Imagine that your life going forward will now trend downward. Yes, you will encounter ups and downs along the way, but the direction will inexorably lead to less of everything you value. (I hope this isn’t true, of course, but this thought experiment may help shift your perspective.)
How would this reality affect your view of today? Would you think differently about it? Would you make different choices? Would you engage in different activities than you otherwise would?
This thought experiment is useful in counteracting what I believe are common ways we regard our future, ways that are not always adaptive because they lead to undervaluing the day we are currently living through.
One common way we regard our lives is as an endless path stretching before us. We know, of course, that we will die, but that knowledge often remains abstract, that is, it isn’t realized in the sense of not being emotionally acknowledged nor in the sense of being made real by affecting our choices and behaviors.
And two, it’s common to see our lives going upward, like a line on a graph sloping towards a better and better future. This view of the future makes it easier to put up with an unhappy present because we’re suffering through current necessary pain as an investment in a better future. The unhappy present may even make us feel virtuous, disciplined, and successful: “I’m doing what it takes.” “Short-term pain for long-term gain.”
I too believe in the frequent necessity of doing what’s hard today and I strive to be more disciplined and productive. I have often delayed gratification for years.
My argument today is not that we shouldn’t work hard today nor ignore our futures. Rather, it is that we can wring more “value” from today as we invest in the future. I place “value” in quotations to indicate that the nature of that value is up to you to decide. Let me share some possible ways to have a better relationship with your present day.
- Be more engaged: Regard today as having inherent value irrespective of its investment value for your future. Could you be more present in your interactions with others? Could you learn something you otherwise wouldn’t that would make you feel it was a day well-spent? Could you be more observant to how patients react to your words and behaviors so that your treatments are more effective?
- Sensate-focused: Enjoying our physical selves is too often missed in the course of a busy day. You can choose to notice how pleasurable it is to move, to walk, to expand your lungs, to get winded and feel the burn as you walk up several flights of stairs, even to defecate and micturate! Between patients, you can stretch or exercise. (For example, within one minute I can do push-ups to failure and I feel so much better afterward.) You can notice the outside world too: the wind in your hair, the rustle of the leaves, the chirping of the birds. You can spend 20 seconds looking at the sky to remind yourself you are part of this world, a world so much bigger than your office and its related dramas.
- Come to rest: You can practice coming to rest. You can take a minute to engage in 10 deep slow breaths, enjoying the movement of your chest and abdomen, and the movement of air through your nostrils. It’s precious to have even one minute when you’re not on your way to something else, to truly be where you need to be, with nothing more needed to feel whole.
- Equanimous: Taking opportunities to self-reflect, place things in perspective, enjoy the moment, can help you maintain a healthy distance from the ongoing drama coming at you from every corner. The drama never, ever stops. The world’s demands on you never, ever stop. I tell myself that it’s not the world’s job to give me a break. It’s my job to control and limit the press of the world upon me to sustainable levels.
- Adventurous: I once attended a conference – maybe 15 years ago – in which a speaker suggested many people could stand to be more “juicy.” I don’t remember what she meant by that except I was clear I wasn’t “juicy.” Whatever “juicy” was, I knew I was its opposite. I’m still not very “juicy” but I try to be more flexible, fluid, adventurous, and allow myself to risk coming off as foolish. I’m grateful having learned that concept from her.
If you properly value the present, you may also need to minimize or eliminate some behaviors.
- De-emotionalize: On most days we confront tasks that are unpleasant to engage in, tasks that make us want to whine about having to do them. By emotionalizing them we make them more aversive while not decreasing the necessity of getting them done. By allowing ourselves to emotionalize certain activities, we play a nefarious mind-trick on ourselves that just makes it increasingly hard to “just do it.”
- Stop procrastinating: De-emotionalizing unpleasant tasks can help decrease procrastination, one of the biggest time-wasters and emotional-drainers of all time. Some people make a habit of doing the hardest things first thing in the morning, whether it’s completing paperwork or having a difficult conversation. “If you must eat the frog, it’s best to eat it in the morning. If you must eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first,” as Mark Twain said.
- Stop ruminating: planning is good; ruminating is bad. Ruminating means focusing, often repetitively and frequently, on things you can’t control. If you find it hard to stop, transform those mental ruminations into written posts in a journal. Turning worry thoughts into written words helps to demystify and concretize them. It’s then easier to put them aside, to literally distance yourself from them.
- Stop doing what makes you feel drained and de-energized. If listening to the news or engaging in social media makes you feel bad, then stop doing it. “But I have to bear witness,” you may wish to tell me. I would retort, “I’m sure there are more concrete and effective ways you can contribute to the world.”
Yours in sharing this precious day,
“The beginning is always today.”
“Your hand can seize today, but not tomorrow; and thoughts of your tomorrow are nothing but desire. Don’t waste this breath, if your heart isn’t crazy, since “the rest of your life” won’t last forever.”
“You can dance in the storm. Don’t wait for the rain to be over.”
“Today will die tomorrow.”
Algernon Charles Swinburne