it and it’s not helping me focus. That’s why I listen to music when I’m doing work in crowded rooms.
Use Less Internet:
Yes, you heard me right.
The more you expose yourself to things, the more the mind will think about them. While you read this you’re definitely not thinking about riding a pink elephant but the moment I mentioned pink elephant you already imagine yourself riding it. So, the more internet you use, the more you’re chatting with other people, the more things you’ll let inside your mind to process.
Another way to illustrate this is by telling you that each conversation (chat) you have, each page you see or post you like is like opening a browser tab inside your mind. It will sit there for a while. At some point, you can have 30 tabs opened and we all know what happens then, we feel depressed, overwhelmed, we want that vacation so bad.
The only difference is that closing tabs inside your brain is way harder than on your laptop.
But you don’t have to think about closing the tabs. Focus more on not opening them in the first place.
Try To Control:
The other day I woke up in the middle of the night and I started thinking about the tasks I have to do in the morning. As you can imagine, this kept me awake for a while.
What helped me was to constantly bring my thoughts towards what needs to happen now: “I need to sleep, not to think about work. I need to sleep, not to think about work…”
Bringing back the main important task in this current moment in my mind (sleeping) and doing my best to ignore everything else is the thing that helped me fall asleep.
Do More Work You Enjoy:
Key reason you’re not living in the present it’s because you don’t quite like what you’re doing now. We spend a third of our day doing some kind of work. Obviously, if you’re not quite satisfied with what you’re doing you will take every chance you have to think about more pleasant things. This is both destructive for yourself and for the company you work for.
Basically, you’re wasting each other’s time.
Needless to say that you should either find a job that you enjoy or you should realize, on a higher level, that you need this job: “I can’t think about these things now, I have other important things to do. If I continue to think about possible future events I might lose my job.”
Also, since you’re already there, working, at least make the hours count. Who knows, you might get a promotion and solve the problem with doing work you don’t like.
Remove The Negative Things In Life:
The more unpleasant things you have to keep up to, the more you’ll close yourself off from the current moment.
There are a lot of things that can interfere with your “good” state of being: living with your parents; being in a toxic relationship; owning a car that’s constantly breaking; large debt.
Sometimes, one bad thing leads to another: if you owe a lot of money to the bank you won’t be able to afford a newer car. But neither of the above two are the problem. The actual problem is the lack of good income and probably your lack of budgeting skills.
While it’s fun to think about your future vacation, daydreaming about going out with your friends, even planning your future business, these type of activities are not helping us enjoy the current moment.
There is no other reality than the present reality. Even if a person is capable of living for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the whole point of living.
Living always for the future is basically living out of touch with what’s happening now.
So, no matter what you do the moment you close this page, make sure you focus your thoughts and efforts on the task you are doing now.
The reason I pointed 12,000 years ago it’s because around that year the hunter-gatherer ancestors began trying their hand at farming. Agriculture allowed people to worry about one thing less: food.
Try to read the previous statement in one breath. That’s how exciting we get when we see a new thing we don’t have but we do want.