Work, the future, and mindfulness

Millions of years ago, our ancestors spent most of their days gathering edible plants and fruits, and trying not to be eaten themselves. Their main desires were likely just to form protective and procreative relationships. They didn’t have much language or symbols to express meaning beyond what you could immediately sense. They lived almost entirely in the moment.

Today, we spend most of our time in the future. We study in school to learn things we might need to use later. Then when we work it’s usually to create things that will only exist in the future, or that others buy to use in the future. As our work becomes more complicated, its results move further away from the present moment.

It’s tempting, then, to spend most or all of our mental energy on the future. Even when we’re not working, our default state is to plan for and think about the distant future. Since we’re good at creating complex plans and systems in our work, we turn around and try it on our personal lives–our relationships, activities, and emotions.

Sometimes this personal planning works well. It can help us accomplish big tasks, acheive our goals, and create a coherent life narrative. However, it is subject to a couple pesky details.

The first is that we are just not very good at anticipating what we will want in the future. Several studies show this, including one that asked people to plan all of a week’s lunches in advance. They tended to choose a variety of interesting foods, but in the end were less satisfied than the control group, who chose each day’s lunch separately during the week (and tended to get the same thing each day). The book The Paradox of Choice explores this further, along with other examples of our poor choices.

The other danger is in creating an “idealized self” who embodies everything you wish you might be, but exists only in your mind. It’s often disappointing, rather than inspirational, to compare your actual self to this idealized self. The separation between you and your ideal can paralyze you from making any changes, because the difference seems too great to overcome in your current (flawed) state.

Work is not the only thing to blame for this, of course. Understanding and addressing these mental states directly is important and effective. But I think it is also valuable to acknowledge the effect that thinking in future tense all day at the office has on our minds the rest of the time.

One way to see that effect is by observing jobs that don’t primarily act in the future. Many service and artistic jobs are completely in the moment. It’s just not possible for a doctor to operate on you in the future, or a musician to perform for an audience who hasn’t yet arrived. My first job after collect was waiting tables, and if I wasn’t physically there carrying food, I didn’t get paid. The job was right then and there, and it had no future needs or value (besides refilling the ketchup bottles at the end of the shift).

My coworkers at the restaurant were the most socially-active, energetic group I’ve ever worked with. When their shift ended, they were always off to something else, whether a party, shopping, or (often, since these were singing waiters) a rehearsal for a musical or opera. I, too, was involved with multiple small projects, learning web design, and cycling seriously at the time. Work for us did not exist outside of the time and place we did it, and we were more engaged in the world because of it.

Later, when I switched to jobs with long-term, complex projects deisgned for the future, I immediately noticed how this work spilled easily beyond the confines of work, and how lame I and others became when that happened. Working in the future, it seemed, had no limits or boundaries, and threatened to take over our entire lives.

Moreover, an attitude of future focus often makes other aspects of life less enjoyable. It’s difficult to enjoy a sunset if you’re worried about the future of technology, or to concentrate on a book when plans for the next workweek are bouncing around your head. Forcing strict plans or aspirations on your emotional states usually just makes you dissatisfied with who you really are, and putting too much pressure on relationships threatens what you already have.

Working on big, difficult projects and changing the future world for the better can be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things we do. The mindset such work puts us in, however, isn’t always the right mindset for other areas of our lives. Specifically, practicing ways to live “in the moment” seems especially important for those who, like me, work primarily in the future. My work’s total future focus is what makes it unique, so I’m very suceptible to its lures and traps. Fortunately, I also benefit tremendously from prayer, meditation, observation, drawing, and other mindfulness practices that counterbalance my work’s future focus and let me engage more with other aspects of life and the present moment.

I think it’s also good for all work, even that of a futurist, to have some grounding in the present. In the end, every project has to start somewhere, in some present moment. Otherwise it becomes just another idealized image, too far from reality to act on.

I suspect that much work in the future, and indeed much of our lives, will involve a balance and cycle between living in the moment and dreaming of the future. Practicing ways of doing both, and alternating between them, seems like a good way to prepare.

But then, that’s just my future side talking…