Many people spend their day-to-day existence looking forward to an upcoming event or ruminating over one from the past. Even within the days of the week, we talk about Wednesday as "hump" day- it's the middle of the week, and Friday is only two days away.
When it's T.G.I.F. (Thank Goodness It's Friday) you know the weekend is almost here and your weekly drudgery has almost ended. Unfortunately, the T.G.I.F. mentality can backfire. The same people who looked forward to that ever desirable weekend now worry that it will be over soon and they'll be faced with "Monday, Monday" (in the words of The Mamas and the Papas). I'm often struck by how weather forecasters talk on Tuesday about the weather predictions for Saturday, as if the intervening days are just a prelude to the excitement of the weekend.
It's true that a future time orientation can be beneficial for helping you set goals and measure your progress toward them, and there is plenty of research to bear this out. However, every week that you begin by counting down from Monday to Friday is a week that you fail to live to its fullest. If you regard 5/7 of the weeks of the year as irrelevant or boring, that will be 5/7 of your life that you'll have wasted.
A similar problem can occur while you're doing something that you truly enjoy. A family get-together, an evening out that's going well, or even a vacation can be spoiled by intrusive thoughts that it will soon be over. The more you think about the inevitable ending of your good time, the more likely it is that you'll have less of a good time.
The best way to enjoy the time that you're in now is to focus your attention on what is actually happening during the moment. Even if it's "hump day," see what you do to maximize your experiences. Yes, it's difficult if you're in a mundane job that doesn't engage you mentally. Things are even worse if you're in a job in which you often become frustrated and angry. Within those constraints, though, look for the little things that will motivate you and keep you engaged. Research on "self-determination theory" shows that the more you feel that you're controlling the circumstances of your job, the happier and more productive you'll be. So look for those little ways that you can feel a sense of accomplishment.
Now let's tackle weekends, vacations, and enjoyable evenings out on the town. In these situations, you want time to slow down as much as possible so that you can extend the good times. Thinking about the end of the event or vacation will make the good times go by much more quickly. Looking at your watch won't help either. Maybe ditch the watch, turn off your phone, and just concentrate on the people you're with or the entertainment you're enjoying. Delve into the sensory features of the experience and enjoy what you're doing for its own sake whether it's listening to music, dancing, or just having a great conversation.
How about a past time perspective? The clue to enjoying yourself after an event is over is not to worry about how it might have gone differently had you acted differently. Research shows that the happiest older adults are those who accept their past lives, even if their lives didn't go as planned. When something's gone wrong, you're not going to be able to change it. You need to accept it, learn from it, and move on. Events that went just as you hoped they would, or maybe even better than you planned them, are obviously much easier to integrate into your past time perspective. The key here is that you don't get stuck in those moments or wish they could have lasted forever. Time does move on, and you have to do so with it.
To sum up, living in the moment means that you follow these 5 simple strategies:
1. Don't waste your precious time on earth by constantly looking forward to the weekend.
2. Focus on what's happening to you at the moment, especially if the moment is an enjoyable one.
3. Try to keep intrusive thoughts about events you dread facing from your mind when you're trying to have a good time.
4. Use your ambitions for the future as motivators, but don't let those future thoughts interfere with what you need to do in the here and now.
5. Enjoy your past successes, and learn from your past mistakes, but don't let the past dominate your present life.
Living in the moment can help you make the most out of your life, day by day, week by week, and year by year.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012