The Nuance

How Looking Ahead Can Hold You Back

Spending too much time thinking about your future can sabotage your present.

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
4 min readDec 16, 2021

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Photo by alevision.co on Unsplash

The Roman philosopher Seneca once pointed out to a friend the folly of premature misery. “Those things you fear as if they were impending may never happen,” he observed.

Seneca must have known he was fighting an uphill battle. Human beings are inveterate worriers. In many ways, we’re hardwired to peer into the future and fret about what it may hold for us.

In fact, this is one of the defining traits of our species. While most other living things are forever tethered to the present, people possess the unique and virtuoso ability to anticipate the future and plan accordingly.

Experts sometimes refer to the mental construction of future scenarios as episodic foresight, and it has obvious advantages. “By allowing us to plan and prepare, episodic foresight enables us to prudently take advantage of opportunities and manage risks,” wrote the authors of a 2015 paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

“It’s comforting to think that everything you do is leading up to some moment-of-truth in the future — that you will one day have all your systems in order, real life can begin, and you can plunge into it more wholeheartedly.”

And not only can we envision the future, but we can also react emotionally to our mind’s imagined scenarios.

Once again, this can be useful. Emotions are highly motivating. If thoughts about the future didn’t elicit real excitement or apprehension or dread, they wouldn’t have much power to shape our behavior.

But while looking ahead has its advantages, it can become unhelpfully preoccupying — or in some cases even destabilizing.

Both anxiety and depression are dominated by “future-oriented thought patterns,” according to research in the journal The Gerontologist. “Anxious and depressed individuals mentally construct and anticipate a greater number of personally relevant threat-related events, and more frequently expect…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.