We are always thinking about what’s next. The next project, the next deadline, the next email, the next meeting. We are the only species that can ponder the future. Throughout history, this has served us quite well: A grand vision for the future is what enables us to take the necessary steps in the present to make such visions a reality. When we think about it, almost all of our daily activities revolve around the future: We buy groceries so we can feed our future hungry selves, we make plans to get together with friends at a later date, we invest our money because we think it’ll have a future pay off. As legendary psychologist Martin Seligman and journalist John Tierney write, we aren’t built to live in the moment.
However, while thinking about the future usually has a positive impact, “it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation.” Imagining negative future outcomes can become crippling in the present. What will become of us if we freeze during our next presentation in front of the whole company, or sleep through our alarm and miss that big meeting? Allowing our minds to drift towards the future is what makes us human, for better and for worse. So, how do we harness this uniquely human mechanism adaptively, where we can achieve our goals without falling into the abyss of worry and angst?
The experience of flow may provide some answers. While the practice of mindfulness has become hugely beneficial for helping individuals focus their attention on the present moment, thus minimizing concerns and worries about the future, it requires training our minds to fully accept whatever thoughts come to mind in that given moment and not ponder the future. Flow, meanwhile, is the experience of being completely immersed in a challenging pursuit in the present moment while working towards a future goal.
This is a key difference between mindfulness and flow. While both experiences are about focusing our attention on the here and now, one of the key preconditions of experiencing flow is having a clear goal and losing our sense of self-consciousness, while mindfulness is about fully noticing and embracing our thoughts that are occurring in the moment. For example, in flow, the painter will know exactly what she is trying to accomplish and what the finished painting should look like, and therefore she will be fully engaged in working towards that end goal. Her attention will be fully in the present, but she knows exactly what she is trying to accomplish. Flow allows us to work towards a desired future while fully immersing ourselves in the present.
For those of us (like me) who have trouble focusing on our attention on the moment at hand, remember: This makes us human! Reaching our full potential is not about ignoring prospective thoughts, but figuring ways to work toward our ideal future that we can fully focus on in the present without being overridden by anxiety. Of course, this will look different for everyone. Personally, I focus on micro goals: Breaking down a long-term goal into smaller, achievable chunks so I feel like I’m making meaningful progress on a daily basis. When I’m working on a two-hour long PowerPoint presentation, I break it down into 10 minute chunks and focus on creating the content for those 10 minutes. That helps me enter flow, because instead of worrying about how I’m going to create content for a two-hour long presentation, I instead focus on only 10 minutes at a time, allowing me to fully focus on doing what needs to be done in the moment to reach that micro goal.
Flow and mindfulness, when effectively used together, can help us center our minds on the present moment both internally on the self (mindfulness) and externally on a clear goal (flow). When our minds gravitate towards the future, it does not need to be at the expense of the present. In fact, it can be quite the opposite: A clear vision for the future be the catalyst for focusing our attention on the present when we know exactly what needs to be done to get there.