Thinking About Tomorrow to Guide You Today

The value of a future time orientation

Posted Nov 30, 2010

With the many pressures we face in our busy lives, it's easy to become preoccupied with the stresses of everyday life. The last thing on your mind might be what you'll be doing in a couple of months, years, or decades. However, some surprising research on future time perspective shows that thinking about where you're headed in life can actually get you through the rough times you might be facing now. Even if things are going well, a focus on tomorrow will help you today.

Well-known psychologist Martin Seligman spoke at the Encore Careers celebration of winners of the Purpose Prize Award. This prize is given to individuals aged 60 and older who have made substantial contributions to improving the lives of others in their later years. Seligman, who helped to found the Positive Psychology movement, stated that "the one thing we know about health, longevity, and flourishing in the last quarter of life... is [it's important] to live in the future, not in the past, and not in the present." You can watch the entire video here.

You don't have to be in your later quarter of life to benefit from a future time perspective. Unplugging yourself from the present and projecting your dreams into the future can help you reach fulfillment at any age. In one study of first-semester college students, researchers in Australia found that those students who focused on their futures rather than the past were more engaged in their academic pursuits. Their academic engagement, or involvement in their studies, benefited from having a clear set of goals.

Everyone can gain important lessons from this particular future time perspective study. There is perhaps no period in life quite as stressful as the first semester of college. A young person's life is turned topsy-turvy by the set of new demands and pressures. Away from home, possibly for the first time, first-year students are faced with numerous distractions that can deter them from succeeding. Those who are unable to survive this period and drop out of college are at risk for some of the most significant life stresses in their adult years. Anything that will help a young person stay in college is therefore crucial for helping that person lead a happy and productive life.

Now let's turn the mirror onto you. How much do you think about the future? Do you focus entirely on your day-to-day existence or do you keep your sights set on where you're heading? Do you have lots of projects in mind that you want to complete or do you prefer to think about what you accomplished (or did not accomplish) one, two, or twenty years ago? The Future Time Perspective Scale used in the Australian study was developed by another famous psychologist, Philip Zimbardo. Here are a few sample items:

Would you respond "yes" or "no"?

1. I enjoy stories about how things used to be in the good old times.
2. I take each day as it is rather than try to plan it out.
3. I make lists of things do.
4. Painful past experiences keep being replayed in my mind
5. I do things impulsively.
6. You can't really plan for the future because things change so much.
7. I get nostalgic about my childhood.
8. My decisions are mostly influenced by people and things around me.
9. It doesn't make sense to worry about the future, since there is nothing that I can do anyway.

Unless otherwise indicated, here's what affirmative responses to the items mean:

Past time perspective: Items 1, 4, and 7
Present time perspective: Items 2, 5, and 8
Future time perspective: Items 3, 6 ("no"), and 9 ("no").

The total scale has 56 questions, so taking 9 items out of context isn't necessarily going to provide a valid score. Nevertheless, this sample gives you an idea of where you stand on the future time perspective measure.

What is it about a future time perspective that is so beneficial? Researchers believe that people who can project themselves into the future are more optimistic, have a stronger sense of purpose, and are able to press past petty disappointments. They see the big picture and avoid being weighed down by the strains of their present circumstances. As in the study of college students, they feel more engaged in what they're doing because they see where it's leading them.

There's a bit of irony in the future time perspective research in that we so often hear about the value of "living in the moment." Such advice reinforces a present time perspective. It's true that it's not necessarily a bad idea to focus on your present circumstances and appreciate each experience as fully as possible. But there's a drawback.

Constantly contemplating where you are, instead of where you're headed, prevents you from making progress toward your goals. In a previous blog, I pointed out the risks of optimism. At times, optimism can lead us to adopt coping strategies that don't suit the present circumstances. We keep trying and trying to change a situation that is unchangeable. Optimism can be beneficial when it's mixed with practicality.

If you find it difficult to think about the future, there are ways to adjust your time perspective so that you can take advantage of the benefits of a forward thinking mentality:

1. Don't fret over what can't be undone. If something unfortunate has happened to you or if you committed an error that continues to nag at you, move on. You can't go back and fix a past mistake. But you can learn from the past and think about how to avoid the same problems in the future.

2. Leave nostalgia behind. Thinking about the past is great, and many people enjoy reminiscing about days gone by. However, too much nostalgia can keep you from appreciating your present reality.

3. Set daily goals. People with a future time perspective aren't only focused on what they'll be doing 10 years from now. They have short-term goals that are achievable on a daily basis so that they can regularly feel a sense of accomplishment.

4. Imagine yourself in 2, 5 or 10 years. What do you want to be doing in the near and long-term future? No matter what your age, you can always benefit from seeing what psychologists call your "future self." It's a great motivational tool.

5. Enjoy the present but think about where you're heading. Living in the moment can benefit you by allowing you to experience your emotions to the fullest but many people get stuck in the present. It's great to be fully open to what's happening to you right now, but extend your perspective so that you always have a set of goals in your back pocket.

We never can be sure of what the future holds, but planning for it can help us get the most out of our lives right now and ensure that we are headed in a direction that is as fulfilling as possible.

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. 2010




Horstmanshof, L. & Zimitat, C. (2007). Future time orientation predicts academic engagement among first-year university students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 703-718.